With the advent of new console technology, the potential exists for previously unseen ideas and experiences to be realized. So far, we've mostly been treated to the same concepts with better graphics and online connectivity, but those are just the obligatory first steps. With so much horsepower under the hood, it would be extremely shortsighted to avoid pushing videogames' very structure further. Looking at prime areas ripe for growth, something that seems quite logical (yet rarely implemented) is depth of customization.
Historically, console games have not had the muscle required for it, so we've been content with renaming heroes in role-playing games, or picking from pre-rendered parts and cobbling together a Frankenstein's monster for wrestling. Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color is one of the first games I've seen that really takes the concept of customization to the forefront of the gaming experience, and it pays off handsomely—in a flawed, lopsided sort of way.
Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color is divided into three portions. The smallest part of the game is the story, in which brief cutscenes play out to tell a mildly touching tale. The remainder of the disc is divided between the creation of animate art called Doodles, and fighting them against each other in arenas. (And of course, what else would living artwork do but fight?)
Your primary task will be to draw these Doodles, and it's nearly as easy to do in the game as it is to do with a pencil and paper. Starting up, you are given a fairy-like Pengel (pronounced pen-jell) to do your bidding. This so-called combination of "kittens and childlike innocence" uses its tail to draw. Players use the left stick to lay ink down, and the right stick to change the orientation of the drawing. There are a range of differently-sized "pen tips" to use for a rainbow of colors. Representing more than just appearances, each hue has its own characteristic when drawing. For example, red will build a strong fighting-type Doodle, whereas a green one will likely use magic.
It's true that any number of games include small-scale art programs, but what makes this one stand out is how your 2D sketch is instantly extrapolated into a vibrant, animated 3D creature. After scribbling a discrete shape, it takes on a third dimension and can be viewed from any angle. It also gains movement and kinesthetic characteristics according to what kind of part it represents. The game features several "palettes" to choose from such as Body, Legs, Wings, and so forth, and each palette applies the appropriate movement routines automatically.
It's absurdly simple to create a fully-dimensional Doodle with its own moves and attacks in the span of just a few short minutes. This feature alone can potentially provide infinite replay since the possibilities are limited only by the player's imagination. A jet black crab on stilts with a pair of cat's ears? No problem. A little girl with snakes for arms and nine eyes? You bet. It's hard to properly convey the sense of amazement you'll likely feel after seeing something go from your brain to the screen, but after making your first Doodle, you'll instantly see why Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color is unlike anything else on shelves today.
Once you've got some Doodles ready to go, it's time to take them to an arena. As mentioned earlier, the colors and shapes of your drawing will classify a Doodle into one of three types: Fighting, Magic or Block. The game's combat system is based on a paper-Rock-Scissors concept, so each creature will have certain advantages and weaknesses. Initially, success in combat seems like blind luck with a random feel and enemy AI that seems to read your mind. But once you've put this phase of the game through its paces, a reliable structure emerges. It's really more about drawing good Doodles and careful planning than pure chance.
Though relieved once I found luck wasn't the ruling principle, I can't honestly say that I ever found the matches satisfying—though they're not terrible by any means. Unlike Tecmo's peerless Monster Rancher titles, you don't have direct control over your Doodles. You can choose the class of action to perform (Block, Fight or Magic) but the Doodle itself picks specific techniques that fall under that category. Because of the limited options during a duel, your strategy in selecting the proper action is far more important than actual combat skill or stats. For example, a monster that has a weak Block skill always defeats a monster using Magic, regardless of the spell's strength. This system left me feeling removed from the action since winning is less about your Doodle's power and more dependent on controlled attrition and memorizing which move trumps which.
Speaking of feeling removed, the part of the game I haven't addressed yet—the story and related elements—are probably the biggest weaknesses Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color has, and they're serious ones. The narrative told through the adventure isn't very complex (featuring about four characters) but it's a good fit for the warm and breezy visuals. But the quality of the tale is not the problem. My issue lies in the segregated way the story is presented because it only serves to further reduce its already-questionable significance.
Things start falling apart when you realize that there is no character representing you, the player. Your Pengel is visible and functions much like a cursor (only cuter!) but you see the world through a disembodied and silent first-person view. Occasionally some characters will look towards your direction and make brief comments, but by not having the ability to respond or interact, this approach limits you to being an invisible voyeur with no sense of involvement. It's almost as if you're a ghost witnessing events unfolding, with no power to influence them.
This feeling of disconnectedness is compounded when you realize that the only things you can do are draw and fight. You'll be treated to a cut-scene after each major win, but beyond that there's no correlation between your actions and the dramatic elements. Such an anemic level of interaction greatly detracts from the immersive power the game might have had because your efforts have no bearing on anything story-related at all.
Finally, I need to mention that there is no "world" in the game. Between the three arenas available for testing Doodle mettle, Garakuta has strung together a narrow hallway disguised as a "town." Filled with merchants and colorful storefronts, things initially seem full of potential and discovery, but it's just a thin veneer. Each merchant can only sell you an item or challenge you to a duel, never giving any interesting bits of gossip or leading you to any sidequests. If the developers had included areas to explore and given players some control over game events, Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color would feel less like a dedicated rendering tool and more like the fleshed-out experience it needs to be.
Taken as a whole, Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color fails to satisfy. Its incredibly addictive drawing and animation succeed by providing a unique opportunity for your imagination to run wild, yet I can't help but be disappointed that the rest of the game doesn't meet the same impressive standard. Lacking fullness, this game about customization would be better served by being a complete game with customization. For people yearning to wax creative and see their ideas spring to life, Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color is well worth the price of admission. For all others, it's an interesting oddity that could have been much more.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway