Anime and hip hop – not a blend that most would expect to work, but surprisingly happens more often than one would think.
Numerous notable rappers have integrated anime references and imagery into their work. Kanye West has multiple tracks that include anime references, and Pharrell Williams’ video for his track It Girl themed itself around anime and dating sims.
Going in the other direction, numerous anime using hip hop music and/or imagery are marked as some of the most popular in the west. From Samurai Champloo to Afro Samurai and, to some extent, Devilman Crybaby and even Carole & Tuesday, hip hop themes and beats aren’t too hard to come by nowadays in anime.
The title we’re looking at today takes this blend to the gaming sphere. Developed by Grayfax Software and published by Playism, Orangeblood is set for release on January 14th, 2020, for PC.
New Koza State of Mind
Orangeblood follows Vanilla, a young girl and apparent famous criminal who has been picked up by the US Government. In exchange for her release and the expunging of her criminal records, she has been sent to the city of New Koza – a city of neon lights and gang warfare – to investigate a facility hidden within.
It’s an interesting setup for a JRPG, built around stereotypical and over-the-top 90s hip hop culture themes. You’ve got gang fights against Russian Mafia and Chinese Triads, inferred drug running, a character that’s an aspiring DJ, and enough strong curse words flung around to make a sailor blush. I can give Orangeblood this, it’s incredibly unique in its genre.
However, the actual storytelling here is rough, to put it lightly. It feels like the game can’t decide whether to focus more on its story or its characters. I mean, ideally a game will do both, but there’s plenty of titles out there with weak stories that manage to make themselves work with a focus on characters and their relationships. Orangeblood struggles with both.
The core story is made up of various vaguely-interconnected quests that don’t actually do much to add to the plot. The core of the game is working through the facility hidden in New Koza, occasionally being pulled out of it to run some random mission that usually just acts as a way to introduce a new character to your party.
The characters themselves hardly have any real personality or development, either. Aside from the aforementioned aspiring DJ, everyone else is some kind of criminal who drinks, smokes, swears, and murders with glee. They spend more time reacting to the world around them than actually developing in any meaningful way.
At the very least, though, the dialogue itself can be entertaining at times. Some of the situations the cast find themselves in can be downright weird, and their reactions did elicit a few chuckles from me here and there.
Lastly, the game’s translation is…not all that great. With numerous typos, some words still in Japanese, and text that goes beyond the textboxes making it unreadable, the actual act of reading the story can be difficult at times.
Orangeblood is very much an old-school turn-based JRPG at its core. Battles have you inputting commands for each character, and then watching them play out depending on each combatant’s speed. This game includes a couple of minor twists, such as having to manage ammo, occasionally forcing you to spend a turn reloading.
The uniqueness this game brings to the table is in its equipment system. Orangeblood goes the Borderlands route when it comes to guns, offering up an unholy amount of firearms, all with different stat boosts and effects.
Unfortunately, the sheer amount of loot here quickly becomes overwhelming. Most loot-focused games usually give you the option to see a weapon’s stats before picking it up, to ensure that you’re not wasting your time on something you don’t want. Orangeblood doesn’t do this. This means that every time you pick up a new weapon or piece of gear, you have to go into the menu, open up the equipment submenu, select a character, scroll to the item you picked up (which, for some inexplicable reason, is always at the bottom of the list despite being sorted by “Newest”), and then you can see its stats and effects. Repeat for each of the other three characters.
Exasperating this issue is that weapons and equipment make-or-break the game itself. You won’t really be level grinding here, but loot grinding instead. When I came up against the first boss of the game, I was repeatedly smashed into a fine paste until I decided to go back and run the entire dungeon again, picking up fresh loot along the way. This time I managed to find better equipment which, upon equipping, led me to obliterating the boss in a few turns.
If you get lucky, you’ll manage to find some unique equipment that will keep you going for a while. Some dungeon areas will randomly spawn special chests that cost ten times more to open than regular ones, and will often contain impossibly powerful loot. I managed to find an insane shotgun early in the game that quadrupled the attack power of the character I gave it to compared to the rest of my party. This equipment led to said character soloing nearly every encounter for the next few hours.
Once you have the loot grind down, Orangeblood becomes a cakewalk. For a good solid six hours of the game, I took down every enemy with the same sequence of inputs. Some characters have skills that can break the game wide open as well. The last character you meet has a skill that lets her dodge every attack against her for one turn and counter with a powerful attack, and another skill that causes every enemy to target her. Start off a battle by activating both, and she’ll methodically wipe the floor with every enemy until nobody is left breathing.
In the latter half of the game, Orangeblood becomes a tedious loop. Destroy everything until you hit a wall, re-run the dungeon your in a few times for better loot, equip better loot, proceed to mangle everything in your path until the next wall. It reached the point where during every battle, I’d input commands and then turn away to watch TV until everything was dead. Rinse and repeat.
If Orangeblood has anything really solid going for it, it would be in the game’s presentation. For one, this is easily one of the most visually-attractive RPG Maker games I have ever seen. New Koza’s design is wild and reflects the character of the city perfectly (although I did occasionally have trouble navigating through all the glitz and glam). The character sprites are well designed and offer up a surprising variety of little animations when doing things around the city, from sitting down for a meal to taking a quick smoke break.
On the other hand, the design of the facility most of the gameplay takes place in is on the side of boring and repetitive, mostly made up of dilapidated factory floors. The random quests you get pulled to, at least, take place in some more interesting locales.
The soundtrack, I’m informed, was a core focus for the developers, and I can say that it goes a long way to reinforcing the game’s setting and mood. Think late-80s/early-90s hip hop run through MIDI, and you have the majority of the tunes here. Really, I’d say these tracks go further in establishing the game’s tone than the story and characters ever do.
Which makes it weird how so much of the game is silent. Numerous explorable areas have no music playing. About half the random battles I fought through were done in near silence, the only music playing when I activated one character’s skill which involves a boombox. One would think if the soundtrack is a point of pride for the game, it’d actually be utilized more.
Mama Said Knock You Out
Overall, Orangeblood is an interesting premise that just doesn’t quite hold up as a finished product. For having such a bold theme, the game takes the foot off the gas in its actual storytelling and barely touches on character development at all. The roiling gunfights between your party and the gang members standing in your way lose all energy when you can crush anything ahead of you using the same strategy for hours.
The audio-visual presentation is the absolute standout of the package, but even then, the game feels like it’s holding itself back. Half of the dungeons are repetitively-designed, and the notable music doesn’t get played much of the time for some reason, opting to have you play in silence.
Orangeblood is a game of half measures. It feels like it’s afraid of taking its bold style all the way, and the game suffers for it. While it did catch my attention at PAX West last year, actually sitting down with the full release was a disappointing experience.
Review copy provided by Playism for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.