Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dokapon Kingdom: Wandering the Map

My brother and I have been playing a lot of Atlus's RPG/Party Game hybrid Dokapon Kingdom lately. So far, it has been quite a lot of fun. It has been a while since I have been hit so severely by the "one more turn" effect. Unfortunately, I seem to be chronically stuck in last place in the Story Mode run we are playing through currently...

One thing that strikes me about the game is that the game designers had a very good appreciation for the importance of movement in this game. Using items or field magic doesn't take up your turn, so unless you start your turn in the middle of a fight or are stuck for some reason or another, you will always be able to move, which is certainly nice. Also, items that affect movement form a very large fraction of the number of items in the game, ranging from common and cheap "1 Crystals" that let you move one space, to rare and expensive "Multi Crystals", "Super Spinners", and "Guided Warps" that greatly improve your movement capabilities in various ways and provide a powerful advantage (one CPU player recently got a huge head start and took first place thanks to a single Super Spinner). Since moving is what lets you actually do things in the game, and choosing where to move is probably the most important thing you do every turn, the fact that you are given many options that let you modify movement and don't have to worry about sacrificing movement in order to do other things help the game quite a bit.

I suppose that such would be attention natural though, considering that the mechanism for movement and the division of the map into spaces are the most significant "party game" elements in Dokapon Kingdom. The act of spinning the spinner to determine which space you land on is what makes it feel like a board game. When the game is working at its best, you can twirl the spinner, get any result, and figure out which space you land on would be the most advantageous, playing the game entirely by ear. For a lot of the time, the design of the world map really compliments this kind of play. Because the map has so many inter-connecting paths, small loops, wide loops, and a fairly interesting variety of towns, loot spaces, field spaces, and other special locations, you almost always have several interesting places to choose to move to. Unfortunately, the random element of the spinner has some severe drawbacks, as well, and this is revealed whenever you can't just play the game by ear and go where the spinner takes you.

One of the single most glaring flaws with the game is that it is both frequently very important to the game that you move to a single, particular space on the map, and nearly impossible to actually do so thanks to the randomness of the spinner. For example, you need to go to the single Dokapon Castle space fairly often across the course of the game (to deliver items, change jobs, get Pranks cleared, etc), and even if you happen to be on the correct side of the map (that castle really should be more centrally located), you still need to land on the castle space. The small, asymmetrical loop right in front of the castle means that you can usually reach the castle with 2 or 3 different results on the spinner if you are close enough, but even with that you can end up futilely trying to reach the castle for many turns. If the space you need to land on doesn't have a convenient asymmetrical loop right next to it, or even worse is stuck in the middle of a linear path with no branches, then you have no choice but to wait for a lucky one-in-seven chance and hope that the spinner doesn't catapult you far away from your target space. If the target space you need to reach is far away, then you need to hope that you don't get stuck with low numbers on the spinner for several turns straight. In these cases, items that modify the spinner go from being useful to being absolutely necessary, and the game can become pretty frustrating.

A large part of why this is a problem is that many, aspects of the game are time/turn sensitive. Every turn you are stuck trying to get into Dokapon Castle is a turn your rival players are using to capture towns, become wealthier, and grow stronger in a more lucrative location. Every turn you spend trying to land on the one space you need to land on in order to escape the Casino Cave is a turn where a time limit you have may be counting down, and an opportunity is slowly being wasted. Most importantly, every turn you are trying to do such a thing is a turn that you could have been spending doing something more interesting. Luck should be a factor in the game, but it should not be something that determines whether you are having fun or not.

Unfortunately, there isn't really any kind of easy solution to this. Items that modify movement help a lot, but they can't be acquired reliably (the only way to get one reliably is to seek out an Item Shop, which brings up the very problem that needs to be solved). Good map design, like the asymmetrical small loop in front of Dokapon castle, also helps a bit, but it is a bit inconsistent and doesn't really solve the fundamental problem. One solution would be to get rid of the randomness entirely, but that would sacrifice an important element that keeps the game fun. Perhaps a better one would be to minimize the importance of unique spaces, like Dokapon castle, dungeon entrances, shops, and the temples. If you didn't need to do things like go to Dokapon Castle in order to class change, go to a particular shop to buy the latest weapons, or go to a temple in order to reset your revival point, but instead could get those services from a larger number of spaces (the same way you could heal HP at any of the many towns), then a lot of the problem would go away. If you had a chance at being able to buy up-to-date equipment almost regardless of your current position, then the game would be much more supportive of just rolling with whatever number the Spinner gives you, which would be a lot more fun.

No comments: