InuYasha: Secret of the Divine Jewel Anime Video Game Review
Janis has recently moved from America to Japan with her family. Although she has lived in Japan before and speaks the language fluently, she's sill going through some very hard times. Her father is always away from home, all her best friends have been left behind, she's having trouble adjusting to her new city, and her new best friend is actually a time traveling priestess named Kagome who routinely makes trips back to the 16th century in order to go on adventures with an Inu half-demon, a kitsune, a demon slayer, and a lecherous monk. Don't you just hate it when that happens?
But that's not all; it turns out Janis has a role to play in the Feudal era, for she too possesses the rare ability to pass through The Bone-Eater's Well into InuYasha's time, setting off a chain of events that threatens the stability of the past and present. Upon her arrival in the past, all the fragments of the mystical Shikon jewel shard that have been collected by InuYasha and his teammates mysteriously meld into Janis' body. In order to get them out, Janis will need to embark on some grand adventures with InuYasha, Kagome, Sango, Miroku and Shippo, all the while hoping to discover the secret of the jewel and her unusual connection to this ancient, foreign land.
Out of all my InuYasha reviews so far, this game really stands out as a symbol of my commitment to review everything in the franchise I can get my hands on. In order to make this, I had to go out and buy a Nintendo DS. Then I had to hunt down a copy of the game--and let me tell you, it wasn't easy. Amazon didn't have any copies, so I had to make quite a few phone calls before discovering a single copy at a Gamestop store nearly a 90-minute drive away. In end, it cost me about 120 dollars for the system, game, and gasoline expenses. But none of that compares to the greatest test of commitment: Forcing myself to play this terrible, horrendous excuse for a video game long enough to complete the entire thing.
At first glance, this doesn't look so bad. Sure, they thew in another new character like the PS2 game rather than simply stick with the established ones like I'd prefer, but Janis is a lot more interesting than Kururugi. She's got a much more detailed backstory, is actually linked to Kagome before going through the well, and even gets to have a few good adventures in the present day in addition to the Feudal Era. It was nice getting to attend Kagome's school, stroll through the park, and take a full tour of the Higurashi shrine, all things that were a big part of the franchise in the movies and TV series. Best of all, Janis gets her own personal weapon, unlike Kururugi, and has a pretty impressive arsenal of spells to go along with it. It's also nice that the main goal of the story is, in fact, discovering secrets, as the title implies, rather than simply trying to get home.
All of which would really help set up a wonderful adventure... if the game was anything beyond a dumbed-down, broken-up mess! Instead, everything is ruined from the start. With a terrible fighting system, absurdly high encounter rate, horrible navigation, and a whole other set of things that make playing this game too frustrating to be any fun, this is one of those things that manages to get just about everything wrong. It's a cheap, lackluster attempt to cash in on the InuYasha name, and quite frankly it's very fitting that it wound up a rarity even in the bargen bins of game stores. Some things simply deserve to be forgotten.
The first thing that really stands out is the horrible turn-based combat system. It's amazingly simplistic, but still manages to be overly frustrating. It goes like this: You've got a standard lifebar and an energy meter. As usual, the lifebar represents your hitpoints. The energy meter is pretty much used for everything except items: Attacking, using techniques, casting spells, and healing. When the meter gets low, there are two ways to fill it up. One is to choose a charge-up option in combat, which costs the character a turn. The other way, and I'm not kidding here, is walking! That's right, just walking around fills the meter up automatically. Can you imagine how dumb it is to charge the most important aspect of combat by simply walking? It completely cancels out the most basic RPG elements. For example, most towns have inns where you can fill your life and energy back up to maximum. But why the hell would anyone ever use them? You obviously don't need inns for that, since you can fill your energy and use it to heal your party members back to full health by safely walking around the town without fear of enemies. They serve no purpose at all.
This also brings up another issue: In a game where all health and energy can be recharged by walking, how do they prevent you from having every encounter with enemies done at maximum health and energy capacity? The answer: By having the most absurdly high random encounter rate in the history of video games! The random encounter rate was bad in Secret of the Cursed Mask, but here, it's flat-out obscene. Everywhere you go, every time, over and over and over, you just keep running into an endless stream of enemies, usually every three or four steps. It just keeps going and going, and even equipping an item that supposedly decreases the encounter rate didn't seem to help.
The endless swarm of enemies makes playing the game a chore, drags the storyline to a halt, and inflates your levels so high your characters turn into tanks who are unstoppable when dealing with anything but the toughest boss battles. It's so bad that at one point when I ran into one of those scripted boss encounters where the game forces you to lose to advance the story I was so overpowered that I could have kept the battle going forever. The only reason I didn't win was because the enemy had limitless HP. So, despite being strong enough to mop the floor with him, I ended up having to just let him kill me. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?
And don't even think about running away as a method of avoiding the random encounters. In this regard, Secret of the Divine Jewel has the worst retreat system ever conceived by man. Usually it's simple: A character attempts to run away, and success means the whole party withdraws, while failure means the character or sometimes the whole party loses a turn. But in this game, every character has to run away individually! Not only that, but if the rest of the characters still remaining on screen die, you lose. So even if 5 of your 6 party members retreat, you suffer a game over if the enemy kills the last one before they get away. That makes no sense! And even when you successfully escape, it takes forever, since the enemies will probably get a few turns before you can run with every character. So, even without the game-over possibility, retreating would take so long that you might as well stick around and kill the enemies. You'll probably do that in the same amount of time, or even faster, and you'll get experience points as a reward.
Oh well, at least the high encounter rate will enable you to get the satisfaction of learning all sorts of cool spells and techniques, right? Wrong! That doesn't happen, because... oh boy, this almost hurts to say... every character already has all their spells and techs at the start of the game (except for Janis, who learns everything very early on--through scripted story events, not leveling up), That's right, Secret of the Divine Jewel is, as far as I know, the only RPG ever made in which you don't learn anything! I practically blew a gasket when I found this out. Why would they make an RPG without the ability to learn things? Isn't that the whole point of an RPG? On top of that, there is hardly any equipment to buy, so the money you rack up from the encounters doesn't help much either. Each person can only equip one special item, and healing/stat curing items are hardly ever needed since you become so massively powerful in such a short time. All you get from leveling up is stat increases, which hardly offer any satisfaction on their own.
But what really pushes the level of frustration over the edge is the game's terrible navigation and plot progression. Even with settings in both the modern world and 16th century, the overall area you have to explore isn't that large. The problem is there isn't any world map or quest log to point you in the right direction. When someone tells you to go somewhere, you had better remember it, because there is no second chance to hear the destination again. Sometimes it doesn't even help, because the direction for your destination isn't given and you can't check any map screen to find out.
Even worse, quite often you aren't told where you're supposed to go at all, and just have to figure it out through trial and error, with every error resulting in a massive cycle of random encounters that can take hours to get through, searching for the one person to talk to or one location to find in order to set the next story event off. Some parts are just unforgivably cryptic. One time I spent hours traveling all over the world map and to every destination I could find in a failed attempt to discover how to advance the plot. Finally looking up the answer online, I was shocked to discover I had to rest at an inn at a specific village. How the heck was I supposed to know that? None of my characters ever mentioned such a thing, and since we've already established that inns are pointless, there is never any reason to consider using them.
Also supplementing the bad quest navigation is a series of terribly confusing dungeons and caves to get through. There is no clear path, everything looks the same, and there are numerous dead ends. The only way to get through them is dumb luck and exploration--just as with searching for plot advancement triggers, every wrong move brings on another merciless series of needless fights. There are no save points inside these places either, so before you step inside, you had better make sure you have a lot of spare time on your hands. This really works against the portable nature of a DS game, as these games are best suited for short bursts of free time in which you can turn them on and off as needed. Why make a portable game in which the user has to set aside a large chunk of free time at routine points?
I am not exaggerating at all when I say that due to the portable nature of the Nintendo DS, one of the biggest challenges with this game is playing it in a public area and not showing any emotional reaction to it. There were so many times when I was playing it an airport or restaurant when I just wanted to jump up and start screaming in rage, or beg the game for mercy from the three-step random encounters ("Make them stop! Please just make them stop!"). It's times like these where Secret of the Divine Jewel feels like a cruel punishment, and I can't help wonder if it was made in retaliation against everyone who criticized the PS2 game (both are made by the same company, Bandai). "So you thought the random encounter rate was bad in Secret of the Cursed Mask? Well, try this and see what bad encounter rates really are!"
There are plenty of smaller problems that also merit mention. In addition to being easy, a lot of the bosses you fight appear out of nowhere and die in your first encounter, so there is no buildup or suspense to get you excited about fighting them. Many of them are also completely disconnected from the main story and have nothing to do with the big picture.
Speaking of which, the story in this game is actually quite complex and interesting. And it really picks up near the end, throwing out all sorts of unexpected and brutal twists. Really, it's kind of surprising to see a story this immersive and enjoyable in a game this bad. Maybe that's where all the effort went, at the expense of actual gameplay.
However, it's very easy to lose track of it since you'll spend so much time between plot events swimming through an endless sea of random encounters trying to get where you need to go. Quite often I forgot about what was going on completely since I got so frustrated by the swarm of monster attacks. I usually ended up being dead-set on just getting through the game as fast as possible, with the story falling by the wayside.
Hmm, anything else? Oh yes, once again the towns are populated by stationary villagers who never move, which makes the areas seem dull and lifeless. Really, when I saw this problem in Secret of the Cursed Mask, I thought it would be a one-time thing. Also, there is only one save file you can use. For a game like InuYasha:SOCM, I normally wouldn't call this a problem, since that would only matter if you could actually find someone else who wants to play it. But the major issue this time is there is no warning once you hit the save button. It just automatically overwrites the prior save game. So if you don't know this and you're trying to make multiple save games for whatever reason, you run the risk of losing everything by accident.
The only reason anyone would even give this game a look is the InuYasha name attached to it. And in that regard, the game does get a few things right. All the familiar characters from the series are present, and for the most part they look and act exactly as they are supposed too. They all have unique powers based on their actual weapons and skills from the series, though quite a few were missing, most notably from Sango, who only gets her Hiraikotsu as a special technique and nothing else. But at least they were nice enough to give every character an attack that hits multiple enemies to help get the random encounters done a bit faster. There are also a few nice touches they threw in, such as having InuYasha turn into human form on the night of the new moon, though all this does is rob him of his powers for a short time until he changes back, which makes the random encounters even longer. Also, there are some good battle features, such as the ability to chain multiple attacks from different characters on a single enemy, and being able to use healthy characters as human shields to absorb blows aimed at badly wounded allies.
But even with the appeal of the InuYasha universe and characters, and an excellent story for them to progress through, the game is nothing more than a cheap attempt to cash in on the show's popularity by using it on something that isn't worthy of the name. It's really rare to find a video game that fails so spectacularly on pretty much every level. It's an RPG where you can't learn anything, exploration is discouraged and harshly punished, there is little equipment to buy, going anywhere is a chore, and the plot is very hard to advance. It even works against the portable nature of the DS, since you'll quite often need to look up where you have to go online in order to avoid massive extra hours of unwanted grinding in the wrong direction. It pretty much limits you to playing in places where a computer or smartphone is handy. All the long-established norms for RPG fun are simply tossed in the meat grinder.
On a final note, this was the last InuYasha video game to be released to date, and that was over five years ago, so it doesn't look like we'll be getting any more. And it's a real shame, because that means the InuYasha franchise will never get the truly great video game it deserved, despite excelling in every other media. Most of the manga volumes were excellent, most of the TV episodes were excellent, a few of the movies were excellent. Why couldn't any of the video games get to the same level of quality? All of the key components were already in place, but they were never used to their full potential, and to end the gaming aspect of the franchise with this is really the ultimate insult. It's an insult to Rumiko Takahashi, it's an insult to InuYasha fans, it's an insult to gamers, and it's an insult to the human race. Okay, maybe that's a bit much, but you simply have no idea of the amount of frustration this game puts you through. Even this whole review isn't enough to convey it. This is the kind of thing that you can only comprehended through the experience of playing it; writing this review was the only thing that made me stick it out all the way to the end. So, if you have an uncontrollable urge to to check out everything that has InuYasha in the title, avoid this game and be glad you don't have to.
Notes and Trivia
Based on the popular manga series by Rumiko Takahashi, consisting of 56 volumes between 1996 and 2008. From this series came a 167-episode TV series, four movies and, recently, a second TV series consisting of 26 episodes to complete the story called "InuYasha: The Final Act."
Secret of the Cursed Mask is one of four InuYasha video games that have been released in the US. The others are "InuYasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale," a fighting game for the PS1, "InuYasha: Feudal Combat," a fighting game for the PS2, and "InuYasha: Secret of the Cursed Mask," an RPG for the PS2.
Interestingly, although Secret of the Divine Jewel was developed by Art Co. and Frontier Groove, both Japanese companies, the game was created specifically for the North American market, and was never released anywhere else.
The game is rated "E10+" by the ESRB for "animated blood, mild fantasy violence, mild language, and mild suggestive themes"; no blood or gore, but being that it is an InuYasha game, there are plenty of villages being slaughtered and a high body count among victims of all ages.
Violence: 2 - "Animated blood, mild fantasy violence."
Nudity: 0 - None.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - "Mild suggestive themes."
Language: 0 - "Mild language."
Available in the US from Bandai, exclusively for Nintendo DS. It's been out of print for a while, and is unusually difficult to find used.