December 17, 2013
Before we get into the technicalities of the actual gameplay let it be said that when it comes to providing the cheesy feel of an 80s manga/anime Brave Soldiers nails it beautifully. The voice acting is cheesy, the ridiculous attacks feature equally absurd names like Golden Triangle or Eternal Drowsiness, and a flair for the dramatic all keep the essence of the franchise intact. If you're looking for a Saint Seiya game that will do its best to accurately depict your favorite characters in all of their glory, all while sporting a slick bright coat of cel-shaded goodness, then you need not look any further. Of course, all of that comes at a cost.
Attacks are assigned to three main buttons: Square, triangle and circle. These represent quick, heavy and special attacks respectively. Quick attacks and slow attacks can be used together in combination to create attack chains and special attacks can be thrown anywhere in between to add a unique finisher to any combo. Special attacks used alone start a mini-cutscene focusing on the character's use of the attack, which reeks of stylistic television show design, but realistically, it just tells your opponent that its time to hold down the block button.
Other character-specific moves can be done by holding down L2 while attacking forward with any button and two special meter bars give players access to Seventh Sense, a burst-like move that breaks combos while improving damage for a brief period, and special attacks. Instant dodges and ultimate attacks (called Big Bang Attacks) all utilize the special meter, and ultimate attacks have an additional restriction of requiring opponents to be incredibly close in order to be hit, but they require absolutely no input. The push of one (or two buttons simultaneously) is all that's ever needed to get the ball rolling.
Brave Soldiers is not a game designed to be balanced, but rather a game designed to emulate the show with the greatest accuracy possible, and that's where things start to fall apart. Getting someone in a combo is all well and good, but if players miss with an attack or an opponent dodges it takes several seconds for a character to return to a default state; and keeping in mind that the entire game is a 3D fighter, missing or avoiding an attack is actually quite easy to do. This means that instead of trying to lock up an opponent in a complex string of hits or learning unique combos, players will spend most of the game guessing when someone is going to attack in order to catch them when it's impossible to block.
What really makes matters worse is that every attack isn't really balanced around whether or not it will help a character, it's all balanced around the show. Does a character throw a rose in the show? They get a rose throwing throw. Does a character have a whip? They get a whip attack in every direction. In fact any character that has an attack which launches in a near 360 degree radius has an absurd advantage over every other character because they effectively make themselves immune to any kind of mind games with an impenetrable defence; and players that figure this out can turn the game from cheesy fun to just plain cheesy with almost no effort.
Story mode follows the three major arcs, Sanctuary, Poseidon and Hades; gleaning over them quickly while often times making references to events never shown in game. Battles occur as they would in the show, and adhere to a predictable talk-battle-talk formula where players will often times defeat an opponent several times in succession as they mirror events from the show. Now and then a full screen piece of artwork will add some extra flavor to the conversation, but overall you'll be listening to characters talk while reading subtitles. It's not very exciting, but the idea of keeping all of the action in the hands of the player is understandable to an extent.
The real driving point behind Brave Soldiers is the unlockable content, which is actually quite impressive. Players will start off with the base five main saints, and from there must unlock every other character in the show; which is a lot of characters for the Saint Seiya uninitiated. Over fifty in fact, and grinding the core story in order to unlock them all will take anywhere between 10-14 hours depending on your gusto. Levels are unlocked in the same fashion, although the arena's offer absolutely no change save for background.
It's a good chunk of time to be sure, but the problem is once you've unlocked everything there's not much left to do. Multiple versus modes include a tournament ladder option and goofy match types like one hit KO or an orb mode that allows players to customize elements of each fighter's health, regeneration, attack and defensive stats; there's even a great mode that adds an announcer to each match that randomly shouts out commentary and provides the 'hit power' of attacks used. The flavor is there, but it still all revolves around a fighting system that tries so hard to be stylistic it's actually restrictive.
Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers is not a bad game if you're only looking for a franchise title that brings your favorite characters to life. It has a lot of great elements, and shared with a group of friends would make a hilarious party game for anime fans if only for a night. For everyone else its flaws are rather obvious, with elements that drain away the fun from the game. Unbalanced characters, spammable attacks, rigid combos, mysterious hit boxes, ranged 360 activated throws, and frequent gameplay interrupting specials all come together to bog down what would otherwise be a franchise that has the potential for exceptionally campy 80s action fun; but with any luck it won't be the last time we see the saints make an appearance in the arena.