The Sword of Kalin
Version Reviewed: Famicom Disk System ROM w/English Language Patch
Year Published: 1987
The Sword of Kalin feels like a lost piece of gaming history. It's an RPG that was published by Squaresoft before they made Final Fantasy and before they were even known as Squaresoft. Under the moniker DOG, they released a game that few have heard of, and I'm guessing even fewer have played, due to it being only on the Famicom Disk System and only in Japan. As such, I had to play a ROM with a translation patch, but it is definitely worth the trouble if you're a fan of the oldschool style.
The premise of The Sword of Kalin is that you're a knight sent on a quest to find a missing wizard and stop the monsters that have suddenly appeared all over the world. But as we know, RPGs are never that simple. To find the source of the monsters, you'll need to descend into the underworld, the game's version of Hell. If you guessed that finding your way there would involve lots of puzzles to solve, items to find, people to help, and even a dungeon or two to explore, you'd be right. And that's where this game shines. There's plenty of that, and it's especially good if you prefer exploring and puzzle solving to the modern RPG genre's focus on storytelling, or are just in the mood to revisit this style of RPG.
The influence of Dragon Warrior on The Sword of Kalin is apparent: The overworld looks similar, the hero looks similar to Erdrick, we have simply replaced Princess Gwaelin with a wizard, and heck, you even have to choose "STAIRS" from the menu to go up or down a flight of stairs. But the battles are where it takes a U-turn and instead of a menu-driven system, the developers have inexplicably lifted a page from the book of Hydlide - you control your knight directly and bump into enemies to fight them. Who wins depends on who has the better stats.
As you might know, I don't have much fondness for Hydlide. When I heard this game has a similar battle system, I almost couldn't bring myself to try it. But since some players have argued with me over Hydlide throughout the years, insisting that I just don't understand it, I thought - one of the best ways to counter a defense of a bad game is by suggesting a similar, yet better game. I can say that, without a doubt, The Sword of Kalin is a far better game.
For starters, the battle system is less awkward and doesn't seem to focus so much on hitting the enemies from behind. In fact, I'm not even sure it's possible to attack from behind in The Sword of Kalin, despite what other sources claim, because enemies immediately face you when you bump them. There doesn't seem to be much difference if you touch them when they're moving towards you than when they're moving away. I have found that hitting enemies slightly off-center tends to yield better results, but the real danger comes from getting attacked by multiple enemies at once. It's best to go for monsters that are isolated from the herd, and if the pack is too tight, use hit-and-run tactics until some have been knocked off.
For what it's worth, there were other issues with Hydlide that are not present here. The Sword of Kalin is explored one-screen-at-a-time and doesn't scroll, like The Magic of Scheherazade, so that problem where the screen would scroll you right through an enemy in Hydlide doesn't exist. The graphics are nicer to look at and the soundtrack may not be quite up to par with Square's later efforts, but at least it's not one (annoying) song looping through the whole game. I also never saw my character die just from standing still and not doing anything. Yes, people told me this doesn't happen in Hydlide. I played the game again after being told this, and it happened again. I was later told by a different player it may have been because my character was poisoned. Regardless, it doesn't happen in The Sword of Kalin.
Despite its oldschool nature, The Sword of Kalin contains a number of user-friendly features that make it accessible for just about anyone. There is, for example, an infinite-use item that can restore your HP. Though it consumes MP to use, your MP will refill on its own when you stand still, and there is yet another item that will speed this up. Essentially, you can spam-heal in battles, and if that's not enough, once you have all the best weapons and armor there's nothing to spend your increasingly massive gold supply on except healing items, which you can also spam away. The rate of level gain is much faster than Dragon Warrior, and once you reach Level 42, it takes 5000 EXP for each additional level, meaning you can level up as much as you want at the same rate. So, it won't be the most difficult RPG you'll ever play, but it makes exploring less stressful and more fun, which is especially good for a game so focused on exploring. But don't worry about it being a cakewalk. The underworld, due to its large, twisty mazes filled with tough enemies and complete lack of towns, will still take effort to conquer.
The only real downside to The Sword of Kalin is that its obscurity is its undoing. Having been released only in Japan on Nintendo's Famicom Disk System means that most people can only play it via emulation, and if you don't read Japanese, you'll need a translation patch. Along with the added annoyance of having to patch the ROM, playing it on an emulator is tricky to figure out, since you'll need an FDS bios, and you'll have to contend with the Side A and Side B nonsense. And about that English patch - well, it's serviceable, but not without problems. There's a math puzzle late in the game that is so poorly translated it cannot be solved as intended - you'll just have to take random guesses until you get it right.
Regardless of these minor setbacks, it's easy to recommend The Sword of Kalin to anyone who would like to take a trip back through time to an era of unpretentious role-playing with a game that they probably have never played before, and one that, despite being relatively unknown is historically important, as it clearly shows how Squaresoft planted their roots in the genre. Anyone who could build a better Hydlide was certainly destined for greatness.
Two big worlds (over and under) to explore, without ever feeling overwhelming.
Puzzle solving, item finding, dungeon crawling - this game has a tight focus on what made oldschool RPGs great.
Fast paced experience gain and helpful items make for a user-friendly experience.
Nice ending scenes, the game likes to reward your efforts.
The fact that the game was only released in Japan on the Famicom Disk System means that anyone unwilling to emulate and/or use a fan translation patch will not likely have an easy or inexpensive way of experiencing it.
The fan translation has some issues.
You have to remember to save often. Dying makes you restart from your last save, losing any progress gained since then. At least you can save almost anywhere.
Anyone hoping for an RPG with a deep story won't find it here, even though there is a single plot twist (but if you're like me, you'll guess it before you get there).