Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Multiplayer-capable fighting games are rare on any console, let alone the Game Boy Advance. That's what makes Rave Master: Special Attack Force so unique, and also so tragic. Due to a serious flaw in the game's single-player component, the only way to squeeze your money's worth out of this 2D punchfest is to track down two or three other people with the game and play them in linked games.

Many aspects of the combat system are legitimately inspired. Each fight can involve a maximum of four characters (in teams or free-for-all), and most stages have multiple platforms and environmental hazards. The directional pad gives you precise control over actions, such as walking, running, crouching, and blocking, while the buttons let you do things like jump, activate power-ups, and perform weak and strong attacks.

The developer managed to integrate minigames into the combat system without hurting the game's overall pace or energy level. In fact, these minigames make each fight more interesting. One of these is a Konami-centric arrow-pushing game that occurs when you lock weapons with an opponent. Whoever keys out the corresponding pattern first will earn a power-up point, which can be used to briefly upgrade a character's defense, speed, or attack power. The other minigame is a rapid button-mashing task that is initiated by activating a character's special finishing move, called a rave finisher. If the instigator manages to press the buttons faster than his opponents, they'll all be laid to waste in a fiery outburst.

Another interesting facet of gameplay is the concept of rave stones, which is an idea that was taken from the TV show that the game is based on. In a nutshell, every character carries an enchanted object, known as a rave stone. Rave stones allow the characters to perform strong attacks, use power-ups, and activate their rave finishers. These special stones can be dislodged by hitting a fighter with a strong attack, a string of weak attacks, or by knocking them down. The stone will land somewhere nearby and can be picked up simply by walking through it. But until that time, the stone-challenged fighter will be limited to weak attacks only. This adds one more layer of strategy to an already intricate fighting system.

With four people linked up and going at it in the same room, this game is loads of fun. Each match is a flurry of special attacks and double-teams, interspersed with frequent interludes of arrow-matching and button-mashing. Over long play sessions, you'll discover that some attacks aren't worth using and that the game doesn't incorporate any combo attacks or juggles whatsoever. However, those flaws hardly take away from the white-knuckle excitement that the link mode offers.

By contrast, the single-player component isn't any fun at all, and it's all the CPU's fault. First off, it's cheap. The moment you press a button, your enemies can interrupt strong attacks and knock you out of the air instantly. The only way to inflict damage is to wait for your foe to miss an attack or jump toward you. Worse still, the CPU will do its best to keep you from winning, but won't actually try to beat you. It's programmed to fight to a stalemate! If you dole out enough damage so that the tension gauge is significantly biased in your favor, the CPU opponent will come at you with an aggressive flurry of attacks and stymie you until the tension gauge drops to a safe level. Conversely, if the CPU somehow manages to move the tension gauge in its favor, it might initiate its own rave finisher--which won't succeed because the CPU isn't programmed to win the button-mashing minigame. That brings both sides back to square one.

Let's say you choose to forgive the single-player component's shortcomings, or, better yet, you're picking up the game with the intention of linking up with your friends. You're in for a treat. The 2D graphics that make up the character sprites and backgrounds are colorful and detailed. Fans of the TV show will quickly recognize their favorite characters and their trademark attack moves. Each arena has its own unique layout of platforms and hazards, and many of them include some sort of animated environmental feature, such as rain, fog, or heat distortion. The two minigame-style attacks will cause the viewpoint to change to a close-up, which uses a combination of in-game graphics and hand-drawn artwork to show the involved fighters locked in an epic collision. Meanwhile, the audio, specifically the musical selections and voice clips that comprise the majority of it, actually do justice to what the GBA's speaker is capable of. Each arena has its own musical theme, complete with changing melodies and a distinctive assortment of beats and instruments, and every fighter has a different battle cry for each different attack.

In all, the game includes 14 playable characters and eight combat arenas. The five play modes include the typical assortment of options that you'd expect to find in a fighting game: story, ranking, free battle, training, and link play. In the story mode, each character has his or her own individual plot twists and endings.

Thanks to the heinous artificial intelligence, none of the single-player modes are worth diving into. What's the point? You'll just end up frustrated. The only way to enjoy Rave Master: Special Attack Force is to play in link mode against living human beings, which is a tall order considering that you'll need to get four GBA systems, four game cartridges, and all of the related people and cables together in one spot. If you can manage that though, by all means, check this game out.

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