Coming to a touchscreen near you soon.
The world is aflame. Fires burn all around and the ground glows red, but my attention is consumed by something else: the demon Kuma Doji, towering in front of me, wielding a scythe so large that my katana feels like a toothpick by comparison.
He leaps up high into the air, weapon raised, but just as he swings ferociously down I evade to the side, kicking the scene into slow-motion and allowing me to splash a great gash of black ink across the screen. I dance away from the ice pillars that spring up all around and trigger a special ability, calling on one of my equipped yokai, a sickle-wielding weasel called kama-itachi, to let me attack from range. The boss falls, showering the ground with loot, and I sit back to think about my first taste of a mobile title from PlatinumGames.
Yes, a mobile title from the iconic PlatinumGames. And not just that, a game that – in many ways – is an expression of the lineage of the studio as a whole. World of Demons takes more than a few cues from the legendary Okami, with a gorgeous fusion of traditional sumi-e (black ink brush painting) and ukiyo-e (woodblock print) art styles, a bestiary pulled directly from Japanese mythology and folklore, and a soundtrack composed by Hiroshi Yamaguchi, the composer of Okami’s score. It’s only natural for a studio with staff that date back to the days of Clover Studio to tackle something like this.
World of Demons takes more than a few cues from the legendary Okami…
It’s also only natural that PlatinumGames would eventually move into mobile development, and in fact, World of Demons is one of two mobile titles they currently have in the works. The studio is platform agnostic, after all, and the opportunities in the mobile market are significant to say the least. Platinum also works with a variety of publishers, and in this instance DeNA came to their Osaka HQ and pitched them on creating an uncompromised sword-based action game for touch devices. Masaki Yamanaka, Platinum’s head of game design and World of Demons creative director, took that premise and spun it into a homage to Japanese folklore, art traditions and the warriors of the feudal age. The end product takes advantages of the studio’s strengths, but is decidedly mobile-friendly.
So what does that mean exactly? It means encounters are bite-sized. Missions take place in arena-style environments where you have full control over movement but will attack automatically. You can evade in any direction with a swipe, and as alluded to above, doing so as an enemy strikes will trigger the chance to draw with an ink brush to trigger a counter-attack, Okami-style.
The element that most appeals to me, however, is the integration of “yokai” throughout World of Demons. If you’re unfamiliar with the word, it’s a very broad term that encompasses hundreds of folktale creatures and supernatural entities in Japanese culture. You might be familiar, for instance, with kappa – water-dwelling turtle-like creatures that keep a bowl of water on their heads and like to pull humans into rivers so they can steal their life essence, or tanuki – a wild canine native to Japan that, in its yokai form, can shapeshift and use its giant testicles (no, really) to do all sorts of amazing things.
If you go to Japan you’ll see cute versions of these iconic yokai everywhere, but World of Demons is attempting to present a very authentic rendition of them based on a series of famous books by Toriyama Sekien that compiled and documented all the yokai in the Japan of the late 1700s. These bestiaries profoundly influenced how yokai were seen in Japanese culture from that time onwards.
In World of Demons, the yokai play many different roles. You’ll fight against them, of course, as the broader story tells of how the yokai have been corrupted by a malicious band of oni (ogre-like demons) led by an overlord called Shuten Doji, who, according to Japanese legend, terrorised Kyoto in the 10th century.
You’re also able to collect them and take three into battle alongside you. Each has its own stats, special ability and elemental attribute, making this system a flavourful way to build different loadouts for your character. If you know you’ll be facing an enemy with a fire affinity, for instance, you should equip an ice-imbued yokai. If it’s likely to be a tough battle you might want to take advantage of the kappa’s healing rain special… which is itself inspired by the idea that the water atop a kappa’s head is the source of its power.
That kind of detail, incidentally, is common knowledge in Japan, so particular care is being taken with World of Demons’ localisation – the team see the game as an opportunity to introduce an everyday aspect of Japanese culture to the West. To that end, the English script for the game was written by Matt Alt, who – along with his wife Hiroko Yoda – produced the official English translation of Sekien’s works referenced above. As a result, the game takes care to introduce things that would be obvious to a Japanese person.
Each new yokai enemy, for instance, debuts alongside some amusing dialogue and is then added to a scroll that serves as the game’s bestiary. You can explore the scroll to find out more about each creature you’ve encountered.
The fact that most – there are a few Platinum originals in the mix – of the 80-odd yokai that World of Demons will showcase at launch have a strong grounding in Japanese culture definitely makes the collection aspect more appealing, and by extension the mechanics underpinning progression.
Those mechanics are very much what you might expect from a free-to-play mobile action game. Beating missions and bosses nets you XP, gold, crafting materials of various rarities and sometimes yokai. Additional random yokai can be summoned by visiting the game’s shrine maiden and spending soulstones – one of three currencies in World of Demons. Each yokai can then be levelled up using gold and crafting materials. Weapons can also be forged and upgraded using crafting materials, and there are nine for each of the three characters the game will launch with.
It’ll be a classic action RPG loop in many ways, then – grind encounters to get loot and XP to upgrade your character and gear to then take on harder missions and bosses in order to upgrade again. The Skirmish story mode is the main event, and will have two chapters initially, each with 20 missions.
In addition, there are a couple of asynchronous multiplayer modes, such as Yokai Showdown, in which you’ll actually fight alongside your yokai to defeat another player’s samurai character and yokai, and Samurai Stronghold, which sees you team up with another player’s character to take on the strongest bosses in the game. To be clear – neither of these modes offer real-time multiplayer, but that’s something that may come after launch, as part of the planned monthly content updates.
World of Demons has a variety of ways to spend real-world money, and it remains to be seen just how far you can get for a moderate investment. I do like the fact, however, that you can pay for permanent buffs to specific drops. Say you want to get more yokai, you’ll be able to pay to increase the chance of them dropping for the rest of the time you play the game. It’s also worth pointing out that only live events – which have the best rewards – are on timers. Other missions can be done over and over.
The core action is simple but responsive, and it’s clear how important positioning and timing is to success.
My hands-on with World of Demons was relatively brief, but I could feel it sinking its hooks in as I got into the rhythm of the gameplay and started to get my head around the yokai at my disposal. The core action is simple but responsive, and it’s clear how important positioning and timing is to success. I also feel like it’s going to be a game where you can largely set your own difficulty. If you’re particularly good I imagine you could tackle missions a fair way above your level, which should then give you better loot to accelerate your progression.
The art style looks fantastic on a small screen too. The yokai have been wonderfully realised, stepping from gorgeous concept art to 3D models seemingly effortlessly. The fusion of sumi-e and ukiyo-e also works wonders for the environments, which do an awful lot with very little. An impossibly large moon hangs low in the night sky in one, framed by a bamboo forest and lantern-lit Torii gates. In another, The Great Wave off Kanagawa comes to life as an ocean of surging waves; a brilliant snow capped, clay red rendition of Mt Fuji stands in the distance.
The setting I mentioned in the opening paragraph is striking too, based on traditional Japanese depictions of hell, with an enormous gilded dome and flames leaping all around. The dome itself is panelled like traditional gold leaf screens, with towering skeleton shadows projected ominously on its surface.
World of Demons has style to spare, in other words, but there’s a very good chance that it’ll have substance too. After speaking to numerous team members, one thing that became clear is that the three year journey of World of Demons has been no less a labour of love than any other project at the studio, and that bodes very well indeed. We won’t have to wait long, either, as World of Demons is coming out this (northern hemisphere) summer on iOS, with Android to follow later in the year.
Cam Shea is senior editor in IGN’s Sydney office and tries to spend as much time as possible in Japan. He’s on Twitter.