Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Zatch Bell! Mamodo Fury Review

To the uninitiated, the intense, off-the-wall style of the anime Zatch Bell! might seem uniquely bizarre, but its premise is really quite simple. There's a cast of hyper, interesting characters backed by a crazy but entertaining plot that basically gives the characters a reason to fight one another. It's a design that works in publisher Namco Bandai's favor because it can just as easily be a video game as it can be anime, manga, or a collectible card game, which makes for seemingly endless opportunities to create effortless adaptations. And that's exactly what Zatch Bell! Mamodo Fury is--a simplistic game built on the notion that fans of the license don't want or need anything more than to see their favorite characters in yet another venue, with no regard for the depth or quality of the experience. To its credit, the game does deliver a sizable cast of characters, a lengthy story mode, and a handful of ancillary gameplay modes. However, there's nothing in Mamodo Fury to instill a greater appreciation for the Zatch Bell! universe, and the fighting is much too shallow and repetitive to be fun.

The story is about as vague as can be in Mamodo Fury. Every 1,000 years, demons known as mamodos come to Earth to duke it out for the title of mamodo king. These mamodos can't fight alone, though. They need a human counterpart to read spells from a magic book. That means that you have a bunch of relatively normal humans, each with a quirky demon sidekick, who randomly encounter one another and engage in drawn-out, overblown battles. For all the time that it takes to fight, the story never goes anywhere, and the fighting accomplishes absolutely nothing.

That wouldn't be a problem if the fighting were fun, but it isn't. Mamodo Fury is essentially a one-button fighting game. By default, you control a human character, and you hold the A button to cast spells with your mamodo. Depending on how long you hold the button, you'll charge up the level of the spells and your mamodo will perform different attacks. Each mamodo has four regular attacks, a defensive spell, and one super attack. However, you'll usually end up firing off the first-level spell because it's fast and usually the most effective technique. That means that the fighting consists of your running around tapping the A button over and over until you finish off your enemy. To make the combat even more tedious, you have a power gauge that determines how many times you can cast a spell. If your gauge is depleted, you have to wait until it recharges before you can attack. As a result, you'll usually end up firing off about three spells, then running around or hiding behind a barrier until your power is replenished, then repeating the same routine half a dozen times. There is a very minor payoff for doing this, because you'll charge up your super power. When you've done enough damage, you'll see an icon appear on the screen. At that point, you can charge up your attack all the way to initiate a super move. You then have a few seconds to press a random string of buttons, and then you can increase the strength of the attack by hitting another, separate, and once-again-random string of buttons. These super moves inflict major damage and are a guaranteed hit, so with any luck, a single move will put an end to the fight as soon as you unleash it.

There are a few ways to mix up the fighting, but they don't make it any more enjoyable. As a human character, you can't attack a mamodo, but you can attack another human character. You can run up to the opposing human character and try to knock the spell book out of his or her hands. If the collision detection is feeling favorable toward you at that moment, you'll knock the book away and your opponent won't be able to cast any spells until he or she retrieves the book. More often than not, you'll get right up on your opponent and whiff time and time again as you try to land a hit, and even if you do knock the book away, it will buy you only a couple of seconds, so it's not an effective way to fight.

You can also take direct control of your mamodo. Doing so leaves your human character immobile and vulnerable, but the benefit is that your power gauge recharges faster, and as a mamodo, you can directly damage another mamodo using the single melee attack you have at your disposal. Again, this technique isn't useful in the average fight, because leaving your human character in one spot is a surefire way to get creamed, and as the mamodo, you'll run into the aggravating problem of spotty collision detection.

The problems of the shallow fighting mechanics are compounded by basic flaws in execution, as well. The game takes place from a behind-the-back perspective, which means that you constantly have to adjust the camera using the C stick. Your view will also often be obstructed by various objects in the environment. In addition to the camera problems, the deficient artificial intelligence is a regular source of frustration. Usually, your mamodo will stay close as you run around each stage, but often it will end up getting stuck behind low-lying barriers or stalwart hazards such as small shrubs or rocks. The enemy AI is no better. Your opponents will often get stuck on bits of the environment or will run in place up against a small obstruction rather than simply jumping over it.

It's a shame that the gameplay is so unfulfilling, because there's plenty of it to be found in Mamodo Fury. There are 20 playable character combinations in the game, as well as a decent number of stages to choose from. Unfortunately, just about everything other than story mode is locked at the beginning of the game, so you have to put in a lot of time to access all of the content. There's the standard arcade mode and versus mode, as well as a very lengthy story mode. There are more than 30 stages to fight your way through in story mode, with an impressive variety of enemies to fight and special conditions to meet. In some of the story modes, you simply have to defeat the enemy before time runs out, but occasionally the game mixes the formula up by giving you specific conditions for completing a stage. You might have to knock the book out of your opponent's hands, use a specific attack to defeat your foe, or simply survive for a set amount of time. These stages do break up the tedium of endless one-button fighting, but they still aren't fun or interesting, and they suffer from the same underlying problems that persist throughout the game. There are also a handful of minigames to play, where you take control of Zatch and do activities like sneak past guards to enter buildings, collect pieces of lost candy for a friend, or retrieve a stolen toy from a playground bully. The minigames require slightly more input than the fighting, but once you play each one a couple of times, you'll be ready to move on.

Mamodo Fury does support up to four players, but not in the way that you might think. Instead of having four-player versions of the normal versus battles, you get a couple of lame minigames to play. For example, in one game you have to run around and try to kick your opponents' books into a fire, and in another you have to be the first to collect a number of fish. If you want to fight, you're limited to two-player versus battles. In these battles, the screen is split down the middle, but otherwise they play exactly as the other battles in the game. It's a little bit more interesting to play against a human opponent, but the action is so repetitive that you'll quickly get bored.

If you didn't know any better, you could easily mistake Mamodo Fury for any number of other anime-inspired fighting games. The characters are all faithfully represented, and the stages are generic, but they're large and filled with breakable objects. The story sequences are ridiculous but occasionally worth at least a chuckle. Unfortunately, a good deal of charm is lost in the translation from the bright and busy 2D animated show to the flat 3D cel-shading of the game. Some of the spell effects are flashy and interesting to see, but since each character has only a couple of spells, the effects get played out almost immediately. The audio is especially disappointing in Mamodo Fury. The English-language voice cast is on hand to lend its talent, but that is the only highlight of the sound. The music sounds like a throwback to the 8-bit console generation, and not in a good way. The sound effects during battle are all distorted, as if they were rerecorded sounds from old cassette tapes. The most annoying aspect of the sound design is the noise the characters make each time they cast a spell. Each character has one battle cry for each spell, but since you'll usually be using the same spell over and over, you'll constantly hear the same annoying phrase from your character. It goes the same for the enemies you face, too, so during the average three-minute fight, your ears will be continually assaulted by one cringe-inducing voice clip after another, and you'll likely be scrambling for the mute button within the first few minutes of playing the game.

With its sizable cast of characters and lengthy story mode, Zatch Bell! Mamodo Fury offers a lot of very familiar content in one package. However, the gameplay is far too shallow and frustrating to be satisfying. If you're unfamiliar with Zatch Bell! this isn't a good place to start, because it provides no context for the license and does nothing to appeal to those who aren't already intimately familiar with the series. The result is just another perfunctory anime-inspired fighting game that fails to distinguish itself beyond its license.

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