Release Date: March 8, 2005
I don't know if it's making a lot of people decent money or what, but somebody's got to do something about this epidemic lately. Not only are we getting a lot of cartoon-licensed games from American properties, but Japan has taken to importing theirs. Exhibit A comes in the form of Rave Master, a game that's really not likely to mean anything to you unless you're a big fan of the show. Chock full of references, holes in the storyline fillable only with preexisting knowledge of the plot, weird characters who do weird things for weird reasons, and so on, Rave Master to the uninitiated is a study in staring blankly and wondering what the heck is going on with these people.
Which isn't to say it's not a fun game at times. Heaven knows you don't need a complex intricate plot to get out there and hit people with a big sword. It's just that if you have no idea what's going on, it isn't going to stop and explain anything to you, either in the story or in the gameplay itself. Memorize what does what before you get going, and you'll be fine.
About that story, then. It's about what you'd expect from an anime targeted at this age and focus group. A brave young man comes into the possession of a sword and is told that to achieve his true power, he'll need to gather together the Rave Stones, mystical bits of rock from all over the world. This will allow him to save the world at some future time. (Oh, except the last guy who tried it 50 years ago got it wrong. That's why there's a big smoking crater that takes up a good part of the surface of the planet. Thus, everyone involved knows why it would be a good idea to not screw up this time.) As he travels, he gathers up companions to journey with him and round out the cast: a young girl with a Mysterious Past, a Cute Sidekick With A Mysterious Past, an ex-bandit leader with a Dark Mysterious Past, a Former Bad Guy Antihero, the legion of expendable Bad Guy Generals and so on. I haven't seen the end of the series, but I'm willing to bet that our hero, Haro Glory, wins the day, saves the world, and gets the girl. It's just a guess. I could be wrong.
For the record, everything in this game is sharp looking and moves well. The characters are nicely animated and – while I can't shake a sense that they're just too darned scrawny and thin – they look fairly true to the show. The dub voice cast is all here, reprising roles and generally being goofy. The best thing about this game audio-wise is the Reel Big Fish theme song that plays over the end credits, finally sung without the sound effects of the series so you can make out all the words. It's a catchy tune that takes a week or more to leave your head once it gets lodged in there.
There's a story mode in the game, too, and it makes up a fair bit of the single player gameplay. You can take one of five characters and lead them through a number of text-based interludes with battles based on the storyline. The stories in this game could possibly be taken from the anime, but I'm not sure if they are or not. Haro, the aforementioned hero, goes through a number of events that seem to mimic the show's format. Elie, the hotheaded girl with the mysterious past, goes off on an epic quest around the world to find and clobber any male who could possibly have seen her naked in the bath. Musica, the ex-bandit, gets a fairly bog-standard "rescue his girlfriend" plotline.
The weirdest story is that of Go, who is about eight feet tall and massively muscle-bound, with an Elvis smirk and big hair. He's a director filming his next movie, and he seeks out most of the heroes and villains looking for an actor to play the lead. One by one they insult him somehow, forcing him to deliver his catchphrase-slash-battle cry of "Sacrifice yourself for film!" and beat them violently senseless with his giant hammer.
I can't make this stuff up. Go is officially my hero now.
Aside from that, you've got your versus mode, you've got your freeform survival mode, and so on. You can fight in any combination of players, from two-on-two to one-on-three or the popular every man for himself. Probably the only extra mode worth mentioning in this game is the edit story mode, which lets you do just that. Write your own fanfic-a-rrific Rave epic using all of the assorted visual and text resources available. Pair off Go and Haro in a romantic relationship and let them fight their way to victory against all comers. The text entry takes a lot of work, but I suspect this won't slow down hardcore fans much. The only problem is that you end up with a story you know all the words to, but if you've got people to share this with, it becomes far better, much like the rest of the game.
How about that game, huh?
Rave Master adheres to the four-player party game formula set by games like Power Stone. To get kind of loose with the comparisons, Rave Master plays like Power Stone with more of a focus on unique powers from collecting stones and weapons, and less of a focus on using pieces of the environment to bash people into low Earth orbit. There are no less than 15 (five passive, five active, and five special attack) of the Rave and Shadow stones and 10 weapons, although two of those weapons can transform into six other weapons, depending on the stones the wielder is holding. Every weapon can be used to trigger a "Groove Attack" when a bar charges up, either in the form of a crowd-clearing blast or a focused melee attack that really hurts.
Additionally, if you get a character's preferred weapon into their hands and get the right combination of Rave/Shadow stones, you can blow off an "Ultimate Groove Attack" that functions basically as a Win This Match button. This is what I meant by that crack about memorizing what does what, it helps to know in the middle of a match that if Haro gets certain stones together, his sword will morph into a massive weapon of ultimate doom which he can whip around as if it were his kid sister. Just to confuse the mix, a couple of characters have no Groove Weapon, and they fight better with their bare hands than with swords. Then there's folks who have no Ultimate Groove Attack, like the Rear Admiral (leader of the Big Butt Bandits, I swear I'm not making this up. He's traumatizing and – I will wonder why on my deathbed – one of the few places in the game that seems to have realistic physics is his spandex-clad arse. My eyes, they burn.)
Thus, it transpires that matches become frenzied and confused piles of flailing limbs and swords. One button push and a connected hit is all it takes to disarm someone, and lost weapons go flying and vanish shortly after they're knocked away. Strategy is keeping an eye out for your particular ultimate combo pieces, and assembling what you can to defend yourself while knocking your enemies away from their combos. It's fast paced and actually pretty fun when you get (excuse me) into the groove of things. So what's wrong with it, that I'd give it the score I did?
The controls simply aren't up for the task. It's not a problem with the buttons on the controller or anything like that; the problem is a very noticeable delay between the time you push the attack or jump buttons and the time something actually happens onscreen. There's also this certain problem with the weapon and character balance, and I assure you I'm not going to start spouting about frame rates or any such pedantry which frankly has no place in a review of a light game like this. What I'm referring to is the simple fact that some characters (Sieg Hart and his unarmed electric death bolts) will almost invariably dominate over others, and some weapons (like the Tonfa Blasters) are ranged, fast, and extremely difficult to defend against, and so could be taken as being extremely cheap. I'm not the kind of guy who often spots problems like this, but when even I can half-ass my way to victory using these "strategies," something's kinda broken somewhere. Blazing your way to victory with twin gun action or slinging elemental blasts of doom is far easier than it should be in a game based in a genre largely dominated by swords.
Those are my main complaints, and I feel they're warranted ones, but they aren't going to hold any fans of the series away from playing this game. The fans are already enjoying it, no doubt, but this review is for the rest of you. You should pick this one up only if you can handle a certain level of broken in your fighting game mechanics, and only if the control lag doesn't bother you. It's worth a rent, a giggle, and then you can move on with your lives.