For me, 2004 was a year of fresh starts. Although starting a relationship and then starting university were big steps for me at that time, starting a new job in video game retail was an eye-opener too. The job offered me a chance to work several big release days including those for Doom 3, The Sims 2, and the all-conquering Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. As memorable as those times were for me, 2004 became a significant year for the Xbox as well.
All eyes were on the November release of Halo 2, and yet the summer had its own share of exclusives coming. Games like The Chronicles of Riddick and the highly anticipated Fable. We know now that Fable was a crushing disappointment for many, but the hype was strong back then because the Xbox’s lineup of role-playing games was so desperately lacking.
However, a mere couple of months before Fable arrived, Microsoft released another RPG called Sudeki; a game that I would quickly discard amid the chaos of that year. Digging back into it after all this time has reminded me why I gave up on Sudeki in the first place because although the game is still pretty, it’s still not very fun.
The intro tells us about this planet that centuries ago was split in half by warring gods. A band of misfit adventurers from the brighter half of Sudeki have now united on a quest to collect four magical crystals that will shield their home from the forces of darkness, or so they think …
Sudeki certainly looks handsome, even by today’s standards. The graphics have aged well, with the earlier game areas having a bright and colourful look that is somewhat reminiscent of the cartooney art style that Fable and World of Warcraft made popular in the same year.
Also notable are the menus, which are unironically my favourite part of the game. The menus are beautiful when judged by the standards of the time; just really crisp and intuitive, even when used in the heat of battle.
You’ll also be treated to some nice music outside of said battles, I only wish I could say such nice things about the voice acting, which has a reputation for being awful. Sudeki is a British RPG with voices to match, only the character designs are inspired by Japanese manga, so it creates this weird clash of styles.
In any case, the voice acting is extensive yet incredibly grating. Much of the NPC dialogue is delivered in this comedic tone that’s hard to take seriously. The voice actor for Elco sounds especially out of place, and things get downright farcical when the “dark” versions of the playable heroes get introduced, each with a faux American or Australian accent to differentiate them. It’s a level of a parody you’d expect from a Futurama re-run, but that could be Sudeki’s secret attempt at being as “2004” as possible, so who knows?
In terms of actual gameplay, Sudeki follows a fairly traditional formula. Players will be given a primary quest before traversing an interlocking 3D world in search of new territory to explore and dungeons to raid. In certain designated areas the party will be ambushed by various monsters, whereupon players will slash or shoot their way to victory using various weapons and spells. It all happens in realtime as players flip between their available heroes, repositioning them and using the occasional skill to either deal damage or grant stat boosts to friendly targets.
Combat works, but it’s wonky. The melee heroes (who are controlled in a third-person view) can’t lock on to enemies, which makes fighting up close a finicky affair. Both Tal and Buki are capable fighters that have different combo strings to mix up their attacks, but it’s tricky to connect with a lot of the heavier ones simply because their animations are so long. Getting your attack cancelled mid execution is common when enemies swarm en masse, so it’s usually safer to abuse the simplest 3-button combo, however boring that may be.
Various weapons exist for players to find, but these are also boring, coming with basic stats and status effects that you can bet a large majority of enemies (and especially bosses) are immune to anyway.
A shaky battle camera hardly helps things, though you could always switch to one of the ranged heroes who fight in first-person. Ranged combat is even more boring though! Both Ailish and Elco are weak because their strength grows slowly with upgrades. Their gameplay involves pelting enemies with laser beams and bullets that deal pitiful damage by the mid game. Enemies are damage sponges, and whilst you can use flashy spells and skills to spice up your fights, these also cost precious upgrade points that would be much better spent upgrading health or regular combat damage.
This is a somewhat critical flaw because it makes purchasing all of a hero’s skills redundant. That’s not to say they’re worthless, but once you’ve got Tal’s skill that reduces incoming damage for the entire party by 70% (!) and Elco’s skill that doubles the entire party’s damage output (!!), you’ll wonder why any other skill exists at all, especially when you need to also upgrade a separate Essence stat before a lot of them will do anything particularly useful.
Bosses cause yet another problem because they’re routinely fought by a single member of your party. This sucks because it forces you to always level up your heroes in a balanced fashion, and more than that, it’s just a boring idea. The developers keep finding ways to isolate a member of the party and in one instance Elco must confront a boss in a locked arena before returning to the previous room where he finds his so-called friends just standing around whilst he was busy fighting for his life.
Even worse is the final boss who is once again fought alone, this time by Tal. That’s the most challenging battle in the game, which is fitting, but seeing as Tal is the only hero involved, it means using stat-boosting orbs and bonuses on any other hero is a waste.
The hero party rarely feels like a cohesive unit because of this. I suppose it feels natural to have them split up occasionally, but it’s annoying when you want to enter a secret area on the world map only to find you’re currently missing the one hero travel skill that’s needed to do so.
Regardless, I became utterly unconcerned with exploring this fantasy world because the running speed is so slow. The fast travel system is not particularly fast or convenient either, which makes getting to places feel really tedious. The one saving grace is that there aren’t many loading screens between areas. Regular travel is fairly seamless, it’s just that you need to trek almost everywhere on foot and the large outdoor areas take ages to navigate, especially when enemies like to respawn in previously visited locations.
Another potential frustration is the fact that players can only save their game at set points, which means you’ll lose significant progress if your console crashes or the party somehow gets wiped.
When you do finally reach the next town, you won’t discover much of interest. Equipment is incredibly simplistic and outside of the odd potion or weapon upgrade, there is very little worth spending your money on.
There are numerous side quests to perform, but they can be tough to find because it usually means talking to another boring NPC who seldom has anything stimulating to say.
Weak characterisation is a problem that extends to the core cast. Tal has one promising scene near the beginning where he argues with his father over past traumas; a brief glimmer of storytelling potential that sadly never gets another mention. He and Ailish also have this romance angle that goes absolutely nowhere, which only further highlights how boring the pair of them are.
It’s worth mentioning here that whilst the game’s visuals have aged well, its depiction of women hasn’t. When the bikini-clad female heroes weren’t blowing kisses during their skill moves, they were fronting the game’s marketing with tasteless slogans like: “Pray for a full frontal assault”, “Combat has never looked this good”, and “You’re going to love her killer moves”. It gives the impression that Climax weren’t concerned with creating interesting characters in the first place, and boy did they ever succeed.
The fatal blow to Sudeki is the simple fact that it’s so damn boring. I’ve used that word several times during this post, but it really is the best way to sum up the problems with this game. The side content is all boring fetch quests; the boring plot has no conflict or interesting twists; combat is too easy and repetitive, and even though the entire thing can be completed in a scant 12 hours, I honestly couldn’t wait for it to be over.
And what a disappointing ending it is. One final battle and a short puppet show epilogue later and the whole story is wrapped up with no closure whatsoever. The final act’s pacing is completely botched, in fact. Players go from escorting an NPC to the beach to almost immediately battling the avatar of an evil god bent on destroying reality. Not the most natural plot advancement, I’d say.
Ultimately, Sudeki doesn’t feel like a role-playing game. Its short run time, mediocre combat and lack of depth makes it feel more like a below average action-adventure game, or at least the sort of incredibly lightweight RPG that really isn’t what the Xbox needed at the time.