Writing on video games by Steve Hernandez

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Inside & Outside, A Review of Okage: The Shadow King


A conventional RPG to play, but its unconventional qualities make it stand out.
Developer: Zener Works
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 2
Release Dates: JP: March 15, 2001, NA: October 1, 2001
Genre: RPG

**Spoilers ahead**

Boku to Maou (ボクと魔王) was a role-playing game (RPG) created by Zener Works that was originally developed for the Sony PlayStation. However, before the game was completed, the PlayStation 2 was announced. As a result, the game was reworked for that console and published by Sony in 2001. It was one of the earliest RPGs released for the PS2 and ended up being the last notable game by Zener Works. The game was localized and released in the United States a few months later as “Okage: The Shadow King.” Several aspects of the game were changed but one of the most notable changes involved the protagonist, Ruka. His name was changed to Ari and the eyes on his model were altered. In the Japanese version, he had large eyes that gave him a sense of timidness. In the localized version, his eyes were shrunken, which gave him more of a blank stare. Both of these are appropriate considering the type of character that Ari is. He is an unremarkable and quiet teenager that is hardly noticed by the people around him. In fact, the game opens with him appearing behind his far more popular sister, Annie. Ari’s overshadowed nature is accentuated in moments where the player can choose one of three responses during specific conversations. None of the responses affect the conversation and the story in a significant way and is often ignored. Likewise, Ari’s lack of personality is represented by his lack of an elemental status. He is not fire, ice, or thunder. He is just neutral.
Not only is Ari overshadowed, but he is also unlucky, and the first chapter establishes this in several ways. First, he is dumped by his childhood friend and has no one to go to the circus with. Secondly, the villagers repeatedly remind him of his overshadowed nature. Worst of all his sister is attacked by a ghost. Fortunately, she isn’t in mortal danger; she’s just cursed to speak in pig latin and succumb to the role of “comedy relief girl.” To break the curse, Ari’s father opens a lamp and makes a deal with the demon trapped inside it. His name is Stan and he is the reincarnation of Ghoma, an evil king that destroyed half of the world 300 years ago and was eventually defeated by a now-dead hero named Hopkins. Stan agrees to remove Annie’s curse if one of Ari’s family members agrees to be Stan’s slave. A shadow judging contest is conducted by Stan’s horned butler, James, and Ari wins due to his overshadowed nature. Annie is cured, but a side effect causes her shadow to become pink, which doesn’t really bother her. Stan replaces Ari’s thin shadow, makes him his slave, and berates him as they both go on an adventure to defeat monsters that have stolen Stan’s power and are claiming his title as the true evil king. In another game this would be a dramatic premise, but Okage treats it with a sense of humor. Ari’s family is ecstatic that he’s going on an adventure even though it involves helping the bad guy try to conquer the world. Fortunately, Stan’s shadow form isn’t a threat to anyone. Nobody is afraid of him and his melodramatic threats, and he is continually brushed off as a magic trick that Ari can do with his shadow.
Stan’s first step towards world conquest begins at Tenel, Ari’s rural hometown. The town is suffering from a water shortage, but Stan is far more interested in stealing the treasure from the basement of the church. When Ari attempts to restore the water supply, he encounters a ghost and the player is thrown into his first battle. The game’s battle system is primarily turn based with a real-time element and has the typical features that other RPGs have such as attacking, using items, and casting spells. Okage is a traditional JRPG. By that, I mean that the game’s structure is similar to older JRPGs such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. The world is broken up into dungeons, towns, and overworlds. There are treasure chests to open and monsters to defeat. You level up, get stronger, and use currency to purchase better equipment. However, Okage is not as complex compared to many other RPGs. Each of the game’s six party members can only equip three pieces of equipment. Completing the game takes about 20 hours and there are a handful of optional side quests to do. Some critics and players disparaged the game for not having much depth. There are also some technical aspects that hinder the game such as frequent and long load times and a camera that can sometimes block your view. The technical problems are most likely due to a tough debugging process the developers went through.
The battle system
It’s safe to say that Okage’s gameplay is certainly not the game’s best strength. On the contrary, what makes the game unique is its art direction, the bizarre characters that inhabit the game’s mysterious world, and the story.

Okage seems to be inspired by the Burtonesque style originated by Tim Burton, producer of Nightmare Before Christmas and director of Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. Like most of the protagonists in Burton’s films, Ari is an outcast that can’t fit into society. The environment in the game twists and bends and many characters wear striped clothing. There is even a cliff in one of the overworlds that looks identical to the curly cliff from The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, Okage doesn’t have the underlying darkness that Burton’s style usually evokes. The game is whimsical and bright, but never scary. Whether it’s intentional or not, the game’s camera seems to also be reminiscent of a stop-motion set. Certain camera angles in the game give you an overhead view of the environment, making the world seem like a miniature set.
The world that Ari and the player explore consists of a small unnamed continent in the middle of an endless ocean. It’s all that’s left after Ghoma destroyed half of the world three-hundred years ago. It also has a strange and vague history to it. One example is Madril, an industrial city situated over a bottomless pit. There are pipes that shoot out steam and gears that constantly turn on their own. A greenish smog also fills the city’s sky. According to one of the town’s inhabitants, Madril existed even before its current residents arrived, as if it were completely abandoned. This city seems to be a remnant of the “pre-age” period. However, the player never finds any information about this period of history. It is also one example of a reoccurring theme — gears. There are thirty-two tiny invisible gears that the player can collect to complete one of the game’s side quests. Collecting at least thirty of them rewards you with a powerful weapon for Ari called the gear sword. A large tower called the gear tower protrudes from the sands of Addishi Desert, the desert overworld. A few inhabitants in Madril are obsessed with gears. Gears even show up as enemies the player can fight.

Another example of Okage’s vague history is Rashelo, a fishing town built on a lake. Near the town is a slanted clock tower that sticks out from the water. When Ari first visits the town in chapter three, one of his allies states that nobody knows when the clock tower was built. A piece of concept art for the game implies that Rashelo had been built on top of a previous town that sunk into the lake.
Rashelo concept art
Another strange aspect of Okage’s world is how foreign technology is to the inhabitants. Before beginning his unfortunate adventure to conquer the world, Ari is handed a music box by his mom to give to a girl he might have romantic interest in. She calls it an “ancient apparatus that makes a pretty sound.” Similarly, Ari’s grandpa tells him to find the parts to a voice recorder, an “ancient apparatus that records voices.” A man in Madril refers to an elevator as an “automatic transport device.”

The inhabitants of Okage’s world are also weird. A man in Rashelo tells Ari about the joys of fishing. There is a man who thinks he’s invisible that only appears in Madril near the end of the game. A blacksmith in Tenel tells Ari to bring him a powerful weapon, but nothing happens after this. Another man in Madril just talks about pi. The inhabitants also don’t have names, just titles that relate to their dialogue. The blacksmith in Tenel is just called “Blacksmith.” The guy who thinks he’s invisible is called “Guy Thinking He’s Still Invisible.” My favorite is “Young Man Who Believes In Justice.” What does he say when you speak to him? How much he likes justice. For the most part, the things the inhabitants say are quirky and trivial, probably due to the seemingly literal translation the game received for its release in the United States. However, there are several inhabitants that question the world around them. A woman in Tenel wonders why the church there is the only church in the world and doesn’t know what God she’s supposed to be worshipping. A young man in Tenel wonders how Madril got built and why its gears just move on their own. Near the end of the game, a small man named the moving maniac ponders about the world and what is beyond it:

Moving maniac: First of all, I don’t really know much about other towns further away. What about you? Do you? Like, what’s really there on the other side of the mountain behind the station, or further back behind the Tenel Village Hall? Where is the Royal Capital? Where does the Princess go home to? I wonder about these things…

None of the inhabitants know about the world they live in. Why are there so many gears here? What exactly is the pre-age period? What’s with the giant footprints in PosPos Fields, the game’s snowy overworld? Where does the princess go home to?

Chapters two, three, and four ostensibly follow the same structure; Ari and Stan head to a new town, recruit a new party member, and defeat an evil king in the last floor of a dungeon. In chapter two, Ari meets Rosalyn, a rapier-wielding hero that holds a grudge against Stan. She became a laughing stock after she was cursed with the same pink shadow as Ari’s sister and hides it by carrying an open pink parasol. After defeating the Sewer Evil King in Madril, Rosalyn tells Ari that the princess of the royal family, Marlene, is going around incognito. If they can meet with her, then perhaps Ari can be freed from Stan and Rosalyn’s curse can be lifted. In chapter three, Ari recruits Kisling, a famous professor that studies ghosts and clips his own toenails as a hobby. The party heads to Rashelo and discovers that Marlene has been kidnapped by the Bubble Evil King. He takes her away into the aquatic ruins, the first dungeon in the game.
Aquatic ruins
The frequent load times and imperfect camera didn’t bother me too much in Okage, but the biggest issue that diminished my experience with the game was its maze-like dungeons. Each one consist of a number of floors. To unlock the next floor, you have to defeat a specific amount of urns that occupy the current floor you’re on. You do this for every floor in every dungeon in the game. Some of the dungeons try to mix things up, but none of it feels substantial. In fact, one dungeon was so monotonous that I nearly abandoned the game entirely. The presence of enemy encounters makes the dungeons feel longer to complete. Enemy encounters are represented by ghosts that chase the player. It’s possible to evade them by running until they disappear. However, ghosts reappear in waves and the longer the player avoids them, the faster they move and the more frequently they appear. Avoiding ghosts in the overworlds is easier compared to the dungeons because there is much more space to move in.

Despite defeating the Bubble Evil King and rescuing Marlene, she ends up running away after an argument with her butler, Beiloune. Ari eventually discovers her in his home where she had been spending time with his family. By the end of the chapter, Ari gives her the music box and she joins him on his adventure to subjugate fake evil kings.

Like the countless gears, another reoccurring theme in the game is the cooperation between heroes and villains. In chapter four, the party recruits two evil kings after defeating them in a boss fight. The first is Big Bull, a macho bull that loves to fight. The second is Teen Idol Evil King, a horned girl that strives to be a famous singer. The premise of this chapter is that a cigar-chomping businessman named Chairman Evil King is spreading a rumor about heroes and ghosts secretly working together for profit. All of the evil kings that the player has fought stop being evil after they’re defeated, as if they were being controlled by something or someone. In fact, the player can find and talk to the Sewer Evil King after defeating him.

At the end of chapter four, Ari and his friends realize that every fake evil king they’ve defeated is compelled to return to the sewer of Madril. They discover a switch there that reinforces the attributes of whatever is on it. This switch is what’s been giving the fake evil kings their power. It is here where Ari’s tendency to be overshadowed is taken to its extreme. He steps on the switch and turns invisible but visible enough so that the player can still navigate the world properly. His friends suddenly forget about the adventure they were just on and the fact that Ari existed at all. Stan mysteriously vanishes, and Ari’s friends walk away. The world changes as if Ari had never existed in the first place. Even his family — except for his grandma — forgets about him. Stan is now the evil king and Rosalyn is the great hero that must defeat him. The inhabitants now just talk about the battle that is going to occur when they both meet. The ghosts are also gone, so the player is now free to explore the overworlds without having to deal with battles. This is the perfect opportunity to collect most of the invisible tiny gears.

Eventually, Ari stumbles upon Triste, a town at the end of Pospos Fields. Okage’s world is based on fantasy, but Triste is the most contemporary location in the game. It has a hotel, a restaurant, a movie theater, and even a dance club. The word Triste is Spanish for “sad” and is an appropriate name for the town. The residents here are like Ari, they were all overshadowed and ignored by the outside world. There is even a ghost lamenting over the fact that he is forgotten. Even a house belonging to Hopkins — the hero that originally defeated Stan — is here.
Triste
Ari runs into Block, the ring master of the circus that visited Ari’s town in the first chapter. Block tells him how he can become visible again. Ari must speak up for himself by engaging in a specific number of conversations with the inhabitants outside of Triste. This requires the player to talk to characters and choose a reply. I find this part of the game interesting because Ari, a riff on the silent protagonist trope, now has to be more social. 

Ari becomes visible and reunites with everyone except Marlene. They discover her being strangled in the air by Beiloune outside Ari’s home. Beiloune reveals that he is Marlene’s father and the creator of this world. He created it for her by separating it from the universe and using “classification” to force the inhabitants to play roles. Even the Map O Kings, an item that clues the player in of the location of the next boss, eventually recognizes that it is playing a role. Ari was the exception, his non-existent personality made him a “deviant,” an unclassified person without a role. Therefore, he was not meant to be in this world. Beiloune also reveals that the princess that followed Ari on his journey is actually just a doll. The real Marlene got lost in his world hundreds of years ago. As a result, he went insane and created a doll of her to fool himself into thinking that she never disappeared.

Beiloune’s world working as intended is the one the player explores in chapter five after Ari becomes invisible. It is akin to a story with a stock premise: the hero that is desired by Marlene must defeat the evil king. Heroes are good and evil kings are bad and they must fight each other because those are their roles. This was supposed to be a safe adventure for Marlene to enjoy forever. However, due to Ari’s influence, she rejected it and wanted an adventure for herself. Likewise, Ari disrupted Beiloune’s illusion by teaming up with Stan and declassifying evil kings. This is evidenced by the fact that Rosalyn and Stan fight along side Ari in battles instead of each other. Likewise, the friendship bond — an item gained when Ari becomes visible again — symbolizes the growing friendship between him and Stan. It brightens as the story progresses and provides the player with a new attack that Stan will use, finally making him a participant in battles.

The game’s plot twist was very effective and left me speechless because it was so unexpected. I played Okage years ago but never completed it and I never looked up what happened in the rest of the game. When I finally returned to it, I was unknowingly in the perfect position to be surprised. Early chapters of the game hint at this reveal in several ways. The names of inhabitants such as “Young Man that believes in justice” and “Tenel Blacksmith” aren’t really names, they’re roles. In chapter three, Stan’s plan to control Marlene fails when he discovers that she lacks a soul. Perhaps the biggest hint is how classification is foreshadowed in the first chapter. Inside Tenel hall is a woman that informs Ari of the Classification Table, a list from the Royal City that assigns the roles that the inhabitants of the world must abide by. Everyone, from the baker in Tenel to the innkeeper in Rashelo, plays out the roles assigned to them by the Classification Table. The woman also tells Ari that he is not on the table at at all.

Beiloune disappears to create an ultimate evil king that will kill Ari. Ari’s party reconvenes in his home and digest the revelation they just experienced. Kisling proposes a theory, if classification is removed, then perhaps this world will open and reveal the universe that it was separated from. They decide to rebel against classification and set out to defeat Beiloune. These characters are more than just the roles they were meant to play. These titles do not define who they are.
What is classification? Basically, it’s the process of putting something into a category. To classify is to decide which type or group somebody/something belongs to. Classification is not only present in the game’s story, but also the game itself as a product. We can see several examples of this on the game’s box. It is Rated T by the ESRB. Genre, a type of classification, classifies Okage as a role-playing game because it has specific qualities present in other games in the genre. From sorting the clothes in a wardrobe to Taxonomy, classification is an invaluable tool to organize and make sense of the world.

That is the approach Beiloune uses to create his world. However, he uses it in a malicious way. He uses it as mind control to assign a role to a person or monster (or perhaps anything) by stripping them of their free will and identity. Likewise, it keeps the world separated from the universe. Beiloune’s world is like a tiny box and classification is what keeps it sealed. As a result, classification in Okage is used as a form of imprisonment.

The game’s title screen features several logos that relate to the game’s world. One of the them consists of two boxes — inside and outside — that represent the world. The inside is Beiloune’s world, the digital space the player navigates and explores by assuming the role of Ari. Like countless other video games, it is a world that only contains the environments the player is supposed to be in. It’s nearly impossible to create a game where the player can literally do anything and explore literally everything. Invisible walls are indicative of this. The world no matter how vast, has an edge the player cannot get past. That edge can either be a literal invisible barrier, a piece of geography, or an object or structure that cannot be destroyed or moved. Even open world games such as Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed have their limits. In a way, video games are constrained spaces with a set of rules that the player must abide by. Beiloune’s world is very similar, it is a tiny space and the participants in it must play by the rules of its creator.
Title screen
The outside is the universe, the space the player never sees nor visits. Beiloune never explains what it is or what it contains. All we know is that the world that the game takes place in might be one of many from the universe. The universe isn’t represented as a digital space and therefore isn’t restricted by the same technological limitations. Because of this, the player is free to use their imagination. The inside represents confinement, the outside represents absolute freedom with endless possibilities.

The party goes beyond Triste and into Addishi Desert. They head to the gear tower and fight Epros, an evil king that manipulates cards and constantly speaks in Shakespearean English. He joins Ari’s party as soon as they enter the game’s most surreal town, the Highlands. The inhabitants here are restless as a result of not being able to sleep. It is later revealed that the penultimate boss — Vampire Evil King — has been feeding off their blood. After the party defeats him, a bridge appears in the town that leads to the World Library, the source of classification. It is a large, slanted, and decayed building surrounded by weeds and covered in foliage. The path to it skewers, bends, and twists. It shows just how old and decayed this world is. A playground left unkempt by its creator that has gone mad.
Highlands
The World Library is the last dungeon in the game and easily the biggest. It consists of three separate wings and large bookshelves make up its maze-like structure. Along the way, Ari encounters several workers of the library and they tell him about classification, the world, and Beiloune’s daughter. One of them also briefly tells Ari about Pollack, the owner of the bottle that Stan was trapped in. Pollack pitied the classified inhabitants of Beiloune’s world and enjoyed disrupting it.

The party encounters one last obstacle before confronting Beiloune: a door that won’t open.

Kisling: I deduce that this is a door, therefore it should be opened rationally, as a door should.

Stan calls upon James:

James: Hmm… Ha ha ha ha. What’s wrong, master? You shouldn’t stress over such a thing. It’s easy. I heard this is a war against “classification”. So, what is important is not being “classified”. In particular, Mr. Kisling, your hypothesis is faulty. You shouldn’t be caught by classifications such as “this is a door”. Just forget this is a door to open. Then the only thing we need to do is… Now, everybody, let me go through.

He delivers a chopping attack and opens the door.

In Beiloune’s world, being classified means that you’re forced to play the role given to you. This is another way that Beiloune keeps the world separated from the universe. None of the classified inhabitants can perceive that the reality they’ve been living in is essentially a lie. It takes an unclassified person like Ari to expose the truth to them. Kisling’s hypothesis is faulty because by acknowledging that the door exists, he is accepting Beiloune’s reality as truth. Therefore, being caught in classification is to accept the lie as truth and think in a way that is narrow-minded. If classification is the imprisonment of these characters, then this scene is them rebelling against it by destroying the barriers — in this case a door — that confine them.

Beiloune uses his classification power to force Stan and Rosalyn into fighting each other. To snap them out of it, Ari uses the voice recorder, which causes it to repeat an earlier conversation in which Rosalyn and Stan proclaim that their roles are not all that define them. Beiloune transforms into a large horned monster and attacks Ari. Unfortunately, this final battle is disappointing. The track that plays over it is unexciting and the track that plays when the player is low on health points feels much more appropriate. Likewise, Beiloune has a small amount of attacks that he repeatedly uses. This resulted in a repetitive sequence in which he attacked, I healed, he attacked, and I attacked. He also has a significant amount of health, making the fight last for a while.
Beiloune is defeated and Stan spares his life. Injured, Beiloune staggers away to continue searching for his daughter, not realizing that she was hiding in Triste the entire time. Ari and his allies escape the library as it begins to crumble before being destroyed.

At dusk, Rosalyn ponders if the world has really changed as a result of Belinoune’s classification being destroyed. Kisling responds:

Well, it is not the matter of the world but the cognition of its residents. From now on, we do not have to function within the set frame. Our meaning is as we wish it.

By destroying classification, everyone — including the residents of Triste — are now free from Beiloune’s world and the roles they were forced to play. Ari returns home and is informed by a villager that an entirely new world has opened up beyond the outer edge of the world. What exactly that world looks like is never shown and is left to the player’s imagination.

Ari rushes home and sees the real Marlene in a peasant-like dress that is the opposite of what the princess version of her wore. They lock eyes, hold hands, and enter Ari’s home. The doors shut and the story of this unfortunate boy comes to an end. According to Junichi Doi, one of the the game’s composers, the song played in the credits has a hidden message to it. Okage’s post-credits scene features Stan, now back in his shadow form, outside Ari’s home. He begins to laugh to himself as he revels in all the unfortunate things he will put Ari through.
I’m sure many players might’ve thought this was a cliffhanger to indicate a possible sequel. However, I believe it was added to show that despite having a happy ending, Ari is still the unfortunate boy that is a slave to Stan. The game did not seem to sell well in the US. However, in Japan, the game sold enough that it was later re-released under Sony’s “The Best” line. Indeed, the fandom for the game in Japan is much larger than in the United States. For the game’s 13th anniversary, an event was held that featured two of the composers, Junoichi Doi and Yoichi Nozaki , playing various tracks from the game live.

In February 2016, fifteen years after its original release, Okage: The Shadow King was released as a downloadable title for the PlayStation 4. It included 1080p up-rendering and trophies. The loading times are reduced by just a few seconds. Nonetheless, the game is now more accessible to play than it has ever been.

Okage, like its protagonist, was overshadowed. It was released two months before the juggernaut RPG, Final Fantasy X. In fact, playable demos of both games appeared on the same demo disc (Official US PlayStation Magazine Vol. 53), with the latter getting top billing of course. FFX became a critical success and is considered to be one of the best RPGs of all time. On the other hand, Okage received a lukewarm reception before fading into obscurity. Nowadays, the game is only brought up when someone is looking for an obscure and offbeat RPG to play. Okage perfectly fits that bill. Despite the game’s competent battle system and just plain bad dungeons, the game stands out due to its presentation. There’s certainly not a lot of games — if any — that are like Zener Works’s RPG.

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