Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Kid Icarus: Uprising (Nintendo 3DS) Review




Kid Icarus: Uprising is exactly what Nintendo needs. A refreshing new experience with fantastic presentation, unique design, and that patented Nintendo charm. Uprising is basically a new IP because it’s radically different in structure and gameplay than the two previous Kid Icarus titles, and besides, gamers haven’t visited the world of Kid Icarus in about twenty years (longer if you live in Japan, where the Game Boy sequel to the NES original, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, was never released when it first came out). And what a world it is. Not only was the world of the old Kid Icarus games highly unique and full of personality, but Uprising takes it to a whole other level, building on the framework established by the NES original and expanding it one-thousand fold.

Mixing Greek mythology with modern day sensibilities, space pirates, eggplant wizards, and a fiercely creative imagination, to say the world of Uprising is “full of personality” would surely be an understatement. It’s not surprising to see a well-crafted fantasy world in a Nintendo game, but it is refreshing and surprising to see such a modern presentation that is dripping with polish. A Nintendo game that’s fully voice acted? And the voice acting is good? Yes. In fact, the voice acting is very good. Just about every villain, boss, and zany character our main hero Pit comes across in this diverse adventure is fully voice acted and has a unique personality. Voice acting can fall flat if the writing is bad, but luckily Uprising manages to have sharp writing and the talented actors and actresses really bring life into these characters. Sure, the game is full of corny jokes and a few cringe-worthy attempts at humor, but it’s also packed with countless moments that had me smiling and a lot that are genuinely funny. The whole adventure plays out like a fantastical Saturday morning cartoon or a Disney animated movie. 


The narrative in Uprising is all over the place. This is a crazy, unpredictable world.  The story is pretty focused for the first several chapters, but after that it veers in a million different directions, changing gears and adding new villains and characters every three chapters or so. This chaos kind of works for the game because the experience never takes itself too seriously, despite the core subject matter, a multi-sided war between gods that has engulfed humankind in wide-scale bloodshed, being rather grim and serious (one chapter in particular begins to touch on the grim reality of what is going on in this world, but it soon reverts back to the game’s standard light-hearted fare). The game constantly breaks the fourth wall, often referring to itself as a video game, making references to many other Nintendo franchises, and making jokes about things like Wikipedia. The narrative sees our hero, the angel Pit, fighting a two-headed version of Cerberus in a traditional Greek-style coliseum in its first chapter, fighting the god of death in a palace at the bottom of the sea in another one, chasing a space pirate ship in a later one and so on. I really don’t want to spoil any more of the surprises this game has in store. Just about every chapter has Pit off on some wacky new adventure unique from the last. I found myself playing onward just to find out what ridiculous mission I would see next. The game certainly lacks focus, but as I said the whole experience is completely zany and irreverent, expressing a disregard for anything that isn’t chaotic and off-the-wall. Normally, I’d criticize a narrative for being so unfocused, but as I said before, it kind of works for this particular experience, although this lack of focus definitely becomes problematic towards the end of the story. 

The game makes clear who the main antagonist is, but their spotlight is stolen by the wide cast of other antagonists Pit is battling. And while the “main antagonist” is still active in the plot, they more flit between attacking Pit, fighting alongside him, and simply making comedic jabs at him. At the end of the game, the narrative decides it’s time to wrap things up, and tries to bring the focus back on this main antagonist to gear the player up for the final battle. At this point, I get that this villain is doing bad things, but ultimately I just don’t really feel motivated to defeat them because I haven’t been sparring against just them the whole game, but rather fighting against a whole collection of opposing forces. So while the final chapter is appropriately overblown and dramatic, the game’s narrative sort of ended on an odd note for me. It wasn’t so much: “Yeah, I saved the world!” rather than the game basically just telling me that it was time to end things, that this wacky adventure had gone on long enough. 


The plot of the game unfolds almost entirely in-game, with barely any cut-scenes, only a few at the end of some chapters that never last more than a minute. The story is almost entirely told in the dialogue between the wide cast of characters that chatter constantly amongst each other and with Pit as Pit fights wave after wave of monsters. This approach is unique and the high energy of the game is always flowing, but it’s difficult to focus on two information streams at once: on the bottom screen the game’s colorful cast of characters (represented by hand-drawn anime-style pictures) is chatting exuberantly with each other and on the top screen hordes of enemies are attacking me. I’ll focus on the dialogue, but take a beating from enemies, or I’ll focus on the gameplay and I’ll miss dialogue and plot points. It’s a bit frustrating and sometimes I would just stop in a safe area and listen to the dialogue so I wouldn’t miss anything.
 
As I said before, every character in the story, including bosses, are given tons of dialogue and personality, and some of the bosses Pit fights don’t even seem that bad so I feel guilty destroying them at the end of each chapter. Pit’s main adversary jokes at one point in the game about how Pit (and thus the player) solves all their problems by just going around and shooting everything in sight. Pit’s opponents in the game often jest about how he’s just a puppet who does whatever his goddess Palutena tells him to do, and I can’t help but feel like they aren’t too far from the truth most of the time. Pit doesn’t seem to think for himself too often and the game makes fun of this fact. The main villain questions why Pit is trying to defeat them near the end of the game (a pertinent question given those motivation issues I mentioned earlier), and Pit responds by reciting verbatim the speech Palutena gave him earlier in the same chapter, in which he embarrassingly plays right into the villain’s snarky hands. Because of these points and his na├»ve demeanor, Pit is just kind of a dork and also comes across as actually a pretty shallow character. Perhaps his shallow characterization is purposeful, as like I said the game itself pokes fun at him, but it’s worth noting that it often feels like things just happen to Pit as the more interesting characters around him provide most of the entertainment and wit. In this sense, just as Palutena literally controls Pit’s flight path in the game’s on-rails flight sections, Uprising is a game that doesn’t give the player much free agency and feels more like a forced path that a higher power is controlling. 

I bring this up because unlike in some other games where the player is cast as a heroic type, like Nintendo’s own The Legend of Zelda series, I don’t really feel too much like a hero in Uprising, but more like I’m just being forced to complete objectives to see the game through. Where Zelda’s hollow protagonist “Link” acts as a silent player avatar that he or she uses to connect with the game’s world (and is effective in this way for the most part), Pit is made out to be a full character of his own complete with his own dialogue, but falls short of being an interesting one and since I can’t really relate to his goofy, naive character, Pit is just sort of lame to me. And while the narrative partially addresses Pit’s naivety and blind following of orders, it doesn’t do so with enough depth that makes this aspect meaningful. The player ultimately does what their goddess tells them to do and gets a shallow-feeling “happy ending” for their trouble. I know the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the narrative still has stakes and is ultimately a heroic fantasy, so feeling a little more like a real hero with his own desires and ideas and having a main character who isn’t so one-dimensional would have been nice. All right, so I've picked on Pit a lot, but I certainly don't hate the guy. His naivety and optimism can actually be sort of charming. Maybe Pit’s shallow character just sticks out in the midst of all of the other more interesting personalities in the game.

Just let the guy think for himself!




So you may have noticed that I’ve already said a great deal and all I’ve really talked about is the characters and narrative in the game. Well, that’s because, honestly, Uprising’s world, characters, and overall presentation are its main selling point for me. Everything in the game is so full of personality and it’s the game’s memorable world, brought to life by the aforementioned great voice acting, charming writing, gorgeous visuals and the 3DS’s depth effect, not to mention the game’s beautiful orchestrated soundtrack (though only a few tunes stick out as “memorable” for me personally), that I really value most about the experience. The actual gameplay side of things is quite good as well; it’s just more of a mixed bag.

Uprising is fun, but it’s also repetitive. The game is divided into a number of separate “chapters” and almost every chapter in the game is broken up into two parts: an on-rails flying segment where the goddess of light, Palutena, guides Pit’s path as he concentrates on dodging and shooting monsters, and an on-foot mission culminating in a boss fight. The on-foot sections take up most of the game’s play-time, while the flying portions are faster-paced and usually a lot briefer due to Pit only being able to fly for five minutes at a time, lest his wings burn up. The flying sections are huge on spectacle and visual flair and are quite exhilarating and enjoyable. The on-foot missions can get a little tiresome though. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but sometimes I just wanted some of them to end. I guess lengthy sections where I’m just running around and shooting everything in sight without much exploration beyond a few optional routes yielding a treasure chest reward gets a little dry for me and isn’t quite my thing. Some levels are definitely more engaging than others though, whether it’s due to their visual design or the way the stages progress. One of my favorite stages is an ascension up a tall tower with a unique challenge on each floor (ironically, it’s also one of the longest chapters in the game, and I’ll admit that it does drag on a little too long). And while the formula of flying section followed by on-foot section can get repetitive and predictable, later chapters in the game mix this formula up in ways I won’t spoil, but they’re definitely a welcome change of pace. One chapter in particular really tripped me up, in a good way.

Flying

On-foot

At the end of the day, perhaps this style of game, where the objective is just to shoot or bash row after row of enemies, is just not as engaging for me personally as more adventuresome games. Sure, there are action games like God of War and Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening that I love and consist of bashing hordes of enemies. But these games simply have more engaging level design, more adventure elements, and more engaging combat. Uprising has nice set-pieces and is a gorgeous-looking game, especially during the flight sections, but the level design of the on-foot sections (which again comprise the majority of the game) is a bit basic and dry, and the combat doesn’t quite live up to the insane action of Devil May Cry 3 or the brutal ferocity of God of War. The combat has some variety, with rapid-fire shots, charged shots, a variety of different weapons and weapon types, and different types of attacks depending on how and where Pit dashes and so on. But you’re still just aiming and blasting away all the time, or if you’re close to an enemy, slashing away. Players also have access to a wide variety of consumable “powers”, a limited number of which can be assigned to Pit before a chapter for use. These powers can be used for everything from damaging enemies, to providing extra defense for Pit, to restoring Pit’s health. These powers have a limited number of uses in-game. 

Ultimately, the fantastic presentation, crazy narrative, and colorful characters kept me engaged and excited for each new level just to see what would happen next. If it was just up to the gameplay, I’d probably have gotten bored halfway through. But that’s me. Other players may find the combat, coupled with the variety of weapons and special powers and unique difficulty system, a lot more engaging than I did. There’s certainly room for some experimentation in the game. I’ll admit, I mainly stuck to a few different weapon types and powers that I liked using and ignored a variety of others that didn’t really appeal to me. These other weapons and powers might have spiced the gameplay up a bit had I experimented with them more.

Uprising feels very polished as a whole. Menus are clear and vibrant and very Super Smash Bros. Brawl-esque (not surprising as the game was directed by Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai). Also like the Super Smash Bros. games, this game is packed with content. I love the wide variety of weapon types and weapons in the game (despite the fact that I ultimately only used a few different weapon types that I felt comfortable with), as well as the weapon fusion system, where two lesser weapons can be combined for a newer, more powerful one. Choosing a unique weapon to take into battle with me before each chapter was a lot of fun. There are also Super Smash Bros.-like trophies (called “idols”) of every character, item, weapon, and location to unlock, tons of achievements to reach for, an online multiplayer mode that I never tried (multiplayer isn’t really my thing), and optional paths as well as unique rewards in levels that reveal themselves to the player only on higher difficulty levels. That brings me to the game’s unique difficulty system.

Menus!

The game employs a difficulty system in which the player can scale the difficulty to their liking, choosing from 0.0 to 9.0 for what amounts to ninety difficulty levels. This type of customization is a great idea, and another surprising feature for a modern Nintendo game, but ultimately I’m not a fan of the way this system is executed. It would be fine if I chose a difficulty, say 6.5, and that difficulty stuck no matter how many times I died in a stage. But how this system works is that the player bets hearts (this game’s currency) to raise the difficulty and when you die, you lose those hearts and the difficulty is also kicked down a full level. So if you chose 6.5, after a single death, the difficulty is kicked down to 5.5. After another death it drops to 4.5 and so on. I hate the way this works. When I play a challenging game, I like to keep working at it until I succeed, and this success comes with a great feeling of accomplishment. When I raise the difficulty level in Uprising, it’s because I want to challenge myself more. But after a single death, no matter how early or late in a level, the game basically tells me that I suck too much and drops the challenge level for me. If I continue to die, the difficulty continues to drop until the game basically poses no threat to me at all and I can sail through a level with little effort. 

Ultimately, this system, which is supposed to allow me to challenge myself, has the opposite effect. It feels like forced hand-holding. It feels like a forced Super Guide (those obnoxious, though optional, things that pop up in many contemporary Nintendo games that offer to complete a level for a player or give a player some kind of uber power-up that helps a player to complete a level). When I continue to die in a challenging game, and the challenge is reasonable, I don’t lower the difficulty setting. I don’t cheat either. I keep trying until I succeed. I simply can’t do this in Uprising because of its difficulty system. If I die against a tough boss, I don’t want the game to basically hand the victory to me, I want to keep trying and persevere over the challenge. I want to improve my skills and get better at the game and overcome its challenges, and that’s not going to happen if every time I die at a tough part, the difficulty drops more and more. And I’m not going to start a whole level over and ramp the difficulty up to where I had it just because I die once. Having so many difficulty levels is great, but I wish they’d stick and not drop if I die. This system might be fine for players who don’t care about the difficulty and just want to breeze through the game, but for me this system ultimately feels like forced hand-holding and makes conquering the game’s challenges less satisfying, especially its bosses.



The bosses in this game are a bit underwhelming. They are huge in spectacle and personality, but most fights just involve strafing around a boss and unloading continuous fire into it. There’s not much strategy involved for most fights and on the lower difficulty levels (which are forced on me if I die a few times), the bosses are total pushovers, and not very satisfying to defeat. There are a few exceptions, but I often had that feeling of “That’s it?” after defeating a boss in this game.

Twinbellows here isn't as tough as he looks

O.k., so there’s a big element of Uprising that I haven’t talked about, and I suppose I’ve broken the rule about putting the most important information first, because this aspect of the game is pretty important. If you read any of the reviews for Uprising back when it came out in March 2012, you’d know that there was one major polarizing aspect of the game: its controls. The controls for Uprising, which were the widely-advertised make or break for the game for a lot of critics at its release, are certainly cumbersome and awkward to get a handle on at first, but they’re far from a game breaker. I own both an original 3DS and a 3DS XL and have tried the game on both and the XL is definitely a lot more comfortable for the game, although the original 3DS just took a little more getting used to and wasn’t too bad (provided you use a different stylus than the original 3DS’s default one, as a stylus that folds in on itself is quite annoying when paired with vigorous play). 

The controls work as follows: players use the L-trigger to shoot, the circle pad to move, and the stylus to aim, control the camera, and select special powers. I tried the plastic stand that came with the game, but didn’t find it optimal due to having to sit at a desk and my desk not being at eye-level and it just overall not being even necessary anyway. I found it was most comfortable to hold the 3DS’s left side with my left hand while keeping my finger and thumb on the L-trigger and circle pad respectively, and support the right side of the system with my palm while I controlled the stylus with my right hand’s fingers. There’s a left-handed option if you use the face buttons (ABXY) to control Pit's movement and the circle pad to aim, or if you buy the not-included Circle Pad Pro peripheral for the 3DS, which adds a second circle pad on the right side of the system and the default controls can be reversed (it should be noted that the Circle Pad Pro is only useful in the game for left-handed players, and there is no option to use two circle pads to control Pit with one and aim with the other).

Yeah, that stand's pretty dumb, but luckily it's not needed



            These controls are a good idea, and they actually work great while Pit is flying in the air, but in practice they can be a bit cumbersome to use while on-foot. Using the stylus to simultaneously aim, spin the camera around, and shuffle through special powers at the bottom of the screen is quite literary a handful, and managing all this with just a stylus can lead to a less than optimal control experience. A typical in-game scenario might require the player to fire at enemies in front of them and then stop firing to quickly spin the camera around to fight enemies that are attacking from behind, while frantically cycling through their list of powers at the bottom of the screen to use their health-restoring skill, all while the enemies continue to attack from multiple angles. The overall positioning of the controls can lead to some hand-cramping as well after extended periods of play. There are other control options to choose from, like using the face buttons to aim (and the D-pad can be used to select special powers), but these other options didn’t seem too appealing to me so I stuck with the default set-up, which I think is probably the best available. Adding the option to use the Circle Pad Pro to control the aiming function with one circle pad and Pit's movement with the other would've been a welcome option, although the accuracy of aiming would be reduced.

Actually, I think this game would control great with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk set-up. Aiming could be controlled with the Wii’s pointer (using either the sensor bar or Wii MotionPlus), firing could be mapped to the Z-trigger on the Nunchuck, and movement to the Nunchuck’s analog stick. Sure, there’d be some other challenges such as how to move the camera, but I think something could be figured out. The game’s high-quality presentation would also suit a console perfectly, so I wouldn’t mind seeing a Wii U installment down the road, or even a port. 

It could work

The vehicles that Pit can ride in the game control a bit slippery (although the Cherubot mech controls solidly), especially the Exo Tank vehicle, which feels like controlling a wet bar of soap. While I’m talking about the gameplay, I feel I should mention that it’s quite annoying that this game features a limited run for Pit. After dashing for a limited time, Pit gets tired and has to catch his breath. A stamina meter works great in some games (like Shadow of the Colossus, where it adds weight and realism to that game’s heavy challenges), but in a high-energy action game like this, it just feels out of place and annoying. I also found the camera angle in the game to be a little awkward in the on-foot sections. It feels a little too zoomed-in, to the point where Pit himself can annoyingly block the player’s view sometimes. 

The Exo Tank

 Kid Icarus: Uprising is ultimately a high-energy and enjoyable experience, combining whimsical sights and sounds and delivering an experience quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. While the gameplay isn’t the most engaging thing in the world for me, it’s still fun, and the entertaining cast of characters and crazy scenarios the game threw at me kept me interested until the end. Perhaps most importantly, the game is a fiercely refreshing change of pace from all the assembly-line Mario games Nintendo has been turning out recently. Featuring a unique and interesting world, entertaining and likeable characters, and a unique new style of play for an old franchise, Kid Icarus: Uprising is one of Nintendo’s most unique and ambitious new games in years. Despite some blemishes in the overall experience, I’d still heartily recommend this game to all 3DS owners.




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