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Retro Renegade: Sudeki

I think I’ll start my review on a cheap selling point. Why play Sudeki? Answer: Tom Baker’s in it. Yes the Tom Baker.

Okay, so Tom Baker’s role isn’t extraordinarily big, but when he does appear, his fantastic vocals adds a little extra flavour to a such a creative cooking pot of fantastical imagery and excellent gameplay. Despite some notable imperfections, you don’t have to dig too deep to see that it deserves a lot more positive praise than it gets. I’m not really an RPG (role playing game) expert, but I’ve dabbled enough in the genre to recognise all the potential Sudeki has.

Developed by Climax and published by Microsoft in 2004*, Sudeki is a visually stunning creation, distinctive with an imaginative design flair. Everything had such a great brilliance shown through the elaborate use of vivid colour and intricate detailing. The quirkiness of the design is enhanced by the modelling of the characters – done as a type of interpretation of Japanese animation with a Western cartoony twist. It makes for a striking and really quite refreshing spectacle, though it might not be to everyone’s liking – even so, it clearly sets itself visually wide apart from fellow games of its genre. It even remains fairly stunning even years later.
*Originally exclusive for the XBox, it was then later ported to the PC in 2005.

A great example illustrating the innovative visual choices of the game would be the wonderful opening cinematic; played out in the style of shadow puppets. It denotes a clever piece of artistic diversity with perfect rendering. Credit also goes to Tom Baker, who voices the opening narration with astounding presence as the character of Tetsu, a deity who presides within the back-story.

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So what is the story of Sudeki?

A thousand years previous, the compassionate God, Tetsu, ruled alone over the world of Sudeki; though he long wished for another to share the position. So from his own body, he created a brother – Heigou, formed of his of darkness. For a time they shared the world faithfully, until Heigou developed greedy ambitions and cast out his brother to usurp all power, beginning a rule of despair. Tetsu reached out to the people of Sudeki to aide him in his fight, to which four brave warriors answered the call – Kariston, Olivitess, Mo and Lebius. United they fought against Heigou and after a fierce battle, were able to vanquish him; though, not before he used his unbridled wrath to split Sudeki in two – forming the two worlds of Haskilia and Akloria. As a result, the souls of the dead were unable to reach the afterlife and fell tormented into a void between the two.

Fast forward to present game time, we are welcomed to Haskilia and informed of their current situation. It has recently become a world at war with Akloria. Enemy soldiers viciously invade their world, causing devastation to both people and land. But they aren’t the only menace – monstrous creatures known as ‘Light Spawn’ are materialising and slaughtering innocents without prejudice. In response, the ruling state of the Bright Empire sends out an armed response – The Elite Illumina Guard – in an effort to contain the violence. Because of the increasing threats, the Bright Empire has a contingency plan in the form of a defensive barrier referred to as the ‘Peace Shield’ to try and limit further invasions, though it requires specialised crystals to bring it into full operation. This becomes the main quest of the game, though as destiny comes into play, events get more than a little complicated.

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Four characters become entwined in fated events and do battle individually and together. Let’s meet our playable friends: –

• Tal: A young soldier enlisted in the Elite Illumina Guard. He has all the makings of a hero, even if he is a little hot-headed. With fearless resolve, he doesn’t hesitate to head out onto the front line, with much he wants to prove to others and himself. He is assigned under the irascible General Arlo, who also happens to be his estranged father. A very capable fighter, his weapon of choice is a sword. His special ability is his strength, making him capable of moving certain heavy obstacles.

• Ailish: A somewhat spoiled albeit genial Princess who craves adventure despite her stern mother, Queen Lusica, trying to keep her reigned in – not that it does any good. She has a crush on Tal and generally goes out of her way to gain his attention. To top it off, she is one of the most powerful sorceresses in the realm, and capably wields a mage staff. Her special ability is magical sight, utilised to uncover secret objects and locations. (These are indicated by little glowing speckles hovering about.)

• Buki: A humanoid anthropomorphic cat from the tribe of Shadani-Mo. Very candid by nature, she is spiritually-driven like many of her people and places a lot of faith in the deities to guide her through the toughest of times. She is a skilfully trained warrior, who fights with a pair of metal claws. Her special ability is climbing.

• Elco: A scientific-inventor dutifully serving the Bright Empire. He lost an arm due to an industrial accident and now has a mechanical one grafted in its place. Work is one of the most important things to him, that and his precious and understanding wife, Tilly (a maidservant of Princess Ailish), who patiently deals with his idiosyncrasies, for which he is utterly appreciative – even if he doesn’t always show it. In combat, he chooses to use a gun. His special ability is flight via his rocket pack, which can be charged when standing next to special yellow crystals – this helps him access certain areas.

Moving onto the gameplay front is where we find out what Sudeki is really worth, particularly the action portions. You take control of one of the four characters in a real time battle sequence, and can issue orders to other party allies to either attack, defend or retreat. You can switch between any character at any time in battle to engage in attack and perform special moves while the computer controls your allies – which it doesn’t do a bad job of! What particularly makes the battles distinctive is that there are two separate control styles split between the characters. Tal and Buki are melee fighters and play in a third person. The main bulk of their attacks are performed via precisely timed button sequences that initiate powerful attack sets. If you don’t get the timing right, the character performs a basic weaker attack string. As part of their defensive strategy, they can block and roll to avoid incoming attacks. Alternatively, Elco and Ailish are ranged fighters who are controlled in first person. They fire projectiles of varying speeds and strength depending on the weapon. Weaker arms have rapid fire capability, while more powerful weapons have a delayed recharge period between each shot. Unlike their allies, they are unable to block incoming attacks, though are able to evade by strafing, and can still attack while moving.

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Each character can use two types of specialised attacks – Skill Strikes and Spirit Strikes. Skill Strikes are powerful moves ranging from offensive assaults to defensive and recovery actions. They require ‘SP’ – Skill Points – to be performed. Spirit Strikes are the ultimate moves. The characters call upon the spirits of the four warriors of yore – Kariston (to Tal), Olivitess (To Ailish), Mo (To Buki) and Lebius (To Elco), who help them to either cast a hugely useful status effect on the entire party, or perform a devastating blow which can obliterate all enemies in an instant. It takes forever and day for the SSP (Spirit Strike Points) meter to fill, so these are best saved for really tough boss encounters.

From completing battles and fulfilling quests, experience points are earned to contribute to character levelling up, and being able to enhance stats and learn new skills. There are some differentiations between the four characters with how they level up across the board. Tal, for example, has higher growth rate on his health and strength as a hardened battler, while Ailish has a significant growth focused on essence (magic strength) as healer and sorceress. Certainly it’s something to enhance some sort of individuality between the four.

While the journey through Sudeki might be fraught with danger, you won’t have to worry about wasting precious Florins (in-game currency) on equipment. Body armour is bequeathed to the characters at various points in the game – two extra sets atop your original starting piece, replacing each other as they are received. Weapons are usually found on your travels via treasure chests or given as rewards for completing certain quests, and in a rare case purchasable at a shop. All of these things can receive beneficial upgrades when you visit a Blacksmiths. Any extra edge in battle is a blessing.

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The game is nicely paced, unhampered by any feet dragging with plot or gameplay elements – nothing that can really disengage you from your questing. What’s more, the accompanying background music is very enchanting and works alongside the game with real effectiveness. Each piece befits the environment it plays over, from the placid tones played when hanging around the safe havens to the impassioned crescendo of frantic battles. My personal favourites include the themes for the town of New Brightwater and tribal settlement of Shadani-Mo.

On the other side of the soundboard, the voice acting in game is pretty average at best. It’s mostly forgivable in a campy kind of way, my favourite being Elco and his exaggerated Dutch accent – it’s a required taste, for sure!

I have touched upon the wonderful things Sudeki brings to the table, but even so, I’m not going to gloss over the fact there are some areas of fault. Some of it might be me just being a bit finicky, but others are pretty obviously questionable decisions.

A sad fact about Sudeki is that it follows a very linear path, with only a small amount of rather menial side quests to pad it out – and most of them really don’t add much worth mentioning… Okay, maybe the one where you round up the sheep is quite fun and challenging, but that’s the only one I can think of that really is. This brings me on to how incredibly short the game is, especially for an RPG. Even if you complete all the side quests alongside the main game, you’re not going to clock much more than 20 hours in game – it is a satisfying 20 hours though, but you get the impression there could have been more there. They could have prolonged the story in some areas, and maybe even added in some branching paths, which could also have helped towards the replay value.

Speaking of the story – there were threads of conflict weaved in very early on, which I think could have been good for character dimension if it had been carried through later on; but instead, they choose to plough on with the main story arch and inexplicably abandon these smaller elements midway through. Particularly, the Tal/Arlo relationship, which could have played well for its dysfunction into the latter stages of the game – but after a blow up between the two mid-game, it’s not long after that Arlo suddenly turns up to reconcile with his son, which seems to go against what we’ve come to know of him up to that point. And after this happens, he is promptly ejected from the story. It’s such a wasted plot line. It’s a similar case for Ailish/Queen Lusica. They initially are shown to have very uneasy relations, but it soon becomes a forgotten part of the story.

A minor grievance is with the disjointed receiving of armour with accompanying Spirit Strikes for the characters. Most get theirs relatively early on, all bar one character – they gets their two sets right at the end, and this is only really because of where characters are playable in the story. It’s not exactly a big deal, but a lot of focus falls off some characters in favour of others because of this, something I thought wasn’t that great. It also becomes very redundant for that one character to even really make full use of their new gifts. Leading me right into my next point – the final battle and ending sequence. Oh yeah, I’m getting nicely fired up for this…

You’ve got your team together to face off against the final boss, but then the game forces you to play as only one character – no choice in the matter either (and no, it’s not even the character that gets the late upgrades). It’s not a bad final battle – extremely hard if anything, but for me I’d have rather had a team battle to round it out. And after you defeat the boss, the scene quickly shifts to the briefest – and I mean briefest – reappearance of the shadow puppets, as Tom Baker quickly rounds us out with a little moral-infused message and then… nothing. No moment of emotion for the characters in their victory, no scenes of how everything turned out afterwards – it’s just over and the credits roll. It’s barely 30 seconds of anything! It’s as if the game slams the storybook closed and kicks you out. It just seemed such a cheap way to go after such a wonderful start. I would say it epitomises anti-climatic. And even after the credits roll, there is no reward for your labours. No unlockable items, or a secret art gallery or even an extra mode. Then again, I have experienced this before on the RPG front, but at least that game had a long, awe-inspiring ending. (Tipping my hat to you, Final Fantasy X)

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Okay, I’m done carping on about the less favourable elements. So the real question: Is Sudeki worth playing?

Of course! Despite a few shortcomings – some of which you can overlook – it has a very immersive and solid gameplay set up. The story itself, while pretty clichéd and even a little predictable, uses the main light and darkness theme in its own fairly intricate way and doesn’t create any significant plot-holes – it’s considerably competent and engaging in its own way. And as I’ve already mentioned about the battle system, it deserves a gold star for its innovative use of two different battle styles, both perfectly implemented. It’s a rough diamond of a game, with plenty of sparkle to appeal to the average gamer. I would highly recommend this to newcomers of the RPG genre or for anyone who likes RPGS and doesn’t want an overly convoluted experience.

And need I say again that Tom Baker is in it! Okay, I’m done now…

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Sudeki’s release, the game is being launched on Steam. Available to buy from 24th February 2014 onwards!

All images © to Microsoft/Climax Group

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