When we first started hearing the news about Denpa Ningen no RPG coming to the West, we didn't know what to expect. Its visual debt to Nintendo's Miis and Pikmin intrigued us, and the fact that the brains behind this game had their fingers in Pokémon Colosseum and great series such as Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and Ogre Battle meant that we would have been fools not to add this to our watch list. Now that it's been localised as The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave, we couldn't be happier.
In the most direct sense, The Denpa Men is a dungeon crawler. However its unique approach to the genre means that no two gamers will ever have the same experience, and the sharp attention paid to level design and character balancing mean that you will never get complacent with your strategy for long. In short it's a game that always has the potential to fall into dull repetition, but never actually does.
When it begins you'll be assigned a Denpa Man at random. This character becomes your squad's de facto leader, and you'll have to help him manage an ever-growing army in order to take down the King of Evil. The plot itself is nothing to speak of, but the game seems to realise this, focusing wisely on world-building instead. The Denpa Men isn't about resolving a storyline, but it's about exploration and about the magic of the unknown.
It's also a game of enormous personality. The Denpa Men themselves are absolutely charming creations, reacting to nearly everything you do. When you catch one, he'll let you know how he feels about that. Get him killed and he'll have some not-very-kind things to say if you happen to cross paths again. These little soldiers, after all, are more than just living weaponry; they're individuals with distinct attitudes, and they don't take kindly to poor management. The small tantrum they throw when you take away their equipment is evidence enough of that.
But what are Denpa Men? Well, they're all around you right now, apparently...only you'll need your 3DS to see them. The Denpa Men are creatures who live and travel on radio waves. You'll need to seek out as many as you can — and in as many different varieties as possible — to build a well-balanced army, and you do this through WiFi hotspots.
Yes, much like The Hidden, this game relies on multiple WiFi connections. But don't run away just yet; it's actually handled quite well here.
When you first start the game, you'll use the AR capabilities of the 3DS to find and capture Denpa Men around you. You can accumulate a sizeable number of them right off the bat, but as the game progresses and you find yourself in need of different skills you'd do well to travel to a friend's house, a coffee shop, or anywhere else that has a different WiFi connection. Doing so will expose you to different stocks of Denpa Men, with different attributes and abilities than those you'd find elsewhere. Impressively enough, the same Denpa Men will spawn for anyone who visits these connections. For instance, if you explore a particular WiFi signal and find Denpa Men named Damien, Anthony and Darren, your friend exploring the same signal later will find the same three that you just saw, and shouldn't expect to find Corbie, Thomas and Ron.
This leads to the major concern people will have about the game, and that's that not everybody has the luxury of traveling to multiple WiFi hotspots. Fortunately, you won't actually need to. Doing so will certainly help your army grow faster, but you should have enough Denpa Men on your home signal to get you off to a good start. From there, you can purchase items that will redefine the attributes of your little soldiers, for example if you find you need a colour other than what you were able to catch. You can also reincarnate your deceased Denpa Men for a price, and even import and export Denpa Men with QR codes once you hit an early milestone in the game. In short, the game knows that not everybody has access to unlimited WiFi signals, and it does provide alternatives.
The actual gameplay consists of exploring dungeons and other areas with your squad, defeating enemies in turn-based combat and seeking out treasure along the way. The dungeons are large and surprisingly difficult, and the turn-based combat is always exactly as complicated as you'd like it to be. You can have your squad auto-attack, you can choose individual tactics for each Denpa Man, or you can mix it up by choosing tactics for a few and automating the rest. It's a great way to keep the player in control without overwhelming them, and the auto-combat will be a great boon for beginners as well.
In terms of combat, you'll want to brush up on your elemental weakness chains, because the colour of your Denpa Men affects the amount of damage they'll take from a particular elemental attack. This is why it's important to keep a large stock on hand. A powerhouse squad in one dungeon may immediately become sitting ducks in the next!
There's a wealth of optional material to find and purchase, and an unlockable database of Denpa Men types that will have you scrambling to collect as many as you can in order to fill in all the blanks. For a genre that too often gets away with simplicity, The Denpa Men absolutely revels in choice.
As far as presentation goes, it's adorable and positively bursting with personality. The music is fantastic and distinctive between areas, and the 3D effect adds a perfect dash of depth to the diorama-styled fight sequences. As the battles are turn-based it would be pretty difficult to botch the controls, but even so we're happy to report that they work great.
The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave does its best to appeal to both old hands and newcomers, and we think they accomplished that goal with flying — ahem — colours. As the game will play out differently depending upon which Denpa Men you manage to catch it's hard to estimate exactly how long of an experience to expect, but we think it's safe to say that even the fastest, luckiest player can expect around 15 hours of main story. That's excellent value, and it's quite possible that even after the story is done you won't want to leave your new friends behind.
The cumbersome title and suspicious cuteness of The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave may scare off a few gamers, but those who give it a chance will find themselves immersed in a genuinely creative and surprisingly challenging world. The animation is charming and smooth, the soundtrack passively gorgeous, and the experience long and rewarding. If The Denpa Men lacks for anything it's replay value, but the first run will certainly take you long enough, and you can always spend time after the main game collecting unique Denpa Men wherever you travel. After all, there's a Denpa Man somewhere out there that quite literally has your name on it.