Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Rhythm of Fighters Review

When SNK Playmore announced that their next game would be a rhythm-based smartphone app, fans got a little agitated that they were spending time on something not related to The King of Fighters 14.  I meanwhile was excitedly imitating Hibari’s victory pose.  Recall in my review of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy when I said that there should be a rhythm game like it, but with KOF music.  With The Rhythm of Fighters, SNK Playmore gives us just that.  It’s like making a Rock Band game all about the Beatles; it's a good idea from the start.  Up until The Rhythm of Fighter’s sudden release onto the app store (with little fanfare, I might add), all I asked for was for them not to screw this brilliant concept up.
My prayers were answered.  For the most part, it’s just what I wanted.

It would be easy to describe ROF as “Theatrhythm with SNK."  It plays exactly like what you would expect a rhythm game to: players tap the screen to overlapping shapes in synchronization with the music like a beautiful dance of the fingers.  One of the big deciding factors that sets it apart from others in this case the music being some of the best in gaming.

The stronger comparison to Theatrhythm instead of, say, Elite Beat Agents, is that ROF borrows a few of Theatrhythm's ideas.  Similarly to Theatrhythm, hitting long chains of notes makes your character onscreen hit the enemy with canned combos and special moves taken straight from KOF and Samurai Shodown, and when you do badly, you get hit.  ROF even copies Theatrhythm’s summons by having your character use their super special move when you hit a string of golden notes, and your opponent uses theirs on you when you royally screw up.  The combination of familiar KOF fighting and the way it's dependent on your performance gives playing the game an aura of intensity, and there's something satisfying about finishing the end of a difficult song with the character's win poses, including Kyo's famous "Ore no... Kachi da!"

It’s all very competently done and ROF has a very useful option the iOS version of Theatrhythm doesn’t.  For anyone whose device might make the tapping feel slightly delayed (even by microseconds), SNK Playmore had the foresight to include a small procedure in the options menu to make sure the game registers your tap the exact moment you do.  Said small procedure has you tapping to the original character select theme from King of Fighters ’94.  How cute.

For a token amount of depth, ROF has both Theatrhythm’s level-up system and item system, the latter of which takes the form of support characters that give you various assisting effects in battle.  Many of them are very obscure SNK characters most U.S. gamers (and even a lot of Japanese ones) most likely won’t recognize, but I like being introduced to new characters from SNK’s history.

Athena, assist Athena!
Sadly, all we get of these support characters is a headshot of their original artwork and a brief text quote when their effect is activated in battle.  When I said they were used as items, I meant that somewhat literally because the support characters are used as equipment and do not visually jump into the battle.  I would have loved to have seen Ralf come in to hit the enemy with a Galactica Phantom for his damage effect, but I guess that would break our fragile little smartphone screens.

Don't get the idea the game has a half-assed presentation though.  Recall in my review of the iPhone version of KOF ‘97 when I said the visuals were nice and sharp and the music came out crystal clear, with my only complaint being that there was no option to use the arranged tracks.  The same can be said of ROF, except this time every track is arranged.  In fact, a handful of tracks have been re-arranged for ROF by their original composers, and while some players may prefer the originals, there was definitely effort put into these new reversions.  I especially like the enhanced rendition they made to Big Shot, one of Terry's most famous themes, even if this one is difficult to the point of frustration thanks to its added saxophone solo.

That just leaves the question as to whether SNK music can hold up a game like this in the first place.  After all, if you're going to make an entire game revolve around music, that music had better be damn good.  If you really really question whether or not SNK's music is any good, have someone hit you in the back of the head.  Hard.

So if the gameplay is fun and the music is perfect, all it needs as an iOS game is good dollar value, which it has, but ROF’s method of payment may be what will lead people away: the dreaded microtransactions.

Smartphone games that revolve around smaller purchases are often despised by gamers because the majority of them are lazy cash grabs meant to rip people off or force them to pay more and more to succeed, due in large part to a lack of quality control.  The most notorious offenders are the iOS Dungeon Keeper game and Final Fantasy: All the Bravest, both of which are insults to fans of the franchise names they use and have been met with overwhelming hatred for their microtransaction abuse that tries to wring every bit of money out of anyone they can sucker into playing them.  Even the iOS version of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy winds up costing more than double the price of the 3DS version for the same content, and even then the 3DS version has more features.

The Rhythm of Fighters could have been one one of those mistakes too, and I know some people who assumed it is based on the reputation of smartphone games that use microtransactions (and some bad marketing).  However, ROF does it right.  It gives buyers quality content for reasonable prices, just like in SNK Playmore's free to play smartphone game Metal Slug Heroes.  They know what they’re doing.

Unlike the meager two music tracks the allegedly free iOS version of Theatrhythm gives you, the single dollar you pay for ROF’s initial cost gives you 14 tracks, all of which are winners.  Some of my favorite tracks are included, like KOF ‘96’s Fairy, the very first rendition of Esaka from KOF ’94, KOF 13’s Stormy Saxophone 5, and KOF 11’s At the Good Old Days.

But it’s not all King of Fighters music, despite what the title might have you believe.  There’s a song from Samurai Shodown, Metal Slug 2 and even some very obscure, more up-beat songs from SNK games never released in America to add variety.  The most jarring of the starting tracks is easily the newly-arranged version of a song that comes from a rhythm game SNK made on the Dreamcast called Cool Cool Toon.  For the price of a large drink at McDonalds, that is a good starting deal.

The game uses the included songs in an arcade mode, which like the gameplay is competently done and has a smooth difficulty curve even though you'll be playing each song more than once.  By beating them under specified conditions you unlock the higher difficulties for each one, new support characters and special sound effects for hitting notes (though they’re usually distracting and only worth using for laughs).  At the start you'll tap at a relaxing, easy rate, but by the final songs you'll need to be rattling two fingers against the screen to hit the rapid-fire beats.

I'd expect a lot less for only one dollar, and if you want more, SNK asks you for more as well.  Packs of three additional support characters are sold for a dollar each, with the exception of one sold for two, which has support characters that make it so you can’t fail or autoplays the songs (without getting experience or a score in return).  Basically they’re selling some extra features and slightly more useful support characters if you’d like to buy a lifeline for some of the really difficult stages.

All the actors recorded new lines reacting to the score.  This score... Is bad.

As you would expect there are also several songs available as DLC.  Like Theatrhythm, packs of four are are $3 each, which when you consider the already substantial 14 songs ROF comes with, is not that taxing on your wallet.  Besides, they’re just as amazing as any other SNK masterpiece.  At the time of this writing there’s a 4-pack for SNK’s Pachinko Machines, Fatal Fury 2, Metal Slug 2 and The King of Fighters ’96.  You can guess which one I snatched up right away.

The playable characters are what get the sharp end of the monetization stick.  There are only 6 characters in the game: Ryo, Kyo, Athena, Nakoruru, Iori and Terry.  That may seem like a step down from the huge character counts in the KOF games, but they aren’t that important.  Even if the character count is lacking, the backgrounds used for each song give each one its own subtle visual identity that makes it feel less like you're watching the same fight.

And I think there's a reason those 6 were chosen specifically (except maybe for Ryo).

I guess Ryo was the backstage guy so we never saw him.

The problem with the characters is that the stigma of monetized app games are reinforced in that Iori, Terry and Nakoruru all cost $3 each to unlock.  Each of the 6 characters have differing stats that slightly affect the game, and Nakoruru has a super attack that heals herself instead of damages the enemy, but for the most part they’re cosmetic, which would be understandable for a multiplayer game when you have someone to show what you invested into, but aside from online leaderboards, this game has none!  Forcing players to buy half the cast in a game like this, and for $3 each, is a rip-off!  Just one dollar each would be pushing it!

But I digress.  If you can look past the bullshit of the locked off characters and are satisfied with Kyo, Athena, and Ryo, you’ll find that ROF uses microtransactions very well.  Companies like Square Enix and Capcom could (mostly) learn a thing or two about how to charge gamers without making them feel cheated.

Think of it this way: Excluding the playable characters, the total cost for everything currently available is $19 plus tax with a good 30 songs.  That’s about the price of a budget Nintendo DS game, which ROF has about the same, if not more, production values of.  Imagine having the option to lower the price of that DS game by taking features out you didn’t need.  Without all the buyable support characters, the $19 price is lowered to $13 for just the songs.  It's a good option for anyone not willing to drop all their money down at once.

That concept is how Rhythm of Fighters does the microtransaction model right.  It doesn’t feel like it’s unfairly withholding content because you didn’t pay full price.  Instead it’s enticing.  You’re willing to spend more because you can spare more than the single dollar you paid for all that fun and you want to spend more because it’s so much fun.

And I do want to spend more on The Rhythm of Fighters.  There’s supposed to be even more DLC tracks on the way and I’m greatly anticipating seeing what they are.  An Iori pack with 4 of his different themes?  A pack of boss music?  Maybe more fun songs I’ve never heard?  Because this company has been around for decades, the possibilities for new content are vast.

I would be shocked, amazed, and ecstatic at the same time if they were to re-record this:

To SNK and rhythm game fans, The Rhythm of Fighters is a must-buy, but even if you aren’t the game puts so much value in the single dollar it takes to get started that I urge even non-fans to at least try it out.  Bullshit character locking notwithstanding, ROF shows us how microtransactions can be used for the benefit of a game experience rather than its detriment.  That combined with the inherently compelling rhythm gameplay and kickass arranged soundtrack to build around makes it a very solid diversion to take out and play.

I give The Rhythm of Fighters a 7 out of 10.

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