In case you hadn’t noticed, the Wii’s audience is currently split more-or-less cleanly in two. Most Wii owners fall into one of two camps – the people who bought into all the family-friendly ‘casual’ stuff and are loving it to pieces, and everyone else, who will probably sell their Wiis on eBay this Christmas if something seriously ace doesn’t come out for it soon.
Into this messy arena steps Opoona, a cute little RPG from the chaps at ArtePiazza. While this is their first ‘proper’ game, they’ve been busy converting older Dragon Quest titles for various gaming platforms over the years, so it seems fair to assume they’d know their way around a decent Japanese RPG by now. A quick look at the game’s visual style, however, tells you that this is no normal JRPG – there’s not a single pointy-haired emo boy in sight, for starters. Just an overweight bald kid with a floating sphere above his head. It’d be easy to get cynical and harp on about how the game’s cutesy visual style is clearly just there to get the kids in, but hell, it flies in the face of convention (at least as far as its own genre is concerned), and that’s always healthy.
The story goes that Opoona, the eponymous hero, is travelling in a spaceship with his family to the excellently-named planet of Landroll. After a brief attack at the hands of some rather evil-looking spaceships, Opoona crash-lands on the alien planet, separated from his siblings and parents. He’s nursed back to health by the locals, and told that if he wants to heal his parents (who have also been rescued, but are badly injured), he’s going to need some cash. So, that’s your excuse to travel the globe smacking up monsters, basically. Still, God bless the NHS, eh?
Unfortunately, it’s in these early stages of the game that Opoona does its absolute best to put you off playing it. About 90 minutes into the game, I’d only taken part in two battles, both of them training exercises, and was still being ordered to run around a huge and unfathomably complex tower, talking to people who I’ve got zero interest in. The layout of the building is completely unintuitive, and the few maps dotted around the place do little to help you find your way around. Worse still, you’ll have to navigate a whole bunch of these habitats during the course of the game, getting new missions and trying to upgrade Opoona’s ranger license, whilst trying to make sense of the endless corridors, lifts, and totally unhelpful directions given to you by other characters in the game. Still, once you do get to travel outdoors, the game starts to open up. Your first glimpse of the outside world in Opoona is easily as wonderful as that of, say, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, despite it running on much less impressive hardware. A bold claim, perhaps, but see how you feel when the game’s had you stuck indoors for nearly two hours. Fans of Phantasy Star Online will certainly feel at home, as the somewhat chunky but sunny and verdant outdoor environments evoke fond memories of Forest 1.
Combat itself is a fairly simplified affair. Opoona attacks enemies using the ball above his head (called an energy bonbon), and you throw it at enemies by pulling back on the nunchuck’s analogue stick, then flicking it forward – and you can alter the type of attack by varying the angles at which you hold and flick the stick, and the time you take doing it. Holding the stick back for longer will result in a faster throw, but it’ll deplete your energy more quickly, making you wait longer before you can act again. However, faster throws are useful against enemies that are far away, as it gives them less chance to move and dodge the attack. Curving your shots can also be useful – if you want to hit an enemy at the back but there’s a second enemy in the way, simply curve the shot to one side so that it avoids him. Then, later on, you can earn the ability to smash the bonbon through several enemies, making it beneficial to curve the shot so that its path covers as many enemies as possible. Unfortunately, though, the game simply isn’t difficult enough to make any of this truly worthwhile – another concession to younger players, perhaps, but one that rather insults their intelligence, rather than actually challenging them like a good video game should.
One of the game’s more interesting simplifications is the fact that you only need the nunchuck to play it. You can use the classic controller if you really must, but it’s far from necessary. Opoona was designed with just two buttons and one joystick in mind, and that’s really all you need. Camera controls are a bit fiddly, but you soon adjust to them, and thereafter you’ll find something weirdly satisfying about playing the game with just the nunchuck in your right hand. Mind you, this does mean you’ve got the Wii remote dangling uncomfortably between your legs – but hey, I’m here to judge the game, not what you do with your free time, right?
Ultimately, Opoona is actually two really good games in one. Except those two games conflict with one another in a way that leaves you wondering why they were shoved together in the first place. One Opoona is a simple, charming game with a cute art style that could well get the Wii’s younger audience into RPGs. The other Opoona is an innovative RPG with an interesting and unusual battle system that allows for some tactical depth, and relies on quick-thinking and a bit of actual skill. But people who would’ve enjoyed the former Opoona will find it difficult to remain interested long enough for the game to pick up, and those who would’ve enjoyed the latter Opoona will find the game doesn’t really explore the potential of its combat system fully, and will power through the game’s initial sections only to find everything dumbed-down for an audience who’ll never reach those parts of the game anyway. You can’t please everyone with a single game, nor should you try to.
If you’ve got kids who you reckon would benefit from an introduction to Japanese RPGs, there are far worse places to start. But for Christ’s sake, let them use an FAQ for the indoor sections.
Unless you don’t actually love them, or something.