Review - "J-Stars Victory Vs+"

Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. series is held as the standard for gaming crossovers, but it's never quite gone far enough with their fan service for my tastes. The focus is primarily on making an accessible game, one that has a more or less familiar roster, all of whom have movesets that are pretty self-explanatory and not necessarily steeped in their respective series. Giving oblique, obscure shoutouts to each series the character hails from takes a back seat to making the game fun for everyone. Which is fine, of course. That's a smart call, and part of the reason the games sell so well.

But J-Stars Victory Vs+ takes the polar opposite approach. In fact, most of the enjoyment of Bandai-Namco's game hinges upon whether or not a player has an intimate knowledge of the characters. If not, well, this isn't the game for them. But as for the rest of us?

J-Stars Victory Vs+
PS4 (Reviewed), PS3, Vita
Rated T
Bandai Namco Entertainment
MSRB: $59.99 

For people who live and breathe anime and manga, and have spent years of their lives dedicated to the stuff, J-Stars Victory Vs+ might be just what the doctor ordered. I say "might" because those "years" I mentioned were hopefully dedicated to at least a marginal number of Jump series (known as Shonen Jump over here.) I'm not just talking the ones big in North America right now, either, like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach and Dragon Ball. Do Dr. Slump, Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, Saint Seiya or Toriko mean anything to you? I sure hope so. While a Japanese player would probably look at this roster and go, "oh, man, Luckyman and Momotaro are in this," a Western person only marginally familiar with anime would probably be lost at about 50-75% of this roster.

Which makes this whole package a bit of a double-edged sword, then. On the one hand, a kid who goes, "oh, wow, Luffy and Naruto!" will buy this and be immediately disappointed at how little the One Piece and Naruto leads actually matter here. On the other, somebody like me, who laughs at the very idea of Arale and Seiya duking it out in the Soul Society, will have a total blast with all of the series representation. Most of the roster hails from stuff I've known about for a while, but they're mostly older series that remain relatively obscure in the West. For me, this is a dream come true. I never though I'd get to play a video game on the Playstation 4, in North America, in 2015, with Bobobo in it. It was something like that seemed like a fever dream more than a feasible reality. But for a less niche audience, it will mean more headscratching and Wikipedia searches than excitement.

There's nothing wrong with a niche game, though. And rest assured, this is very much one of those, at least to people on this side of the pond. J-Stars isn't content to just cram a bunch of characters into a game, then call it a day. Each and every character is lovingly rendered in their original art style, then given movesets and animations that are absurdly respectful to the source material. To a lot of people, Kenshiro doing a series of punches, then having a text bubble detailing the name of that move appear in front of him won't mean anything. To me, it means that the developers sat around and thought, "how can we be as faithful to Fist of the North Star as possible?"

There are little visual and audio gags, cameo appearances, and so, so much more from every character in the roster here, all of which are squarely pitched at dedicated Jump diehards. It's as if the staff were a bunch of nerds who left their basement for the first time in three decades, then happened to bump into each other on the street and decide to make a game. Everything here is very much a labor of love, in the best way possible.

What does that mean for the gameplay, then? It means that literally nobody plays the same way. And in a game with 39 playable characters, that's saying something. Some characters rely on strict button mashing and nothing more. Others rely on setting up long combos. Some are distance fighters, some are melee, some are varying mixtures of both. Some are strong, some are weak, some are fast, some are slow. There's an impressive variety on display here. It's clear that there was a square focus on giving every character something that defined them, as opposed to just reskinning some characters and tweaking them a little. That's something that even Smash Bros. hasn't managed yet.

But on a technical level, this clearly and predictably doesn't have the same level of polish as Nintendo's series. Nowhere is this more clear than some absurd balance issues. Very clearly, there are some characters that are just blatantly better than others, and if you learn how to exploit their movesets, it's possible to make matches miserable for the opposition. Joseph Joestar is a particularly painful example of this. At long range, he can take out half a health bar with an Ultimate Attack and keep opponents trapped in a machine gun volley. Up close, he can keep hitting people with a spammable combo, which can then be used to knock somebody away, then trap them in another long-distance volley. Long invincibility windows help curb some characters' spamming capabilities, but make no mistake: this game is pretty imbalanced, and while it's really only a few characters out of 39, that's still too many, at least in my opinion.

At least when somebody is griefing you with a cheap character, you won't just be confined to a 2D plane. J-Stars matches take place in large, free-roaming arenas filled with stuff just waiting to be destroyed. And, yes, unlike most games that boast "destructible environments," which really just means, "sometimes you take cover and then it crumbles," pretty much everything in a given stage can be totally wrecked. Want to punch somebody through a building, kick down a tree, or topple a huge pillar with a special move? Go for it, buddy, nothing's stopping you. Yeah, the physics are a little cheesy and silly, but nothing beats the satisfaction of sending somebody flying several feet down a city block, taking down several buildings in the process. It really adds to the feeling that J-Stars is every ridiculous anime/manga battle ever, just interactive.

It helps, too, that the gameplay is relatively uncomplicated. Yes, every character plays differently, so some naturally require a little more effort, but the basic concept is pretty easy to pick up and run with. Pick a character, run around, hit people, knock said people out 2-3 times. There's not a lot of complication here, and honestly, I feel like that's a good thing. I love a lot of the properties here, but I don't want to master yet another nuanced, EVO-ready tournament fighter. It's nice to just be able to pick a character, learn some moves, then just run around and have a good time.

Some critics have torn this apart for not being a "serious" fighter, but to be honest with you? I couldn't care less. Competetive players aren't going to pick this up over the new Street Fighter or BlazBlue. People who just want to wreck stuff as anime characters probably don't want to master super specific, elaborate controls. Things don't have to be tailored to the competitive set to be good. There's something to be said for games that pit players against each other in the easiest ways possible. And that's what J-Stars is all about: punching people in the face in the quickest ways possible. Nothing wrong with that as far as I'm concerned.

There are plenty of opportunities to do that in J-Stars, too. For single players alone, there are three separate modes, all of which also have couch co-op capability. There's a whole customization element in collecting character cards. There's online and offline competetive play. This was made by people who not only love Jump, but seem to love gaming in general, and in turn, gave players plenty of chances to do just that here, with no strings attached.

It would have been the easy road to pull a JoJo's Bizarre Adventure All-Star Battle and piecemeal fan favorite characters off as DLC. But Bandai Namco took the moral high ground and just crammed this game full of content, which will inevitably take hours upon hours for players to get through and unlock everything. It's the type of business practice that I'd like to see more of.

It's all content that looks good, too. People have also ripped into J-Stars for having "bad" graphics, and while I respect opinions of all varieties, I genuinely can't see what the problem is. This game doesn't have bad or lazy or sub-par or "last-gen" (god, I hate that term) graphics in the slightest. Does it have the visual fidelity of Arkham Knight or The Witcher 3? No, of course not. But in terms of accurately representing the visual style of every franchise here? In terms of being vibrant and varied across the board? In terms of having the distinct aesthetic trappings that make this feel like an anime come to life? It gets the job done, and that's the only job it needs to get done, frankly. J-Stars might not have 50 GB worth of textures or a particularly modern physics engine, but it has one thing a lot of games nowadays lack: style. The whole thing practically oozes it, and it cements the whole "you're playing an anime" feeling.

It's impossible to not have an inherent bias towards J-Stars. After all, I'm perhaps the exact demographic this sort of thing is aimed at. The same demographic that would complain about Kuwabara, Yoh Asakura, or Yugi Motoh being absent. The same type of person that legitimately got excited when he saw Penguin Village and Athena's Temple were stages. Basically, somebody who knows too much about too many anime. But I do think there's more here than that. There's a basic, visceral satisfaction that comes with kicking somebody into a giant tomato and watching it explode into a heap of neat slices, or in speeding into somebody with a moped, making them sail hundreds of feet. What I'm trying to say is that J-Stars gets one of the most crucial aspects of gaming right: fun.

While J-Stars Victory Vs+ could have, perhaps, included a few more stages (there are only twelve,) polished up the balance issues, and reconsidered some character choices (I doubt more people care about Chinyuki and Luckyman than Yu-Gi-Oh! and Shaman King,) there's no denying that it's a wild ride through the history of one of the most important movers and shakers of the Japanese comic industry. For the target audience, there's a lot to love here, and since that's probably the only audience Namco Bandai was banking on, I'd count it as a pretty decent success.

But, seriously. Where's my Shaman King love?

- A large roster with some deep cuts from the Jump library.
- Loads of content that'll keep fans busy.
- A lot of love for the material.
- Core gameplay is satisfying and fun.
- Each character looks ripped right from the page and/or screen.

- Balance issues make some characters unfun.
- More stages would have made it nice.
- Makes no attempt at involving newcomers to Jump.
- More music from each series needs to be here.
- Major franchise oversights like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Shaman King.

(8's are well above average games. They may have 
some problems holding them back from greatness, but
are still a good time all the same, and great examples
of their genre.)


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