TwinBee RPG is the straightforward name of a straightforward game; one where you, the player, are sucked through your TV during the intro sequence to help out the cast of your favourite show (spoilers: It’s TwinBee) after things suddenly take a turn for the worse for Light, Pastel, and Mint. As with any other playable self-insert experience your presence is potentially as much of a hindrance as it could be a help as the TwinBee gang – the people you paid money to see – are already a perfectly balanced and complete group without you sticking your carefully generic oar in. TwinBee RPG avoids making you the third wheel in a rather awkward way, by having leading human hero Light go missing for the first few chapters and then once he’s been rediscovered spend the majority of the rest of the game unconscious. This gives you, a nameable anyone fond of baseball caps and (optionally) making unasked-for passes at pretty much every young woman you meet, the chance to take Light’s place and heroically pilot TwinBee all by yourself.
It’s a wobbly start to your time on Donburi Island but the good news is the energetic cast and the colourful setting try their hardest to sweep you along on a tidal wave of raw enthusiasm – and for the most part this particular aspect of the game works. TwinBee RPG makes a conscious and concerted attempt to be a comical role playing game, one where boulders are cleared away with ACME-ish mallets, restorative items can be made by mixing fruit in a blender or bought from vending machines when you’re out and about, and you’ll end up fighting anything from kangaroos in boxing gloves to a masked being who had previously disguised themselves as a cute dog in a bowtie.
The chunky polygonal characters and simple textures (where there are textures) are full of personality in that special Jumping Flash-like way only a certain strand of PlayStation games can be, and wandering around this strange land where blocky, mouthless, inhabitants melt into triangular view from a very short distance away is a pleasantly surreal experience. It’s an oddly timeless look, a 3D game that looks so “early 3D” that it couldn’t be conventionally updated or improved upon and still keep the same bright, dreamlike, atmosphere. You can’t help but want to be here, standing by oversized angular foliage under skies so blue they wouldn’t look out of place in a Sega game, even though by this time the PlayStation was already busy demonstrating it was capable of so much more (as proven by Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 2, and R4: Ridge Racer Type 4; absolutely stunning games that all debuted in 1998 – the same year TwinBee RPG did).
Your sharp-angled ambles are predictably broken up by bouts of turn-based combat, your encounters a mixture of opponents visibly loitering in specific locations and pre-set “surprise” battles that trigger whenever you walk close by certain spots on the map. These fights are ATB-like affairs, with a simple bar above each party member’s status window letting you know when they’re ready to take their turn.
And then it all falls apart.
Unlike the misunderstood wonder that is Mystic Quest, which has what I can only describe as having the “good” kind of straightforward battling, TwinBee RPG’s scuffles feel lacking. The slim yet crucial difference between the two really comes down to a feeling of fair play: TwinBee, a game that whisks you back to the last location you saved at when you die and has several bosses capable of infinitely restoring more health than your most devastating attacks can take off, doesn’t feel like it gives you the tools you need for the challenges it puts you up against. It’s the sort of RPG where sometimes you just aren’t the right level to win and no amount of clever preparation or outside-the-box thinking can solve that.
To make matters worse getting to that arbitrary “correct” level of strength involves not a meticulous sweep of the current area – a guaranteed win against the upcoming boss your reward for thorough exploration – but a repeated back and forth between two rooms to respawn the same cluster of enemies over and over again. At its simplest, TwinBee RPG gives you ten enemies to deal with and then “balances” its XP gains/boss difficulty around the assumption you’ve fought twenty. You eventually learn through tedious trial and error that being strong enough to blindly autobattle the regular enemies in an area is a pretty reliable indicator of you being strong enough to manually take on the boss, which has the unfortunate knock-on effect of making regular enemy encounters either irritating XP piñatas or pointless obstacles standing between you and where you need to be with no in-between. All of this is exacerbated by TwinBee RPG’s decision to not award any XP at all to characters who keel over during a fight, even though the game automatically revives any fallen party members after each battle (with 1HP to their name). Instead their XP is given to the survivors, which only leads to the predictable – and avoidable – situation where your strongest character (that’ll definitely be TwinBee) will get stronger still and everyone else will permanently lag behind.
If – if – you can manage to stick your fingers in your ears and ignore all the… well, the gameplay, and focus exclusively on the jaunty TwinBee-ing then you’ll find TwinBee RPG is packed with enough of the things you like to mostly drown out the rest of it. However – and as sad as it is to say this about the final brand-new non-mobile entry in such a lovely series – it would be plain dishonest to call TwinBee RPG a good game. The RPG elements are rudimentary by any measure and there are a lot of camera-related issues to contend with too: the multiple fixed angles on offer are never quite the one you want, and this combined with some poor layout choices (particularly indoors) make it too easy to completely miss important doors and other openings. Your movement is also inconsistently and illogically restricted, at times forcing you to walk along paths even when there’s perfectly traversable grass all around… until that changes, and in those fuzzy instances you can freely walk over grass, dirt, and stone – and even slide down steep cliffs to the area below – with no problem.
There’s a great deal of charm in here but the issue is that charm is never really found in anything you personally get to do, leaving you watching from the sidelines rather than directly experiencing all of that wonderful TwinBee-ness for yourself. With that in mind it’s clear your avatar already had the right idea during the game’s opening: If you really want to see the TwinBee gang have a fantastically silly adventure you’d be better off watching the TV show instead.