RPG fans haven't had much luck as far as the PSP goes. The choice of games in the genre, or at least ones you can buy in European shops, basically boils down to Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade - which, frankly, isn't too impressive.
But the good news is that Key of Heaven is showing a lot more promise. Developed by Climax, it's an action RPG with a distinctly Oriental flavour. You play as Shinbu, a former disciple of the Seiryu clan who got kicked out for happyslapping his master and posting it on his blog. Oh all right, for attempting to read what was written on the 'Monument of Secrets' - something only the hardest of the hard are permitted to do.
To make matters worse, Shinbu's parents met a sticky end at the hands of some mysterious villains, so all in all he's been a bit down of late. He earns his living by hiring himself out as a bodyguard to wary travellers, and lives with his foster father, wise old Mr Miyagi-type Seidatsu.
But everything changes one sunny day when Shinbu meets Sui Lin, a pretty young thing who just happens to belong to the Seiryu clan. The only problem, as Sui Lin explains, is that all her fellow disciples have been wiped out - and now she wants Shinbu to help her find the culprits, retrieve some really important old sword and restore the clan to its former glory.
As is so often the way in these sorts of stories, ("It's not that I like the Empire... But it's all such a long way from here..."), Shinbu isn't too sure about this to start off with. But then Seidatsu hands him his father's weapon, the 'Singing Sword', and what's an RPG hero to do but set off on some damn fool idealistic crusade.
And so your adventure begins, an adventure that will take you all over the continent of Ohka (which really is quite impressively large), picking up all manner of items, teaming up with all kinds of new kinds of friends and avenging the death of your parents along the way.
On the level
In other words, it all starts off like a pretty conventional RPG. However, don't expect any levelling up nonsense, and don't think you can just go around collecting ever more powerful weapons: things work a little differently in Key of Heaven.
As you journey through Shinbu's world, you'll come across items called Bugei scrolls. These contain slots which you can fill with Kenpu - special tiles that represent different martial arts moves, and can be obtained by smashing crates and barrels, opening treasure chests and defeating enemies.
Once a Bugei scroll has enough Kenpu slots filled, you can equip Shinbu with it and perform all sorts of special moves. But there's no complex button bashing here - it's circle all the way whether you're defending or attacking. The key lies in choosing which attacks are best to deal with each type of enemy, and you can switch between them mid-battle by pressing the shoulder buttons.
And that's not all Shinbu has up his sleeve. You also get to learn Chi Arts, which basically means you can perform spell-type attacks as in traditional RPGs. To charge up your Chi, you must remain still for a few seconds, but if you can manage that without being decked you'll unleash a devastating strike upon all the enemies surrounding you whilst remaining invulnerable to attack.
Blame it on the Bugei
The whole Bugei-Kenpu-Chi thing can seem rather confusing and over-complicated at first, but as we know from our years spent in a remote Shaolin monastery, all becomes clear over time. Collecting new Kenpu and working out what you can do with them is fun, so much so that you don't miss the old "You have found a Worn Two-Handed Mace of Um Bongo" type nonsense.
Completing quests, however, is not quite so much fun, since it's not always clear where you're supposed to go next or what you're supposed to do. Still, wandering around is pleasant enough, since the graphical presentation in Key of Heaven is superb. Everything from the characters' clothes to the moss covered rocks and the hanging Chinese lanterns have plenty of detail. Backdrops are highly impressive, with mountains rising majestically in the distance and some lovely sunsets, and character animations both in-game and during cutscenes are realistic and fluid.
It's a bit of a shame, then, that the game's overall presentation is let down by some dodgy scripting and/or translation. The characters you meet frequently come up with some bizarre conversation openers - all right, so "Use healing medicine as soon as you get tired" (thanks for that) is fair enough, but what kind of person doesn't even bother with so much as a "Hello" before throwing out: "So, your parents were killed on their way to Northern Genbu, huh?". Nice to meet you too.
But since this is preview code we're dealing with, here's hoping that the current dialogue is only in there as a placeholder. We're also hoping that they'll sort out the loading times for the finished game, because at present, frankly, they're a real pain - far too frequent, and rather too long. The fact that you can't skip cutscenes, even if you've seen them before, adds to an overall feeling that the game is moving at a very slow pace, but again this is something that could well be sorted out by the time Key of Heaven hits shop shelves.
From what we've seen so far, this game is definitely shaping up better than Untold Legends. If you prefer your RPGs to feature Samurai rather than sorcerors, and like the sound of this game's unique combat system, expansive world and impressive graphics, Key of Heaven is well worth taking an interest in. That said, you might want to wait for the full review before placing your pre-order.
Key of Heaven (known as Kingdom of Paradise in the US) is due out in Europe on PSP on March 24th.