[6 January 2011]
On one level, it seems shocking that the first Bakugan game released for home consoles did not allow any sort of control over the Bakugan themselves. The Bakugan are the selling point of the TV series, as the giant sentient robot things that make the boys go “OOOOOOH” and “AHHHHHH”, the payoff for putting up with story exposition that mostly consists of adolescents wandering from place to place and yelling at each other. However, it does still seem understandable—in creating a video game that more or less simulated the act of playing the popular tabletop Bakugan game, the developers ensured that the game’s audience would a) know how to play it and b) probably enjoy it.
Still, there’s the nagging sense that the video game should have been about allowing the player to do something that can’t be done in other arenas. This is the approach of Bakugan: Defenders of the Core, the first Bakugan game to actually feel like a video game rather than a collection of things that you can do elsewhere.
At least initially, controlling the Bakugan is kind of awesome. Every battle is Godzilla vs. Mothra for modern preteens, complete with the sudden appearance of two behemoths that send scores of tiny people scurrying for cover. Battles feature flying, combo attacks, fire breathing, swords, and everything else you’ve ever seen a Bakugan use in a fight. At the end of the battle, you get graded on the amount of damage you took, the highest combo you managed to execute, and the amount of property damage you did throughout the battle (though how unfortunate that less property damage amounts to a better grade). And throughout the battle, you actually manage to forget the drama filled lives of the “people” who actually sent the Bakugan to war on their behalf.
It’s neat. For a lot of the kids playing it, “neat” will be enough.
As the adventure drags on, however, the sameness of the combat throughout starts to become apparent, which is kind of a shock. Some of these Bakugan are lumbering giants, some of them speedy wisps of creatures—granted, giant speedy robot-like wisps—and the rest are all manner of creatures in between. There are Bakugan based around water and fire and wind and darkness, each with their own attacks and strengths and weaknesses. And when you’re controlling them in the middle of a fight, they all feel pretty much the same. Some of their bullets go farther or shorter, some of their attacks are quicker or slower, but as far as the feel, it’s basically the same. The speed at which they move, the responsiveness of their attacks, and the way that they fit into the environment, well, it may as well be a sprite switch.
Again, in the world of games for children, the visual counts for a lot, and the visuals most certainly change from Bakugan to Bakugan. In fact, the visuals are probably what impress the most about these fights, as the quick zooms and confusing perspective changes actually manage to recreate the stomach-turning hyperactivity of their television counterparts quite well. Still, kids are smart, and a change in visuals isn’t going to be enough to convince them that they’re not just doing the same thing over and over again.
Of course, there’s something else here to combat that problem: Half of Defenders of the Core is an exercise in stealth.
The player will at the beginning of the game create a human character that happens to be the only good guy who can still battle, for reasons explained in the game. In order to do so, however, that human must sneak his way from hotspot to hotspot to destroy crystals planted throughout the game world. In order to get to these hotspots, the player must use a variety of means to slip around guards and traps, slowly progressing to various game-world landmarks to get to the good stuff.
The stealth here doesn’t really involve sightlines so much as it involves avoiding brightly colored ovals that represent the view of the guard or trap that the player is trying to avoid. Usually, progression is about picking your spot and making a run for it. Sometimes, cloaking abilities or infrared goggles are used. It’s a fairly entertaining diversion, and it opens the door for the collectible games that fit so well into achievement/trophy systems, but it mostly feels like filler, a time-consuming roadblock to the fast action. This is not even to mention the odd dissonance the player feels when standing not ten feet from a guard who is actually facing the player in broad daylight, and slipping by unnoticed because the “sight cone” was avoided.
It’s unfortunate that a game like Bakugan: Defenders of the Core might well be many young players’ first foray into the world of stealth adventure gaming, a style that games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Thief, Splinter Cell, and even Metal Gear Solid do so well. What you’re doing in this game feels less like “stealth” and more like Frogger.
Maybe expecting more than a licensed product cash-in was too much to ask. Perhaps we should come up with a new scale for games that are conceived entirely as a way to get fans of a franchise popular on one medium to shell out some green for the same franchise on another medium. As far as cash-ins go, Defenders of the Core does its job somewhat admirably. It’s not irrevocably broken, and it’s bound to give bored Bakugan fans a few hours of fun. Unfortunately, PopMatters does not yet operate on such a scale.