In the video game world, there seems to be an unwritten set of rules in making games based on kids' properties. In the beginning, the first rule is that the property has to be made into a platformer. Whether the property in question is a hardcore action cartoon or a gentle comedy, the video game version needs to be made into something as close to Super Mario Bros. as possible. The second rule is that the property needs to fit into a game genre that features some sort of competitive multiplayer. Whether it's a fighting game or a kart racing game, characters from that property who have been lifelong friends will always want to compete for a sport championship or prize. The most recent rule is that the property is put into some sort of mini-game compilation. No matter what the property is about, the characters will be shoehorned into a situation where they get involved in generic mini-games for no apparent reason. While making children's properties profitable for both publishers and licensers, these three rules also mean that these licensed games are stigmatized as bad investments for anyone who's not an intended fan. It's rare to see anyone get a license for a kids' property and decide to take a chance by making a game that doesn't fit the three unwritten rules. Activision, a csompany familiar with games based on licensed kids' properties, has decided to take a risk by taking their latest licensed property into very unfamiliar territory. Chaotic: Shadow Warriors is that property, and the chosen genre is a hybrid adventure/RPG. The results are surprisingly positive, to say the least.
The Chaotic brand is an interesting property since it is born out of synergy. The card game can be described as a more advanced version of the Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh, or a more simplified version of Magic: The Gathering. Players create their card decks based on five different card types: Attacks, Battlegear, Creatures, Locations and Mugic, which is basically magic in a musical form. After all creatures on both sides are equipped with battlegear and a location is chosen, the player moves a creature to attack another creature. Players take turns selecting attack cards to use, occasionally using mugic to alter creature stats, heal damage or deal damage until one creature is defeated. Players take turns doing this until one army is wiped out.
Two things that separate this card game from the rest are the variable stats on a creature and a unique code on each card, which enables the player to take the physical cards and play them on the game's Web site. The second component to the brand is the animated series. The show follows four kids as they play the card game against players across the online world. These same players also go to the world of Perim, where the card game mythology is based, and go on adventures with four tribes who are at war over a powerful artifact called the Cothica.
In the game, you play as Tom, one of the main players from the TV show. You arrive in Perim, armed with a new scanner that the Code Masters want you to test out. Unfortunately, you arrive right after a group of Mipedian thieves stole armory items in OverWorld-run Kiru City. As you help your OverWorld friends find the missing items, you run into one of the thieves, who looks and acts differently from what you expect of a Mipedian tribe member. Upon discovering that he is a shadow version of the occupants of Perim, your task is to recover the pieces to a powerful mugic that can stop the shadow creature outbreak and discover who is behind this new plot to take over Perim.
Chaotic: Shadow Warriors features two different styles of gameplay. For a good portion of the game, the player will be playing a platformer. Tom will run through the different environments in Perim and perform fetch quests for some creatures that he meets. Some quests include scanning for DNA samples, gathering information from lookout spires or obtaining recon photos for an invasion, but all of them require you to go to the given location and use your special scanner. You have gates that will hinder your progress through the lands, but the puzzles are simple to solve and don't require much footwork.
Along the way, you can obtain different mugic and battlegear for your creatures as well as set up your armies for combat. Insects and other lesser animals will be your adversaries in this mode, but Tom is armed with a Pyroblaster, a gun that shoots fireballs of various sizes and strengths, depending on how long you hold down the button. Players will have to be careful not to shoot aimlessly, since your ammo is limited and the gun overheats if you shoot constantly without taking a break. You'll find plenty of ammo in the game, but the fact that your ammo isn't infinite will give you reason to choose your shots carefully. During the platforming sequences, you'll meet up with some of the major creatures in Perim, and those that don't ask for your help will trigger detailed combat sequences.
When in combat, the game becomes an RPG, with elements that differ from traditional RPG battle systems and the card game. Before combat begins, players get to pick which creatures they want in the fight, the battlegear each one has, and each creature's position on the board (this becomes important later). Armies can have a maximum of five creatures with battlegear, though early on, players will have to deal with having as many creatures as the open slots will allow. When combat begins, the location will determine which player fights first. That player then selects a creature and an associated action. Ability triggers the creature's ability or battlegear ability, and Mugic lets you deploy your chosen spell on the selected target. Taunt gives you the ability to lower opponent's stats, while Attack lets you choose an attack already assigned to your creature and direct it at the opponent.
Each attack has a predetermined amount of damage to deal, depending on who's playing it and who the target is, but they also have an attack point cost. Some cost nothing, while others add to or take away from the general attack point pool. This differs greatly from the card game, where no attack points are really spent and players get to pick and choose attacks from their decks instead of having them assigned to certain creatures.
Despite what seems like a basic RPG battle system, there are a few tweaks that make it feel different and more engaging. Mini-games appear when using either mugic or attacks, which is similar to the Shadow Hearts series and the Penny Arcade Adventures episodes, except for the fact that players don't get punished with lower attack damage or mugic abilities for missing. Placement of creatures becomes important because it dictates exactly what they can and can't do. All creatures can play their abilities and use mugic or taunt, but only the creatures in the front row can attack. A creature in the back row can attack if someone in the front row dies and he has to take the spot. When under attack, the user has two possible options: block, which will reduce the amount of damage taken; or scan a creature, and after getting a complete scan, he can add the creature to his arsenal.
The experience is certainly unique for a kids' game, and while it is executed well and should be applauded for such a bold move, it isn't perfect by any means. For starters, this seems to be a game made solely for Chaotic fans. At no point is there a mention of the series' overall plotline, characters, the tribes' battles or the significance of the world of Perim. It assumes that players are already familiar with the property and its world, a move that could alienate potential fans that were only marginally aware of the property and wanted to learn more about it through the game. Secondly, nothing in the game ever dies. This may be a good thing for your player if you happen to fall into pits or deep pools of water due to bad jumps, but it also means that any bugs or other nuisances you kill immediately return when you take a few steps away from the given area. During combat, the number of action points you have is also never displayed; it's a curious omission since you need them to determine which attacks you can and can't unleash. Attacks you can't play are grayed out when you try to select them, but it would be nice to know how many points you have in order to spend them wisely. Finally, fans of the card game will lament that the pool of items to choose from, like battlegear and creatures, is pretty small. While the smaller selection keeps players more focused on fighting rather than deck-building, the fact that there are fewer than 150 to choose from feels very limited when the card game and the show feature over 1,200 cards, including battlegear, creatures and mugic.
Multiplayer is a core component of any card game, and it's a surprise and a pleasure to see this title support both local and online play. In both situations, you choose one of five pre-made decks to battle with or create one of your own. Unlike the battles in Story mode, your fights must be with an army containing five creatures, but other than that, the combat system remains the same. During the fight, each player has 30 seconds to decide which creature will fight and what moves to initiate; if one isn't chosen by that time, a move is randomly selected by the computer and the turn is given to the opponent. Offline play on the same console isn't so bad, and the game also supports System Link if you'd rather keep your combat choices secret. Online play is solid, with no hint of lag. While one normally wouldn't think lag would be a factor in this type of game, the fact that the battle system relies on timed events proves otherwise. It's good to see that the online code is solid enough to prevent unintentional mistakes.
There are a few complaints to be levied against this mode, though. For one, nothing in Story mode will affect your online game. You have full access to every card in the game and the creature cards are maxed out to their full potential. While this is nice for those looking to get a good deck right away in multiplayer, it doesn't render the work in scanning and fusing creatures. You also don't have a way to save any custom army configuration you make. It's not difficult to re-create your preferred combination over and over again, but it is annoying to have to do so when you don't want to play with the pre-made armies. Finally, don't expect to play too many ranked matches when online. During the time of this review, there were a good number of people willing to participate in player matches, but the ranked matches were devoid of players. There were fewer than 10 people on the official ranked leaderboards at the time of this writing. If you want to get multiplayer-related Achievements, you'll have to coordinate with someone to do so or just forget they even exist.
The controls for Chaotic: Shadow Warriors stand out in a good way. For the platforming sections, you'll use the left analog stick for movement and the right analog stick for camera control. The A button makes Tom jump, the X button initiates scans of specific objects, the left trigger points you to where you need to go, and the right trigger fires the Pyroblaster. During creature combat, the A button confirms a menu choice while the B button cancels it. The face buttons are used during attacks to gain bonuses, and the right analog stick plays mugic notes. The left trigger in conjunction with the left analog stick performs creature scans, and the right trigger in conjunction with the A button performs blocks. This sounds complicated on paper, but in practice, it couldn't be easier, especially since the combat controls are displayed on-screen all the time. The controls are responsive, both during the platforming and combat portions, and scanning is quite easy because the game remembers your last cursor position if you didn't complete a scan. All in all, players won't have anything to complain about as far as controls are concerned.
The graphics will stun people who are used to seeing the passable jobs done on other children's games. Character models, while a bit flawed, look excellent. Even though there is a slight dullness to their skin, all creatures look proportional to their printed counterparts, and the details are more than adequate. Tom looks just like his animated counterpart, and the small details, such as wrinkles on his shirt, show how much attention the art team paid to the little things. Animation for the creatures and Tom come off smoothly, with nary a hitch to be seen. Particle effects look good during attacks, especially the fire effects, which look better than in some other higher-profile titles. The environments really become the focus when one talks about the title's graphics. There may not be that many environments to fight in and explore, but the available ones show off a great amount of detail and use of light and shadow. Places like Iparu Jungle show off a muted lushness, with colors that strive to go for a more realistic look as opposed to the cartoonish appearance that one expects from a kids' game.
Unfortunately, the environments prove to be the cause of some of the game's weaknesses in the graphics department. The shadows seem to be prevalent in areas where objects like rope bridges are also made with a darker color, and this hides gaps across which players have to jump in order to progress. There aren't too many instances of this occurring, but they do exist. Also, the engine doesn't seem to handle all of this detail well enough to remain at a constant 30 frames per second. Don't be surprised to see shadowed and detailed areas slow down to around 20 frames per second when you travel through them. While this slowdown doesn't happen during the combat sequences or the platforming or RPG sections, it happens enough that it mars what the graphics team has been able to accomplish with this title.
The sound will either please your ears or hurt them, depending on whether or not you're a fan of the show. The music matches exactly what's found in the TV series, from the title screen to the battles to some exploration sequences and cut scenes. Interestingly enough, music doesn't play during most of the platforming sequences, letting the ambient sounds take over instead. To that end, the sound effects play nicely over the speakers. Attacks come off with a good amount of bass, and other effects, like footsteps and bug and bird sounds, play at a nice enough volume that they don't overwhelm the player but still give a good sense of the world being alive.
The biggest thing that fans of the TV show will be hearing is the voice acting, and to that end, the same voice actors used for Tom and all of the featured creatures reprise their roles here. Their delivery hasn't changed a bit, which will please fans of the show while non-fans won't mind either way. One thing to point out with the voices, though, is that plenty of phrases are repeated throughout the course of the game. When you get hurt in the platforming sections, Tom cycles through a rather extensive sound bank of phrases before he repeats them. However, whenever he gets closer to a piece of the mugic he needs to find, he tends to say the same things at the same distances to his goal. It would have been nice if he started to say a few things differently since he will go through this a few more times. Combat doesn't fare that much better. Every one of the 40+ creatures has its own set of taunts and win phrases, but they seem to be limited to about three taunt phrases and one win phrase per creature. When attacking, the creatures tend to announce the attack name or have a witty saying, which is the same regardless of how many times it is played.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, no one expected Chaotic: Shadow Warriors to break free from the unwritten set of rules for children's games. The hybrid platformer/RPG works well for the brand, and the fighting engine is a pretty good effort, especially for a developer that hasn't made an RPG before. It isn't an excellent game, though, as the problems, combined with the lack of an introductory story line, make this a product that has Chaotic fans in mind and no one else. For those looking for a Pokémon-like experience on a home console, this is definitely a game worth checking out.
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