[15 October 2007]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Capcom’s latest Mega Man game, called Star Force, combines card gameplay with classic console RPG elements to form a new title for the Nintendo DS. This title forgoes the traditional Mega Man themes of robots and side scrolling, opting instead for a world where computers and wave technology dominate, creating the alternate universe known as the Battle Network series. Before this review goes any further I’m going to dismiss the consistent criticism of Mega Man Star Force for failing to offer anything new to the Battle Network series simply because I’ve never played the other ones to begin with. Instead, our discussion will center on the topic of card based RPGs, their perks and flaws, and where this game stands as the medium of those forces.
As far as card-based games go, I’ve played my fair share, although I stopped short of indulging in the Japanese counterparts to the American games I’ve played. I had a very tight Magic: The Gathering deck back in the day. It was a Senghir Vampire, direct damage setup that could unman even the sharpest decks if I had enough time to lay down my flyers. Eventually I quit playing because most of my favorite cards were banned, but I’m still a fan of fantasy card games because of the unique strategy and planning that goes into a good deck.
There are pros and cons to applying those card elements of planning and strategy to Mega Man Star Force. For the most part, the game simply substitutes the old reward system of titles like Final Fantasy with conceptually similar variations. Rather than open a chest to find a cool new weapon, you open a chest to find a cool new card. Rather than organize the magic charms and armor of your characters, you organize the deck of your player to prepare for battle. Star Force strikes a balance with these elements by having a method for direct damage as well. In each battle, you are capable of either mashing B and firing your cannon or drawing from your deck to utilize card abilities. The cannon can be upgraded with new weapons and your deck can be improved by finding new cards. Leveling up only seems to affect your health, and the game’s sidequests generally reward you with new cards or money (for new cards). There’s no mana or other cost for using a card outside of having to draw new ones once you’ve used up your hand.
It is precisely this mixture that makes Star Force fall flat. The card system still retains all of the complex elegance of Magic and Pokemon. Cards are grouped by element and often associated with the enemies that you fight. Certain combinations of cards create boost effects, and if you use the right element, it creates added damage against monsters weak to the element in question. This is an awesome dynamic in a turn-based card duel. There is time to think, you calculate the best way to damage your foe, and nuance develops as you and your opponent maximize your cards’ effects to find an advantage. What happens in Star Force is they take these elements and speed them up. You sling card attacks, shoot your arm cannon, and dodge any counter moves your opponent attempts. All of those strategic elements and nuances that the average card player must master simply aren’t necessary when you’re fighting in this game. It makes the combat, which is the centerpiece of the game, become repetitive very fast.
To contrast, just because a monster in Magic: The Gathering has impressive stats doesn’t mean it’s the best thing imaginable. Summoning costs, handicaps, and creature boosts are huge factors that must be considered. Yet after hours of playing Star Force and gathering dozens of cards to choose from, I found that the only distinction between cards that was relevant was simply how much damage the card actually did. The game somewhat compensates for this for by making the timing and nature of attack vary between cards, forcing you to consider your attacks a little, but by the end most of the ones you’re using are wide-shot projectiles anyways. The ultimate consequence is that they have substituted the elements of a classic RPG for something that changes surprisingly little. Like in Final Fantasy you just end up mashing the ‘Attack’ command over and over, the cards becoming a steady stream of strikes rather than requiring any consideration about their use. It eventually forces the question: What is the point of having a card-based RPG if you’re just going to streamline all the elements into a real-time shoot fest?
That oughta do the trick.
The plot is typical fare for something targeted towards a younger crowd. Pressures of school, bullies, and a missing father all factor into the life of a 5th grade child saving the Earth. The designers incorporate an alternate world that is layered on top of a basic map, forcing them to use an isometric perspective as in Diablo to visually depict the game. Unfortunately, this setup comes at the consequence of your thumb having to steer your character at an angle all the time. It hurts and it gets old. Taking a cue from Diablo’s mechanism of steering, it would be nice if the designers had made it possible to simply steer Mega Man with the stylus by tapping where you wanted him to go. It’s also a little ridiculous that a game that features e-mail and online networking so prominently doesn’t allow me to write messages using the stylus. Finally, I realize I might be alone in this next complaint but I spent a lot of the game not understanding what I was supposed to do. The instructions for one section are, literally, “Go have fun!” Going onto GameFAQs is always a little humbling, but not even understanding what it is that’s stumping you is simply obnoxious.
The Mega Man Battle Network series has seen a great deal of success, assuming Wikipedia is accurate on the topic. The consistent opinion is that if you already liked card RPG games, then you’ll like this one as well. This is fine, but as a newcomer I’d say that a chief contention is that the system, at least as it is applied here, doesn’t seem to offer much to either console RPG’s or card game enthusiasts. Those looking for a card game experience will be annoyed at the lack of strategy and those looking for an RPG will be annoyed at the complications of drawing cards. Still, one can only bitch about a game that took a repetitive medium and did something new with it for so long. Like Voltaire commented in Candide, “If we don’t find something better, at least we shall find something new.” Mega Man Star Force is a prime example of the end result of a journey with that goal.