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New Little King's Story review: All the King's swordsmen, farmers, chefs, TV broadcasters...

Heidi Kemps

The original Little King's Story on Wii is a game I greatly regret not finding the time to play. It was the sort of niche Japanese title that I gravitate towards: a unique mix of ideas with a cute visual style and distinct humor. While I heard lots of good things, circumstances conspired to the point that Little King's Story was relegated to the ever-growing Pile of Shame alongside several other non-work titles I wanted to play. When it was announced that New Little King's Story would be coming to the PS Vita in portable form, I made a vow to myself that I'd not miss this opportunity to try the series out. I wasn't too worried that I'd miss anything by being unfamiliar with the original. After all, a game should be able to stand up on its own merits, right?

You begin New Little King's Story as Corobo, a young ruler who has been forced to flee his castle by an overwhelming surprise attack by mysterious forces. He escapes with only a few trusted aides by his side, and is forced to take up residence far from his land and regroup for a counterattack. That isn't an easy task: the area he governs in exile is a shantytown filled with a handful of slackers and eccentrics. It's up to you to aid Corobo to rebuild his kingdom, save the princesses held hostage, and defeat the demon army – with the help of your makeshift citizen army.

Gallery: New Little King's Story (E3 2012) | 14 Photos

The army is a key element of New Little King's Story. You recruit the carefree townsfolk to the Royal Guard by scouting them in town, then assign them jobs that offer various special abilities. At first, you'll only have access to very basic jobs: ditch-digging, treasure-finding farmers and rudimentary soldiers. But as you earn funds and claim territory, you'll be able to build facilities that create more advanced jobs needed to proceed: log-clearing lumberjacks, rock-busting miners, and pathway-building carpenters. There are some contextually useful oddball jobs that unlock, too: Merchants can find hidden treasures and open giant purses that inexplicably litter the landscape, while chefs can literally turn certain enemy types into dinner with a one-kit kill.

Your troops follow your king, and can be called to action with a simple button press or tap on the Vita's screen. They'll run out in a straight line toward their target, obstacle or enemy, and perform whatever action they can – and if they can't do anything, they'll just return to the file. The more troops you send towards a target, the faster the task at hand (building, destroying, beatdowning) will likely be completed. As you gain the ability to have a bigger entourage and encounter more difficult obstacles, being able to skillfully direct troops to multiple locations at the same time becomes essential. And should danger rear its head, you can summon your troops to run back to your side with a quick button tap, as well as (once learned) change formation for defensive and evasive purposes. Each individual citizen has their own HP, and while having a few troops get KO'ed won't end the game, King Corobo himself is quite fragile and can't take much damage. If Corobo loses all his life, it's back to the castle to try again.

The game winds up feeling like a mix between Pikmin and Final Fantasy Tactics with a little bit of management-sim lightly dusted on top. That's certainly sounds like a tasty combination, and the charming visual style, sound effects, and classically-inspired music sweeten the package even further. The boss fights, too, are a great deal of fun, particularly those that shake up the recipe in creative ways, like the lengthy climb to cut a deluded mountain ruler down to size. It's not all a tasty treat, however – blotches in the batter sadly sour things up a bit.

The most obvious problems are the various technical issues. Bugs and some awful interface design rear their ugly head across all of New Little King's Story in a multitude of ways. Despite the perceived power of the Vita compared to other portable platforms, slowdown and frame rate drops are rampant, particularly once you start amassing an entourage beyond the double-digits. Graphical bugs show up every so often: characters popping in over water, getting caught on walls, flying across the screen when following you.

Occasionally troops will completely fail to interact with their targets in the way they're supposed to: ramming into trees they're supposed to climb, getting flustered and refusing to enter a building for no apparent reason, trying to dig a hole instead of killing the enemy sitting right on top of them. Targeting can be iffy, too. It's usually better to use the touch-screen, but if two targets are in close proximity to one another the game has some trouble determining which you want to strike.

The interfaces, too, can be annoying. Managing your troops from the platform outside of your castle is a far more convoluted affair than it needs to be. It involves you summoning individual groups of townsfolk and then manually running around, cherry-picking troops. Wouldn't a plain old selection menu have sufficed? The worst offenders, however, are the online functions like alchemy mixing, which require you to sit through numerous dialogue boxes (connecting, terms of service, maintenance) every single time you connect.

Then there's the localization, which harkens back to the dark days of 16- and early 32-bit RPGs. Dialogue is stilted and unnatural, written signs and instructions make little sense, and things that you suspect were originally jokes in Japanese either fall flat or become bizarre non sequiturs. For example, I think part of the game heavily references Konami's Japanese megahit Love Plus. I say think because the way it's presented in English makes me unable to discern what sort of humor or significance any of the email-styled notes I'm reading are supposed to contain. New Little King's Story in English is full of moments like these (and let's not even get into some of the painful, painful voice clips).

These sorts of flaws would sink a shaky game into the depths of sub-mediocrity. It's a testament to the strength of the core design and the inherent charm of New Little King's Story that these blemishes don't severely damage the game as much as one would think. Yes, I found myself annoyed at times with interface obstructions and a lacking localization, but I never felt like the sheer fun of building and commanding my makeshift army was severely compromised throughout the 30 hours I spent on the core campaign and various side-quests. Everyone may not be as tolerant as I was, but those who give the game a chance will be pleasantly surprised. It's a story that could have used a few more editorial passes, sure, but it's a tale that I'd recommend experiencing nonetheless.

This review is based on a PSN download of the New Little King's Story, provided by Konami.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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