Monday, September 14, 2009

Dragon Ball Z: Kyôshū! Saiyajin

Before Dragon Ball Z helped lead an anime craze here in the states, it had already established itself in Japan with literature, TV shows, movies, and even several video games. "Kyôshū! Saiyajin," translates to roughly "Fierce Attack! Saiyan," but in this review I'll just arbitrarily say "Attack of the Saiyans" for easier reference. Made by Bandai, the same company that makes Power Rangers action figures, Attack of the Saiyans (which was never released in the US) was the first attempt at an RPG based on the Dragonball Z storyline.

EARth.To that end it picks up with the beginning of the series and more or less (it's less) parallels it throughout the game. While certain specifics of the show naturally weren't going to carry over to the game for the sake of making the game enjoyable to play, the hope was to retain almost every key element of the show's story. The game therefore opens with Raditz arriving from space and kidnapping Goku's son, Gohan. Then Piccolo, who had been a villain, teams up with Goku to get him back, just like in the show. Then the cutscenes are done and control passes to the player, and the gameplay is immediately different than what you might expect.

Everything in Attack of the Saiyans happens through cards. And I do mean everything. At the bottom of the screen you will see five cards. Centered on each card is a large symbol which corresponds to a given fighting style. In the bottom right and upper left corners are two dragon balls. The upper one has dots corresponding to stars on the balls, while the lower has symbols that correspond to the numbers 1-7 in Japanese. In addition, either or both of these dragon balls may instead have a letter Z on it. So when you appear on the map screen after the initial cutscene dialogues are over, you'll find Goku and Piccolo next to each other on a grid. The game will highlight one of them and you will choose a card for him. You can then move as many grid squares as there are stars on the upper left dragon ball (1-7, with a Z acting as 8). Then you move the other one similarly.

Monkdget.These same cards you use for movement also carry into battle with you. When you choose a card to use for a round of battle, the upper left dragon ball acts as your attack value, with the lower right one acting as your defense value. Every fighter in the game also has a "favored style," which lines up with one of the possible symbols on the center of the cards. If you attack with a card that has your favored symbol on it, your power is boosted for that turn. So whatever else may be said about this game, let me say now that this system is incredibly interesting. Because you can land in a random battle after any movement, do you use your good cards to move and get where you're going sooner, or do you take really small movements so that you have better cards for battle? I think outside of strategic RPGs (which this game is not), I have not seen any game that requires that level of planning just to move around. The intrigue of the card system is easily the best thing about this game.

Additionally, the leveling system is novel. In a more traditional RPG you gain experience points after each battle, and after attaining a certain amount of them, your character becomes more powerful. You maybe get some more health, maybe higher strength, maybe additional spells. In Attack of the Saiyans, each character has only three stats. They are: Hit Points, Battle Energy, and Battle Power. While hit points are nothing new, and battle energy essentially just corresponds to magic points, battle power (BP) is a twist on the system. Characters in DBZ all have power levels, and BP is an implementation of that. The game's formula in determining how much damage you deal or take involves measuring your BP stat against your enemy's, meaning BP is even more important than what card you use. Furthermore, when you win a battle, you are awarded BP, and not some otherwise-meaningless experience points. This means that instead of having to win many battles and accumulate many points to become marginally stronger, your characters are literally more powerful after every single fight. You could fight the exact same monsters three times in a row (and trust me, you will...) and each time you'd be stronger than the last. So when you gain a level in Attack of the Saiyans, only your maximum hit points and battle energy increase. Otherwise you are constantly and steadily gaining strength, which is pretty neat.

Zzzzz...Sadly, the interest of the whole thing sort of ends there. While you gain a new card every time you use one and this is supposedly at random, the game only has certain cards it will give you. That is, with eight possible numbers in each of the card corners, and six center symbols, there are 384 possible cards you should be able to see. Of these, you probably will only ever get 40 or so from the game, and it loves to give the same card multiple times in a row. It was not uncommon for me at the end of the game to use a set of five different cards in a single round of battle, and the next round have received those exact same cards back as my "random" replacements. This can really suck when you're trying to get rid of bad cards. And what's worse is that enemies seem to have no trouble getting the card combinations you can't, often landing cards with a Z attack value, Z defense value, and their favored symbol. Ouch.

The second complaint is the most major. If someone asked me to sum up this game in just one word, it'd be this: tedious. Every primary chapter of the game revolves around trying to defeat a given enemy who is, without exception, far stronger than you are. While in the show this creates excitement and you get to watch the heroes figure out ways to defeat these massive villains, in the game it means hours of grinding. When you start as Goku and Piccolo, your battle powers are in the low-mid 300s. Raditz has 1200 BP, by contrast. Enemies around you will give you 3 BP each. 5 if you fight the harder ones. Do the math, and you'll realize how much mindless battling that is just to break even. And even then he'll still have many more hit points than you, because he's a boss.

It only gets worse from there, as you'll next have to fight another 1200 BP boss raising powers from the 200s (as more playable characters are introduced into the game), then again from the 200s to 1300, then a third time from the 200s to 1500. And finally, when you've got six new fighters all around 1000 BP and you're feeling pretty good, the next boss has 3500 BP. It's a slap in the face.

Trip Kaiokens.It's then a curse as well as a blessing that the battles are done in a cinematic fashion. Every attack has a long, unskippable animation that accompanies it. You'll watch the combatants fly around punching and kicking and blocking until finally a hit is landed and you see how much damage was dealt. Then the other guy attacks and it's the same dance. The biggest culprits are the ki attacks. One of the card symbols is the ki attack one, which allows you to spend some battle energy to unleash a signature move on your opponents. All of these entail zooming in on the character in question, showing them doing whatever crap they do, then showing the energy ball or beam or whatever you shot moving toward the target, and then finally the target getting hit (or dodging, joke's on you!). Each one of these is really cool to watch. Once. Then you desperately wish you could skip over them along with every other battle animation. So not only do you have to battle countless times to make it through what is otherwise a very short game, but each battle takes forever. The enemies are also painfully limited in variety. Apart from the game's seven bosses, there are nine different enemies. Nine. Total. And three of these are just palette swaps of other ones. That's pathetic.

And trust me, the game really is brief apart from the battles. Over half the game actually revolves around the first DBZ movie, Deadzone, which is not even considered canon (although admittedly it's the closest of the films to being such). The idea is that while Goku is training on King Kai's planet, the six "Z-Fighters" (Piccolo, Gohan, Krillin, Yamcha, Tien, and the suicidal Chaozu) are trying to defeat Garlic, Jr. as he makes a bid for world domination. But the game even stretches that for all it's worth, making you split into groups of two and hunt down the henchmen before reconverging to take down Garlic, Jr. himself. It justifies this exercise by giving Garlic, Jr. and cronies some of the dragon balls the Z-Fighters will need to wish Goku back to life. Nevermind the fact that even were you to force the events of the movie into the canon timeline, they would have happened before the entire series, including all the Raditz crap. My guess is that because this movie had come out in Japan not too long before the game's release, the content was added to encourage sales. But its only accomplishment in the game is forcing the player to grind more. I'd honestly prefer they just give me a little cutscene saying "The Z-Fighters trained for a year. Here's 1000 BP added onto everyone." Sure it cuts about 10 hours out of the game...but they're some of the most monotonous and boring 10 hours you can imagine having to sit through.

All over this land.There are a number of minigames present in Attack of the Saiyans. None of them have any real depth, and most are based on dumb luck. For instance, on King Kai's planet you must use Goku to catch Bubbles the monkey and smash Gregory the cricket with a hammer. These games consist of having the animal in question generate a random card, and you have to use a card that's higher in attack value from your stash. It's like playing war with the deck stacked against you. War's painful enough to play without that caveat, thank you very much. The other minigames, accessed on the world map by landing on certain spaces, are not much better. One will show you a card and you have to choose one of your own, matching any of the three variables (attack, defense, symbol) to get minor amounts of BP. If you spend 15 minutes in this game getting 50 cards matched in a row (which is horrendously dull, but I tried it just to see), you'll gain maybe 200 BP. And even then it depends on the character. But, unlike when battling, only the character in the minigame gets this BP, so you'd have to do that with everyone to have it be meaningful. And at that point you're looking at spending even more time on it than you would if you just battled over and over. It's a lose-lose.

And speaking of multiple characters, until your crew takes on Garlic, Jr. himself (which is the penultimate area of the game), you move characters individually rather than as a group. So when you move a character, a random battle might happen, and that character will be isolated against an entire group of baddies. Early on you'll be screwed when this happens, and by the time you're strong enough to single-handedly kill them all, you're realizing how long it will take (you cannot attack multiple targets at once) and start slamming your head against a wall. The only time you can fight as a group like this is to have the characters standing on adjacent grid squares. So you'll constantly inch through the game a space at a time here, another space there, all for the sake of being allowed the ability to fight as a group. Not that fighting as a group is without its flaws, since like in certain other RPGs, your characters are too stupid to attack another enemy if their commanded target is killed before their turn. And when you have five people in your group, but only three enemies to kill (all of which will be downed in one shot), you still have to tell as many people to attack as you have cards, throwing away potentially good cards in the process. What a waste.

Because you'll likely try to cut down on how many hours of pointless battling you'll engage in, items are crucial to make it past the bosses. Items also consist of cards, although in this case they are just pictures of different things, which have varying effects. Cards like Bulma or Master Roshi heal you, cards like the stunningly racist Mr. Popo restore some battle energy, and cards like the scouter will reveal enemy locations on the map. Since you have a limited inventory, you'll have to be selective about what items you're carrying, which makes it a nuisance that you can't ever drop any. You have to use them to get rid of them, but you can't use a healing card if everyone is at full health, and you don't want to use an item that changes out all your battle cards if you have five good ones...the list goes on. And the game is really inconsistent on what cards it will give you.

Eep eep.For instance, the Shenron (the dragon of Dragon Ball Z) card restores every character in your group to maximum life and energy. And it's laughably easy to get. There's a minigame where you just play the memory game with some crap and you can get a Shenron every time. For free. But items like the Tail, which is responsible for the gargantuan ape pictured here, can apparently only be acquired through getting a perfect score on this memory game and having nine open inventory slots. Stupid.

As for the end of the game, Nappa has 4000 BP (strangely semi-reasonable after having just fought the 3500 BP Garlic, Jr.), but Vegeta has 18,000. Have fun grinding that out. When fighting Nappa, Goku is supposed to show up and join in, making that fight easier and helping prepare you for Vegeta. It also lets you train Goku up some more along with everyone else for that last fight. But I guess not everything goes as planned, because when I fought Nappa Goku never came. He showed up at the start of the Vegeta fight, which is well and good except for the fact that at that point it's impossible to raise his power level any further. Luckily for me I came in with like 8 Shen Long cards and won a two hour (no joke) battle of attrition. That's what happens when you don't feel like grinding BP for an eon or two.

After that fight you are shown passwords for every character you have still alive, which can be used in the game's terrible Budokai mode. Here you can choose up to four fighters and...go into battle with them. As if you hadn't had enough battling already. And now you can't even see what cards you're picking. It's a worthless addon to the game. So you watch the credits and they end with the ginormous visage of Frieza looking at Earth all aroused-like. It's creepy as hell.

Attack of the Saiyans is definitely a notch below average as games go. I really like and appreciate the card system in its concept, but the fact that it's not nearly as random as it purports to be is a problem. And I wouldn't mind never seeing another 8-bit DBZ battle for the rest of my life. Doesn't help that they all occur at night in midair. I guess it saved coding to have them fighting in a black background with no land in sight the entire game. But whatever. This is one of those games that's worth ten minutes of your time to get a taste for the good and interesting things it does. But no more than ten minutes. For the love of all that's right in the world, not more than ten minutes.

Bottom Line: 8/20

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