++Review – AquaPazza: AquaPlus Dream Match

I had no idea what I was getting into with AquaPazza, I’ll admit it. What I saw was a new anime fighting game from Examu (Arcana Hearts) and ATLUS. The last time I saw a new anime fighting game from ATLUS, it was Persona 4: Arena, and I absolutely loved it (and while I’ve never played Arcana Hearts, I do try to stay up to date with the international tournament scene, and so I’m not strictly unfamiliar with it). What it did was take the characters from the JRPG Persona 4 (and a couple from 3), and placed them in a setting wherein they smash each others faces in with fist and foot. Completely out of left field? Yes. Oddball eccentricity abounds? For certain. But once the game dropped, and the dust settled, it turned out ATLUS knew what they were doing. In fact, the game went on to receive critical high praise and secure itself a place among the high profile annual tournament that is EVO, even after games like BlazBlue had been removed from the official roster.

Here, now, we have AquaPazza. A game coming from similar circumstance. In fact, it’s even more obscure due to the nature of the borrowed characters. Each and every one of them comes from a series of “adult” visual novels or “adult” RPGs that never saw a release outside of Japan. Yeah, I said visual novels. The premise is absurd, and the source material is all but arcane, but that doesn’t mean the end result isn’t enjoyable. In fact, you’ll have a great deal of fun with this one.

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AquaPazza: AquaPlus Dream Match [PS3]
Developer: Examu
Publisher: ATLUS USA
Release: 11/19/2013
MSRP: $29.99
Words: James Bacon

The story begins with a shadowed character mixing what she thinks is a love potion, but it ends up being “AquaPazza,” a potion that let’s her control people’s minds. And with all of the worlds merging, like you do (I don’t really know why this happens… I think it’s a part of the ritual to make the potion… I think), she’ll have access to all of the hot guys floating around, because she can brain-jack them. Seriously. That’s her motivation. World domination is only a means to an end. That end being herself being fawned over by all the hot guys. ALL OF THEM! I suppose, given the properties that these characters hail from, it makes perfect sense, but I found it absurd.

Funny enough, I didn’t find it absurd enough that it wasn’t enjoyable, but… OK, look. I’m going to be clear, here. “The story doesn’t matter in fighting games” is the typical response to this sort of concern, but I only agree limitedly. You see, the story isn’t important in a fighting game… until it is. And I find there are, largely, two different ways in which it can be important. The first way is when a game like MK9 shows up and integrates the plot so heavily into the game, that each character has their own events to deal with and arcs to follow through on, while maintaining a critically excellent level of writing and a cohesive meta-plot. The second is when a fighting game ATTEMPTS to do this, but fails miserably, all while taking the yarn it’s spinning seriously. Even if it’s a “joke” plot, as it seems to be in AquaPazza. It’s jarring, and borderline insulting, but for some reason, after hours (literally hours; the characters have previous relationships that they bring along with them, and they speak like I’ve played their respective series, cutting out nearly all exposition that would put me on even footing) of putting up with it, it somehow ended up grating less and less. Not a ringing endorsement, for sure, but not necessarily completely condemning, either.

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The game, for all of it’s ambiguity and plot perniciousness, looks good. The character select portraits are full screen, and are animated to look like they’ve jumped out of an anime. I was shocked to see just how fluid they were. The in-bout animations are just as clean and watery (that’s two aqua puns in as many sentences, folks!), and the backgrounds are full of motion, as well. Each one of the backgrounds also seems to be set in certain specific universes, just like the characters. White Album, To Heart, Tears to Tiara, all names I’m unfamiliar with, but all settings which I can only imagine the stages do justice. White Album is my favorite – you duke it out in front of three Jumbo-trons (one with fully animated accompaniment clips for the concert going on at center stage, and the other two display your current fighting match a la King of Fighters XIII), all while being serenaded by J-POP idols.

The game clocks in at an airy $30, and for that low price you get a TON of game. There’s a story mode, where-in you select a character and a side-kick (from two separate rosters), play through to the end, and receive an ending. Then, you can take that same character and play in “Another Story” mode, with a completely different plot and outcome. You can only play Another Story mode with the characters you beat Story mode with, but let’s be honest, you were going to do that anyway. This extends the play time in a single player capacity by double what you’d normally expect, and for all the hemming and hawing I did about the poorly communicated plot, Another Story is far better at getting its point across. For as much as the regular Story mode confused me, Another Story held my attention for the duration. And this is all in addition to the typical Versus, Score Attack, Arcade, and Training modes that come standard in any modern fighter that isn’t called Killer Instinct… ZINGER (I kid, I love KI)!

Concerning gameplay, I can see why they went in this direction. The game has a very simplified interface, with special moves for all characters being either fireball motions, Dragon Punches, or charge moves, with very little deviation (such as in the case of certain super moves). That’s it. It makes the trial and error of new character selection as painless as possible, and since the target audience of this particular fighter is going to be fans of anime and visual novel imports – people who might not be privy to the rigors of tournament level fighting systems – it makes sense. And it’s executed with excellence. I’ll admit, going in, I thought I was going to be disappointed with the simple button layout (light attack, medium attack, heavy attack, and an assist button… it’s almost like the controls for a typical hack n’ slash, not a fighting game), but after actually playing, I was able to see how good it felt, and how genius a decision this layout is. I had FUN while playing it, and I was able to disregard all of my preconceived notions about how fighting games “should” be. No small feat. It was also no surprise to discover that AquaPazza has been featured in Japan’s Tougeki: Super Battle Opera tournaments two years and running. It’s a technically sound game.

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AquaPazza has 26 characters, total, but not all are playable. Separate rosters exist for the 13 playable characters, and the 13 side-kicks, or assist, characters. Each main combatant has their own play-style and comfort zone (long, mid, or close range), and each side-kick has a small suit of moves to aid you in combat by crossing-up, extending combos, or applying unexpected pressure.

The game’s systems are decent, if all done before. There’s a version of Just Defending, and tag assists; normal combos, and super moves that depend on accumulating meter. There’s even a take on Garou’s T.O.P. mode (you can’t select its placement) that allows for super-flashy Splash Arts that can turn the tide of battle in your favor, should you take a proper whooping out of the gate, and are absolutely gorgeous. Whether or not these mechanics are borrowed is a non-issue, as all of them work in conjunction with one another and are finely tuned to make the game a joy to play. But that’s not all. The game does, in fact, have a defining mechanic in the Active Emotion System. The AES is a way to encourage players to actually engage one another by rewarding aggression, and punishing turtling. Aggressive players are given a 10% damage bonus to all attacks when you fill the AES meter (which is done by simply pursuing and attacking your opponent), while chronically defensive players are guaranteed to receive a Guard Break. The heads-up visual effects are easy to spot and exploit (your character receives a pink aura to signify the damage bonus, and a blue aura to let you know you’ll be Guard Broken if you don’t attack your opponent). Personally, I love the mechanic. It forces engagement, and that’s a very good thing.

The last point I’ll make is for the game’s sound. It is impressive, with all characters being fully voice acted (in Japanese… no subbing, here, unfortunately; or, maybe, fortunately), and the BGM selections for each level popping with fighting game characteristic pep (especially for the White Album level).

Verdict: +Good (8.0/10) – There are more technically advanced fighters, and fighters with better stories. There are more colorful anime fighters, and fighters with long standing histories outside of Japan. But what there isn’t, is another game polished to this level for as little as ATLUS is asking for for AquaPazza. If you enjoy fighting games, quirky Japanese character design, or getting a solid bang for your gaming buck, this one’s a no-brainer.