Arcade fighting games belong in the arcade? In the renaissance age of competitive gaming with one-on-one fighters like Street Fighter IV or Tekken Tag Tournament 2, playing at home has already replaced cabinets. But what about fighting on the go with the phone? The Game Bakers try their fighting hand on the genre with arcade brawler Combo Crew.
Combo Crew (iOS)
(France 2013, developer/publisher: The Game Bakers, platforms: iOS, Android)
Fight your way to the top of a tower and kick some serious boss butt.
Generic clichéd storytelling a good or bad thing of the past?
Both story and character development aren’t something the fighing genre is known for being very good at, and the plot and protagonists in Combo Crew are no different. There’s not much else to it than simply climbing a tower, clearing each floor of baddies without actually getting a sense of attachment to the individual characters or the big boss who has to be defeated at the end. The few text passages in which some dialogue is exchanged doesn’t really help story progression or identification with the characters and is only used as an excuse for some serious battling.
Granted, classic beat-em-ups like Final Fight or Streets of Rage didn’t offer anything more than the clichéd save-the-girl or fight-crime template, but at least they had variety in their settings, making the gaming world believable and engaging. While the backgrounds of Combo Crew certainly have some nice details on display, the scope of the game is smaller and variety limited. Enemy types also seem a bit uninspired, which is mainly due to the long rounds (or waves) to fight and unimaginative bosses to encounter (or rather one boss constantly turning up at the end of a level).
The game takes an arena-based approach to its arcade brawling roots. This means that multiple enemies are on screen and the action is centered on only one location. But just like Scott Pilgrim: The Game, this can get quite chaotic, especially with so much finger swiping and tapping. It’s a pretty simple mechanic to understand, but not one easy to master: using one swipe is used for a normal attack depending on its direction, making an upwards movement with two fingers activates a special move while tapping on any part of the screen when an enemy attacks (signified by an exclamation mark on his/her head) is used for defense. In theory, this doesn’t sound like a lot of work, but in reality it soon becomes both a strategic element and an endurance test for the hand(s) and touch screen.
The gameplay isn’t simply about defeating all enemies on screen, but doing it with style, i.e. with combos. Like any button-heavy action game which makes chaining together attacks part of the score system, any breaks will result in the combo counter being set to zero. Stringing combos together doesn’t only lead to a better end-of-level score, but also builds up to a special move which lets the player unleash unstoppable flurries of fists and feet movements. It’s not simply button-mashing either, but requires both fast finger reflexes and an eye on the screen, something which doesn’t always work. This might not be such a big problem with a big tablet, but on a small smartphone, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold it and flick one’s fingers over the screen without losing sight of the action.
CUSTOMISE AND LEVEL UP!
Additional variety in the fighting system comes with the customisation of more combos. These have to be first unlocked in the Combo Crew Mode, then purchased with a special currency (in the form of an NES-like controller) which is only earned with a perfect score at the end of a story mode level. In the character screen one can then choose which attacks one wants his avatar to use. If this sounds rather complicated, it isn’t really, because it’s nothing more than a way to make both gameplay modes depend on each other. While the story mode tries to hold the levels together with some sort of plot, the Combo Crew mode asks the player to earn more and more difficult achievements, which of course make the already difficult fights even more hardcore.
Another way to make the fighters more powerful is to upgrade them. This isn’t done by a level-up system with experience points, but with gold coins (earned with every defeated enemy) being used for simply buying more health, more attack power etc.. It isn’t a very deep system and requires a lot of skill and grinding patience to amass that kind of money, but it’s another motivational reason to continue playing, just to find out how all these different attacks play out.
No friends, no chance
Multiplayer is of course another important addition to every brawler, and even if Combo Crew doesn’t have a co-operative or competitive one in the traditional sense, the way human players are integrated into the experience is still a viable option. Like most iOS games, asynchronous play is the name of the game, i.e. after having depleted all life energy in the Combo Crew mode, one can ask friends (from Facebook and other social networks) to resurrect his/her avatar by finishing a stage. Unfortunately if one doesn’t have the people who own the game or use these services, there’s no other way than restarting the mode. All unlocked combos aren’t lost, but it means going through all the levels again, making it a tedious experience. It’s also possible to find random people to join this mode, but then again what’s the point to do it with strangers if the whole co-op modes of yesteryear were based on friends getting together?
Presentation-wise, there’s little to find fault with: A rocking soundtrack (even if a bit repetitive after a while), satisfying fighting sound effects and some genuinely beautiful sprite work with the character models give the whole action a streamlined fluidity akin to the best of 2D beat-em-ups, despite the smaller scale of the locations and the lack of engaging cut scenes. Still one gets the feeling that with its graphical fidelity it’s something of a missed opportunity not to have used the engine for a side-scroller with more memorable places to visit and enemies to fight. That’s why the game won’t stay as long in players’ minds as the Streets of Rage, Double Dragon or Final Fight titles did.
Stuck in the past and present future on a mobile device
The Game Bakers’ foray into arcade beat-em-ups with Combo Crew is an entertaining, if not always successful effort. It plays fast with a deep fighting system, but unfortunately the action is often so relentless that one gets the impression the game would have been better suited on handheld consoles rather than the small smart phone screen, because finger swiping becomes a chore after a while and the fights are simply to long for a quick play.
It’s also a bit disappointing that it’s a rather shallow experience when it comes to the story and character presentation. Even if brawlers of yesteryear and even today’s competitive titles don’t offer the most complex plots and believable protagonists, there is at least a sense of immersion. It’s certainly a good-looking and good-sounding title, but it’s nevertheless let down by some unimaginative level design and it lacks identity or memorable scenes.
Still for those who rather want a slice of fast-reflexes action and have more friends to share the experience with in order to easily progress in the Combo Crew mode, this is a fun take on the genre with a twitching-finger-on-a-small-screen touch and offers quite a long playtime if one wants to unlock each character’s combos.
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