Continuing the long running Mega Man series, Capcom has brought their latest action role-playing entry in the franchise to North America on the Nintendo DS, Mega Man Star Force 3. Once again players suit up as lead Geo Stelar with partner Omega-Xis in tow, together transforming into Mega Man to defend the world from new evils and protect their close friends when they find themselves sandwiched in the middle.
As opposed to using real world phenomenon, mythology, or history, like most other video games, Capcom has created a unique, well-thought-out world for the Star Force series that continues in Star Force 3, which takes a fair bit of explaining to grasp. In essence, the futuristic setting of the game revolves around a highly-networked society where all technology is based on Electromagnetic Waves, or EM Waves, for short. To understand EM Waves, think of a hybrid between computers in a digital form, radio, energy, the internet, and holograms. Machinery is hardly present, as EM Waves are often projected to form solid objects. These waves are seemingly the cornerstone of the world.
Radio waves in real life are used for everything from Xbox 360 gamepads to Wifi to FM and AM Radio. There are just an unimaginable amount of radio waves flying around our own heads at any given millisecond. In Star Force 3, EM Waves are just as prevalent, so prevalent in-fact that they form what is known in the game as the "Wave Road". This Wave Road is essentially a virtual world of paths in the air over every single part of the world that people cannot see or get to, due to it being digital. To further complicate things, there are also EM Beings, which are basically robots with artificial intelligence made from EM Waves instead of mechanics.
How does a story fit into all this? Enter Geo Stelar, 5th grader and saviour of the world on two previous occasions (those being the events of the previous two Star Force games). Many, but not all, people in Geo's world have companion/helper EM Beings, called Wizards. These wizards are linked to a handheld device called a Hunter-VG, which Geo carries at all times. Geo's wizard isn't actually a human-made EM Being like everyone else's wizard, but is actually an alien named Omega-Xis (nicknamed "Mega") that came to be Geo's wizard earlier in the Star Force series. Together Geo and Mega can combine, or as the game calls it, Transcode, to become Mega Man. Mega Man is a world renowned hero, but it is a secret that his true identity is Geo Stelar. As such only Geo's close friends, and incidentally the Police, know Geo is in fact, Mega Man.
Once players have grasped all that, and indeed it is a lot to grasp off the beginning of any game, the simple premise is that some new shifty figures are causing other powerful EM Beings to go berserk, thus getting Mega Man to step into the fray once again to beat them, but for other reasons than just inconveniencing Mega Man. The game is geared at a younger crowd, but surprisingly the game delivers a great message about bonds, friendship, and hardship, with a superbly written script. Thanks to the writing quality the game is certainly a title open to all ages.Star Force 3 surprises again with its actual gameplay. At first in the story the player starts off in an elementary school, a very typical starting point for a game geared for youths, and a historically uninspiring one at that, that at first glance doesn't hook a player in much. The battle system starts off quite similar. As an Action RPG, Mega Man will stumble into many random battles against viruses on the wave road, along with plenty of boss battles. Battles take place on a field seen from the back of Mega Man, 5 rows deep and 3 columns wide. Mega Man occupies the first row, able to move left and right between the three squares in that row, and enemies, as many as three, occupy the back 4 rows.
At first it seems like an extremely simplified shooting gallery, but upon getting a handle on the system, it couldn't be further from it. Enemies move around their 4x3 area at varying speeds, shooting, clubbing, slicing and hurling themselves at Mega Man. The range of attacks used by enemies is vast and impressive, and makes for some frantic gameplay that demands quick thumbs and sharp attention. Mega Man has his usual blaster at his disposal, as well as battle cards.
Yes the system employs cards, but it does it well, and not like any slow-paced card game. Instead of having the battle system be based on cards, its more of an action battle system that also has cards. Six random cards selected from Mega Man's deck appears on the lower DS screen at the beginning and during battle, with a power gauge constantly charging up to when players can use the cards again. Depending on their placement on the screen, players can select between 2 and 5 cards for use in battle. Once selected and confirmed, it's back to the fray, where the cards can be used whenever the player wants, although it's strongly advised to use them carefully, as it's possible to run out in longer battles. Cards range from power attacks to health to monsters, among other powers.
Gameplay and story together, Star Force 3 makes for a well-paced game. Random battles don't really ever get annoying like most other RPGs, and the lack of a level system is great as the game instead relies on more powerful cards, higher HP, and player's skill to improve. Practicing is also essential as the game is quite challenging. It can be frustrating to die at a very hard and fast-paced boss battle, but instead of seeing the Game Over screen and tossing the DS aside for the evening, almost each and every time this reviewer was mashing on the A button to get back to the action.
While we didn't have the opportunity to test out the linking abilities, Star Force 3 actually has two versions. We played Black Ace, but there is also Red Joker. Linked together players can form Brother Bonds, which are exactly what it sounds like, as well as battle one another. Certain battle cards are only present in each version of the game, as well as transformations. Without jumping into another slew of giving context, one new addition to the series brought about in Star Force 3 is Noise. EM Waves and Beings give off Noise, especially when EM Beings are destroyed. Intertwined with the story, Noise later on can automatically be harvested by Mega Man, opposed to hurting him like it does in the earlier parts of the game. Harvesting Noise allows Mega Man to change form and become stronger. There are a number of forms, and the likely hood of achieving certain ones in battle differ between the two versions of the game.
Where other longtime franchises are washed-up and extremely repetitive, it's fantastic to see Mega Man continue to not just truck-along, but continuously reinvent itself, and continue to improve from there. Star Force 3 combines a complex setting and a simple yet well thought out, and well written, story and makes for quite the compelling game. This third entry in the Star Force series has almost completely differentiated itself from the old-school format of Action RPGs; perhaps this is what the new-school looks like.