US: 4 May 2011
One of my earliest memories of playing video games is playing incredible amounts of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II at my uncle’s house. The 2D beat-em-up is a genre that suffers from the problem of having a formula that is almost too simple: walk from one side of the screen to the other while mashing the punch button as much as possible. Sometimes you have to do a little light platforming, but mostly it is a straightforward punch-fest. There have been a few variations on the theme (the implementation of Devil May Cry-esque combos or the implementation of a rudimentary upgrade system or even the addition of an inventory) but the core concept has remained refreshingly pure. These games thrive on fast, flowing action that is reminiscent of quarter-munching arcade games of the past, where exposition only gets in the way and nothing matters more than the enjoyment gained from sitting on the couch with your friends and killing some time by punching monsters or robots or hipsters.
It’s this fast pace that Moon Diver promises when you boot it up and to some extent delivers—although not quite as well as you’d hope. You want fast-paced action and lots of enemies to punch your way through? Well, Moon Diver has those things, provided you never, ever use your special powers, which all trigger a five-second animation that completely freezes all other gameplay. Five seconds might seem like a piddling amount, but it makes a huge difference when you’re playing with friends (and Moon Diver is meant to be played with friends, make no mistake). As my brother and I played, we kept losing track of where our characters were because once the flashy cutscene ended, we had to find out where our people had been left after the effects of the move hit. This only happens with particular moves, though. Other special moves have no such animations, although if you decide to team up with other players, you can cast spells for free—at the price of another five second cutscene.
New powers can be unlocked by finding them as you traverse a level, although these discovered powers cannot be accessed until the current level is complete. Once that happens, you can upgrade your Moon Diver’s health, magic, or assign them new powers. It’s a fairly rudimentary bit of RPG sprinkled onto the system a la the Scott Pilgrim game, although Pilgrim levels the player up automatically (and allows for the immediate use of new powers). Not being able to immediately access your new powers is a niggling complaint next to the game’s real problem, which is that its visuals are far too confused.
Find all the players if you think you can. I couldn’t.
The problems begin with the HUD, which takes up so much screen space that on several occasions I lost my character behind it. It takes up the top fifth of the screen, and with a full four player complement, it is even more ludicrous. It’s unnecessary and blown up to the size that it is in order to show the portrait of your character, which doesn’t really need to be that large. And it doesn’t really help to identify who is playing who anyway. The characters suffer from looking like the enemies (of which there are many), and with the fast pace that the game is trying to deliver, the screen frequently becomes too busy to tell what is going on, where your player is, and what—if anything—is trying to kill you. With a full complement of four players, it becomes even more difficult to determine who is who and what if anything is going on. It’s a shame, because when the combat works, and you can actually figure out what’s going on, it’s a lot of fun. An overactive visual design, however, keeps Moon Diver from being great.