PSP Review - 'Xiaolin Showdown'

by Tom Baker on Nov. 11, 2007 @ 12:01 a.m. PST

Xiaolin Showdown, based on the popular animation television series, combines action and exploration with seamless four-player multiplayer action as players take on the role of a group of young warriors on a mystical adventure.

Genre: Action/Brawler
Publisher: Konami
Developer: BottleRocket
Release Date: November 14, 2006

"Everybody was kung-fu fighting.
Those kids were fast as lightning."

- Bus Stop, "Kung-Fu Fighting"

A more accurate summation of Xiaolin Showdown for the PSP could not be better made than the lyrics from Bus Stop's iconic track of the '70s. Unfortunately, Xiaolin Showdown probably won't be remembered for nearly as long.

The game is an offshoot of the cartoon series of the same name, and the game follows the story and zany childish comedy pretty well. On this note, if your children or you are fans of the series, Xiaolin Showdown was made specifically for you. A game based on a popular show only really needs to be loyal to the concept rather than providing an innovative or engaging gaming experience. Unfortunately for most gamers, Xiaolin Showdown does just that.

You play as one of four student monks charged with defending the world from ancient evil by using powerful items called Shen Gong Wu. The AI controls the three other members of your team, and more characters become unlockable as you progress. You battle through a slew of arenas in Smash Bros. style, assisted by Mojo the talking dragon, who serves as comic relief. In the arenas, you are charged with annihilating anything in sight and collecting seemingly arbitrary scroll pieces, which have no correlation to anything in the game other than you cannot complete a level without them.

Your adversaries are a ghost called WuYa; the whiny, emo-looking evil "boy genius" Jack Spicer and a hard-as-nails, "eats glass for breakfast" evil monk named Chase Young. In addition to the main adventure, there are numerous mini-games or "showdowns" which have you compete against your companions in a variety of different situations, such as a game of tag or King of the Hill, in order to win Shen Gong Wu. The ability to wager your hard-earned items against other players is a nice feature, and its rarity within the main adventure is criminal, considering how much fun these challenges can be.

The gameplay is essentially the ripped-off, bare-bones version of Smash Bros, minus the originality, style and variation. You use the analog nub or d-pad to move around the map, X to jump, and random mashing of the Square and Triangle buttons executes the fighting moves. There is also an incredibly annoying "lock-on" system activated by the right shoulder button, which will inevitably lock onto your teammates instead of the massive stone giant that just landed right in front of you. The inclusion of "friendly fire" compounds this frustration, as you'll often end up on the receiving end of an ally's attack while having your well-timed or devastating Shen Gong Wu assaults blocked by a teammate.

Each arena will have you fighting essentially the same enemy, in pretty much the same number of waves ad infinitum. All of the arenas look and feel the same, and any change in the foes will be purely cosmetic, not an alteration in the fighting style. This is where the game hits a major stumbling block: After the first 10 minutes, you realize that it will never ask any more of you than the simple repetition of button combinations against streams of enemies until your thumbs develop arthritis. You do not unlock any more moves, and the scoring system only marginally upgrades your character, not nearly as much as the ludicrously powerful Shen Gong Wu.

It's also after 15 minutes of gameplay that you realize you never die, regardless of the number of times you're hit. Through some bizarre compulsion to lower the game's difficulty, presumably to make it more accessible to younger gamers, the developers made a game which could patronize an infant. You have incredible martial arts abilities, magical items which will pretty much decimate any poor unfortunate soul in the surrounding area and you're completely invulnerable. It gets to the point where you can simply put down the game, let your three companions take care of the enemies and simply collect the spoils at the end of a level. There is simply no motivation to play Xiaolin Showdown: You aren't fighting to stay alive because you cannot die, and you aren't really fighting for upgrades because there's little point if enemies can be killed by the simple grinding of the Square button.

However, the game's main draw in the fighting is the ability to use the wonderfully powerful and off-the-wall Shen Gong Wu, activated with the Circle button when you collect enough "chi" from beating enemies to power them. You can obtain new Shen Gong Wu by trading coins collected during the single-player adventure or winning showdowns in the main quest, which will yield new items that cannot be purchased, or in a side-quest, where you can rob your teammates by wagering Wu.

Forget the rigmarole of the main adventure; the showdowns really add variety and fun to the title, and the easily accessible controls are perfectly suited to these quick-fire challenges. You'll find that your sole reason for playing this title is to reach the next showdown. The showdowns also have the variation in levels and concept that is notably missing from the main portion adventure. It seems the developers have gotten themselves a bit mixed up in this respect; mini-games are supposed to supplement actual gameplay, not act as a substitute for originality in the main quest.

The single-player game screams for a multiplayer aspect. Having four allied characters on screen is incredibly annoying and dull when controlled by the AI, but in the hands of friends, Xiaolin Showdown can gain a new lease on life. Competing against a friend for points and Wu adds a sense of purpose that is missing from the single-player campaign, and the showdowns are infinitely more enjoyable when you can gloat to a friend. Even the annoying ability to constantly attack your teammates becomes less annoying as you thwart your friends and try to reach power-ups before they can. Unfortunately, the game's dynamic is still the same, and as fun as this new mode may be, it's still repetitive button-mashing and in no way as good as Smash Bros. A game that is only half-decent when played with friends should not really warrant your time, but as a quick party-based game, you could do a lot worse.

Xiaolin Showdown's presentation is incredibly well structured, with cel-shaded graphics and a solid cast dialogue, making the game look and feel an awful lot like the series. Character animations are smooth and never appear too jagged or labored in their movements, and the typical rules of cartoon-making apply in the sense that your character may find his form stretched or warped as he bounds around the level. The levels all look different and are brought to life with features such as traps and lifts to take you to other parts of the arena. Cel-shaded games hold a special place in my heart after the triumphant Wind Waker for the GameCube, and Xiaolin Showdown does an excellent job of recreating the look and feel of the cartoon series. It isn't as ground-breaking as the awe-inspiring 3D of GTA or Tomb Raider, but it does what it's meant to do: deliver a solid-looking game to a younger audience.

Audio is much the same, and even though the character dialogue may fall several yards on the side of juvenile, anyone who has watched children's TV will know that it can also be genuinely witty and funny. The inclusion of a large script for the NPCs to use during fights breaks up the monotony and could be a genuine draw for fans of the series. The music is a little repetitive after a while but suits the gameplay, and the remixed panpipes that act as the game's introduction music are actually quite good. The overall presentation was surprisingly good, considering the concept and gameplay feels so hacked together. If you're buying the game simply because it's an accurate representation of the cartoon, then all you really need to do is watch the cartoon. There is no need to subject yourself to tired, monotonous gameplay if all you're really after is a laugh or two.

Overall, Xiaolin Showdown for the PSP is a pretty mediocre title. It is saved from true disgrace by the temporary fun you can have while playing this with a friend and the underused novelty of the showdown mini-games. This was never going to be a title that appealed to older gamers, but that should not excuse the developers from putting forward a weak effort in the single-player adventure. The appeal will last about as long as it takes you to get bored of smashing the same robots over and over again, which, in most cases, is a few minutes, and since you cannot die and any possibility of failing a mission is out, Xiaolin Showdown feels redundant in its requests to "save the world." The presentation is surprisingly good and stays true to its inspiration, which is the major point in its favor, but as I stated before, the same experience can be achieved by just watching the cartoon. These kids may be fast as lightning, but the game certainly doesn't come with expert timing ....

Score: 5.5/10

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