From the moment I first saw the advertisements for Climax Studios' Sudeki—ads featuring a scantily clad female character with a porn star chest and rap-video-ho booty that admonished gamers to "pray for a full frontal assault"—I knew this long-anticipated title could be in trouble. My fears were only compounded when the game's clamshell case once again featured the same female lead and her "assets". Sex may indeed sell (and there are few places where this is more apparent than gaming—for while gaming may be gaining more and more mainstream acceptance with each passing day, the industry and the majority of its customers still dwell in a state of arrested sexual adolescence), but how disappointing is it to see one of the Xbox's most flaunted early titles reduced to pandering for attention through the crass use of T&A? Pretty disappointing from where I'm standing. Sudeki was once a glittering oasis in a barren desert of Xbox role-playing games—now it's just another title on the videogame store shelves begging for attention by catering to the lowest common denominator.

The shame of this is that behind the half-dressed female leads is a decent game. Sudeki is not a great game by any stretch of the imagination (although there are moments where it could rise above the pack, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it always takes the safe and predictable path when faced with a fork in the road), but it's solid. It aims high in any number of areas, and while it doesn't ever hit the marks (with the exception of its nifty battle system—and even that could be refined), it's not a title so devoid of inspiration that it had to resort to playing the sex card to get noticed.

In fact, the "sex card" of the ad campaign is almost a classic example of bait-and-switch. Yes, Sudeki's female leads are buxom and voluptuous and they fight in armor that would leave the average stripper feeling overexposed, but the game's story and presentation are anything but risqué. In fact, the one thing I noticed time and time again in-game was that Princess Ailish had some really big…feet.

The game's plot follows the standard RPG formula to the letter—world in danger, four heroes with personal problems brought together to save it…add water, mix, and cook for about 16 hours and there's an RPG. Like so many other things in Sudeki, the game often flirts with being something more than average—here it's the characters. While the plot of the game might be RPG 101, the four main characters are interesting and fairly well drawn. Tal, the typical warrior, for example, has a strained relationship with his father that ties into his brother's death. It's not a groundbreaking narrative twist, but it's compelling—which makes it all the more disappointing when the game drops this plot thread about halfway through. This is a recurring theme throughout the game—it's as if Climax had a lot of really good ideas, and were then forced to drop them in order to just get the game onto retail shelves. The end product certainly suffers because of this.

Another shortcoming is that the game's world is relatively engaging with its cotton candy color scheme and map hinting at tons of locations to explore, and yet the real world of the game is little more than a series of interconnected pathways with arbitrary roadblocks to keep players progressing in the most linear fashion possible. Sudeki is built almost entirely on backtracking—players will go through an area, get somewhere, then be forced to head back to where they started from…multiple times. This wouldn't be so bad if the game featured something even remotely resembling an active environment—but Sudeki simply features paths…with the occasional fork in the road that leads to yet another trail. Because of this, the game never feels immersive—players aren't in a world: they're on a guided on-rails tour of a world.

Sudeki makes its biggest statement where it matters most: in the gameplay. While the core of the game is traditional Action-RPG (featuring exploration, some puzzle solving—although calling them puzzles is being extremely generous—and lots of little quests), the battle system shines. Sudeki showcases a real-time combat system with 1-4 players taking part in battle. As we've seen in recent games like Tales of Phantasia, there's a move away from traditional turn-based combat in RPGs toward a more dynamic battle system. — Sudeki takes this same approach.

Players will control one character while the game's artificial intelligence will control the rest. Players can switch between characters on the fly and program a few rudimentary A.I. decisions for each character not under their control (although, to be honest, the options here are pretty paltry). This makes the battles incredibly frenetic experiences.

Add in a combo system for the melee (with timed button presses to prevent rampant button-mashing) and a forced first-person perspective for the mages (which is really cool in its execution), and Sudeki finally does something that rises above average. Include some special attacks (dependent on SP points) and each character's mega attack (which takes so long to build up that it can't be abused) and the game's combat becomes that much more charming. In fact, I often found myself wishing the developers had dropped the exploration and quests and just made this game a dungeon hack—the combat system is that much fun.

Ultimately, though, even a stellar combat system can't save Sudeki from its other shortcomings. This is an average game that was clearly marketed poorly by Microsoft. And while it will be quickly forgotten in the wake of games like Fable, Knights of the Old Republic 2, and Jade Empire this doesn't mean Sudeki should be ignored. Instead, think of it as a decent opening act that's not quite ready for the big-time before the real show begins. Rating: 5 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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