Version tested: 3DS
The "Denpa" Men belongs to that weird subset of video games that insist on getting you out of the house. Like Boktai on the GBA or Treasure Park for the Vita, Genius Sonority's cheerful, lycra-clad dungeon-crawler wants you to grab your handheld and go for a walk - down the garden path, past the shed, maybe even across town. As you move about, you'll be looking for wi-fi signals. You'll be looking for "Denpa" men. They come by wave.
Denpa Men - I'm knocking this quotes stuff on the head right now - are odd little will-o'-the-wisp types. They float around in the ether wherever wireless connections are to be found, and they wear those all-in-one bodysuits that lifestyle television is currently getting quite excited about. They're part Mii, part Tingle-out-of-Zelda, and your job is to catch these tiny people whenever you encounter them, then - of course! - enlist them into your private Denpa Man army, before sending them into a series of caves, towers, forests and volcanoes to fight monsters, open treasure chests, score loot and hopefully take out the King of Evil. You're basically press-ganging elves and imps and running the world's cutest militia force. It's a troubling concept for a troubling era.
The action divides neatly into two pieces, the first being the rather gimmicky bit where you race around with your 3DS open, using its camera and fancy connectivity stuff to gather party members. Your handheld turns into a tracking device, in essence, with a radar on the bottom screen and a binoculars view on top. Denpa Men aren't particularly hard to spot, swimming about in their AR glory, but they can be tricky to catch with a quick throw of your net - and even when you've snagged a few, you'll realise that they aren't all created equal.
In fact, each one's a jumble of defensive and offensive stats capped with a smart little emoticon face and a good-'ol-boy name like Hank or Casey. Their jumpsuit colour tells you which elemental flavour - or flavours - they've been given, and if they've got an antenna on top of their head then you're really off to the races. Antennas give your Denpa Men additional powers - the ability to revive downed comrades, say, or perform special attacks. (They probably make it harder to board aircraft or enter olde-time cottages through low doorways, though.)
After a few hours of playing, you'll unlock the ability to share Denpa Men using QR codes, but for the most part you're going to need to hang around near wi-fi connections in order to harvest new party members. You won't need proper access to these connections, mind: the Denpa Men are generated by some kind of arcane magic from the closed-off signal itself. You can grind your way through the game with the handful of guys you'll be able to spawn from your own router, but the wider range of signals you visit, the better your chance of getting a good mix of potential party members becomes: their colourful onesies give them distinct strengths and weaknesses against elemental monsters, and as the game grinds onwards, dungeons really start to capitalise on this level of complexity.
Even from the off, these dungeons can be pleasantly challenging. If the AR stuff suggests a design built of whimsy and intangibility, the RPG campaign (it's worth mentioning that this ditches all the camera usage entirely in favour of chunky 3D geometry) marks the game out as far hardier and more traditional fare than you might have been expecting.
"Putting a onesie on over another onesie: finally games are grown-up enough to tackle this ultimate taboo."
From the Denpa Men's home island, which boasts staples like an in-game shop, a QR code reader, a museum and the tower where you conduct all of that recruiting, your team of up to eight heroes can set out to explore a range of different environments (dungeons to dig down into, towers to scale) all of them filled with roving monsters and bosses. Combat's not random - you can see and possibly even avoid your enemies as you wander to and fro - but it is still fairly old-fashioned. Fighting's turn-based; you can generally choose to attack, opt for an antenna power or use an item, and you'll have to manage status ailments, equip handy charms and even don special clothes to get the most out of your gang. Putting a onesie on over another onesie: finally games are grown-up enough to tackle this ultimate taboo.
It's not a fancy adventure when you strip out the AR stuff, but it's still deeply satisfying to play, with a decent range of enemies and quirks to take into account. Rushboars can't wait to set you on fire, for example, while Ghosts need a special talisman equipped for your Denpa Men to be able to tackle them at all. Designs and animations are limited but strangely appealing - particularly when it comes to the bosses - and the fact that, most of the time, you'll be facing off against muddled groups of enemies means that you'll need to be tactical in your approach, prioritising threats and switching off the auto-attack options, which are good for healing and reviving team-mates but often make strange choices when picking targets. Denpa Men level fairly quickly, luckily, and when they aren't fighting, it's quite fun to steer a conga line of them through the game's simple mazes, looking for secret rooms, zeroing in on treasure, and dodging annoying little puddles of toxic goop.
Later dungeons feature themed enemies that encourage you to either spec out your existing team with items that will boost their strength against specific elements or to head out into your neighbourhood with your 3DS to gather an entirely new crew who are more fit for purpose. This is the way to play, if you ask me, as it turns that AR gimmick into a vital part of the rhythm of the adventure, and provides a strange sense of well-being as your stock of Denpa Men gets broader and more flexible.
It's also helpful for the occasions when Denpa Men die in battle, disappearing off into the sky until you summon them back at the shrine on your island. Resurrection can be an expensive business as this surprisingly large game draws on and as the hours listed on your save game clock inch into double figures, so it's nice to have plenty of additional troops back home, waiting for their inevitable call-up.
You'll need to grind from time to time, but the elemental core of the combat system ensures you'll always have something to think about while you work - and you can also sense the system's age-old strengths in the ways that a new party member, or a new item from the shop, can really change your options in a fight. To get the absolute most out of The Denpa Men from a thematic point of view, I urge you to move house, too, resettling in a neighbourhood that's filled with dangerous wild animals and brisk physical hazards. This way your own explorations as you search for new wi-fi signals will dovetail elegantly with your tiny charges' deadly excursions into the various pits and hollows you direct them through.
Even if you haven't got the commitment to play the game the way it's meant to be played, mind, there's still a lot of fun on offer here. The Denpa Men is characterful, challenging and genuinely charming.
8 / 10