Mega Man Battle Network
a.k.a. Battle Network RockMan EXE
Developer: Capcom Production Studio 2
Publisher: Capcom (all regions)
Size: 64 Mbit
I must confess I used to like Japanese RPGs. In fact until very recently I considered them as my favourite genre of videogames.
What happened that changed that? Well, three games, that’s what. Final Fantasy XII, Dragon Quest VIII and Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne. It’s not that they are bad games. On the contrary, I’m positive you won’t find better RPG games on any of the consoles released so far.
That’s the problem – they are so good, so perfect, flawless even, that they make other games pale in comparison. You start to notice the seams holding the blotched belly of a corpse that the Japanese RPG has become ever since Final Fantasy VII showed publishers that you can sell games by the truckloads just by their visuals alone, ditching any semblance of a game design in the process.I still get the urge to play a Japanese RPG from time to time, mostly for old times sake, but generally I finish only the best ones. Rest either bores me after few hours or after few minutes.
Which brings us to this week’s game – first in Mega Man Battle Network series. Developed by Capcom Production Studio 2, known for most of new Capcom console releases – Onimusha, Lost Planet, Dead Rising, Mega Man 8 and Legend series. Yes, it’s one of them Japanese RPG games, although the Mega Man roots are certainly visible – the battle system gives a nice, quasi turn-based approximation of the old platforming games, with lots of frantic shooting and moving around required.
I need to be frank here – I wanted to drop the game before the introduction sequence ended. The game looks to be made with grade schoolers in mind, at least judging by the story. It’s infantile, childish and generally just plain stupid. It certainly doesn’t play this way though, as the battle system is rather neat, allowing for varied gameplay and rewarding experimentation. Wish I could say that that’s enough so one can call the game a good one. But it’s not.
It’s not like this is a bad game. There’s certainly a lot to do here, both before and after finishing the main story line. The graphics are pretty nice, detailed and colourful, with lots of little touches here and there, like a Gamecube console sitting next to the TV in one of the character’s house. Music by Akari Kaida is all right as well, though I wish the tunes were made a bit longer. As it stands now, listening to the same 20 second loop over your whole visit to the dungeon, which can take more than an hour, gets on your nerves pretty fast.
I really like the idea of having two playable characters, one in the real world and the other being his avatar on the internet. This would make for some interesting puzzles if only the developer didn’t half-ass the execution. What you get instead are some lame excuses of a puzzle, like encountering a locked door in the real world and having to hack into it, just to (usually) defeat some sort of a virus that decided to make the door its home.
Another welcomed feature is the ability to save the game at any time. None of this savespots crap that plagues Japanese RPGs to this day. Given how busy my life is, it’s very infuriating having to redo 30 or more minutes of gameplay just because I’ve stumbled upon an enemy significantly stronger than the usual dungeon’s denizens. Not that you will die often. The game is generally rather easy – there are some rough patches here and there, but most of the time it’s smooth sailing. Which is a pity, given the game’s heritage – old Mega Man games weren’t that easy, were they? Good thing there’s another series of Mega Man games on GBA, that gives both the NES and SNES series a run for their money concerning difficulty. I’m looking forward to that, whenever we get around to it. This one though can rot in videogame hell, for all I care.
I like collectible card games. Most of all, I like their single-player computer incarnations. They play just like Japanese RPGs (a worthy genre by itself), only with more focus on fights and strategy and less on story, puzzles and level-upping, which makes them better pretty much by definition.
Unfortunately, definitions are just theory, and theory is not always followed by practice, so this particular game seems to do the exact opposite. Now that I think of, maybe I shouldn’t really treat it as a card game in the first place. Sure, you collect “cards” that let you perform attacks and other actions, and you build a “deck” out of them, but that’s where all similarities with your usual collectible card games end.
First of all, there’s no strategy involved whatsoever. You’re not even playing against equal opponents here – the enemies are either a bunch of random monsters (called viruses here) that can perform just one or two actions, or highly specialized bosses that can also perform just a few actions and do it in predefined patterns. Finding a catch that makes their attacks avoidable and therefore less threatening is the most thinking you’ll have to do. And caring too much about building your deck is pointless; you just lump your strongest so called battle chips together and fill the rest with assorted supplementary attacks. Technically, you should care whether your attacks go well together – you can use multiple ones per “turn” if they’re of the same type or have the same code – but putting too much attacks of the same type in your deck puts you in a disadvantage against random monsters that may be hard to hit with them, and collecting attacks with the same code with meaningful results is either outright impossible or just too much of a bother.
But the worst thing is, you can and are even encouraged to kill your opponents in the first turn (the faster you do it, the bigger a chance of getting a battle chip with their attack as a reward is). Basically, the expected mode of playing the game is to be much, much stronger than everyone else. Well, it is technically a pleasure, but it’s usually more of a pleasure in something more important than a recreational past-time.
Also, you actually do have to level-up here. You just don’t do it by winning random fights, you do it by buying power-ups with “money” you got from winning random fights. The improvements are pretty limited, but crucial. Armors and HP boosts change the game from “kill or get killed in the first turn by random chance” to “kill them in the first turn or kill them slowly over a long period of time”. Once you can survive a turn or two of enemy attacks, this invariably means you can survive the entire fight (unless you made a really stupid deck, with no HP recovery chips for example, and then make some really stupid moves). Silly, given that even jRPGs usually avoid this without problems (if only just due to the fact that the damage stays after a fight, unlike here).
Oh, and did I mention the pea shooter you have on you all the time that’s actually more convenient during battles than most normal attacks? You’ll actually use it all the time when your random fights get longer than maybe 2 turns, just because it’s less of a bother than trying to hit your opponents with your theoretically stronger regular attacks when they simply run away from them. Good job throwing the last remnants of strategy to the gutter, Capcom designers.
Maybe, just maybe, the game is more fun in its later stages, when you face more complex enemies and have all of the battle chips available to build your deck with. Maybe, just maybe, it’s fun in multiplayer, against actual opponents. (Note that it was just agnostic honesty rather than actual doubt, I can’t see how the game could possibly get better under any circumstances, I just didn’t try the aforementioned ones myself.) But to get there, you have to wade through numerous irritatingly unreadable mazes, solving puzzles and fighting way too many similar random fights. I still kind of like doing that, puzzles made hard by poor map design aside it’s pretty relaxing, but for a normal person it’s probably not worth the trouble.