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Nintendo DS Review: River King: Mystic Valley

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River King: Mystic Valley is a game about fishing. It’s about becoming the best fisherman you can be in order to catch the legendary, one-of-a-kind River King, but if you don’t like the idea of a fishing mini-game drawn out to a game-length endeavor, then you should steer clear. Be prepared to spend a lot of time with a rod, because the main character’s sister has fallen into a sleep so deep that it’s indistinguishable from a coma, and to wake her up he’ll need to catch a lot of fish.

While Natsume has retained the cartoonish look and feel of its other titles, there is no variety of tasks to perform beyond casting and collecting, and there are no buildings to improve beyond story sequences that add items to your home. Instead, there are rods, there are lures, and there are crafty fish lurking and waiting to be caught. First and foremost, it’s a game of strategy. The adrenaline comes later, after the hook is set.

Every fish you catch gives you points that are used as both currency and experience. Your earliest rod requires you to use new bait for every fish you catch, but the game is forgiving and allows you to pick up free bait if you run out. The fish themselves can either be collected to trade for cards (that are themselves redeemable for more FP), or fed to your pets for experience. In practice, it’s not too difficult to decide between using the fish for monster development or access to better equipment, because at several points you will be backtracking to earlier fishing spots in order to satisfy the game’s frequent assignments. You can also collect plants and insects on land that can be traded for cards or used to satisfy assignments, but you will be doing a lot of fishing, one way or another.

The pets themselves add an interesting layer to the game. Mystic valley is full of magical creatures, and in your travels you encounter and adopt three shapeless orphans. As they gain experience by eating fish, they level up to turn into a fox, a raccoon, and a crow that all have unique abilities to help you catch more fish and anthropomorphic appearances that are almost human. You are only able to bring one pet with you at a time, and change pets at your house, but they can recharge your energy, destroy obstacles in your path, and carry you to remote fishing sites.

All this is in place to support the fishing, which is a combination of strategy and action. Since you can purchase and use several different rods and select lures from three different categories (spinners, flies, and live bait), choosing the right lure in the right spot is an important part of the game. Currents can be used to carry your line to places that are tough to cast into directly, and lures need to get to the bigger, more prestigious fish without being intercepted by smaller minnows that end up wasting your time. Choosing a hook and a place are important. Placing your hook is important, but actually putting it there is not very challenging; there is no visual or mechanical difference between expertly skimming a fly across the surface of the water and letting bait sink to the bottom.

While casting is lackluster and identical no matter which rod is in use — some rods send the hook farther, but the controls and animation are the same — bringing in a fish on the hook is a challenging activity that involves scribbling with the stylus to balance the strength of the line against the power of the fish and the remaining energy of your character. Fishing in the early stages and gunning for weak fish can make for an exceptionally easy fishing experience, but the challenging fights with fish that may be too tough for your rod are a dynamic use of the touch screen mechanic that can really generate a thrill of accomplishment.

The graphics on dry land are solid, with the rounded, cartoony look common to other Natsume games. Once a fish has been hooked, the game gives an underwater view of the fish on the line that is more detailed and realistic. It would have been nice to have more than just subtle visual cues to indicate the remaining stamina of the fish and the line/distance remaining, but the game tries not to distract from the fight by providing too much information. The story advances through still images and text, or scripted sequences that appear almost identical to regular game play. Ambient sounds of running water, birds, and insects are used to set the outdoor atmosphere in the game. There are also sound effects during casting, and when fish nibble on the hook, but no music in the game to speak of.

Saving can only be done at one location, at home through the plot device of “talking to your sister.” It means that if you have to stop quickly, you’re better off putting the DS in sleep mode. Luckily, the game never sends you excessively far from your save point. It also supports network play locally or through the Wi-Fi connection. It lets players compete in a fishing tournament with restrictive rules and without their accompanying pets.

Gamers should know from the start whether or not they’re going to like a game about fishing. The game’s characters, assignments, and plot are designed to send you fishing as much as possible, and while the fishing mechanics are strong, they’re not too varied. At times, the story can get hung up while you go out to catch a certain number of a specific fish, but the structure of the game makes it easy to pick up and play either for just a few casts or an extended fishing trip.

River King: Mystic Valley is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.


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About Peter M. J. Gross