GungHo Online Entertainment is a name that, as a Westerner, you might not be hugely familiar with. While the company has been around since July of 1998, the Tokyo, Japan-based publisher and developer mainly kept its focus on its home territory of Japan.
All that changed last week when the establishment of GungHo Online Entertainment America was officially announced. Up until now, some of the company’s publishing and development projects had been released in the West via other publishers—such as Ragnarok Odyssey for Vita and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony for PSP by XSEED, or Hero’s Saga Laevatein Tactics for DS and Cho Aniki Zero PSP by Aksys. Now, via this new division, the company will have the chance to handle the release of their library of games in North America all on their own.
For their first two projects, GungHo Online Entertainment America will be focusing on a system that’s seemed a little unloved as of late: the PlayStation Vita. Recently, I got the chance to sit down and play those first two project—Dokuro and Picotto Knights—and here are some thoughts I walked away with.
Dokuro will be the first up, hitting as a digital download via Sony’s PlayStation Network later this month. Crafted by legendary Japanese studio Game Arts, Dokuro is the tale of a skeletal minion to an evil Dark Lord who finds himself love-struck by a beautiful princess that his master has kidnapped. Dokuro decides to help the princess escape, but there’s one problem: our story’s fair maiden cannot see or interact with Dokuro (except in a particular situation I’ll get to in a moment). So, Dokuro plays out as a puzzle game where the player must work to protect the princess from all sorts of traps, dangers, and demons, all while said princess continually progresses through each stage on her own.
The “interact with the environment and solve puzzles to keep a character or characters safe” gaming genre has had its ups and downs. It’s an easy concept to come up with, but one hard to keep fun and fresh throughout its entirety. As well, there often seems to be this certain unwritten rule that most developers—when trying to make such a game—have to rely on humor to make up for any potential shortcomings.
Playing Dokuro, I came away not being concerned for the game in those regards. In terms of that first part—gameplay—I feel like the folks at Game Arts blended a smart amount of action and platforming into the puzzle solving elements. Instead of just touching levers or sliding boxes along with your finger, you’re directly control Dokuro as he has to make well-timed jumps, dodge traps to deactivate them, or knock back the Dark Lord’s loyal subjects in hopes of sending them flying into hazards—and, thus, their doom. These action elements are re-enforced even more when—early in the game—Dokuro gets his hands on a magical potion that can turn him into a dashing human prince. In this new body, Dokuro can not only kill enemies in the princesses’ path—where he could only knock them backward before—but he is now also able to directly interact with her. The potion only lasts for a short time—so, while it’ll naturally refill with time, its use will need to be carefully considered.
Indeed, Dokuro requires your brains just as much as your brawn, and I got to see how some of that puzzle solving would be powered by Vita-specific functions. For example, I came across another item that allows players to draw new elements onto the screen with their finger; in one use, I drew a line to connect a large stone to the ceiling, so that I could then swing it and send it crashing into a wall to create an exit.
The other element to Dokuro that stood out was its charm—and I hope that this is something that’ll also help the game be able to carry itself the entire way. Instead of going for that “hip and cool” style of humor that many similar puzzle games incorporate, Dokuro is cute, light-hearted, and very Japanese in design and attitude. The game’s graphical style feels almost like detailed chalk drawings; it’s a style that not only worked very well in endearing the game to me, but also one that sets it apart from the other Vita offerings out there.
Dokuro is the type of game that you might not initially have on your radar: it’s quirky, it isn’t a big, blockbuster game release swimming in press, and the mixed reaction similarly-styled puzzle games sometimes get can make it hard to build up hype. After the half hour or so that I spend with Dokura, however, I’m definitely looking forward to getting more hands-on time with it. What makes Dokuro work in my eyes isn’t one specific feature or gameplay element—it’s the mix of a number of well-crafted ideas that come together so smoothly.
The other game I got the chance to play in my time with GungHo Online Entertainment America was Picotto Knights. Unlike Dokuro, I went into our meeting knowing next to nothing about this one—other than the fact that it was a multiplayer free-to-play title. So what exactly is Picotto Knights?
Picotto Knights is a four-player side-scrolling action game, feeling like something you might find in your local arcade (if you still have local arcades). Think back to classics like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Knights of the Round, or other hits from companies like Capcom and Konami—or, if you’re a younger reader, maybe names like Castle Crashers or Scott Pilgrim vs the World: The Game will be more recognizable.
After picking a character and a weapon type, you’re thrown into the game, where you must accomplish one of a variety of mission types in order to complete that stage. Some stages may simply require that you survive the wave of enemies that appear; others will have you battling to the end, where a hulking boss awaits.
In concept, gameplay is relatively simple: hit buttons to perform attacks, fight enemies, don’t die. Where Picotto Knights starts introducing depth is in the deep level of customization that is available. A wide variety of character choices—called Cocoroids—are available, where the first major decision you’ll need to make is simply which presented option appeals to you the most. Right away, this was an aspect of Picotto Knights that I appreciated—that my choice could be about which character I wanted to control, and not about which character I had to take due to the skill set they come along with.
Skill sets are very important, but these come in more based around which weapon you choose. A large variety of weapons and weapon types are presented, each with certain stats, attack types, and potential skills. Picotto Knights encourages you to try out the different weapon styles until you find your perfect match, where you can then unlock better and badder combat skills tied to that particular weapon.
Of course, the initial set of options will be nothing compared to what you’ll be able to find during your adventures in the game. Not only will you be able to unlock new Cocoroids and weapons, but also a wide variety of items. Among these items will be those that allow you to either synthesize new goodies, or enhancement the equipment you’re already carrying. One example of this that was pointed out to me was an AAA battery, which you could add to a weapon to give it electrified properties.
One of Picotto Knights‘ aspects that I found most interesting had ties to all of that item discovery. Multiplayer games aren’t much without those multiple players, and you’ll be able to play with up to three other adventurers either locally or via the internet. But let’s say that you want to play with your friends, or players you’ve joined up with locally, but they aren’t online when you are. Picotto Knights allows you to play with “ghost” versions of Cocoroids owned by your friends or acquaintances. These A.I.-controlled characters will work like normal CPU partners, but once a stage is finished, any loot won during the course of the game will be carried back to their human owners by those Cocoroids. It’s a simple idea—borrow an A.I. version of a friend’s character, send them back home with thank-you gifts—but it’s one that I think could really give Picotto Knights a great sense of community. Together, we’ll all be able to help one another every time we play—even if we aren’t playing together directly.
Screenshot from the Japanese version of Picotto Knights
Let us not forget, however, that Picotto Knights is a free-to-play game—so that means GungHo has to make money somewhere. I was given a rundown of some of the ways in which the game will be monetized, and all those examples were both expected and acceptable. While playing, there will be two types of treasure chests you’ll be rewarded with: standard ones that can always be opened, and bigger locked chests that hold rarer items. In order to unlock that second type, you’ll need a key, and those keys will come either randomly from logging into the game on a regular basis, or in exchange for cold, hard cash. Picotto Knights will be chocked full of customizations for your Cocoroids, and while many of those can be won from random loot drops, the quicker and easier method for obtaining them will be to buy them directly.
A bigger element of Picotto Knights‘ free-to-play concept is something a number of other such games implement: a stamina system. Playing missions reduces your stamina, and the less stamina you have, the less experience you’ll receive. The folks at GungHo assured me that the stamina system will never stop players from playing the game—it’ll just have a major effect on XP rewards after a while. The stamina gauge will refill fast enough that after about 12 hours you should be back up and ready to go, but stamina potions can be purchased that’ll return you to 100% instantly.
Being that Picotto Knights is a free-to-play game, suggesting that you at least give it a try if you have a Vita is a no-brainer. As a full-priced game, what we’re presented may have felt somewhat shallow; as a game that costs nothing to try and play casually, I could absolutely see it being something I might continually go back to when I’ve got some free time and want something quick yet fun. Picotto Knights comes off as a perfect example of what can be done with the free-to-play concept, and how certain types of games that may never have been viable before are now not only possible, but also worth trying.
Picotto Knights doesn’t have a set release date just yet, but GungHo Online Entertainment America is currently hoping for an early 2013 release for the game.
Correction: Mis-stated that there were currently no free-to-play titles available in North America for the Vita.