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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Game Review: Tokyo Beat Down

The sum of its fun parts couldn't save it from its overwhelming ambitions.

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TOTAL SCORE: 7.1/10

The Good:
Engaging plot * Colorful characters * Quirky dialogue * Nice variety of enemies * A handful of fancy moves and weapons * Combat segments and investigative sections make for gameplay variety

The Bad:
Unresponsive controls * Cheap enemy A.I. * Firing a weapon isn't as rewarding as it could be * Unfinished story
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Nothing screams fun like old-school. For most of us, our malfunctioning consoles from the 1990s may mean that we are no longer able to enjoy the classic old-school titles of yesteryear. Fortunately, the DS has risen as a platform for us to relive some of these old-school titbits. Tokyo Beat Down is the newest doctor yet to be trained and qualified to administer us shots of nostalgia. A side-scrolling beat-em-up, Tokyo Beat Down slides us down to the days where repetitive punches, enemies whose bodies blink away after defeat, and breakable crates and barrels containing food, health kits and ammo are still hip and trendy.

Tokyo Beat Down isn’t just a rehash of any random side-scrolling beat-em-up. Rather, it adds an engaging plot, colorful characters, and quirky dialogue into the mix. Couple the aforesaid with a healthy handful of fancy moves and interesting gunplay, and what you have is a formula for a truly enjoyable game. The fact is that Tokyo Beat Down is both fun and disappointing. It rises above expectations with its skilful blend of furiously-paced combat segments, investigative sections, and a suspenseful story that handles the action with much panache. Unfortunately, the sum of its fun parts couldn’t save it from its overwhelming ambitions. Tokyo Beat Down is a game which prefers to be distasteful rather than satisfying.

We are taught that in Tokyo, the cops would do anything to contain crime – and that includes punching, kicking, throwing, and shooting criminals. In a city where a mere ‘dine-and-dash’ incident can result in the cops beating the heck out of you, you got to be wary of the main cast of Yaseu police station. There’s Lewis Cannon, the cop who has adopted sarcasm as a habit, Rika Hyoda, his buxom love interest, and Captain Takeshi Bando, the moody leader of the band.

With such a basic premise, Tokyo Beat Down could have turned out dry. But it’s easy to appreciate the effort which the nice lads over at Atlus have put into localizing this entry in the beat-em-up genre. Each of the main 3 characters in the game has a personality as distinct as the humor in the dialogue. The cleverly scripted jokes and puns which are constantly being exchanged do well to suit the beautifully produced, if somewhat over-the-top, still artworks of the characters. It certainly speaks volume about how competently accomplished the presentation of a game is when I am compelled to flip through each dialogue in the cut-scenes as leisurely as possible.

When the cut-scenes pulled and the screen cut back to the action, I feared for the worst. Side scrolling beat-em-ups have the fatal tendency for repetitive gameplay since the concepts within it are very much simple, requiring close to no brainpower to play the game – that is, laying a brick down on any one of the buttons and spamming the same manoeuvre to victory. Good beat-em-ups always compensate for this genre shortcoming by pushing the limits on enemy and moveset variety. For a while, I believed that Tokyo Beat Down was heading down the same path as its failed predecessors, but the increasingly varied enemies and challenges, and handful of fanciful moves keep this game fresh throughout.

Your move set is pretty much standard fare: punch, kick, throw, punch combo, kick combo, block and equip-weapon-and-shoot. Spamming the punch move could guarantee your victories in the first level or so, but no longer than 3 levels in would the game have started overwhelming you with some of the more comically dressed, but capable, enemies. There’s the agile guy donned in traditional Chinese clothes, the singlet-clad fat guy, the rocket launcher guy, the terrorist, and the Molotov cocktail guy. The sooner you realize that a combination of moves is needed to bring down each given type of enemy quickly, the better. Various objects are also strewn around each level, including wooden planks, metal tubes, shotguns, sub-machine guns, rocket launchers, and Molotov cocktails, empowering you with increased attack options when picked up. Occasionally, the game switches up combat segments with investigative sections to break the monotony of thrashing criminals. Some require you to question random people in the streets while others press you to break the crates and barrels to uncover evidence. While the investigative components aren’t very imaginative, they work well into the plot and add a much welcomed layer of variety into the gameplay.

Unfortunately, Tokyo Beat Down decides to plot its suicide all too soon. Its unresponsive controls and cheap enemy A.I. could not sustain the action – it’s easy to call it a day if weren’t for the extraordinary presentation here that puts it above other games in its genre. More often than not, equipping a weapon to engage an enemy proves much of hassle – and hazard – than anything else. The draw weapon function has been assigned to the left shoulder button, and that’s fine by me. What’s not fine, however, was how the game spectacularly failed to recognise any of my initial taps on the said button – which means that if you want to draw a gun, you would have to tap twice (frustratingly) on the left shoulder button and wait for a few seconds for the game to finish with its equip-gun animation before you can register your first shot. In those precious few seconds, you could get hit. The right should button, for which the block function has been assigned to, was also stubborn to response to my request on every other occasion. Put the former and later together, and the result is a game in which you would get points docked off from your health bar unnecessarily.

The cheap enemy A.I. doesn’t help much either. During several points in the game, I was hit from off-screen, and even if I wasn’t, the enemies would fire at me the moment I got up. At times, all of them would fire at the same time, giving you close to no chance of survival. This is especially annoying in boss fights, where the boss character is usually accompanied by several other minions. In these instances, there’s a fine line between victory and defeat because whether you get to finish the boss character off or not depends on whether the minions gang up on you continuously or not. In other words, it’s more luck than skill – and that sucks. Firing a weapon was also not as rewarding as it could be. They do so little damage – this, coupled with the unresponsive controls for firing, means that you’re better off punching, kicking and throwing criminals.

Tokyo Beat Down has its story to thank for keeping me captivated, but quite ironically, the plot is the game’s biggest letdown. I played through the entire game despite some of its glaring flaws because I wanted to uncover the mystery – an element so expertly weaved by Tokyo Beat Down. Just when I thought that I had uncovered the real culprit behind all the incidents, the story did well to plunge me into greater mystery. It was of no surprise then that I was caught off guard when the credits ran after this sentence in the last dialogue: “So we couldn’t catch the real culprit behind the bombings afterall.” An unfinished story’s cool – so says Tokyo Beat Down, but I find it ridiculous. It’s like watching Spider-Man fighting Sandman in Spider-Man 3, but while the battle is still going on, the credits suddenly roll.

Final comments
Tokyo Beat Down fired up to a good start with an engaging plot, colorful characters and quirky dialogue. Intense combat, together with investigative sections, as well as a variety of enemies and moves do well to keep the gameplay fresh. But it got overly ambitious, failing to fix its unresponsive controls and cheap enemy A.I. The biggest letdown, however, is its unfinished story. Tokyo Beat Down had some really great ambitions, but somewhere along the line, its feet grew too large to fit the shoes.

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