Thursday, August 7, 2014

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle

In 1986, Weekly Shonen Jump began serialization of a work by Hirohiko Araki named JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. The story started out as one about a young man in 1880s Great Britain named Jonathan Joestar (aka JoJo) whose family adopts the young Dio Brando as their new son following his own father’s death. While the two are supposed to get along, it soon becomes apparent to Jonathan that Dio is doing all he can to usurp the family and become the richest man alive. While Jonathan does manage to stop Dio from belittling his name, an ancient stone mask, one that has the power to turn humans into vampires, enters their lives and grants Dio immortality and the additional abilities of a vampire. When Dio, with the powers of the stone mask, begins to cause trouble in Britain, Jonathan teams up with a former street thug named Robert E.O. Speedwagon and an Italian named Will A. Zeppeli, who begins teaching Jonathan a technique known as Hamon. Together, they must stop Dio from creating a supernatural army and taking over the world.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure was far from Hirohiko Araki’s first work, since he had three other works serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump between 1983 and 1986, but it would go on to be his most successful, as it is still being serialized to this day. In fact, once the story of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure finished in 1987, it turned out to be the first story arc of a multi-generational epic, where every main character’s name can be shortened to “JoJo” somehow, with part two originally referred to as Joseph Joestar: His Proud Lineage, focusing on Jonathan’s grandson 50 years later in 1938 New York and eventually Europe. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure would continue to receive additional parts of the storyline, with all parts at some point receiving new names: Phantom Blood, Battle Tendency, Stardust Crusaders, Diamond Is Unbreakable, Vento Aureo, Stone Ocean and Steel Ball Run. During Steel Ball Run however, the series switched from being a weekly series to a monthly one and, as such, moved to the monthly Ultra Jump publication, where this part would end and Part VIII: JoJolion would begin serialization; this part is currently ongoing, with no way of knowing when it will end or if the series will continue beyond this point. In any case, you can think of each part as a separate series, with each one connected in some way to the previous ones.

Hirohiko Araki continues to get work outside of his magnum opus.
Here, he did a cover, by request, for the American scientific journal, Cell.

During its run, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has become one of the best selling series in Japan, giving way to a media empire which includes the original manga, multiple video games, and even a fashion line. Despite this however, the series has been relatively obscure in the West, but with a devoted fanbase. Each time the series has been brought over to the West, it’s usually been through media related to Part III: Stardust Crusaders, which is actually the most well-known of all eight parts, focusing on Joseph Joestar’s Japanese grandson, Jotaro Kujo, and introducing the series’ signature Stand abilities, which are physical manifestations of energy from the user that grant mystical abilities like control over fire or the ability to manipulate the iron in someone’s bloodstream.

Fittingly, this is the Stand that can do that.

The first attempt to bring the series over to the U.S. was through an English localization of a Capcom fighting game based on Stardust Crusaders simply titled JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (aka: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Heritage for the Future). This game (which incidentally was recently re-released as an HD download) planted the seeds for the fanbase due to its popularity, while memes would later spawn and spread word of the series further. Between 2003 and 2005, Super Techno Arts would release an English dub of an OVA from Japan also based on Part III, which, while popular, featured a watered-down version of the full story. Beginning in 2005, Viz Media would then release an English translation of the Stardust Crusaders volumes, though under the title of simply JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, until 2010. At this point the fanbase continued to thrive in relative obscurity until 2012, when David Production began producing an anime in Japan that would faithfully adapt JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure beginning with Part I: Phantom Blood. The anime proved to be a hit and later got an official English sub released on the anime streaming website Crunchyroll. When word of the anime spread, the fanbase exploded outwards, introducing new people to the franchise as a whole and drawing in new fans that would soon spread the word and continue the cycle. While the anime has adapted Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency, and is devoting an entire season to Stardust Crusaders (still being released at the time of this writing), the show has yet to gain full mainstream success. However, an official English dub of the Stardust Crusaders season is in the works, so the situation could change if it manages to get aired on the revived Toonami block.

Seriously, this had better get on Toonami if it wants more exposure.

The reason I brought up all of this history with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is because I wanted to provide some context for what I’m about to review. I wanted to illustrate the origins of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and give an idea of its history not just as it pertains to Japan, but its success in the West and how something which began with a niche audience is steadily growing in popularity. This brings me to the subject of this review, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle (All-Star Battle), a fighting game developed by CyberConnect2 (best known for Asura’s Wrath or their Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm series) and first announced in 2012 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the franchise. After a 2013 release in Japan, the game would receive an English localization, with the Japanese language soundtrack intact, in late April 2014. When I first played this game at WonderCon 2014, I really wanted to play more, though I feel it was for the best that I didn’t get it back then. Since its release, I’ve been watching the entirety of the David Production anime and at this point, I can’t get enough of it; I’d highly recommend everyone give it a shot due to the amazing animation and high amount of creativity in the plot and battle scenes.

During our last visit to San Diego Comic-Con 2014 (SDCC), after getting as far as humanly possible with Stardust Crusaders, we ended up buying a copy of the game at a lowered price ($40 instead of $50) at the Namco Bandai booth. Since SDCC was extremely tiring, my brother and I decided to unwind by playing as much of All-Star Battle as we possibly could. Since doing so, we’ve been unable to stop due to the sheer amount of fun we’ve been having. Suffice to say, I’ve been really enjoying it and find it to be well worth the price of admission.

Though the absence of a physical manual is a bit of a drag.
(Not my photo, but the point stands.)

The only problem I have with fighting game reviews is that it’s a little hard to know where to start. At this point though, I guess the best place to start would be the Story Mode. In this mode, players play through the first seven parts of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, going from Phantom Blood all the way to Steel Ball Run, unlocking new characters for the game as they go. Each of the fights involve characters represented in the game from each part, so other fights or elements which can’t be visualized this way are given text explaining what happens. You can also complete Secret Missions by recreating certain moments from a specific fight, which means using or landing specific moves, to earn extra gold (the in-game currency) or other rewards.

Based on my experience with the anime, the story recaps aren’t perfect, since they leave out a lot of context for certain fights and much of the plot is skipped over in favor of streamlining the experience as much as possible. However, I did find that they gave enough of the story so that players who didn’t know the story already would at least know what was going on and it did actually pique my interest in experiencing the rest of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure outside the game so that I can get the full story. Also, I like that they at least tried to represent Part VIII: JoJolion, going away from its actual story (as it’s still being serialized) in favor of a series of fights against all of the JoJos of the previous seven parts. The Story Mode, while not perfect, is a nice effort to give fans the chance to play through the stories they have come to love. However, I’d like to issue a warning for newcomers to the series or people, like me, who have only been watching the anime: playing through this mode will spoil the entire franchise in some way, but it is a necessary step to unlocking all of the on-disc characters. In fact, I’d like to give off a second warning for those reading this review:

Spoiler Note: Due to the nature of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle, there may be unmarked spoilers from here on regarding character names, abilities and plot points.

In addition to Story Mode, there is also a Campaign Mode. This may sound similar at first, but in reality it operates much differently, in fact playing like a free-to-play mobile game, but on a console. When playing Campaign, you must have an online connection to even access it. Once you’ve accepted the EULA, you are given an energy bar and can select one of five Campaigns to go through. What this entails is expending a point of energy to search for a Boss to fight so you can earn extra stuff for each character, including costumes, quotes and color tints. Finding a boss isn’t a guarantee though, because you’ll more likely be fighting an avatar of another player, meaning that you aren’t directly fighting another person, but a character that they have selected to represent them (you can set up your own avatar in another menu separate from Campaign); beating an avatar can still net you a prize. When you do encounter a boss, you can expend extra energy to do more damage to the boss and gain more prizes at once upon beating them (this is different from the health that they have when fighting them for real). Hitting bosses often and hard is key to beating them, made easier by a mechanic where upon encountering any particular boss, that boss’ show rate will increase to 100% for 10 minutes, meaning that searching for a boss will cause them to instantly appear.

It doesn’t end there though, since sometimes before a fight, at least one character from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure will show up and offer to aid you in ways that usually involve expending one or two points of energy. Doing what they say will give you an advantage, such as increased defense or lowered enemy health during your fight with them. With all the energy expenditure however, you will at some point need to take a break to let it recharge. It takes two minutes to recharge one point of energy, which isn’t too long a wait, although you can purchase additional energy through the PlayStation Store. This sort of micro-transaction business in a console game is a little hard to get behind, since I see no reason why I would spend money like that on a game I already paid full price for unless it’s DLC that affects the game in some way. You can just as easily deal a lot of damage to the boss, challenge them again and then simply do something else while you wait for all of your energy to come back; you’ll likely be able to finish the boss off when you come back.

In general though, I don’t really mind the Campaign Mode, although I do question the need for an online connection. I like the prizes that I can get since they can add to someone’s experience, but not the idea that if the servers shut down, then no one can have access to this content unless they rerelease the game down the line with everything on it. Still, the mode is a little addicting, but best when played in short bursts.

But you'll need to download the free Campaign Update to get anywhere.

Apart from these special game modes, there’s also the U.S.-exclusive Arcade Mode, where you select one of the game’s 32 characters (41 with all DLC) and fight through a gauntlet of eight fighters in a row for more gold. There is actually a reasonable amount of challenge in this mode, with a gentle difficulty curve as the opponents are randomly chosen. I haven’t played this mode very much, but I got enough of an idea after a while and think that this is a good way to farm gold if you’re trying to buy more gallery items to view (and believe me, the temptation to buy them all will sink in). However, I want to point out that the first time I ran through with Joseph Joestar and got the final three opponents, the computer picked Esidisi and then Wamuu, but missed an opportunity to end with Kars.

Anything is possible in Arcade Mode.

This leads me into the next topic: the characters. As I’ve noted in the previous paragraph, there are 32 characters on-disc, but 41 if you buy all nine DLC characters (which I did). Each character comes from one of the eight parts of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, with the lone exception being the DLC character Ikuro Hashizawa, who hails from Baoh, a previous series by Hirohiko Araki. To match which part they’re from, they all have a different fighting style, which can be broken down into the following categories: Hamon, Vampirism, Mode, Stand, Mounted and Baoh Armed Phenomenon. In battle, every character has a Heart Heat (HH) Gauge, which each style interacts with differently, usually by charging it up, strengthening certain attacks or pulling off a Heart Heat Attack (HHA) or Great Heat Attack (GHA). A lot of the fun from playing the game comes from pitting these different styles against each other, such as a Hamon user against a Stand user.

What really adds to the fun factor though is not only how ridiculously awesome each character’s power can get, but how CyberConnect2 thought of every possible interaction between them down to the last detail. One standout example comes from a battle between Jotaro Kujo and DIO, whose Stands respectively are Star Platinum and The World. DIO’s GHA is his (in)famous Road Roller attack, wherein he freezes time with The World before dropping a Steamroller on his opponent to punch it repeatedly until it explodes. When used against Jotaro, an additional animation will play where Star Platinum will move through the frozen time and punch the Steamroller to defend Jotaro. Normally this would be the extent of the special interaction and the Steamroller would explode anyway. However, if the player controlling Jotaro inputs the command for Jotaro to stop time, then an additional animation will play where Star Platinum freezes time and Jotaro comments on DIO being unable to move before DIO retreats. This not only recreates a famous moment from Stardust Crusaders, but it also causes Jotaro to overall take less damage from the attack.

Road Roller Da!

This level of detail isn’t just limited to individual character interactions though, as it extends to special dialogue, the individual nature of each character and even specific stages. When Vampires (Dio Brando, DIO and Vanilla Ice/Cool Ice) or the Pillar Men (Wamuu, Esidisi and Kars) take damage for instance, some of it will be converted to silver health which they can recover, unless that damage was inflicted by a Hamon user, since Hamon is similar to the power of the sun. As for stages, each of the 12 selectable locales has a Stage Hazard and a Dramatic Finish. One of these stages is DIO’s Mansion, where the Dramatic Finish involves one of the fighters being thrown out the second story window into the sunlight. Normally a character would fall to their death, but if they are a Vampire or one of the Pillar Men, they will disintegrate into dust. There are more of these possible interactions, but I love that CyberConnect2 thought of every last detail and made it possible to find something new every time you play.

Apart from the thrill of all of this detail though, I do find the game to just be genuinely fun to play. After unlocking all of the characters and buying the DLC, my brother and I would keep fighting each other, eventually finding ourselves gravitating towards certain characters that we really liked to play; some of my favorites were Funny Valentine, Joseph Joestar and Panacotta Fugo while my brother liked being DIO, Kosaku Kawajiri and Bruno Bucciarati, among others. From our countless matches together, we realized why we liked playing: not only is All-Star Battle easy to understand, it’s also balanced pretty well. Though the game takes place on a 3D plane (because you can dodge to the side) with 2D attack patterns, the controls are very easy to use and combos are pretty easy to pull off thanks in part to the easy input language and ability to use some HHAs by just mashing the Square button. When reading that, it’s probably easy to assume that the game is for button mashers, but button mashing and spamming attacks will only get you so far. To truly master the game, you need to learn to combine each character’s special moves in the most effective combinations and know when to be conservative about your attacks or try to build up to an HHA or GHA.

In this regard the game is balanced, but the reason we’ve been able to play against each other so many times is because no matter how strong someone’s abilities are, it’s still possible to lose. For example, the only character I can really consider broken in any fashion is Diavolo, since his Stand, King Crimson (Emperor Crimson in the localization; more on that in a bit), has the ability to skip time. He can do so by skipping 0.5 seconds (his specific dash animation) at just the right moment, activating his HHA to automatically dodge for a few seconds, defensively using his GHA to damage the opponent, or, most dangerously, using a specific Skill. With this skill, he is able to cancel the priority of any move, even in the middle of a combo, allowing him a golden opportunity to strike back. Despite all that Diavolo is capable of however, he is not infallible, as any competent player is capable of defeating him. As I said before, this is what keeps us coming back, the idea that no one character is miles above everyone else and that, no matter who we pick, the threat of losing is real. We always pick a different character every match to keep things fresh, but this careful balance is essential for any fighting game and it’s amazing that All-Star Battle was able to pull it off.

King Crimson: It just works.

Speaking technically, All-Star Battle is a very distinct game. The visual style does a very good job of representing Hirohiko Araki’s evolving art style over the decades, with each character rendered in the art style of the part they came from as opposed to going for one homogenous style. On top of that, the game uses a very bright color palette throughout, befitting the very flashy nature of combat. In a sea of fighters with muted or saturated color schemes, unless they are (a) Street Fighter IV, All-Star Battle stands out enough to give notice. But CyberConnect2 didn’t decide to just end it at that. They even went so far as to have nearly every animation and quote be a reference to a specific panel or line from the manga; that’s true dedication to a property if I ever saw it. Because I know people care about this, I’d also like to mention that All-Star Battle runs at 30 FPS as opposed to 60. While admittedly this isn’t perfect, on an HD TV I’ve had some moves not go off as perfectly as on an SD TV, it does keep the action at a more reasonable pace and does avoid variable frame-rate issues that are present in other fighting games.

The poses are also a little flamboyant, but we love it all the same.

I also love the music of this game, thanks to its diversity and memorability. On one screen you’ll hear a steady guitar riff, on another a heavy electronic track. Characters also have their own background themes, each covering a different genre while also being fun to listen to. If I could get my hands on a physical release of this game’s music, I totally would.

Before I end my review, I’d like to address the name changes in the localization. Since JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is filled to the brim with musical references in the names of characters and Stands, localizations of the series have had to do some legal-dodging renames to avoid any trouble; All-Star Battle is no exception. These renames were all approved by Hirohiko Araki himself and still fit what he was aiming for with the names, but that doesn’t prevent some of them from being a little odd. Something like the aforementioned name change in Diavolo’s Stand from King Crimson to Emperor Crimson is pretty reasonable, as is the Stand Killer Queen being renamed to Deadly Queen, but changing Made In Heaven to Maiden Heaven just makes the Stand name hilarious now, like changing Kiss to Smack.

One standout example of an odd name change is going from Jean Pierre Polnareff (a major ally in Part III) to Jean Pierre Eiffel, since every other localization (including the Crunchyroll subs) was able to keep the Polnareff portion intact and Eiffel just further emphasizes, perhaps hilariously, that Polnareff is French. In another case, Funny Valentine’s Stand, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, gets an interesting treatment that comes off like the localizers didn’t want to change the name. For the English version, the name is changed to its official abbreviation, D4C, and subtitles have Valentine (who somehow got to keep his name) say something like “Filthy acts at a reasonable price”. No matter what anyone thinks of the name changes though, JoJo fans can take some solace in the fact that the Japanese soundtrack was untouched, so no matter what name is displayed, the characters can still be heard saying the original name. So have no need to fear, you can still hear Stand users saying Aerosmith or Purple Haze to your heart’s content.

You don't want to get near this Purple Haze.

While not a perfect experience, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle is an experience that’s difficult to not recommend. The game is balanced pretty well, with good pacing that’s not too fast and not too slow, and the game is fairly easy for those unfamiliar with fighting games to understand. CyberConnect2 also did a very commendable job on every last detail of this game, replicating Hirohiko Araki’s evolving art style near flawlessly while also taking every last combination of characters and situations, and sometimes even skins, into account to deepen the experience for fans. I’ll admit however that this game isn’t for everyone, as some will get turned off by the frame rate, 30 FPS, and the fact that this game is barely tournament worthy. This game is definitely made to appeal to existing JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure fans, but even then it’s a very fun fighting game that I have a really hard time putting down. Fans should definitely pick this up, while those who are unsure should try to watch whatever they can of the outstanding David Production anime first or at least read part of the original manga. If you stick with the series, you may gain the urge to seek out this game and play it.

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