The PSP has no shortage of RPGs in its library. Yet, why have none found true success on the platform? The role playing games that have been arriving on Sony's portable have tended to be formulaic, generic, and littered with technical flaws (such as painful load times). However, Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner is a great step in the right direction. While it may not provide truly original gameplay, or characters, it's executed in fine technical form, making it easily the best RPG on the system so far. While it certainly has its share of flaws, anyone longing for an accessible, addictive, and well-crafted RPG will want to seriously consider Jewel Summoner.
As you may know, Monster Kingdom comes from the creative mind of Kouji Okada, responsible for RPG classics such as Shin Megami Tensei. However, although Monster Kingdom shares some similar gameplay elements, the world is unlike the apocalyptic and dark stories of the SMT series. You control Vice, a typically JRPG stoic and metrosexual hero that's on the look for a certain beast: an Abomination. Vice has the mysterious, innate ability to summon and control a beast, and attempts to defeat all Abominations in his way. Eventually, he stumbles upon an order of Jewel Summoners that will hone his ability to control monsters, and capture them in jewels. Think of it as Pokemon, but slightly darker.
The gameplay is remarkably similar to that of Pokemon. You hold up to three jewels in your inventory, which can summon a monster, aligned to a specific element. Your beast is limited to 4 (or 5) different moves, which are also aligned to elements. Your monster will battle other monsters, and as it gains experience points, it will be able to level up and learn new moves.
Battles are turn-based affairs that, once again, work similarly to Pokemon. Attacks will have varying degrees of effectiveness, depending on what elements are used. For example, a monster aligned to fire will be vulnerable to water attacks. However, unlike Pokemon, the order of turns is not rigid: the dynamic nature of who gets to go next adds an interesting element of strategy that is much appreciated. Certain attacks will interrupt your characters, or the enemies, allowing one side to gain an advantage. Proper utilization of moves can allow you to consistently push back enemies; conversely, equipping the wrong monster types can lead to some pretty devastating results.
The gameplay of Monster Kingdom is quite easy to understand, but allows for a great deal of customization and complexity, if the player so chooses. As you start collecting monsters, your available repertoire increases, allowing you to plan each dungeon excursion carefully. You'll find that while having a diverse group of monsters is helpful, having a wide assortment of moves will be even more beneficial. Through a process called "Amalgamation," your monsters can be fused with other elements, evolving into new forms, and learning new moves. You can create quite an interesting monster, if you so choose.
However, none of these advanced features are necessary to the game. For better or worse, the game is still manageable for players that simply want to get through the game as quickly as possible. The game's difficulty ramps up steadily, but never in a way that frustrates players, or forces them to level up mindlessly for hours on end. It's true that the game can be a bit on the easy side: knowing which elements to equip before a battle can drastically change the flow of the game. However, boss battles are always exciting affairs that can really test a player's decision making. Because your characters have a finite number of moves, each choice made in boss battles can be crucial. The boss fights are quite exhilarating, a refreshing thing to admit for a PSP RPG.
The monster battles are not only fun, but visually appealing as well. While the character models aren't too detailed, the clever dual-screened camera system makes each battle seem dynamic. Enemies are displayed on the left half, while you and your teammates are on the right. As the characters perform their moves, the screen gets pushed left and right. The animation and the camera feel perfect, giving each battle a nice cinematic feel. The battles of Pokemon seem absolutely archaic compared to the dynamic, highly animated nature of these battles.
While each encounter is visually exciting, the use of random battles is frustrating. While battles aren't too frequent, it is a surprisingly dated choice. Exploring dungeons becomes more a chore due to the fear that a battle will interrupt your progress. Although dungeons aren't complex, they still feature a nice level of interactivity, with the ability to cycle through "Field Abilities," which allow you to uncover hidden treasures, or hover to new parts of a level. While primitive in nature, the variety is appreciated. Random battles really ruin the potential for a greater level of exploration in the game.
Thankfully, the game is littered with opportunities to save your progress. In many ways, Monster Kingdom is perfect for the PSP: it features no load times at all, except for the occasional stutter in battle. You can save at any time in any non-dungeon area, but dungeons themselves have a save point every few rooms. I've been able to get from hard-boot to the game in less than a minute: an impressive feat for a PSP game in a genre filled with poorly programmed competitors.
However, one aspect of the game significantly slows down what could otherwise be a quick portable experience: the story. The story of the game is told through an excessive amount of dialogue. There's hours of voiced conversation, and while it's impressive that Atlus has put in the effort to provide voice acting for every major (and not so major) scene, some may find it a bit excessive. It's not uncommon to have dungeons interrupted by an hour of various conversation sequences: certainly, this is not ideal for gamers that need quick play sessions.
Thankfully, the story is somewhat compelling. Although I've voiced my annoyance with some of the characters, they all become distinct. You're eventually given a choice of which characters you'll spend your time with (no annoying pricks on my team, thanks!). Atlus' localization team should be applauded for their work on the Jerro character, in particular. This old, perverted man has some hilarious lines that will get any feminist truly worked up. Although not great, the voice acting is solid all-in-all, albiet a bit generic.
The story doesn't necessarily have surprises, but still moves at a pleasant pace, with new characters and events being revealed constantly. The story certainly takes its time, but it remains engaging throughout. Unfortunately, the story doesn't have the character visiting new locales frequently enough. You'll find yourself constantly going back to previously visited areas, and although there's usually something new, and unexplored, in each area, it's surprising to see such a vast world map feel relatively unexplored.
It's true that Monster Kingdom could've used a bit more polish: maybe move at a slightly faster pace, and be slightly more challenging. Regardless, it's still an incredibly well-executed game that offers a great battle system and an interesting story. With a beautiful musical score, a wide breadth of customization options, solid voice acting, and a relatively uninterrupted gaming experience, Monster Kingdom succeeds in ways so many previous PSP RPGs have failed. The game is accessible for players of all capabilities, and its lengthy quest will undoubtedly prove to be satisfying for many.
PSP Fanboy Score: 7.5