Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner

I confess. In our time of MMORPG Real Time Battle Get Pounded While You Choose Your Next Move RPGs, I’m a flaming old school turn based RPG lover. Meaning that as a PSP owner, I’ve had very little to be excited about. I love handheld gaming, and the PSP, with the capability for gorgeous graphics and awesome sound, literally screams for a great RPG.

Sure, we have RPGs, however they are ports from days gone by, and some of the best ports weren’t even released in the US. I’m not complaining, I was thankful to get my hands on Valkyrie Profile, but I wanted an original, developed from the ground up for the PSP RPG. Enter Gaia, founded and headed by former lead game designer for Atlus Cozy Okada. Atlus devotees will immediately recognize Okada, the creator of the Shin Megami Tensei series. Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner was released in Japan by Sony in February of last year. Sony was apparently not going to give the go ahead for a US release of Monster Kingdom. Enter Atlus USA, who approached Sony to obtain the rights for a US release. Finally, a reason for turn based RPG loving PSP owners to rejoice!! Enough history-on to the review-

Reader’s Digest™ version of back-story: Long ago, monsters lived in harmony with people. The Great Disaster ended this, causing all of the monsters to disappear. They left behind jewels which contained energy that was used by mankind to as an energy source. This energy source enabled the survivors of The Great Disaster to rebuild. Fast forward, monsters called abominations are now appearing and are somehow causing their minions to attack towns and cities. The Order, which was created to combat Abominations, learned to summon monsters for battle through intensive study of the jewels. Which brings us to Vice, our gruff, determined hero who is on a mission. Vice has a score to settle with a particularly mean and nasty winged abomination. He leaves on his journey with the jewel left to him by his deceased mother. He is led to The Order to assist in his search. Those at the order are shocked, and some a bit envious, that Vice has the unusual ability to summon a monster without the rigorous training of the order. Vice then joins the order, taking on side quests and missions while searching for the winged abomination. He can choose two of the Order’s trainees to join on his quest.

The story is progressed by moving around a 2D map, via a stylized pointer, deciding where you want to go, and then dialogue ensues. The dungeons are 3D, more on that later. During dialogue sequences and most are voiced as there are over 5 hours of spoken dialogue here, the characters are presented and their expressions/gestures change based upon what’s being said. The 2D backdrops are sumptuously detailed. The character design is excellent, worthy of the creator of SMT, however you won’t get the feeling that the characters are visual clones from the Megaten series.

The voice acting is top notch; then again Atlus never goes cheap with VA localization. And there is quite a bit of talking to progress the story and flesh out the characters, so those of you with the attention span of a Pygmy Marmoset, this may not be for you. Speaking of voice acting, the dialogue sequences change dependent upon who Vice chooses to accompany him on his quest. You can choose from Grey the hothead guy, Elycia the spoiled brat, Barcus the soft spoken wise type, or Lynn the spiritual native who sees the future. For some reason completely unknown to me I chose Grey and Elycia, an odd choice because they seem to hate Vice and each other. So my journey has been a mostly entertaining and at times annoying mix of mean spirited sniping and good natured banter. I’m curious how my journey would’ve changed had I chosen Lynn and Baccus or an all male/all female entourage. Guess I’ll have to wait for another playthrough, because you can only have one save file. (grrrr-). The only story related complaint is that there is a bit of what I thought to be pointless backtracking and revisiting old areas to progress the story.

The music composed for Monster Kingdom is simply spectacular. The list of composers is a veritable Who’s Who of video game music, featuring heavy hitters such as Shinji Hosoe (Ridge Racer), Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy VII/Gradius V), Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Xenogears), and this is only scraping the surface folks. The soundtrack is never annoying, never cloying. Those of us who play RPGs have most likely experienced “I can’t wait to leave this town because the music is like spikes to my eardrums” syndrome. Thanks Gaia for not only making Monster Kingdom a treat for the eyes, but a treat for the ears as well.

Now for the battle system, which is the true meat and potatoes of any RPG, will definitely not disappoint those who want variety and challenge. The characters walk from point to point in a 3D dungeon, which are well done, not PSP blowing, but well done. Are you sitting down? The load times are seamless. Yes-a PSP RPG with no load times?!? From ambush time to battle time, you will see a quick animation of the enemy monsters, then the monsters you are fighting with.

The only time you see the summoners call out their monsters is during a major battle. I found the character models here a little clunky, however this is a PSP game. The flow of battle is much like an SMT game, use opposing element to delay an opponent’s turn. Monster Kingdom has improved on SMT’s system. If you’ve played SMT:Nocturne, etc you are well aware if you’re ambushed by an enemy of opposing element who strikes first you miss turns, get pounded, lather, rinse, repeat, you’re dead. Monster Kingdom allows you to get trounced on a bit, however if the enemy continues to use opposing element attack, your character becomes angry (they even get the classic anime forehead crosshairs) then normal attacks will only affect you. This will give you the opportunity to heal, switch monsters, use items, etc. My entire party has yet to be wiped out, which means one of two things-I’ve played so many RPGs I know how to not die by now-or the game is a tad on the easy side. That, dear potential player, is for you to decide. I found the learning curve for fights to be rather fast.

Vice can tote up to three jewels (equipped monsters) at a time. When your monster runs out of LP (think of LP as Magic Points) it goes back to its jewel to recover and the next monster in your queue enters the battle. The monsters also will regain lost LP when they are returned to their jewel.

Which brings us to Monsters, Monsters, and more Monsters. I found the sheer variety of monsters staggering, over 100 originals for the game. My current favorites are the flying cat and the rock hopper penguin, whose attack animations are hilarious. Monsters are captured using prisms, and the prism must be of the same alignment as the monster. Prisms can be found, bought, or given to you by Naps. Since the characters can only carry three jewels at a time, captured monsters you don’t wish to take with you will be sent back to the Order.

Captured Monsters can also be handed over to the Misters at the Order’s Amalgamy Lab for skill enhancement, added attacks, etc. The Meisters are an interesting duo, Jerro the requisite toothless pervert and Mikaela the serious bookworm wearing the requisite tarty costume. Keep in mind before fusing a favored monster, fusion does not take place immediately, so when you turn over your monster to the meister (haha) make sure it’s not a monster you need for an upcoming dungeon. You can find items to greatly speed up the fusion process, though, so once these items are acquired, fusion time isn’t an issue.

Minor Complaint: you can’t fuse an equipped monster. Also, I wasn’t able to unequip monster jewels unless I traveled back to the Order’s training academy. This isn’t a huge deal, travel from town to town is instantaneous and you can warp out of dungeons from save points (but ya can’t warp back to the point where you warped out!!!).

Fusion can greatly add to the monster’s fighting ability, and allow you to breeze through random battles . For example, I gave my fire dragon increased physical attack, a water attack, and water resistance. Yeah, he’s basically unstoppable. The number of skill slots can also be increased using amalgamy, this is crucial, as that extra attack can make all the difference against a mixed bag of enemies.

Monster Kingdom also gives the player the option to pit your equipped monsters against others, trade monsters, etc using the Network option. I was reviewing the game prior to the games release date, ie: I wasn’t aware of anyone else in the are who actually owned the game, so unfortunately I’m unable to give you my opinion on the battle a human player option.

In closing, this is a must buy for PSP owners hungry for an original RPG. Original design, no load times, Okada, and Atlus should be enough to make any RPG nut giddy with joy. The story and characters will make those like me who still have the patience for a well presented story satisfied and eager to see what happens next, while the monsters/amalgamy option will keep completionists busy for many hours. This is another reason why Atlus continues to be one of my favorite publisher/developers, they know their fan base, never skimp, and continue to deliver the quality their fans have come to expect.