After putting over 45 hours of playtime into THE “DENPA” MEN: They Came by Wave, Pokémon side game developer Genius Sonority’s first 3DS eShop game, I have finally completed everything there is to complete (minus a certain optional uber battle), and I feel fully qualified to write this review. But was it time well spent? That is a very good question.
Let’s start with the basics. THE “DENPA” MEN is often billed as an “AR game”, but the AR mechanic is really only a small part of the game. What The Denpa Man is, at its core, is a fairly traditional dungeon crawling JRPG. You build a party, equip them, and send them off through area after area, fighting enemies and finding treasure, each time battling a giant boss at the end. There are no real surprises here, and the basic structure of the game changes little throughout the experience.
The story of THE “DENPA” MEN can be summed up as “collect some knick-knacks to save a girl”, said knick-knacks, of course, being guarded by powerful boss monsters, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the in-game version of this story contains little more exposition than my description of it above does. In fact, I was well into the game before I realized that the girl I was trying to save was a love interest of my main character, at which point I was a tad bit confused because my character was named “Leslie” and dressed in red, and I briefly wondered if Nintendo was progressive enough to contain an open lesbian relationship in one of their games before I realized that Leslie can probably also be used a boy’s name. The best that can be said for the story is that it isn’t intrusive, as it barely exists. No worries about stale character cliches endlessly droning on in overextended cutscenes here. However, if you are looking for something a bit meatier plot-wise, or heck, something with anything more than leftover scraps of meat on a bone plot-wise, you should definitely look elsewhere.
On the presentation side of things, THE “DENPA” MEN definitely excels. The game contains a very high level of charm, feeling like some kind of hybrid between the aesthetics of the Dragon Quest games and Miis: simple, colorful, and “fun”. The environments, while not entirely impressive from a game design standpoint, are nonetheless very pleasant to take in while exploring, and the character and enemy designs manage to stand out in a sea of derivative JRPG designs, despite their simplicity. Animations, especially battle animations, are very fluid. And the music is excellent and fitting, although the breadth of the soundtrack is limited, and you do start to tire of it a bit when you hear the same songs on repeat over and over.
Yep, Denpa Men are literally everywhere. Even in smelly ol’ San Francisco.
The AR mechanic comes into play only when building your team. You start with a sole main character, who automatically has revive as a skill by default (and thank god for that, as you will be using it quite a lot.) You must then capture other Denpa Men to bring along on your quest. Denpa Men live in the real radio waves that surround us, you see, and only by using your 3DS camera can you catch them and pull them into your game to use them. This is a pretty unique mechanic, doubly so because the game utilizes the specific characteristics of each radio wave to create characters that can only be captured at that particular spot. No one reading this, for example, will ever find the same exact Denpa Men that I found hanging around the radio waves at my home (unless you are stalking me, in which case, please return my soap?) However, you can quickly deplete the available Denpa Men at any given spot, so the idea is to get out there and explore the world if you want to build a large pool of Denpa Men. Of course, you can only use 4-8 of your Denpa Men at any given time, so you don’t need
to run around collecting them anywhere and everywhere, but it doesn’t hurt to have choices. You can also acquire Denpa Men through QR codes, although this feels a bit like cheating. Denpa Men acquired this way only start at level 1, however, and cannot be revived using “offerings”, as those which you have captured through the AR mechanic can.
The Denpa Men that you acquire will distinguish themselves more than just visually: indeed, there are a variety of attributes related to gameplay in which any given Denpa Man can stand out, including basic stats, color (which determines their elemental alignment), and whether or not they have a special skill, and if so, which skill (those without skills tend to have higher basic stats to make up for the lack.) Additionally, as you attempt to catch new Denpa Men, you will occasionally see a glowing Denpa Man, which means that this Denpa Man has a particularly powerful / useful skill, and should be acquired at all costs.
A large part of the battle system in THE “DENPA” MEN revolves around the elemental system, both in exploiting your enemies’ elemental weaknesses, and preparing your Denpa Men to defend against your enemies’ elemental attacks. Many RPGs use these kind of elemental-based battle systems, but in THE “DENPA” MEN it seems to be kicked into overdrive, and properly choosing and equipping your Denpa Men can often mean the difference between making your battles simple versus making your battles impossible. Whether elemental-based battle systems excite you or not is a personal preference, but I have often found them to be a rather shallow mimicking of true strategy, requiring little thought outside of the obvious “use fire to melt ice” type logic that any child could follow. THE “DENPA” MEN is no exception, and if you have played other games with elemental-based battle systems, you know what to expect here.
It’s always fun to run around with a plunger on your head.
The core of the battle system is pretty basic as well, although it does contain a sort of innate sleekness that I can appreciate. For each of your turns you can either choose “auto” (all Denpa Men automatically choose the “best” option between their regular attack and skill), “no skills” (all Denpa Men automatically use their regular attack), choose each of your Denpa Men’s actions individually (regular attack, skill, use item), or try to run from the battle. For the first two options, you will have no choice concerning which enemy your Denpa Men attack, while using the third option allows you to select enemies individually. There is no “defend” option or anything comparable.
Both the “auto” and “no skills” options seem to have fairly intelligent AI behind them. For example, if you choose “auto”, your Denpa Men will automatically focus their skills on enemies who are weak against their element and avoid using skills on enemies who are strong against their element, while seemingly attempting to balance this with a focus on removing enemies from battle as quickly as possible (also a focus with the “no skills” option.) Furthermore, if you have multiple Denpa Men who have died and you choose “auto”, your main character will tend to prioritize reviving your healers first, which will help keep the living alive until you can revive the others. This smartness of these automated systems is a bit surprising, and very much appreciated. It was a rare case that I selected one of the automated choices and regretted it, and to be honest, unless you are fighting a boss, there is almost never any pressing reason to use anything but the automated battle systems.
This, however, leads to one of my major issues with THE “DENPA” MEN; repetition. You may very well have some long streaks with the game where you are not doing much of any active thinking at all, beyond simply choosing “auto” or “no skills” and letting the game take over for you. THE “DENPA” MEN is certainly not the first turn-based RPG to suffer from the issue of too many thought-free “regular” battles, but it is only in modern times that RPG battle systems have become so automated that you can really start to feel like the game is playing itself. At times I would play THE “DENPA” MEN while doing something else (surfing the web, cooking dinner, etc.) because, with the high level of automation, I didn’t feel like it demanded (nor could maintain) my full attention. This brings up an interesting theoretical question: is there a point where automation for the sake of player convenience can go too far? I believe that there can be.
Is... is it still cool to make “over 9,000” jokes?
The repetition of the core battle system is further exacerbated by the borderline insane amounts of grinding that THE “DENPA” MEN demands at times. Oh, it starts innocent enough, and you can get fairly far into the game without grinding at all. But if you want to see the credits, you will be doing a fair amount of grinding, and (spoiler alert!) if you want to finish the (admittedly impressive amount of) post-credits content, you will be doing an exponential amount of grinding. I’m not generally one to complain about grinding in RPGs too much, because I tend to believe that, if you apply correct strategy, most RPGs can be finished with minimal grinding; a belief that I have continued to hold throughout my years and years of playing RPGs. And a belief which THE “DENPA” MEN utterly obliterates. There are many bosses whom, upon first arrival, can and will completely wipe out your party before you have any chance to act, and even various standard enemy groupings throughout the stages can do the same. You can minimize this by selecting the right Denpa Men and the right gear for each area, paying close attention to the elemental factor, but you will still often find yourself severely underleveled to take on certain areas your first time through. I found myself having to start over from my last save multiple times, not because of poor planning or strategy on my part, but because I was simply not at a high enough level to reasonably attempt the area that I was in, and I got destroyed. There are even “recommended” levels for each area, and you will often get to an area with your characters at a good 5 to 10 levels below the recommended minimum (especially when you get deep into the game.) Beneath the bright and colorful exterior of THE “DENPA” MEN there is a very hardcore game, and I’m not entirely sure that this is a good thing.
I’m not really sure if this is a plus or a minus at this point, but it is important to note that the areas in THE “DENPA” MEN, barring one exception, are generally not too long, and contain several “warp” points, which will let you warp back to the main island, where you can change your party around, buy clothes and items, save, etc. and then warp right back to where you left off. This definitely sounds like a positive, right? And it does help to make the grinding a bit more bearable knowing that, if need be, you can leave and come back fairly easily. Yet, the relatively short lengths of the areas also means that you can see everything that there is to see in an area long before you have finished the grinding that you will need to do to get through that area, and then it it just becomes an endless trudge through the same sections over and over, fighting the same enemies over and over, rinse and repeat.
I should probably distinguish between the pre-credit and post-credit content (although this section may be a tad bit spoilerish, so if you are worried about that kind of thing, skip to the next paragraph.) It only took me about 20-25 hours to complete the main objective of the game and see the credits. It took me a bit over 45 hours to see the credits for a second time. And this second half is not merely rehashed content: a brand new main objective arises and a bunch of new areas with new enemies and new bosses open up. Whether you consider this a bonus or part of the main game is up to you, but I will say this: sometimes less can be more. In this case, I’m not sure that the new areas added much more to the overall package, unless you really love grinding.
And that is really all there is to it. THE “DENPA” MEN: They Came by Wave is definitely a bit of a curiosity. It combines a neat (if limited) AR gimmick and polished presentation and sleekness in the core battle system with some very old school area designs and an unduly high amount of grinding. There is a lot to like in the overall package, and certainly there is plenty of game to be had for a small price, but ultimately I find it difficult to fully recommend to anyone but the most hardcore grind fanatics. Still, if you’re not a completionist, you can get a fair amount of enjoyment from this title before the undeniable charm is replaced by monotony. The first 10 or 15 hours or so are golden.
And then this happened. And you will never be able to unsee it.