Platform: 3DS (eShop)
Developer: Genius Sonority
I'm going to let you into a secret now, dear reader: strange little men live in my Wi-Fi. They wear morph suits and tell me funny things. Look, there's one now! He's green! Hang on a minute while I quickly go and catch him...
...right. Sorry about that. Believe it or not, I'm not having a mental breakdown as a result of the holiday season workload; rather my view of the world has been turned on its head by The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave. This downloadable RPG from some of the developers behind Dragon Quest and Pokemon offers a lot for its £7.19 asking price, providing 16-20 hours of isometric dungeon crawling with a delightful augmented reality twist.
The Denpa Men took an age to reach us Brits, seeing as it released in Japan at the launch of the 3DS and several months ago Stateside, so it's high time we cast a critical eye over this eShop oddity.
Upon booting up the game for the first time, you'll be introduced to a strange little fellow who lives in your 3DS. This randomly-generated gent explains that he's one of the Denpa Men: a friendly crew of critters who live unseen within radio signals and Wi-Fi access points (though never successfully explains why they all wear morph suits). Usually living out their lives without interacting with humans, the rise of an evil creature within their realm has prompted him to reach out to players as their final hope. Acting as a general and overseer, you'll assemble an army of Denpa Men and lead them to victory against a selection of imaginative foes.
You'll have to catch them first, mind. Clever use of the 3DS' cameras turn the console into an augmented-reality portal into the wireless world, through which you'll see a cavalcade of potential recruits floating around your lounge/train carriage/garden/school/strip club/wherever you happen to be. Depending on the Wi-Fi networks in the immediate vicinity, a unique selection of Denpa Men appear with different elemental affinities and abilities to use in battle. Catching them is sometimes difficult, especially since some of the rarer varieties will dodge and weave to avoid your nets, but they've always got something bizarre and thoroughly hilarious to say for themselves.
Once you've assembled a team and entered one of the isometric dungeons, which your eight party members explore in an adorable gaggle, Genius Sonority quickly make their experience with Dragon Quest and Pokemon known. Familiar multi-floor dungeon layouts and an array of colourful enemies (serious foes like dragons and demons jar hilariously with animated corn cobs) will come as second nature to fans of either franchise, as will turn-based battles that take place in order of initiative. Brilliantly, though, the battle system is stuffed with timesaving features that cut out much of the genre bumf, such as streamlined menus and the ability to cue up certain skills before ordering the rest of your units to attack using their own initiative. In these situations, the Denpa Men attack as a simultaneous group, providing brisk turns rather than watching each of your eight party members make a separate attack.
Big bosses and collectibles abound, making for a quirky, convenient and enjoyable dungeon crawling romp.
Don't mistake convenience and quirkiness for simplicity, though, because The Denpa Men bares its fangs from the off. The difficulty and level curve resembles the Matterhorn, featuring enemies who attack in large numbers and dish out enormous amounts of damage. You almost certainly won't be able to defeat the first level of the first dungeon without retreating first, let alone reach the boss. More divisively, any troops who are knocked out are effectively killed outright once you leave the dungeon and can only be brought back by spending a significant amount of cash or revisiting the place you found them in the real world.
This ferocious difficulty curve puts major emphasis on exploiting the strengths and weaknesses of your Denpa Men, which is where the AR catching mechanic comes to the fore. Since your potential party members are randomly generated depending on the Wi-Fi signals in a particular area, a little exploration can yield troops who are resistant to enemies in a particular dungeon yet pack super-effective abilities. Equipping various items of clothing confers resistance to different elemental attacks, while items can massively boost damage output. In theory, it's absolutely brilliant, and amassing a varied army of Denpa Men for different situations is an exceptionally compelling experience.
In practice, however, this addictive aspect of The Denpa Men gets slightly lost in translation. Despite the increasing legitimacy of gaming as a mainstream pastime for all age groups, the sight of a teenager or adult waving around their 3DS in a public place and shouting nonsensical phrases about "the strange men who live in the Wi-Fi" is rather unsettling to say the least here in the UK, and it's enough to make more mature gamers feel a little self-conscious about the whole thing. Unless you travel a lot for a living, you'll likely have to fall back on the only other option to pass the harder dungeons.
Grinding. Copious, flagrant grinding.
Even if you manage to accrue some powerful Denpa Men throughout your travels, you'll have to constantly throw your party into the top levels of each new dungeon to stay ahead of the curve, spending many hours getting strong enough just to descend down a few floors without fear of losing your colourful army. Most spells and abilities need to be improved by levelling up their user in order to be of any use, while the best items cost extravagant amounts of money. You're free to resort to trolling the net for QR codes (here's one to get you started), but there's still no substitute for putting in the time.
And once the vicious grind begins, cracks start to form in The Denpa Men's cheerful shell. Most of the levels are boxy and dull, lacking any hint of randomisation and quickly becoming rather repetitive. The lack of a strong story starts to grate, especially since its sixteen-hour length is more on par with a focused, narrative-driven RPG. The more you grind, the more the experience stops looking like a game and comes to resemble a spreadsheet, compounded by the massive party sizes and constantly-growing Denpa Men reserves.
Ultimately, The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave is worth buying as an eminently affordable and enjoyable time sink, best enjoyed in short doses while communiting or travelling. Short and frequent play sessions allow the quirky title to retain its charm, while new locations will introduce a host of new friends and allies. Since the sequel has already released in Japan, we hope that it's just the start of what could become a major global franchise on the level of Pokemon.
- Solid isometric dungeon crawling, smart battle system
- Cool Augmented Reality functions encourage you to find powerful Denpa Men in the real world
- Great value
- Predicated on repetitious grind
- Boxy and underwhelming level design and geometry
- Little to do after the final boss falls
The Short Version: Though arguably a foundation for bigger and better things, The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave is a smart and quirky dungeon-crawler that's a great fit for a handheld. Best enjoyed on the go, especially since you'll make new allies along the way.