Version tested: PSP
Who knows what crease in Nippon Ichi's psyche continually draws the developer back to the anti-hero. Perhaps the scriptwriters were picked on at school, or maybe the CEO was never any good at team sports. Whatever the reason, from Disgaea to Makai Kingdom, the studio has rarely cast players as anything but a demonic villain hell-bent on the destruction of everything good and respectable. It's more than a decision to dodge the comfortable fantasy cliché of knights in shining valour; Nippon Ichi understands the perverse delight that comes from surrendering to absolute corruption, of assuming the role of an amiable hyper-villain, especially one hapless enough to be mocked and glorified in equal measure.
Badman - as we'll refer to it in shorthand, since our time on this page is limited and a tortuously long game title is a joke that tickles only once - is no different, at least in terms of its theme. You play as the God of Destruction, a supreme, disembodied entity charged with designing a labyrinthine underground lair, complete with its own devilish ecosystem, ready to entrap and destroy any would-be adventurers who enters. It's a good premise that clothes a framework which defies simple classification. Part tower defence, part-architecture-'em-up, part ant-farm biology class, it draws from a great many traditions, seasoning its hotch-potch systems with an 8-bit aesthetic that hammers home the premise's subversion of RPG tradition.
Your only mode of interaction with the gameworld is via a pickaxe, primarily used for hollowing out the cave system that forms an underground fortress for your as-yet-unborn horde to roam. You have a few minutes to make preparations, digging chambers and tunnels like you're on a Dwarf Fortress speed-run, before one or more archetypal RPG heroes storms your dungeon with a view to murdering your minions and carrying off your main disciple, the titular Badman. If they manage to make it out of your dungeon alive, with Badman in tow, the game is over and you need to start again from scratch, in an effort to build a less penetrable fortress and a more sustainable army.
In contrast to most tower defence games, here your defensive units are born from the earth you dig up, rather than purchased with in-game currency. Squares of earth containing nutrients will, once destroyed with your pickaxe, turn into Slimemosses, lowly monster units that wander your dungeon corridors depositing nutrients into the earth around them which can be be used to create yet more Slimemoss. While Slimemoss will attack any intruder to your dungeon, they are weak and easily defeated. However, the Slimemoss, as the creature at the bottom of your dungeon's food chain, is crucial to creating more powerful units and so must be celebrated and nurtured with care.
The more nutrients found in a square of soil the more evolved the creature that will grow from it. As Slimemoss deposit nutrients into the earth around them as they feed and naturally die, so the quality of the soil will increase and you'll be able to add Omnom maggots and Flies to your army, the next tier of creatures in Badman's curious food chain. From these creatures Lizardmen and Liliths will evolve, all the way up to the most powerful unit in the game, the dragon, and so your dungeon's ecosystem grinds into clockwork motion. As the game progresses you also gain access to magic-based creatures, spawned from a different sort of nutrient in the ground, and balancing your army between melee and magic combatants is key to success in its later stages. Much of your time is spent merely managing the population of the dungeon, ensuring that there aren't too few maggots to feed the Lizardmen, or too many magic-based creatures to be able to cope with any melee-weak Heroes that come through the door.
The game's stages work more like rounds, as the dungeon you build for yourself remains a constant from invasion to invasion. As such, any mistake you make early in the game in, for example, creating too large a chamber to shepherd your Slimemoss around effectively, is both un-rectifiable and ever-present, at least until the heroes get the better of you and the game's finished. To encourage thoughtfulness, the game forces frugal use of your pickaxe. Each round you're given a limited number of dig points with which to hollow out the earth and, as the game's only currency, any remaining dig points you have at the end of the round can be spent on upgrading each type of creature in the dungeon. Balancing the creation of a complex large enough to hide Badman against holding back enough points to ensure you can level your army in between rounds is a constant consideration.
There's no denying that Badman's ideas are intriguing, and feeling the boundaries and limitations of any novel game idea is always enjoyable. However, the game's overreliance on the AI of your individual creatures creates just too much of a disconnect between game and player. Every unit, from the lowliest Slimemoss to the most fearsome dragon, behaves on its own terms and, other than creating the corridors that shepherd them around your dungeon, they will not be directed in any way. This is often frustrating, as you'll have good and able defensive units but discover they're roaming some distant corner of your dungeon while the intruding heroes hack and slash their way towards Badman unimpeded. As units feed on one another as in a real food chain, a crack unit can be consumed when you want it to remain part of the team, and when dungeon pockets are crawling with friendly units it can be impossible to make out what's going on.
Elsewhere, the game's tutorials (which act more like standalone puzzles in themselves, and often lack the clearness of instruction that they should, by definition, be doling out) emphasise the importance of considering the internal structure of your dungeon, but they offer only the slightest hint as to what a good dungeon layout might be and, even when you follow these directions to the letter, the results are often far from positive or consistent. Even as you begin to work your way through the Challenge stages, and the game's deeper strategies and tactics reveal themselves, those basic fundamentals never quite shift into focus, ensuring that no matter how advanced your strategy, it's always muddied by basic inconsistencies.
The game's peppered through with the sort of idiosyncratic humour that marks so many of Nippon Ichi's games, but here the jokes often come at the expense of clarity, with Badman more eager to poke fun at some crusty JRPG convention than to properly explain his game's own subversions. As such, the game offers the worst sort of challenge: one that's tall yet vague and indistinct, leading to frustrations and failures that are oftentimes impossible to learn from. Despite all this, Nippon Ichi's designers are onto something, and the germ of the idea undeniably has potential. For the confirmed sequel, they'll need to provide players with far more of a sense of control and direction if the game's to blossom into the potential shown here.
6 / 10