Sengoku Turb: The way the future used to look

The first thought that popped into my head as I looked at the back of Sengoku Turb‘s case was “When the heck was this made?”, the sharp untextured polygons shown in the tiny screenshots surely meant for a console from an earlier generation than hardware capable of giving us ShenmuePhantasy Star Online, and Skies of Arcadia.

It’s a question the game answered the instant I turned it on: this action role playing game, as Sengoku Turb chooses to describe itself, wasn’t a badly constructed idea hastily repurposed for the most modern home format available at the time, it was chasing a very specific style: this is the future of gaming as seen from the past, the sort of imagery you’d find in a “computer graphics special” issue of an old Amiga magazine, or an eye-catching render created for a 3DO advert.

The game’s utterly committed to this style. Everyday objects and even people are warped in whatever way fits the look best, leading to surreal dreamscapes made of repeated patterns and pointy polygons. During cutscenes leading lady Jino and everyone else she meets are animated using artistically simplistic motions, holding odd positions for an unnaturally long period of time or stiffly moving an arm that may not have fingers at all.

The story told by these scenes can only be described as an excitable child’s cheese-induced dream, with lots of things happening “just because” and plenty of plain odd situations. Speech gets in on the act too, the spoken dialogue that accompanies the game’s subtitles nothing more than short snippets of deliberately distorted sound, a noise to indicate a person’s speaking rather than actual vocal communication.

It’s a game confident enough in itself to be unapologetically silly: one early event has Jino talking on a mobile phone-style device to the catpeople’s king… the camera angle then shifting to show he’s standing just a short distance away. Upon realising this, they walk towards each other… and both continue to talk to each other through their not-phones. Elsewhere there are roller blades, tiny bears, and people called Alice B who like to dance and, in shocking contrast to this light-hearted fun, fairies who scream in fear when you catch them (you are going to eat them, after all), soldiers slumped over and silent in a corner of a kingdom’s infirmary, and plenty of other little things that make you think “Wait, did they really just…?” to yourself. This odd mix suits the setting well, a reminder Sengoku Turb isn’t cute, it’s weird.

And unfortunately for us, neither of those things are the same as good.

The trouble is these amusing story segments are separated from each other and us by a string of battles, the game presenting you with a world map as abstract as anything else (much of the planet looks like a cartoon sleeping lion) and pretty much leaving you to get on with it until you’ve either cleared enough of them (you’re free to tackle them in any order you please) or done the special thing that unlocks the next event.

It all starts off promising enough, your pre-battle setup infused with Sengoku Turb’s quirky style. Equipment consists of flags to wear on your head and stat-altering badges to pin to your clothes. A soft-serve ice cream cone is one of many daft weapons you can arm yourself with.

And then… and then there’s everything else.

You can’t assign roles or jobs to any of the generic soldiers that fight alongside Jino, they’re just a little blob of HP holding whatever weapon you’ve put in their mitts. The best you can do is individually (always something of a chore no matter how few troops you have to your name) give them one of five general orders, with the default being “suicide”. In a game where all deaths are permanent and you can only gain a limited number of new troops either by winning battles or haphazardly converting roaming neutral animal-people mid-combat.

This makes it very easy to end up with (and potentially save yourself stuck with) a meaningless Pyrrhic victory; unknowingly leaving yourself without the troops, items, or XP to take the game any further. This problem is only exacerbated by the level “balance”, one solitary gain the difference between dying in a single hit and taking only minor damage from the same attack. So the solution is to roll your sleeves up and grind, right? I wish. Although you can re-enter cleared battlegrounds to grab a few items and wandering fairies, the enemies that were there before stay dead, making it impossible to boost Jino or any weaker soldiers up to a usable state.

The battle arenas themselves are plagued with painfully basic issues—issues solved, if they were ever encountered in the first place, by countless earlier games running on weaker hardware. It’s not possible to turn the camera and move Jino at the same time, even though the camera is bound to the shoulder triggers and there’s absolutely no good reason for the game to have this odd restriction. The action doesn’t pause while accessing the in-battle menu unless you manually flip a toggle located on another screen, so the first few times you go to heal you’ll watch your troops (or Jino) get wiped out as you struggle to remember whether you need to drink juice or water or eat some cake to heal a wound or cure a malady, as in this part of the game there are no on-screen descriptions to guide you. Enemies don’t “aggro” if you attack them, or if you get too close, or exhibit any sort of defined behaviour at all really, preferring instead to mill around at random and then maybe have a little go at hitting you before wandering off again, apparently bored. The same lax attitude applies to your own troops, even after you’ve ordered them to attack.

There’s no getting around it: the one part you actually get to play for yourself is a sorry and dissatisfying experience, combat a dreary case of trading blows and merely hoping levels and a lot of luck is on your side as you perform the same one-button attack over and over again, the whole affair so shallow something as simple as baiting an enemy into attacking you, moving a little out the way as they swing, and then diving in for the kill while they recover, is essentially impossible.

It’s especially upsetting because there’s a lot to like about Sengoku Turb. I admire the way it’s so very much its own thing, one shiny GD-ROM stuffed with creativity. More games should stick so closely to the personal artistic interests of the people who make them you can almost see their fingerprints not only in the digital paint but everywhere else as well: the manual’s filled with brilliantly scrappy marker doodles and wobbly, hand drawn speech bubbles, and the VMU line art is very much the same.

I feel I should protect this clearly passionate project and describe it as an “art” game in an attempt to shield it from criticism: “You’re suppose to appreciate this on a visual and conceptual level, not actually enjoy it!”… although that’s not true, is it? As joyfully absurd as the rest of it is, it’s not unreasonable to expect a game to be fun to play.

[There’d be nothing to read here if Ko-fi supporters hadn’t helped me out!]