CHIBA, Japan — GungHo Online Entertainment, known primarily for its work with free online games and the Ragnarok series, is branching out from its Japanese operations and targeting the U.S. with two adorable new games for the PlayStation Vita.
Wired was given a hands-on preview of the two new titles at the Tokyo Game Show last week.
“GungHo already has a subsidiary called Gravity Interactive in the U.S.,” company president Kazuki Morishita said at the show, “but they’re more focused on online games. So we wanted to put more effort into the console side.”
The first of the two games is Dokuro, a 2-D puzzle-platformer coming in October that looks like it was drafted on a chalkboard. It’s a game dominated by whites, blacks and grays, thought it uses enough color to project a level of warmth.
Dokuro isn’t another Limbo. It’s far too cute. You control a tiny skeleton (dokuro means “skull” in Japanese) who is escorting a princess out of a danger-filled castle. She’s the oblivious type though, and will blindly walk forward unless an obstacle blocks her path, leaving you to rush ahead of her to manipulate the environment as best you can to safely get her to the exit.
Along the way, your little skeleton imp gains new powers that expand the scope of what you can accomplish. A potion temporarily turns you into a hero who can carry the princess and fight monsters, though not simultaneously. Collecting chalk empowers you to draw new platforms, connect previously unconnected objects, and light fuses on cannons to launch the princess into the air. Her willingness to hop into those cannons without hesitation was a source of amusement during my hands-on time with the game.
“She’s very trusting,” director Noriaki Kazama said of the princess, whom he described as “comic relief.”
“During the early stages of development, we were considering launching the princess across the entire stage and smashing her into a switch. But we figured that might be a little too violent, so we dropped the idea,” he said.
Dokuro doesn’t waste much time in challenging players; it was only the second level when I first found myself questioning how to keep the princess safe from her own momentum.
“We expect people to die a lot in this game,” Kazama said. He estimated it would take twenty hours for most players to finish the game, less if you skipped optional extras like hunting down coins hidden in each level.
The Japanese version of Dokuro is already out on the PlayStation Store for 1800 yen (about $23). No firm release date or price have been announced yet for next month’s launch.
A look at some of the different “Cocoroid” characters in GungHo’s Picotto Knights for Vita. Screengrab: Wired
GungHo’s second Vita game, Picotto Knights, is a free-to-play brawler slated for a 2013 release. At first glance it’s a Castle Crashers clone, but the level of customization makes it a very different experience.
In most side-scrolling brawlers, you have a limited number of characters to choose from, usually ones with set properties: a fighter, a spellcaster, a grappler, etc. Picotto Knights lets you choose from dozens of different character models called “Cocoroids,” and then lets you choose your armaments. This separation lets players mix and match their appearance and play style freely.
The plot is purposefully simplistic: Defeat the “Dark Army.” Up to four players can fight together at once, and a “ghost” system lets you play with your friends’ characters even if they are offline. The game’s A.I. will control your teammates for you and after the battle, your friends get to share in some of the spoils. Of course, this means your character can go on adventures when you’re offline as well.
Being a free-to-play game, Picotto Knights uses a “stamina” system to parse out gameplay, although it doesn’t work as you’d expect. Completing a quest depletes the stamina bar by one, reducing the amount of experience points earned. Stamina refills automatically over time or for a (real-world) fee in the shop. Yet even with zero stamina, the game is playable, although the rewards will be rather limited.
Treasure is also separated into two tiers to incentivize payments: Plain brown chests are freely available all the time, while larger chests require a special key. Those keys are only available via microtransactions.
The version I saw was still in the process of being localized, but the English text that was in place was light-hearted and fun. All the character models had their own backstory, and the enemies have taunts like all the gang members did back in River City Ransom.
“Free-to-play” doesn’t mean easy, though. The first serious boss battle I encountered ended in failure almost immediately. I’m comfortable blaming that loss on my inept computer-controlled teammates, although I was unwilling to use the premium “crystals” one needs to revive a fallen character. Then again, spending money to continue playing a game should feel normal for anyone who grew up around arcade machines.
Picotto Knights went live on the Japanese PlayStation Vita store during the Tokyo Game Show. The U.S. version has no specific release date, but GungHo believes it will be ready in early 2013.