February 8, 2007 - Despite being around for almost two years now, the PSP has seen a serious shortage of original RPGs (most games in the genre have been cross-platform ports or resurrections of older titles). Luckily for fans, that void will soon be filled when Atlus ships its original RPG, Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner to North America sometime next week. We managed to get hands-on time with the finished version earlier today, and so far we've seem some interesting things.
Designed by Atlus co-founder and Shin Megami Tensei master Cozy Okada, Jewel Summoner is a stark contrast from the RPG that you'd expect it to be. Given Megaten's history, you'd expect that Okada would move his formula of frequent battles and demonic storylines into this new franchise as well, but that's actually not the case. Monster Kingdom is, in fact, quite the opposite of Shin Megami Tensei in its scope -- that is, it's chock-full of dialogue and a more traditional fantasy plot with a much lower encounter rate than your typical role-player.
The narrative itself seems like it could become fascinating. It follows the adventures of a young "Abomination" hunter named Vice. Driven by anger over the murder of his mother (who was killed by a winged creature several years ago), Vice takes various slaying jobs all over the kingdom in an effort to make money and search for the beast responsible for his pain. Amazingly, Vice also proves that he has the ability to summon monsters that will do his bidding by harnessing the creature located in his mother's only remaining keepsake, a sacred gem. Usually this power is only available to "Jewel Summoners," so Vice's useful ability quickly grabs the attention of "The Order" -- a special organization that studies these magic sparklers while also training said summoners. Eventually paths cross, bad things happen all over the world, and an epic journey gets underway.
Despite its thematic differences from Shin Megami Tensei, Monster Kingdom does have similar combat elements. Your entire offensive strategy, for example, is based around the summoning of monsters with their own strengths and weaknesses. As they battle other creatures, they must use their collection of special skills to locate weak points to earn more turns and create more damage. If you've played Digital Devil Saga before, then this system should sound familiar. Other recognizable battle elements include the ability to combine monsters and jewels to learn new talents and the need to seek out and add new gems (critters) as you progress.
All the elements mentioned above play out in a turn-based fashion and are fairly simple to get into. If there's one area that concerns us so far, though, it's that there hasn't been a need to truly strategize with all of our different powers. When equipped with three different characters at a time, standard attacks are usually enough to defeat most enemies without a problem. Despite the fact that we're early in the voyage, it would have been nice to see more situations where we had to use monster-specific abilities. Though again, we're near the beginning so there's definitely room for change.
But what stands out about Jewel Summoner so far? A couple of things spring to mind. Take the combat screen -- it's shown from an interesting "split window" perspective that shows enemies on one side and your heroes on the other. It's very unusual for sure. Given the PSP's widescreen presentation this perspective actually works pretty well and helps to set the game apart in the genre. Monster Kingdom's soundtrack is also very good and it has a nice mixture of up and low-tempo melodies that are among the best we've heard in quite some time. Finally, the sheer amount of conversation/ town exploration that goes on is almost daunting. Expect plenty of word balloons in the first few hours of the game.
Of course, what we really want to know is where will all of this eventually lead? Hopefully it'll take us to somewhere pleasant and rewarding. While basic and familiar, the combat is fun to execute and the monsters are definitely worth collecting. We would like to see an increase in battles, however, and see a more common need for super powers and not just swipes of the paw. Either way, we'll let you know how it turns out when we review Jewel Summoner next week.