Release Date: June 30, 2009
Few series quite have the idea of "take a pattern and run with it" quite like Mega Man. It's pretty much assured that if there's a number in the game's title (though not "Zero"), it's going to play much like the previous ones in that subset, with some minor adjustments to keep things exciting. This has been part of the series' charm since the very beginning. When there are major changes to the gameplay, you'll be playing a whole new subseries.
Capcom seems to be getting some good mileage from the Blue Bomber recently, with Mega Man 9 calling back to the 8-bit era's merciless difficulty, while the more recent action/card battle/RPG format continues with Mega Man Star Force 3 for the DS. Like every Nintendo portable entry since Mega Man Battle Network 3 for the Game Boy Advance, this one comes in two variants, which play similarly and connect to each other to let a player enjoy the few differences. As in the previous Star Force games, Mega Man isn't directly the main character but is what happens when the main character connects to his partner; the waveform is known as Omega-Xis, who, by the way, is a complete jerk.
With Mega Man, it's safe to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Geo Stelar's still a space fanatic, and his friends are basically the same mixtures of different anime stereotypes in the same wireless-obsessed universe. A threat is out to take over the world again, and Mega Man will help fight them off. The differences are there, but subtle; this time, every change that I've experienced also happens to be for the better. While the core gameplay is the same and the new elements of Star Force 3 probably won't bring any non-fans to the fandom, this may be the best RPG that the Blue Bomber has been in yet.
Basic gameplay remains very similar to what has already existed for the Star Force series, which is in turn derived from the GBA Battle Network series. You run around in a reasonably smooth RPG format, talking to people and figuring out the plot. Sometimes, you'll need to switch between playing as the human, Geo, and his alter ego, Mega Man. Whenever it's Mega Man running around, you can travel on Wave Roads — visual representations of wireless traffic that crisscrosses the world — and inside computers, but you're vulnerable to attack by viruses. When you enter combat with other viruses, gameplay switches to a shooting gallery format. Mega Man can move between three rows on the 3x5 board on which combat plays out, using his Mega Buster and his deck of Battle Chips to blast the viruses and take their stuff. If you've played either of the previous Star Force games, then you've basically played this one. If you've played a Battle Network game, the core of this title isn't ludicrously different either.
The actual plot is a little more complex this time around. With the latest updates in wireless-based technology, wave creatures are now able to take physical form; now known as Wizards, they have become indispensible aids to their operators in various ways. This update also works for Omega-Xis, the main character's partner. With the update, however, come a few oddities, such as Noise. If you're thinking of The World Ends With You and how the Noise there was incarnated negative emotions, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. However, this noise can turn Wizards into berserk Noise Wizards. Worse yet, an all-new villainous group has shown up, intent on using the Noise to somehow destroy the world. Right now, they're out to wreck Geo's life, with the assistance of playing cards loaded with Noise. Geo's going to have to stop them, using the power of friendship to its fullest.
The plot in Star Force 3 is decent and funny, and the graphics are the usual incremental upgrade, but they actually feel like an upgrade for once, with new effect details and a layer of polish. Gameplay is also faster than ever before outside of combat. Geo's trademark transformation into Mega Man, once a long affair that required finding gates, can now be performed almost anywhere, almost anytime and in under a second. He can now walk along the normal pathways, using Wave Stations to "jump" up to the Wave Roads, which are much fewer in number now. Just be careful because you can still run into people in this mode but can't see them anymore; when you're in wave form, non-wave creatures disappear. This rule also applies to Geo's Visualizer, which lets him see what Mega Man does without the risk of running into combat. The result is a minor change that alters the game flow for the better. The same snappiness also applies to the touch-screen elements; for example, if you walk up to something, the relevant buttons will show up on the touch-screen.
In fact, the touch-screen elements deserve special focus. Geo's Hunter-VG (a PDA device of sorts) is always running, with Omega-Xis patiently sitting at the bottom screen, unless he's out causing trouble, in which case you'll see him jump out. Just tap the screen to get to the menu. The screen frequently pops up with new things; acquired items will show up here, where you can simply tap them to use them, and certain things people say will display a term on the screen, and you can tap it to get the definition. This makes the game possibly the most accessible in the series, allowing things to be explained on a purely optional basis. The results add just a hint of a tactile element to the gameplay to make it feel better and play smoother.
Star Force 3 still has certain flaws. The collecting aspects aren't for everyone, and the game can be a bit repetitive with the random retreads of areas. There's also kid-oriented humor, and most players will wish for the ability to move in two dimensions instead of one in combat. Large swaths of gameplay are repeated, meaning you'll be treading a lot of the exact same territory that you've already seen for eight games. By smoothing out the gameplay, it's somehow managed to feel more like a Sentai show and has lost more of the feel that has carried Mega Man all these years — even though the gameplay is largely the same!
Nonetheless, Mega Man Star Force 3 is going to be popular among its fan base, and the upgrades will help them get the most out of the game. Non-fans probably won't find a lot here, though, and by repeatedly exploring the same elements of Geo's life, Capcom seems to be falling into a comfortable rut here. It's not always a bad thing, but it can be frustrating for those of us who want to see something more distinct from a series that should have had a renaissance sparked with the NES-style entry from last year. The romp remains enjoyable, and as long as the Blue Bomber is still alive, there's still hope that series producer Keiji Inafune can finally carry out his wish to remake the other games from the original and X series — or finish up the Legends series.Score: 7.0/10
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