(PlayStation 3 Review) Aquapazza: Aquaplus Dream Match

Developer: Examu
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Fighting
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Aquapazza: Aquaplus Dream Match is a novel crossover 2D fighter featuring characters from several different series by developers Aquaplus and Leaf. Most of the titles aren’t particularly well known in the West, as they are largely adult-oriented visual novels, strategy-RPGs, and romance sims with limited availability outside of Japan. However, those familiar with the developers’ work will recognize references to the likes of Tears to Tiara, the To Heart series, and Utawarerumono. Fans will no doubt get a kick out of seeing their favorite characters battling it out in a flashy brawler, but fighting fans might also find themselves surprised at how adeptly developer Examu has managed to create a simple but fun brawler from such an unlikely and diverse cast.

Aquapazza is nothing if not eye catching. From the traditional sword-armed samurai to an unexpected mop-swinging robot custodian, the wide range of character designs complements the vibrant color palette, and both manage to stand out even against other anime-styled fighters. The large character roster might seem daunting at first, but as with the fighting engine itself, it is much more manageable than it appears. In fact, of the game’s two-dozen-plus characters, only half are playable. Similar to Capcom’s older Versus titles, the other characters are unplayable tag partners that are called in to assist during battle. Each partner has two attacks and different cool-down periods, and matching the right partner to a favorite fighter is one of the more enjoyable and addictive aspects of the game. There are partners that can help with zoning by lobbing projectiles in different directions, blocking, or lending a hand (or foot) in a direct assault. In addition to being able to call in allies, the fighters’ emotions play a role during combat and a multi-level power gauge can be utilized to unleash special attacks.

Despite the gauges and extra factors, Aquapazza is relatively simple. It’s a far cry from the growing complexity of the Street Fighter IV series, and it’s much more approachable than other similar tie-in fighters like Persona 4 Arena. Emotions shift as a direct result of how the character is being played, with the system serving as an impetus to keep the characters active. For example, if a character is constantly, smartly engaging their opponent and staying on the offensive, they will get excited and receive stat bonuses; on the flip side, if they guard or whiff too much, they will find themselves in a bad mood, causing a guard crush and making them more vulnerable. If it looks as if an opponent is trying to dominate in order to receive an emotion boost, they can be knocked back with a heavy smash, which breaks up their momentum and leaves them open to a counter; alternatively, their attacks can be blocked at a specific point to engage an Impact Guard, which prevents guard from breaking while increasing the defender’s emotion. Positioning can also be improved by quick standing, which allows a character to recover faster after being knocked down—an especially helpful ability when trying to rebound from an assault. The aforementioned power meter builds throughout play and can store up to five levels, with super moves requiring one and special Splash Arts attacks requiring three. Many of these elements are standard features in other fighters, but Examu has managed to combine them all in a way that feels natural during play, largely through the underlying emotion system serving as a linking agent. They are so familiar that most players will be able to jump in with little difficulty and immediately grasp the bulk of the core mechanics, a plus for any fighter.

Each character has 8-12 moves, many of which are duplicate motions that change depending on which of the three attack buttons are pressed. There is, however, a surprising mix of motions within each move set, with some characters having quarter-motion moves alongside full-circle and tap moves. As most fighters stick with motions (Street Fighter) or taps (Mortal Kombat), the mixture of control methods might initially make some characters confusing to use. That said, the limited number of motions helps to make memorization fairly easy while facilitating memorization, though I would recommend a fight stick, as trying to do a quarter-circle back and then a three-fourth circle forward is murder on the thumbs when using the directional pad and very difficult with the analog stick. The game also has a very stiff look and feel to it. Injustice has a similar rigidness, but it feels like an intentional design decision in that instance, given the smooth character animations and reliance on the less-fluid tap-style input scheme. In Aquapazza, the stiltedness comes across as a little clunky, partly as a result of limited frames of animation, which can be awkward at first. Thankfully, there are some ways to make combat easier, such as choosing to fight in simple mode, which restricts access to Splash Arts in exchange for being able to initiate special moves using a single button.

Despite the decreased complexity that simple mode offers, it won’t be enough for fighter novices to experience the entirety of Story mode. Aquapazza has a painful difficulty spike, which is inexplicable for a game filled with characters from non-fighters and with an eye to genre newcomers, with a healthy Training Mode that features combo demonstrations and numerous dummy AI customization options. On the default difficulty level, the AI ramps up considerably around the halfway mark. The change is so swift and so drastic that it can ruin an otherwise fun session, and as if that wasn’t enough, the developers add some salt in the wound by having the final boss regenerate their last life bar. That final surprise is enough to make even genre veterans throw up their hands in frustration.

Lowering the difficulty also has the added benefit of lessening the inevitable disappointment in the story itself. Every character plays through the same story arc of encountering one another as they battle to close the rift between universes and stopping Aquapazza from enslaving mankind. The random dialog bits that occur between bouts are so basic that they barely register as actual interaction. Given the large cast, numerous backstories, and number of fan bases being served, this is a missed opportunity. This is somewhat understandable, given that the extensive roster presents a problem for such a small project, and would have required considerable resources to create so many unique in-depth relationships. Still, this doesn’t lessen the disappointment, though the inclusion of an additional unlockable story mode, aptly named Another Story, helps to even things out. Characters again play through a set story arc with short conversations throughout, this time revolving around the Yata no Kagami mirror, and while it isn’t any more engaging, it at least offers the series’ fans a little more time with their favorite characters. Another benefit to playing through the stories is for the Gallery unlocks, which is a nice incentive even if some of the art is a bit risqué.

Competitive fighting fans are served by Score Attack mode, the offline two-player Versus mode, and the online PlayStation Network mode. Score Attack is a series of battles for points, with the option to upload the top score to a leaderboard. Versus allows for one-off bouts against either another player or the computer, while multiplayer offers Ranked Match, Player Match, Replay Theater, Player Data, and Ranking. Online matches can be hard to come by, and latency can be an issue from time to time. Performance might have been a larger issue had I been able to play more games against others, but given the scarcity of competition, finding an opponent seems to be the bigger problem. Replay Theater houses saved replays, but for some strange reason, the replays themselves must be downloaded from Ranking first, with the theater reserved for saved replays and recent personal matches. It’s an awkward system, but it works.

Aquapazza: Aquaplus Dream Match might feature a roster of relatively unknown characters from an array of dating sims and visual novels, but its simple yet varied engine, colorful combat, and unique move list makes for a very solid fighter. The stiff controls, forgettable story modes, and difficulty spikes can be a pain, and the anemic player base a problem, but the low cost and addictive action make this one for fighter and anime fans to check out—and hurry, I need more people to play against online.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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