You'd be forgiven for being relatively unfamiliar with the original incarnation of Saint Seiya. While some of Japan's big hits of the era — Dragon Ball, Gundam, Macross (Robotech to Western audiences), and Sailor Moon — enjoyed success globally, Saint Seiya didn't get that kind of distribution. Only a few places like France and the Latin American countries saw it, making it something of a cult hit even after the butchered Cartoon Network version in the early 2000s. The series is being brought back in the form of Saint Seiya Omega, so it makes sense that there would be a game tie-in. However, Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers already comes with a built-in stumbling block in that it is based off the original 1980s series, not the current one, giving it a rather small audience of fans when compared to other anime games on the market. It also doesn't help that the game is, at best, a below-average fighter.
Brave Soldiers comes with a decent amount of modes that are expected from modern anime fighters. The main mode is Saint Chronicles, which is the campaign mode. As expected, the mode takes you through the fights featured in the anime's three major story arcs: Sanctuary, Poseidon, and Hades. Each chapter is rather long and features a ton of fights, especially since some of the sub-chapters have you fighting the same opponent twice or give you the ability to choose who you'll fight as instead of forcing you to use a certain character. Each bout also gives you optional sub-challenges to complete, and the completion of each battle gives you cash to buy orbs that can be used for later modes.
Without going into the mechanics, this mode's presentation is rather weak. Every cut scene is presented in still images of characters and text, similar to most Japanese RPGs or dating sims. Even worse is that the text is formatted oddly and a few lines contain grammatical errors or shoddy translation. Fixing that issue alone would've made the presentation acceptable, but when some of Namco Bandai's other anime fighting titles feature fully rendered scenes, the static images feel lazy.
The mode also does a poor job of getting you up to speed with the characters and the backstories. It assumes you know exactly what's going on and relays snippets to set up each fight, though it has to be credited for adding dialogue during the bouts, even if some of the speaking characters don't show up in the bouts or in the scenes bookending each fight. Considering the relative popularity and age of the anime, the game isn't doing a good job of introducing itself to those who aren't familiar with the material.
Another annoyance, though it seems to be a trend with most anime fighters, is that you have to go through this mode if you hope to unlock anything in the game. Of the 55 available fighters, only five are unlocked from the start, and only two of the 35 fighting environments are available. Granted, the environments don't vary much, and a decent amount of the characters just have different armor, but with the lion's share of fighters hidden away in one mode, you'll be forced to go through a few story arcs, which you may or may not understand.
Versus mode stands out because of the variety of available match types. There are the standard fights, but there are orb fights, which act like Street Fighter Vs. Tekken in that you can use orbs to augment your fighters for attack power, HP, etc. In other versus modes, attacks do more damage all the time, no blocking is allowed, special meters empty once a player falls, and health meters are completely invisible. There are even modes where the winner is determined by the number of knockdowns or the first one to land a hit. This is the variety you'd typically see in a wrestling game, so it's good to see this in a fighting game.
Survival mode is exactly what you'd expect, but there are a few differences. There are multiple difficulty levels to choose from and several choices of opponents to select after each bout. Each opponent comes with a difficulty rating, point bounty and set of challenges, giving you the chance to customize the ease or difficulty of each path to victory. A tournament mode, dubbed Galaxy War, keeps the difficulty levels intact but ditches the challenges for each bout. On the collectibles front, you can obtain background music from each level, movies of each character performing ultimate moves, titles for your player card, and images of the toys for the anime and cards for the Japan-only collectible card game.
Finally, Brave Soldiers features a full online mode for both ranked and unranked matches. As far as online performance is concerned, it is very solid and no lag is present, even when connections to the opponent go into red rating territory. Even with the rather small online community, getting into matches isn't that difficult, and there were only a few times during the review period when matches couldn't be found. Sadly, online bouts are only fought with normal rules, and the lobbies for player matches can only accommodate a maximum of four players. Furthermore, the only variation, orb matches, must be played in ranked bouts. No one ever seems to play that variation, making the purchase of orbs rather useless unless you plan on enjoying the mode in local multiplayer.
The amount of modes is decent, but the focus is the fighting, and it pales in comparison to the fighting systems in other anime games. Focusing on the positives for a minute, the game employs something similar to the Naruto or Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi games, where fights take place from a third-person view. It isn't a particularly deep system, but you can pull off some nice, albeit limited, multi-hit combos from the available buttons. Fighters have two meters: one for building up special moves and one for going into a temporary state where attacks and throws are strengthened. More depth is added to the system with the charge button, which is primarily used to build your special move meter. It can also be used in conjunction with your attacks to unleash more powerful moves.
The flaws with the system come from several areas. The first is with the characters, who lack balance. There are several characters who have nothing but projectile attacks as their regular moves. Others have weapons that reach great lengths while some have moves that create projectiles that instantly home in on the opponent or create an impenetrable shield with a large radius. Despite this being a fighting game, it feels like standard brawling is highly discouraged.
The emphasis on special moves is amplified by the special meter system. Though you need to charge up your meter, it fills up faster via button-triggered charges rather than through combat and combos. Furthermore, landing any hit with a special move quickly refills the meter, creating a cycle where you can essentially stand in one place and pelt the opponent with special moves.
When playing against the computer in Saint Chronicles, combat is laughable since enemies try to run away from you until they have a shot at a combo or stand there charging their special meter, leaving them completely vulnerable to attacks. Combine the easy combat with lengthy levels, and the campaign mode quickly becomes a boring slog that's required to obtain a decent roster. Online fights are also tedious since players often stick to throwing projectiles or standing around charging themselves until they can unleash a flurry of projectile attacks. Almost every online match shows players charging their special meters and using those attacks; those who even attempt to use hand-to-hand combat are obliterated. Only Galaxy War and Survival mode provided any sort of balanced fighting.
As far as sound is concerned, it works well enough. The music sounds like it is inspired by the anime, though the character select menu sounds like a slight remix of the character select piece from Soul Calibur II. As is the case in most of these situations, the tunes aren't exactly memorable, but they work well enough. Some of the original effects from the anime are used here, specifically for the special moves, and that lends the game more authenticity than expected for such an old property. The voices are also good and only in Japanese. As a side note, the game really takes advantage of surround sound, so those playing on home theater systems will be pleasantly surprised.
Graphically, Brave Soldiers isn't as great as expected. The character models are fine, and it seems like the development team has taken a page from other anime games. The colors for the characters are bordered by thin black lines, making for a pretty clean look that's close to the source material. Unlike games like Naruto, though, the look doesn't come with jagged lines, so it looks slightly cleaner than its contemporaries. Due to the accuracy of the models, some moves look strange even though they are animated correctly. The particle effects are serviceable, and one could argue that the quality is similar to those in the PS2 era. The same can be said for the backgrounds, which feature very muted colors and little to no animation. It makes the characters stand out, but it also makes the whole package look uninspired.
Typically, a licensed game that doesn't have the charm to resonate with those unfamiliar with the material would be labeled as something that's only good for fans. That's harder to do with Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers because the fans deserve better than what's offered here. The stories don't do anything to bring in new fans, and they don't do much to remind existing fans about the various story lines. The presentation feels like it was done on a budget compared to other anime fighters in recent memory. The fighting is dull, whether you're taking on CPU fighters, which spend more time dodging than attacking, or human players, who abuse the generous special meter to turn fights into special move fests. The character imbalance is extremely apparent. If you are truly desperate for a Saint Seiya title, then this may work, but you're better off waiting for a better, more polished game to come along.
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