A few months ago, the fabulous Kim from Later Levels and I had made plans to meet up at March’s London Gaming Market. Being on a bit of a retro kick recently, but not having access to a rich vein of retro-gaming shopping where I live, she suggested the market as a place where I could enjoy some good o’ fashioned spending and judgement free revelling in my own retro tastes with the promise of giving in to some impulse purchases for items that were unnecessary, but nevertheless ‘necessary’. After chatting about me almost definitely giving in and buying yet another obscure port of a certain game, Kim hatched a fun retro-plan: We would set a price limit and during our market visit buy each other some obscure retro game to play; the weirder the better! (and bonus points if neither of us had even heard of it).
… and then, you-know-what happened and we both ended up cancelling our London travel plans…
Not to be outdone by the world’s unfolding events, we decided to go ahead with the scheme, albeit on eBay, and post each other some obscure retro game that… based mostly on the cover… we thought the other would enjoy. This turned out to be a trickier task than I originally anticipated because of the wealth of weird and obscure titles out there, particularly for the PS2 which is coincidentally the system that (despite supplying each other with a list of possibles) we both ended up opting for. I have made some discoveries that I may have to go back to. Not wanting to spoil the surprise, I’ll leave Kim to discuss what I ended up sending her way, but I will say that she ended up breaking the rules (rebel!) and sending me over not the agreed one, but a superb three PS2 titles that she thought I’d enjoy from the PS2’s obscure vaults (based vaguely on boxart) – and a fantastic selection they were as I’ve no experience of any of them.
Being at a loose-gaming-end a week or so ago, I decided to kick things off by trying ‘Realm of the Dead’. I popped in the disc and was greeted with what can best be described as Japanese Rock… legends?… “Dogschool” performing what may or may not be their only ‘hit’; “Low Life”. I know exactly who it was because the song plays out over what is essentially an AMV of cuts from the opening cinematic of the game complete with MTV style overlay. After fighting through the fog of bewilderment, I selected ‘New Game’ and saw the full anime-style cinematic play out (subbed not dubbed people) before the game started.
… at this point I switched the console off, removed the disc, and compared it to the box just to make sure that I hadn’t been given the ol’ disc-switcheroo. Sure enough, this was ‘Realm of the Dead’, it’s just not what I was expecting.
So, before I get on to discussing the game, I’m going to fast-forward a little to the results of some post-game googling to see if I can unravel how this grizzly, zombie heavy, boxart corresponds to what is a JRPG inspired, 3rd person, brawler. First up, let’s do a quick comparison of the Western vs. Japanese boxart.
Do they look like the same game to you? Do they even look remotely similar? Retro-gaming officia-narwals will recognise the subtle tell-tale signs of boxart that has been ever so slightly tweaked to match the expectations of a western localisation. In this case opting to highlight the zombie aspect of the game, pandering to western audiences’ obsession with zombie games like ‘Resident Evil’ and ‘Left4Dead’.
… wait a minute! Am I the problem? Am I the exact gamer type that’s responsible for this box-art deception??…
The boxart switch has also been coupled with a change in title from the original Japanese “Bakuen kakusei nebārando senki zero” which according to Google translates roughly to “Explosive Flame Awakening Neverland Senki ZERO”, not “Realm of the Dead”. Aside from this I’ve been able to find relatively little out about this game, Kim certainly picked out an enigma from the PS2 back catalogue. First released in 2004 it was developed by ‘Neverland’ and published by ‘IdeaFactory’ in Japan and may, or may not (I really couldn’t find out more than a passing reference to this) be somehow related to ‘Spectral Forces’ and ‘Generation of Chaos’, also from ‘IdeaFactory’. In 2006 it was published in the west by ‘Midas’ under the new name, and it seems that aside from one fairly brief blog post and a solitary detailed walkthrough, barely anyone has written about this game. Initial surprise aside, I replaced the game disc and jumped in.
Without much more than numbers and looks to guide me, I was forced to pick one of the three playable characters. Generic-Man looked pretty dull so I passed him up in favour of one of the two female leads. Sythe-Lady appeared to by carrying a sythe that was far too big for her, so I opted for Spinning-Blade-Lady, AKA Lyla Dol. She looked like a no-nonesense, kick-ass type although I’d realise much later that this was the key to some of my downfall. The opening scene explains that you’ve been sent to investigate some weird happenings in someplacetown by the … good guys*… Only to get there and find all the good-forces dying or dead having been over-run by monsters. Turns out that Lord Evil-man has been resurrecting the dead, making monsters, and generally being evil. From here the plot gets a little vague as there are no further cuts scenes and everything else is revealed through occasional one-line conversations with injured good-soldiers and a handful of collectable documents.
* Names and locations used in this paragraph may not be accurate
I kicked off the first level to find a vaguely medieval/fantasy setting dilapidated village populated by various zombies and assorted monsters. Each small group of which cunningly gatekeeping the entrance to the next area. This became a running theme and I’m still wondering who orchestrated all of this? Why segment an area using a series of locked doors, only to give the key to one of the monsters patrolling the area? Feels like bad planing. Luckily (and to my relief), combat was a 3rd person brawler affair rather than being turn based, and given the 2004 release, I guess the aim was to ride the wave of popularity of such games that arguably kicked off with Devil May Cry. Heck, the setting, RPG elements, stage-ranking, and even that Miss Dol was supposed to be somehow half demon, all had echoes of Capcom’s demon brawler; the only missing element was an interplay of gun and melee with RotD being entirely focused on the latter.
As the game progressed I discovered that each stage was largely linear, aside from the occasional alternative route, consisting of a series of neat combat areas to tidy all the monsters out of. Stages are grouped into thematic worlds with a boss appearing at the end of each. Importantly there are ‘points’ awarded for killing enemies then at the end of the stage there are more ‘points’ awarded for ranking and, no matter how much I tried, I could not score lower than an A-ranking. Seriously, I wasn’t 100%-ing every level, mostly I was bumbling through until I reached the end and I was using all sorts of health potions along the way, but I STILL failed to drop below an ‘A’ rank and mostly picked up ‘S’. Even the levels where I took a reeaaalllyy long time because I was struggling and paused to let an amulet recharge my health slowly between fights still picked up an ‘S’ ranking. The player also occasionally ‘levels-up’ which comes packaged with a new weapon/trinket/combat move, but missing any real sense of why or how these levels progress. Still, all those points are useful… right? Well ‘yes’.. and also kind of ‘no’. So there is the obligatory ‘shop’ which features at the end of each stage to let you sell and buy power-up items and upgrade equipment. That’s all great, and standard fare, BUT this happens before you save and start the next stage which means that if you choose poorly there’s no way to refine your purchases between stage attempts… sigh…
Combat itself is also unsurprisingly awkward. The camera has a limited range of movement and I never quite found the position that gave me a comfortable view of both the enemies immediately around my character and those lying further ahead. Despite unlocking a wealth of combo-moves I tended to stick to a small handful that I could 60% reliably pull off. Even after hours of playing it felt like a roll of the dice if I managed to chain attacks together with my go-to strategy being a button-ashing frenzy; and of course there’s no enemy lock-on, so it’s entirely possible to lock-in to a combo only to swipe away menacingly in thin air. Taking damage is much easier with the player themselves having a vast hit-box; maintain a healthy clearance of at least a couple of steps between you and an attacking enemy to avoid being hit. There’s also more than one enemy that throws out a strong attack finishing up in a ‘pose’ that they hold for a second… great moment to attack right?… nope… touch the enemy whilst they’re still in their final attack pose and you’ll take the full force of the hit.
…but despite all of this, I was kind of enjoying it. Once you work out the quirks of the game it’s not that difficult. The problems with combat were balanced by the problems with enemy AI. They often just sort of wait for you to attack and their actions are telegraphed enough so you can move well out of dodge. If all that fails, there as always the option to trap enemies behind scenery and hack away at them; a tactic that got me through one particularly gruelling boss fight.
… Which is where I would have left my impressions had it not been for the sudden and monumental difficulty step-up half way through the penultimate world. Sure enemies had been getting gradually tougher, but upgrades and experience had balanced that out until this point. Suddenly the game drops in gruelling long levels with enemies that don’t get stunned and knocked down. They swooped in with charging attacks from off-screen and launched counter attacks that can’t be blocked or dodged. It feels as though the game was play tested to that point, the designers realised it was pretty easy and rather than going back to fix the difficulty curve throughout the game just poured every unfair enemy they had in to the last few stages of the game. The absolute worst are the flying demonic knights that only come to ground to attack and, without any type of ranged attack options, this is literally the only time you can try and land a hit. Just taking out one of these guys was a feat, let alone when they turned up in groups.
This is where I turned to the solitary walkthrough that I managed to find for this game (absolute credit here to Globe_199 for taking the time to produce a walkthrough) and discovered the error of my ways. Ol’ Mr/Mrs 199 makes a few things very clear; these last few stages are crazy difficult and you should be spending all of your points on health items, and that not only had I chosen the weakest character, Ms. Dol, I’d also been upgrading the worst weapon in the game with all my non-refundable-hard-earned ‘points’. In short, that snap decision I had made in picking the no-nonsense badass demon lady at the start of the game was costing me dearly in these closing stages. And for what? A quick look at her polygon-ey underwear every time she awkwardly breakdances her way up from being knocked down? I mean, sure, the game designers had made certain that you could see her underwear from every possible camera angle during that animation, but it feels like a small prize for now not being able to complete Realm of Dead without starting the whole thing again… I am not starting the whole thing again.
So that’s where I have to leave things, and this game is so obscure that there aren’t even any let’s play videos that complete the game, so aside from some screen captures and the description in the walkthrough, I don’t even get to see what happens… although I’m pretty sure you basically end up defeating Lord Evil-face or whatever…. but hey! that’s what this whole thing was all about! Discovering an obscure and weird unheard of title and I had a lot of fun doing it (Look out for my experiences with the other two games in the future!) so huge thanks to Kim! … I’m also pretty excited that, clocking in at over 2000 words, this may just be the longest article ever written about Realm of the Dead!
FYI: There are not nearly enough zombies to warrant the title Realm of the Dead…