Friday, March 23, 2012

Review - Kid Icarus: Uprising

The original Kid Icarus is an NES classic, sure, but playing it today is like pulling teeth. Its meandering pace, frustrating difficulty, and seemingly endless verticality are... well, let's just say there are quite literally hundreds of platformers more worthy of your time and efforts, many of them on the NES itself. But after 20 years and a playable inclusion in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Kid Icarus re-asserts itself as a franchise with Kid Icarus: Uprising. How does it hold up? Well, rest assured, it's loads better than the original, though it's not without it's share of problems either.

Gameplay is broken up into two modes; the first half of every stage is an "air battle," an on-rails shooter where players control Pit as he flies through an onslaught of enemies. The second half is a "land battle," a third-person shooter which sees Pit at ground level making his way through a castle or pirate ship or volcano. Both modes are fun, challenging, and addictive, and they provide a welcome change of pace to one another that keeps gameplay very fast and very fresh all throughout. Some stages mercifully shake up the formula by beginning on foot or returning to the air battle format for a boss fight.

"Everything is lasers with you!"
Throughout the levels, Pit and the goddess Palutena assault the player with all manner of witty banter and cheesy dialogue; almost always, the boss of that particular level joins in as well. These exchanges are rife with corny jokes and attacks on the fourth wall, and I just know that most gamers today, particularly those with short attention spans, will absolutely loathe them because there is no way to turn them off at first. Honestly though, while they can be a bit distracting during intense action sequences, I actually find the near-constant banter really appealing. I always appreciate when games (or movies, or shows) don't take themselves too seriously; it's probably the main reason the Ace Attorney series is one of my all-time favorites. And Kid Icarus features dialogue so campy, so over-the-top, so self-aware, that it's hard for me not to appreciate it. Any fans of the 60's Batman show will know what I mean. Beyond that, though, the banter really manages to infuse personality into characters who've never had it. Turning Palutena into a jokester was a baffling, yet welcome decision, and it truly separates her from the likes of Peach, Zelda, and even Samus. She finds an interesting character all her own that I've never seen before in a Nintendo game, or in any game, really. She and Pit are both so adorkable that it's impossible for me not to crack a smile when they start waxing poetic.

These two-part levels make up a lengthy single-player campaign (much longer than you're initially led to believe, considering you defeat Medusa at the end of Chapter 9, only about a third of the way through!) which should provide many, many hours of entertainment, and each "land battle" section features hidden chambers and treasures and secret areas that are locked off unless you are playing at a certain "intensity," or difficulty level. The sliding meter that controls the difficulty can be positioned at any tenth of a point between 0.1 and 9.0, allowing for an impressively wide range of ways to play. Things get very difficult very fast, considering the default setting is 2.0. You'll have to spend hearts earned by killing enemies to set it any higher or lower; the higher you set it, the greater the rewards, though the penalty is also greater when you die. At higher difficulty levels especially, the game is paced marvelously, and keeps you on your toes at all times. Almost constantly, I find myself killing a boss or finding a health-replenishing hot spring juuuuust before losing my last blip of health. It's a fairly intuitive system, and the way the levels are designed encourages you to familiarize yourself with the layout first before attempting it on the highest setting. My first time through the second level, I barely scraped by at 3.0, but after learning its ins and outs, I had a much easier time of it at 5.0 and 7.0 and so on. Each time I played it, I also found more of the level's hidden chambers containing special weapons. Hidden surprises like this, especially when coupled with the extreme flexibility of the game's difficulty setting, ensure an infinitely replayable single-player campaign, and that's not even mentioning the multi-player modes.

This is only the fourth time I've played this stage.
The game features a truly staggering amount of options to customize your battle experience. There are nine types of weapons (blades, staves, claws, bows, palms, clubs, cannons, orbitars, and arms), each of which has at least a dozen models to choose from. Weapons can be found in treasure chests within land battles, won from bosses or multi-player, purchased with hearts, or fused from existing weapons. In addition to variable strength in both shots and melee attacks, each weapon has its own set of modifiers such as "Health+1," "Speed+2," "Backward-Dash Charge Shot+1," and so on. There are dozens of these modifiers, and many of them carry over depending on how you fuse weapons, allowing you, through much trial and error, to craft a weapon that's all your own. Because of all these variables, I find it exceptionally unlikely (if not impossible) that you'd ever run into another player in multi-player using the exact same weapon as you. And, speaking of multi-player, that feature is also quite fun and addictive, taking the land battle mechanics and spinning them into a six-player deathmatch.

There are two multi-player modes; Free-for-all, and Light & Dark. Free-for-all is as it implies; six players all try to kill each other, and whoever has the most points when time is up wins. Light & Dark puts an interesting spin on it; players are broken into teams of three, and share a team health meter. The stronger the weapon you've equipped, the more of your team's health meter depletes when you die. When a team's meter is emptied, whoever died last becomes Pit (or Dark Pit, if on the Dark team). Pit and Dark Pit are equipped with better weapons and much better defenses, allowing them to rack up kills easily, which could be helpful for staging a comeback if the other team's angel has not appeared yet. When Pit or Dark Pit is killed, the game is over, and the opposing team wins. Though I prefer Free-for-all, both modes are fun and addictive, and I see myself playing them quite a bit provided this game builds up a large enough installed base. In both modes, pieces of "daybreak" will periodically spawn, and if the same player picks up all three pieces they are granted access to some kind of super weapon, much like the dragoon in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. I've never actually seen this happen, however, because it can be hard to find all three pieces with no radar, especially in a three-minute free-for-all where everyone else is trying to kill you. In a longer match, or in Light & Dark mode where your teammates can pick up your slack, I imagine it would be easier to slip away from the fray and hunt down the pieces.

Back me up, guys. ...Guys?
So, this far into the review, you're probably wondering; when am I going to get to those flaws I mentioned? Well, as you no doubt know by now if you've read any other reviews of Kid Icarus, the game's greatest flaw are its controls. They're undoubtedly clunky and put strain on the player. Since the right hand must aim shots and move the camera with the stylus, the left hand must support the entire weight of the console, unless you hook your right pinky behind the 3DS or play on a desk. The game does include a goofy plastic stand, which, I must admit, is actually quite comfortable when I play it at my computer desk. I found myself playing other 3DS and DS games on the stand, though I'm sure I'm in the minority in this case. There are other control options, though; for instance, you can aim and move the camera with the face buttons, much like N64 era first-person shooters, or with the D-Pad(?) if you want to make the console even more uncomfortable to hold. But I still prefer the default control scheme, as I think using the buttons to move the camera slows things down too much, going against the fast-paced action that the game sets up pretty well otherwise. If only I could aim and control the camera with the Circle Pad Pro, the game would play nearly perfectly. The game does support Circle Pad Pro, but only for left-handed players; there's no way to use both circle pads at once, which is a huge missed opportunity. It's unlikely that many players would have went out and bought the accessory just to play Kid Icarus more comfortably, but at least the option would have been there.

Though, even if you can find a comfortable way to hold the 3DS, the controls are still clunky and take some getting used to. The developers tried to do too much with too little, I think - the touch screen controls both the camera and the aiming reticle, and it's difficult to do both at once. To turn completely around quickly, you have to forcefully "flick" towards the sides of the touch screen - and then tap it to stop it from turning, both of which are likely to throw your crosshairs out of alignment. Even the circle pad is in charge of a bit too much: It moves Pit, obviously, but how forcefully you push it forward determines whether Pit walks or runs. That seems like a given for any 3D game, but it's very confusing here because there are only two speeds; walking and running. In Mario 64, Mario responded to how far you moved the control stick, and his movement ranged from a gentle tiptoe to a meandering stroll to a brisk walk to a jog to a run. But in Kid Icarus, Pit walks no matter how far forward you push the circle pad, and only breaks into a dash if you "smash" in one direction. The best way to explain it is how you'd perform a smash attack in Super Smash Bros. This "smash" motion is also used to dodge enemy attacks or change the way Pit fires and attacks; it's something you'll use several dozen times in every single stage, and while it is responsive, it's nowhere near as intuitive as it should be.

See, here I was just trying to scratch my nose.
The poor controls certainly hinder the game, but they don't ruin it, in my opinion. I still had a lot of fun with it, and I still am having a lot of fun with it. The graphics are very pretty, though I'm not too impressed with the application of 3D. Perhaps we're at a point in the 3DS's lifespan where I'm taking the 3D for granted, but I recently played through Super Mario 3D Land again to unlock the final stage, and I was still wowed by the 3D effects. I think the static camera has a lot to do with it; as I mentioned, the camera in Super Mario 3D Land is always positioned where the 3D effects are potent, while the camera is in your control in Kid Icarus, at least for the land battles. So, much of the time, the camera is facing where you need it to be and not necessarily where things will look the best in 3D. The music is wonderful as well, even if I would have liked just a bit more variety. Several stages use only slightly different arrangements of the iconic Underworld theme.

Overall, Kid Icarus: Uprising has a lot going for it, and I firmly believe its pros outweigh its cons. It's a fun, challenging, addictive, humorous game with great characters, a great setting, great graphics, great music, cool bosses, cool weapons, cleverly designed stages, a long single-player campaign, a nice selection of multi-player maps, lots of secrets, lots of replay value, lots of customization, and a sloppy control scheme that may cause hand cramps.

Oh, well. Nobody's perfect.

Ricky thought this game was...

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