The Denpa Men: They Came by Wave was a wonderful 3DS eShop surprise last year, combining elements of Dragon Quest and Pokémon with AR functionality and a delightfully bonkers style all its own, so we were definitely excited to spot The Denpa Men 2: Beyond the Waves washing up onto our shores as well. This sequel pulls out all the stops to cast the deserving Denpa Men in a fully featured RPG, and we're absolutely thrilled with the results. Beyond the Waves is an utterly lovable adventure, bubbling over with charm and addictive gameplay, and adding a host of new features that place it head and antenna above the original.
At heart, Beyond the Waves is still very much a dungeon crawler. Moved along by a simple story, you'll take a team of Denpa Men exploring through caves and tunnels, fighting turn-based battles, leveling up and looking for loot. Its appeal goes far beyond that of most games that share this formula, however; from the moment you start up a save file, it's apparent that this is a celebration of everything colourful and fun, starting with the Denpa Men themselves.
The first of these charming creatures you'll meet is the randomly generated leader of your group. There's trouble brewing in his home of Digitown, but he can't fight it alone, and the task of gathering allies falls to you and your trusty, AR-enabled 3DS. Finding and catching the radio-wave-riding Denpa Men as they float around in the "real world" - as picked up by the 3DS' front cameras - is one of the series' big hooks, and though it sounds like a gimmick, it's very well implemented and lots of fun.
Denpa Men live in Wi-Fi signals, but you don't actually need to be connected to a network to see them; simply wandering within range of a signal will be enough to start the Denpa hordes swarming. Once you see one you like, aim with the gyroscope and hit the 'A' button to fire a friendly net and meet your new recruit.
Swinging your 3DS around in public sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in reality Denpa-wrangling can be a relatively discreet process. There's an optional "Manner Mode" that replaces the live-feed background with a generic grid, so self-conscious passersby won't think you're snapping their photo, and the Denpa Men will frequently remind you "Don't come to us, we come to you!" We looked for the little guys in our local café, and managed to snag quite a few without attracting attention - though spotting a Denpa Man of a particularly rare hue was enough to get us out of our seat.
The turn-based combat in The Denpa Men is based on an elemental weakness chain, like Pokémon, with eight colours corresponding to different element types. The battle system is fast and fun, and watching the Denpa Men swarm their opponents as an adorable mob instills the same odd sense of parental pride that Pikmin players know well. Dungeons are impressively vast and peppered with puzzles, hidden paths, and reasons to revisit older areas with new abilities - they also tend to feature enemies mainly of one or two elements, so the more colours you collect for your Denpa rainbow, the better off you'll be.
Some Denpa Men carry antennas, which give them access to special skills in battle, covering everything from healing and support spells to elemental attacks. Along with antenna and standard Denpa Men in the basic colours, there are multicoloured combinations and even special shiny forms to look out for, all of which can be a huge help in battle. The variety is staggering, especially adding in the unique faces and personalities of each character you'll catch - and that's before they even get dressed.
For while being a certain colour grants Denpa Men resistances, it doesn't actually give them a corresponding elemental attack; that's just one of the tasks that falls to the surprisingly captivating domain of Denpa dress-up. Their madcap closet has been hugely expanded from the first game, and along with the colourful onesies that raise defense and add resistances, you'll now find bracelets, anklets, necklaces, capes and scarves all with special effects, as well as more whimsical adornments like carrots and lollipops worn over the back - as you do.
Best of all, the equipment is as fashionable as it is functional. Every item has a unique look, and there's often more than one style to serve the same purpose. Most RPGs would be content with just one type of +3 Defense armour, but in the Denpa Men, you can choose between tricolour, checkered, or striped pyjamas to fit the bill. Need extra protection against soaking spells? Choose the charming fish-patterned outfit. Looking to steel yourself against physical damage? Try the star-spangled leotard. Just by looking after your stats, it won't be long before your group of warriors begins to resemble the Teletubbies dressed as extras in a Prince video, and you'll absolutely love them for it.
The new features in Beyond the Waves extend well beyond the wardrobe expansion, of course. The most notable is the Dragon Quest-style world map that frames the game. More than just a loving tribute to RPGs of old, the overworld changes the way you play, adding a healthy sense of exploration and discovery to the classic combination of combat and catacombs. There are towns to visit - each with their own inhabitants, stories, shops, and secrets - hidden oasis to find, and enemies to fight (or run away from), all of which go a long way towards making your journey feel like an adventure. And as much fun as it is to traverse the map, you'll never need to traipse across a continent just to get back to town - a quick tap of the 'X' button will zap you back to any area you've previously visited.
After a certain point in your quest, the map expands and the game's subtitle picks up another layer of meaning as you gain the ability to sail across the oceans to find new lands. It's a fun new mechanic that really opens up the world, reminding us more than a little of a top-down Wind Waker. You're in direct control of the S.S. Denpa while sailing, and you'll have to contend with sea-bound enemies just as you would on land, with your little heroes fighting from the ship deck.
Along with seafaring, the Denpa Men have picked up a few new hobbies for this new installment, including fishing. Casting your line in the ponds and oceans is a nice, relaxing way to earn some extra gold, and angling is as oddly addictive here as it is in Animal Crossing. In fact, the fishing engine feels like a direct reference to Nintendo's sandbox series, right down to the iconic bobber, fish shadows, and your character's signature pose with a successful catch.
Gardening makes an appearance as well, with flowers that can be turned into dye to change your Denpa Men's colours, and fruit with a variety of item-like effects both popping up in the Denpa patch. You'll need to water your crops often to ensure they don't wilt, and that process is unfortunately tied to real time rather than an in-game clock - frustrating if you're not the type of gamer who sits down to play every day.
As a turn-based RPG, Beyond the Waves' controls are predictably dependable, but there are some nice touches that make the most of the menu-based system. For one, the 'L' button serves the same purpose as 'A' - confirming selections - essentially letting you play the game one-handed. And while you can micromanage each Denpa Man's actions, most of the time one of the three different types of auto-battle will fit the bill - two of the options have their own dedicated buttons as well, so basic strategies can be pulled up with a single press. We also love the analogue movement; many games in this genre stick resolutely to the grid, and there's something truly joyous about leading your conga line of candy-coloured crusaders in smooth arcs around the Denpa world.
The Denpa Men might not roll on a grid, but one genre convention that's left firmly intact is its considerable challenge. There's an old-school heart beating underneath this game's cute and cuddly exterior, and it reveals itself in frequent, often severe difficulty spikes. Strategy is important, but when most new areas bring monsters that can wipe out your party in a few hits, equipment and experience points are just as vital - expect to spend plenty of time grinding for both on easier dungeon floors.
Even when you're plunging back into the same floor for the umpteenth time, however, boredom never sets in; the repetitive nature of the dungeon crawl is alleviated by the fact that Beyond the Waves is an incredibly charming game. Lots of that comes from little touches - like the Denpa Men pouting when you remove their equipment - but it's also thanks to the excellent graphics. Bright, cheery, and genuinely fun to look at, they make the vibrant world a joy to explore. Enemy designs, many of them returning from the first game, are wonderfully whimsical - it's hard not to crack a smile when you're locked in a life-or-death battle against sentient ears of corn and a bunny-pig brandishing a broadsword.
The sole graphical letdown is the underwhelming 3D effect, which simply distances the two-dimensional menu overlays from the background layer, where all the polygonal action occurs. It also takes quite a bit of adjusting to find points on the 3D slider where the small text is sharp and clear - and those points don't necessarily overlap with the best 3D settings.
The audio direction compliments the visuals perfectly, with a catchy, offbeat soundtrack and satisfying sound-effects - witness the Denpa Men throwing themselves at their enemies with a hearty, enthusiastic thud. The Denpa Men's fast-forwarded voices are another highlight, as is the first surreal moment when you realize you can understand them without subtitles.
Fitting for a game thematically centred around radio waves, Beyond the Waves opens up the channels of communication with a new online battle mode in the Coliseum. By registering your team, you'll be able to download and challenge other players' squads from your region. Even though pitting Denpa Men against each other feels wrong at first, this is a fantastic addition; you'll need to use completely different strategies when fighting diverse teams instead of enemies, and the limitless battles seriously extend the game's replay value. Each time you win, you'll take home Victory Medals that you can exchange for helpful items, and you can earn titles for your team based on your records, achievements, and play style.
On a more local level, the Denpa Men also make good use of StreetPass. You can exchange profile cards with game statistics, but the real fun comes from charging up your Street Lamp to comb the Caves of Darkness, special caverns filled with rare items that can only be explored for a limited amount of time. The Street Lamp starts with a measly thirty seconds of power - just enough to find a few items and pique your interest - but StreetPassing other players will increase the time limit. It would have been nice to see a Play Coin equivalent for players who don't live near a Denpa-crazy Digitown, but the Street Lamp is still a welcome addition.
Friends both near and far can take advantage of the QR-code generator, which lets you share your Denpa Men online and scan in helpful heroes from other players. It's an easy process - though the codes are sadly still region locked - and you can output snazzy posed pictures with QR-codes saved directly to the SD card.
As a final note, players who started their Denpa journey with They Came By Wave can import the main hero from the first game right from the start. Before too long, you'll also meet a helpful dwarf who can bring in any other Denpa Men from the previous game's save file, though they all revert to level one once they're beamed over.
Beyond the Waves is everything we'd hoped for in a Denpa Men sequel. It's packed full of the addictive gameplay and quirky charm that made the first game so much fun, and piles on new features that add immensely to the experience. Fans of the original will be over the moon, and for anyone who missed out then, this is the time to jump in. If you're looking for a truly delightful dungeon-crawl, or simply one of the finest, funkiest eShop adventures around, we highly recommend setting your dial to Denpa.