Wednesday, July 8, 2015

J-Stars Victory Versus + Review

J-Stars Victory Versus and Senran Kagura 2 have been my two most anticipated games of 2015.  Both are centered around extreme power-clashing speedline-using shonen badasses on powerful handheld systems, but since J-Stars came out far sooner I counted the days for its release first.  That is, until Bandai Namco told me it wouldn’t be released physically on the Playstation Vita.

Apparently Bandai Namco hasn’t learned what XSEED did after the first Senran Kagura: that forcing customers to download a multi-gigabyte full-retail game on their expensive (especially on the Vita) memory cards through a digital distribution service that may not keep it forever is a really fucking stupid idea!  I wouldn't even be that offended if they didn't release it physically on two other systems and showed that they're perfectly capable of doing so!  Fuck you Bandai Namco!

At that point I should have stopped counting the days and not given in to their stupid fucking digital-only fucking didn’t-learn-anything fucking run-by-lobotomized-chimps fucking bullshit, but if I didn’t review a game synonymous with the word “shonen” I might have this blog’s title called out for being a lie.  So I got the damn thing, with only a Vita theme based on the game that plays its (admittedly awesome) theme song as the background music as compensation for the lack of a physical release’s pre-order bonus.  Fuck you Bandai Namco.

If you can get over J-Stars Victory Versus’ slap in the face for Vita owners and focus on the game as it is, then it’s an amazing action game and for some will likely beat out Super Smash Brothers 4.  The big question is whether or not you can honestly do that.

J-Stars Victory Versus (+, as this release adds) is a successor of sorts to Jump Super Stars and Jump Ultimate Stars, the latter of which is my favorite game ever on the Nintendo DS.  Like them, it’s a huge crossover of many of Shonen Jump’s series for a big free-roaming battle, except this time it’s a 3D brawler instead of a 2D platform fighter.

The one thing fans care about in any crossover fighting game first and foremost is its character selection, as evidenced by how fast unlockable characters in new Super Smash Brothers games are spoiled.  In a smart move, the game doesn’t hide which characters are available.  They can all be bought in the in-game shop in any order, albeit with a slowly-increasing limit so that you don’t get them all at the start.  This means you can get your favorite characters ASAP, but still have motivation to see what the other characters are like.  With over 45 playable characters, chances are one of your favorites is in it.

All the most popular series are in, naturally.  The four initial characters are Naruto, Luffy, Ichigo and Toriko (he’s bigger in Japan though), and, like the other Jump games, there are a good number of characters that can only be used for support in addition to the playable ones.
Represented series include shonen classics like Yu Yu Hakusho, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Rurouni Kenshin and Fist of the North Star, all alongside more obscure (but no less entertaining) ones like Luckyman, Medaka Box, Beelzebub and even Nisekoi.  Yes, much like the support characters of Strawberry 100% in the previous “Stars” games, one of the main characters of a romantic comedy series is a support character that can give a big slap to powerhouses like Toriko’s Zebra and Dragon Ball Z’s Vegeta.  Lala, the cutesy alien girl from the other, more risqué Shonen Jump rom com To Love Ru is in there too, which is even more bizarre.

The lack of playable villains in the previous “Stars” games is corrected with the inclusion with several of Shonen’s most popular and powerful; Bleach’s Aizen, Yu Yu Hakusho’s younger Toguro, Rurouni Kenshin’s Makoto Shishioh and Naruto’s Madara Uchiha are all playable in addition to previous combatants Frieza and Raoh.

I'd have taken Crocodile over Akainu.

Those of us who just finished watching part 3 of the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure anime might be disappointed in Dio not returning, but it seems Victory Versus made the decision to give some much-needed love to the first two parts by including their heroes Jonathan and Joseph.

It almost seems pointless to explain how J-Stars Victory Versus actually plays because it’s unlikely anyone cares.  It’s an awesome-looking crossover with badass shonen characters smacking each other down with flashy moves and if you buy it that’s exactly what you’re getting, but for the sake of thoroughness the gameplay is easy enough to explain.

Think Sengoku Basara’s easy-input special attacks crossed with the basic heavy and light attack system of Anarchy Reigns all set to the free-roaming, lock-on focused fighting full of destructible scenery from the Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi games and you have a good idea of what playing J-Stars is like.

There’s more of an emphasis on teamwork.  80% of the time you’ll be fighting with or against a team of two plus one support character, and during battle certain attacks can launch an enemy straight up into the air for your partner to initiate a tag attack.  Things can get so hectic with four fighters on the field at once that they had to add a large arrow on the edges of the screen that points at enemies locking on to you and flashes when they’re attacking.

It doesn’t have the same fast pace as other fighters, and not just because it’s supposed to be a power battle.  The few seconds of invincibility the opponent gets after getting up, and having to double jump into the air to hit an opponent that’s supposed to be set up for a tag attack can feel awkward and hurt the flow of the game.

Constantly attacking isn’t encouraged though.  What sets J-Stars Victory Versus.’s mechanics apart from other brawlers is its focus on stamina gauges and the “Victory Burst.”

The stamina gauge is separate from the health gauge and is used up through blocking attacks, dashing and using heavy attacks and special moves.  Every character can charge their stamina gauge in addition to recovery over time, but in very different ways.
For example, many fighters have a second stamina gauge.  For most it simply acts as an extra reserve of power, but when the Saiyans and FOTNS fighters fully charge that second gauge, they get a bonus; Kenshiro and Raoh’s shirts rip apart while the Saiyans go into Super Saiyan and enhance their attacks.  Similarly, once they’ve charged for a long enough time, Hiei tears his headband off to reveal his Jagan eye and Ichigo gains his hollow mask, complete with warped voice effect.

It lets him rapid-fire his Zangestu attack.
The Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Hamon users don’t have a second gauge, but make up for it by having a much faster charge.  Naruto characters, rather than a continuous charge, double their stamina after taking a couple of seconds to charge.

Charging battle aura in any way, be it nen, chakra or ki, is a staple of shonen, so implementing it as a mechanic, especially with character-specific touches, makes J-Stars feel even more like a battle taken straight out of a shonen anime.

The Victory Burst, however, doesn’t quite feel that way.  It feels more like it was made solely to be different from other fighting games in the way you use your ultimate attacks.
During battle at the top of the screen there’s a meter with a needle.  As both fighting teams land hits on the other, the needle tips more toward them.  If it goes all the way to one side, then once all players on that team tap the upper right of the Vita screen (R2 in the console versions) they can assert their triumph by activating a Victory Burst!

Good!  Now hold that for two episodes!

During a Victory Burst, every fighter on the team gets a boost to their attack, defense or stamina efficiency, depending on an option chosen when you select them.  It only lasts for a few dozen seconds, and whatever time is left can be used to unleash the best, most powerful, decimating attacks and super forms in the game (and, in essence, the series they’re from).
For the nerds, such ultimate attacks include Naruto’s Tailed Beast Bomb, Kenshiro’s Musou Tensei (which lets him strafe around the field without using stamina), Japan-only comedy policeman Ryotsu’s boss yelling at him (?), Dr. Slump’s Arale splitting the planet apart and Hiei’s Dragon of the Darkness Flame, which like in the series, he can merge with to power up his attacks.

Coincidentally, the Dark Tournament stage in the game is from after Hiei uses it the second time here.

Those who want a true crossover might be saddened by the way such attacks are toned down in the name of competitive balance.  Frieza can throw his death ball, but it doesn’t leave a crater where the stage should be or bust the planet.  Toguro is extremely powerful at 100% of his strength, but he still flinches at normal attacks as opposed to being a juggernaut in his home series.  Madara’s meteors are probably big enough to flatten a decent-sized building, but they’re downright puny when compared to almost smashing an entire army.

I also wish Kenshiro and Raoh’s Hokuto Shinken would instantly kill enemies after hitting them like he could with some attacks in Jump Ultimate Stars, but I’m probably the only critic who wouldn’t complain about that.  Instead they both have an attack that makes the opponent take explosion damage after a set period of time, which is admittedly still pretty satisfying.

Even though they aren’t as powerful as in their home series, the special attacks pack a punch thanks to the outstanding presentation.
It’s easily the best-looking game I’ve seen on the Vita, matched only by Gravity Rush.  The character models are expressive and the environments are very detailed, with the animation on the destructible scenery giving everything an added feeling of power.  The only problems with the environments are some distracting invisible walls that make fighting in them feel less like it’s happening in the actual locations and more like it’s in a fenced-off area.  Past those fenced-off areas are mountains, landmarks and an entire world that looks like you could explore it if the wall weren’t there, but I guess the fights can’t rampantly deface everything.

See all that stuff in the background?  It's just for show.
Obviously the Vita isn’t as powerful as the PS3 or PS4, but the difference in graphics are next to unnoticeable unless you go out of your way to compare the two.  The only edge the console versions have is sharper textures, slightly smoother character models and detailed lighting and particle effects that, to me, seem a little out of place in the stylized world of Shonen Jump.  The Vita version is still the exact same game, and for how big and overblown it gets, that's impressive.

With an already solid fighting system and strong character selection, Bandai Namco could have just taken the route Nintendo did with Super Smash Brothers 4 and leave it at that with a few modes and no story, but J-Stars does the smart thing by giving the game its own story mode.
It’s not a particularly good story, but it’s better than nothing.

The plot of J-Stars Adventure mode is as basic as can be.  After choosing between four different versions of the story starring different characters, players are taken to the Jump World.  Much like in Jump Super Stars, Jump World is a big amalgamation of all the series represented, populated by their characters and landmarks.  As the plot moves along, the ship you travel in is upgraded to allow access to new areas.

An image from before the game came out.  As guessed at the bottom, there are are a few more locations.

It’s not long before the chosen characters are thrust into a world-spanning battle tournament in which they must collect three macguffins from assigned proctors to compete.  At the conclusion of that storyline, the plot takes a lazy turn and shifts into fighting an uninspired villain that can conveniently take the form of other fighters and requires another three macguffins to beat.

At least in Bleach: Dark Soul’s story, there was a plausible reason as to why the primary threat took the form of the other fighters and it played into the plot, but here it’s only so there are more enemies to fight and pad out the story.  The game is good enough at using its massive character selection to mix things up enough and keep it interesting up until the end, but you're likely only going to play through it once.

"We're going into filler again, aren't we."

The plot isn’t where the entertainment value of the adventure lies, nor is it in the barebones presentation that's probably being laughed off the PS4.  It’s in the character interactions.  Many secondary characters show up to briefly help on the journey and give out side quests (that are fights 2/3rds of the time).  Just having the familiar faces play into the plot, however thin, makes it feel like a true crossover, and they along with the characters you travel with on your ship have many fun exchanges, references and situations that fans can appreciate.

This applies to the fights themselves as well.  J-Stars: Victory Versus has without a doubt the most character combination-specific battle introductions I have ever seen in any game.  That includes dialogues for characters on the same team (Luffy asking about Seiya’s armor) and on opposing teams (Chitoge being creeped out by Hunter X Hunter’s Hisoka).  You can listen to these exchanges in the game’s gallery as you discover them, so playing with different combinations of characters is encouraged.

For those who watch these anime in their original Japanese form, extra credibility comes from the voice cast.  As much as I’d like to have Neil Kaplan’s dominating baritone voicing Madara or Sean Schemel’s much older-sounding Goku, it’s obvious there couldn’t be an English dub.  What has been dubbed at all has been done by different companies across the U.S.

The trade-off is that, perhaps because of their country’s smaller size, every single Japanese voice actor that can reprise their role does so!  Kenshiro has his actor from the Ken’s Rage games, the Joestars have their actors from the latest anime and even actors from anime way back in the 90s come back to lend their voice, like Nobuyuki Hiyama once again voicing Hiei (in a stark contrast to his screaming roles as Adult Link and Joe Higashi)!  One of the only noticeably inconsistent voices is Assassination Classroom's Koro-Sensei, but that’s only because the game came out before the anime did in Japan.

That face hides something fearsome.
Having Japanese voice actors means subtitles are required for English-only speakers to understand what anyone is saying.  While there are subtitles for the wonderful character introductions and victory poses, there are none mid-battle.  Taunting and mid-attack remarks aren’t as fun if you don’t know what they mean. Senran Kagura and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle have mid-fight subtitles, so this is either a massive oversight or a sign of laziness on Bandai Namco’s part.

My guess is that it’s laziness, given the nonexistent effort put into the arcade mode that’s the only cited justification for this release having a “+” at the end of the title.  Just like in All Star Battle, it’s not a true arcade mode with a plot or character specific endings.  It’s just a time trial mode and should be named as such.  The only effort put into it is that there are different courses with selections of opponents centered around themes.  When you label your time trial mode as “arcade mode” all you do is make people think of that one KOF game we’ve tried to neuralize out of our heads for the past half-decade!  That is not something you want to be associated with!

The rest of the modes are a checklist of standard licensed fighter features that are sufficient, but not unique.  There’s the mode with fights given special objectives and multiple paths, a gallery for reading about the characters, replays of fights, online play with unlockable icons and titles, a collectible card-based stat customizer and freely customizable battles.  All of it is fluff based around the core fighting, which has enough content to stand on its own.

It may not have the finesse of a one-on-one fighter and it can’t match the mind-blowing quantity of characters in Jump Ultimate Stars, but J-Stars Victory Versus has so much polish and attention to detail in everything it has that it stands out in its own way.  When I’m calling out attacks like in the source material as I use it in the game, that’s a sign that it kicks ass.  As crossover fighting games go, it’s a must-have.  I give J-Stars Victory Versus + an 8 out of 10.

.... Is what I would say if I could actually, physically own the damn thing.  It’s worth the money, but not all the space it will have to take up on a Vita memory card!  For that, I give J-Stars Victory Versus + a 7 out of 10.  Fuck you Bandai Namco.

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