Review: The Denpa Men 3: The Rise of Digitoll (3DS eShop)

Good vibrations

Before Denpa Ningen no RPG washed up on Western shores as The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave in 2012, it felt like a localisation long-shot: a candy-coloured JRPG with off-the-wall style, an AR-based hook, very little story, and deceptively traditional, grind-heavy gameplay. Even the Denpa Men themselves — colourful and oddly endearing childlike creatures inhabiting the radio waves all around us — seemed destined by design to stay in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Thankfully, someone at Genius Sonority had the good sense to clear They Came By Wave for international broadcast, and to our surprise and delight this first foray was followed soon after by an excellent sequel, The Denpa Men 2: Beyond the Waves. We had a blast with both, and were accordingly excited to see this third title — The Denpa Men 3: The Rise of Digitoll — appear on our eShop dial. Luckily, the Denpa Men don't disappoint; Rise of Digitoll is a charming, fully-featured celebration of combat, customization and cuteness, the pinnacle of the series, and a must-play for fans of quirky RPGs.

Just as previous games in the series, The Rise of Digitoll begins when you meet a tiny, randomly generated Denpa Man with a big problem: his childhood friend's been kidnapped, and he needs your help to save her by gathering a team of like-minded Denpa Men and setting off on a world-spanning adventure. The narrative, told mostly through Denpa-monologues and via your interactions with dwarves (Digitoll's main inhabitants), moves things along at a quick clip, and proves surprisingly engaging. It's all lighthearted and fun, of course, with plenty of silly dialogue and offbeat humour, and thanks to the dwarves' hyper-stilted topic-comment sentence structure you'll feel like you've learned another language after spending a few hours in Denpa Land.

The series' biggest claim to fame, besides perhaps the Teletubby-esque heroes themselves, is its unique take on the 'catch 'em all' formula. Using your 3DS' AR-enabled cameras, you'll scan the real world to discover the Denpa Men floating around in your home, a coffee shop, the park, or anywhere else you feel comfortable taking out your trusty 3DS. When you see a Denpa Man you like, simply set it in your sights (by moving and tilting the 3DS) and hit 'A' to launch a good-natured net and reel in a new friend. The specific Denpa Men you'll find depend on the wireless signals surrounding you at any given moment, and exploring real-world environs looking for stand-out specimens is half the fun — to that end, an optional "No Background" mode can mute the video feed from your 3DS' cameras, letting you scrounge for rainbow warriors at the gym with glorious impunity.

Whether you find them in your backyard or on the bus, Denpa Men come in all different shapes, sizes, and shades. Body colours represent their elemental strengths and weaknesses, making dual-type striped Denpa Men particularly valuable; body sizes and head shapes — including banana, ice-cream, castle, and star-shaped, among many others — determine their relative stats, and different antennas afford the Denpa Man the use of one of a wide variety of skills in battle.

Most antenna skills return from previous games, including elemental attack spells, healing and revival powers of various strengths, and plenty of useful support skills. One newly added antenna worth noting is 'Catch', which grants a lucky Denpa Man the power to capture a monster during battle, Pokémon style, and summon it to attack whenever you like. Once caught, the suddenly amicable enemy will stick by your Denpa Man's side until you decide to release it, and larger enemies can deal some seriously satisfying damage. Trying out new foes is always exciting, and Catch can be particularly useful for switching up elemental affiliations on the fly.

Since the second game in the series, Denpa Men have been able to earn their stripes (as well as polka dots and houndstooths) with clothing and accessories, and Denpa dress-up makes a triumphant return here as well. Shirts and bodysuits can boost stats, scarves add elemental defences, bracelets modify attacks, and baseball bats, fairy wings, and backpacks all have their own unique effects. Various combinations of clothing options can help tailor your squad to a particular area or mission, and it's also just good fun to mix and match — the Denpa Men are bizarre enough in the buff, but once they're kitted out in their bric-a-brac battle armour you can't help but smile for these ultimate underdogs.

Once you've assembled your team of dangerously dapper Denpa Men, it's time to set out and save the world. The adventure in Rise of Digitoll propels you forward over land and sea, and the Dragon Quest-style world map is a joy to traverse — whether by foot, boat, or the delightfully punchy new cannons, which blast your Denpa Men into otherwise inaccessible terra incognita. Dungeons and labyrinths are dotted all around, and hopping underground will take you to Digitoll's main attraction: the multi-floor mazes that make up the meat of the game.

There aren't any random encounters to worry about, either in these dungeons or on the world map; rather, enemies will appear in the field from time to time and, once they notice your conga-line of brave adventurers, give chase. Happily, you'll likely find yourself picking fights just as often as the baddies — the turn-based battles in Rise of Digitoll are fast, strategic, and lots of fun. You can choose to control each Denpa Man individually via a streamlined menu system, select one of several different types of auto-battle (each of which emphasize a different battle tactic), or dial in a combination of the two, commanding one Denpa Man to defend, another to use an item, and the rest to do as they wish, for example. It's a simple system, especially compared to the complex combat found in many modern RPGs, but it's polished to perfection, and an excellent demonstration of how the comfortably familiar attack/skill/defend setup can still feel exciting and fresh.

One of the hallmarks of The Denpa Men 2: Beyond the Waves was the impressive variety of things to do outside of battle, and Rise of Digitoll ups the ancillary ante in every way. Aside from a generous helping of hidden side-quests, favourite pastimes like fishing and gardening return with new mechanics, including a more active fishing system and the ability to plant trees as well as flowers. There are also plenty of all-new activities to keep your Denpa Men busy between dungeon runs. Most noticeable are the individual houses for each Denpa Man, which you can decorate with items, flooring, and wallpaper purchased and picked up throughout the game. It's a bit of Animal Crossing-style homemaking in the Digitoll world, and while it's unlikely to hold your interest for very long at any one time, sprucing up dozens of personalized pads is a fun way to play off the Denpa Men's considerable charisma, and comprehensive camera controls make it easy to admire your domestic creations. You won't have to keep these temples of wackiness to yourself, either; another welcome new feature lets you save a screenshot to the SD card at any time with a quick tap of the shoulder buttons, and share your snaps via the Image Share function in the 3DS' browser.

Image Share is far from the only way to take your Denpa Men online, of course; fitting for a game whose central conceit depends on Wi-Fi signals, Rise of Digitoll boasts an impressive array of networked modes and features. The Coliseum from Beyond the Waves makes a comeback, letting you battle other players' teams online, and once you add the relevant islands to your Digipelago, you can connect to the Bazaar, an online flea market in which to buy and sell items, and a Rental Island, where you can hire specific Denpa Men from other players, or lend out your own to players across the globe in return for a rental fee. Perhaps less welcome is the slightly sleazy Jewel Shop, where you can purchase a special in-game currency — which can be exchanged for unique and rare items — with real-world cash. Luckily, these micro-transactions are optional and unobtrusive; you can also find jewels in treasure chests throughout the adventure, or win them in Coliseum battles online.

While the first two Denpa Men games were marked by a resolutely old school difficulty level, Rise of Digitoll introduces quite a few changes that make things significantly easier on players. For one thing, you'll now find your health and Antenna Points fully restored each time you enter a town or outpost, making long journeys across the world map considerably more manageable. Similarly, healing circles in the dungeons are now multi-use, so a fully refreshed party is often only a staircase or two away; this makes it easy to level up and explore an entire labyrinth without worrying about trekking back to the surface every few floors. It's also much tougher to get lost, with instant fast-travel between locations and landmarks, destination arrows marking waypoints on the overworld map, and a handy 'Navi' feature which has your lead Denpa Man happily remind you what exactly you're supposed to be doing with a simple tap of the 'R' button.

QR-code reading — where you can scan in Denpa Men shared by other players online — is also available right from the start, and though the imported recruits are reset to Level 1, it's still a big help to be able to bolster your party with particular Denpa Men early on. Eventually, you'll be able to unlock an Auto Antenna Tower, which can search for and catch new Denpa Men automatically, and an Exploration Team Base, which lets you send groups of Denpa Men out to explore independently, gathering items and gold while you're adventuring elsewhere. On top of all these user-friendly features, this simply feels like an easier game than its predecessors; the difficulty spikes have been smoothed down to gentle undulations, and while there's still plenty of challenging combat and lots of levelling to be done, Rise of Digitoll hits the sweet spot where progressing is always exciting, but hardly ever frustrating.

Part of the series' considerable appeal has always come down to its sunny presentation, and that trademark Denpa style is present in spades in this third instalment. With bright colours, clean lines, and a wonderfully whimsical worldview shining through in its every asset, Rise of Digitoll looks like Famicom cartridge art brought to life in glorious 3D. Enemies are cute and creative, Earthbound-esque moving background patterns brighten up menus with a 70's wallpaper aesthetic, and the Picross-style pixelated town maps on the bottom screen are particularly charming. The stereoscopic 3D adds a thematic feeling of depth to the vibrant little world within your hands, and the battle backdrops, while simple, have a diorama-like appeal, bolstered by nicely-implemented background blurs for boss fights.

Digitoll's soundtrack, meanwhile, is a funky, futuristic mixture of organic and electronic beats that fits the cuddly, radio-wave-based world perfectly. Several tunes from the first two games return in remixed forms, and while fans of the originals will appreciate the allusions, some selections fall short of the original tracks they're based on. Still, plenty of lovely new melodies lilt in to fill the gaps — the Canon Village theme is a memorable highlight — and the Denpa Men's adorably odd text-to-speech voices give the sometimes-spoken dialogue a certain charm in spite of (or perhaps because of) their fast-forwarded, relentlessly monotone delivery.

Conclusion

We love the Denpa Men; these delightfully different defenders of justice have starred in three superlative eShop RPGs in as many years, transcending any AR-gimmickry and taking their place among modern classics of the medium in the process. If you enjoyed the first two Denpa games and are up for another round, you'll have a blast with Rise of Digitoll — the subtle tweaks and additions make a substantial difference, and this is far and away the best Denpa experience yet. If you're a first-time player looking for a creative, polished, and thoroughly funky RPG to sink dozens of happy hours into, friendly mechanics and a well-balanced difficulty level make this the perfect place to start. Either way, you won't go wrong — tune in and enjoy!