Mobile gaming has always been about simple ideas executed in an easy-to-pick-up way and usually left hardcore gamers out in the cold. Does Chi Trung Tran’s arcade brawler Nakama have the ingredients for a satisfying meal of 2D fighting to please casual and arcade gamers alike?
Classic story of revenge
The story of the game is structured as simple as the gameplay itself: Rescue each fighter of your village from small bosses and defeat the big boss with their unique abilities. There isn’t much of a plot or character development, but it fits the retro arcade style and is also reminiscent of old-school martial arts movies when beating up the bad guys to save someone was enough. Still, there’s a bit of personality in the individual nakamas, the people one saves, although these are more about the different looks and skills than actual relationships. Unlike most RPGs or action-adventures, there’s no banter between the main character and those who accompany him. Except for some often funny one-liners of the bosses, there’s simply no talking involved, as fists and feet fly around.
Classic fighting and frustrations
The combat system is also extremely simple, which has its advantages and disadvantages. For one thing, only four buttons are required: the left and right buttons for movement, and the A and B button for jumping and fighting respectively. Holding the B button a bit longer unleashes a stronger attack, while jumping and kicking makes the character move faster. It’s an easy-to-learn system but obviously lacks the deeper understanding of combos the beat-em-up genre is usually associated with. Of course it’s totally fine to have a two-button system, but when enemies are as unforgiving and unpredictable as in this game, the button-bashing can get pretty frustrating. The best way to progress is usually to use the stronger attack, but if one gets hit by an enemy and thrown back into another crowd of nasties without having any chance of striking back or even knowing where one’s own fighter is because of too much going on, there’s simply something very wrong with the system.
Despite the various backgrounds, the level structure never changes. While new antagonists are introduced and some boss fights require a bit more reflexes (not really thinking, as these encounters usually turn out to be even more hectic and unpredictable), the gameplay only consists of clearing one screen after another and beating a boss. Failure means restarting the level with no checkpoints in between, making it often a frustrating experience, especially since the difficulty isn’t well-balanced: One level might pose a challenge due to certain enemy types, while others can be breezed through.
We need more Nakamas
More variety to the fighting system is how the nakamas’ unique abilities come into play. Unfortunately, it’s again a nice idea badly executed: After each defeated boss, the rescued village fighter joins the hero, but he or she can’t be selected individually. Most have their own fighting style and therefore stronger attacks, while one (a female) throws around hearts which fill up the player’s life energy (usually only to be collected after defeating some enemies). It’s only too bad that the latter is found near the ending and shows up after all the others are killed. A menu system to arrange the order in which they fight and more variety in their attacks and explanations would have made this more than just a nice idea. As it stands, the inclusion of additional fighters simply means one uses them as cannon fodder, waiting until they kill some enemies, and not get in the way. A bit of strategy is involved by picking up hearts which not only fill the player’s life energy but also the ones of his companions. But other than that, this adds to more cluttering of the chaotic fighting screen than is necessary.
Change of place and pace
Also included is an endless score attack mode called the Ghost Forest which is only one screen on which the hero and his nakamas battle it out against a wave of ever-increasing and stronger baddies. This is even more chaotic, as not one fighter, but all of them are onscreen at the same time. However, this is strangely quite a lot of fun, further enhanced by the possibility to upgrade strength and life energy in a shop mid-game after collecting a certain amount of coins enemies leave behind. One can also buy instant hearts to fill up one’s life energy or boost attacks for a short amount of time. Why this upgrade system hasn’t made it into the main story mode or at least influenced its design is difficult to understand, as it would definitely have made proceedings less frustrating and progression more satisfying.
Tranquility and silence is not found here
The visual presentation of the game offers some wonderful pixel art which is great in motion, especially with small details like blossom petals flying around or how the enemies burst into a shower of pixels after being defeated. Despite the occasional slowdown with too many fighters on screen, the animations are usually fluid, while the sound effects and music also add to the hectic proceedings, but in a good way. Maybe there are a few too many pan flutes involved, but the score still conveys the feeling of playing an old-school martial arts movie.
A fighter with style against the masses
The one-man project Nakama by Chi Trun Tran is a joy to look at and listen to. While its gameplay mechanics are sound for a while, they’re also flawed and suffer from repetitiveness. The harsh difficulty and lack of a deeper combo system in addition to the less successful implementation of having other characters fight side by side also make it something of a missed opportunity.
The potential of a fun game which lasts longer is definitely there, but in this form, it needs more polishing to really convince both the casual mobile gaming crowd and arcade classics aficionados to choose it over other titles on the platforms. Although with the small entry price, one could do worse than at least give this a try, if only for style over substance reasons.
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