Review: Bakugan Battle Brawlers (Nintendo DS)

bakugancoverBakugan Battle Brawlers
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Activision/NOW Productions
Genre: Card/Board Game
Release Date: 10/20/2009

I guess I’ve finally reached that point where I have no clue what’s popular these days. Until Lucard started encouraging us to go out and grab Bakugan for review purposes, I hadn’t even heard of it. I blame my siblings. They’ve moved on from kid’s shows and are now either watching sports or young adult dramas.

Anyway, I gave the show a couple of looks and it just wasn’t for me. I’ve long since given up on shows where there’s some game that controls the paths of the universe and for some reason, almost no one has any clue. Kind of like a “kids rule the world” situation. I’ve also wondered why anyone puts up with the Masquerades/Weevil Underwoods of the world when they could clearly be conquered by punching them in the face and stealing said uber card of doom away from them. Needless to say, I really don’t get it.

That wasn’t enough to stop me from being interested in the game though. I’ve seen the toys and wished I had something like that when I was younger. It would have been so much cooler than Battle Tops, even if they did have the Power Rangers on them. I’ve had an absolute blast with the Yu-Gi-Oh games in my collection, so I went out and picked this up for the DS, my system of choice for these types of games.

So will those who love the show and/or game get what they want out of Bakugan‘s first trek to the world of video games?

Story/Modes

Like in a lot of these games, you won’t actually play as the show’s main character (in this case, Dan). Instead, you create your own character with a few options for clothing, colors, and hairstyle. Sadly, you can’t chose your gender, so female fans will be stuck with a male character. After that, you’re dropped into a tutorial before you’re given a rare Bakugan for a partner and sent off to build your reputation and win some tournaments.

bakugan1That partner is Leonidas, who is a new Bakugan for the game. He pretty much appears out of nowhere and becomes your partner, more or less because you find him first. The cast of the show is suspicious of him and the early part of the game is them trying to defeat you in order to contain him. Later on, of course, there’s an evil force at work who’s trying to destroy all of the Bakugan, and it becomes obvious that only you and Leonidas have the power to stop them.

The full cast of the show shows up in one way or another. Dan is fired up just to be playing the game, Marucho spouts off statistics like he’s a human computer, and Alice stays on the sidelines offering hints and tips. The plot is pretty straightforward and the characters merely represent their show counterparts, but the story isn’t all that bad. It’s not particularly good either, but it moves the game forward and sets the backdrop for you collecting and battling your Bakugan.

Beyond story, there are two other modes that will take up your time. First up is Battle. Here you can select 2-4 contestants for a battle, choose what type of battle you’re in, pick from any character in the roster, and select a difficulty. This is the only part where you can select a character from the show and, for a while anyways, the only place to use some of the show’s marquee Bakugan. This is best suited for those looking for some quick action.

Secondly, there’s the multiplayer. Sadly, there’s no wifi support in this game. 1-4 players can hook up, as long as each has their own DS and a copy of the game, and compete in matches. This is the best part of game by far. Due to some balancing issues I’ll get to later on, the story doesn’t present much of a challenge. Against a human opponent, however, those issues are mostly mitigated and victory is truly determined by proper strategy and timing. If you’ve got friends, this is a lot cheaper and more convenient than collecting the toys.

I feel the story and modes do what they need to for this kind of game. A few additions would have pushed it over the top, but what’s here is more than enough for Bakugan enthusiasts to get their money’s worth.

Graphics

Here’s a definite strong point for the game. It looks flat out good. From the get go you’re treated to perhaps the best use of video in a DS game I’ve seen yet. Then you get to watch the show’s intro when you start the story. There are fewer compression problems then I’ve seen in any other game.

Most of the story sequences are presented in one of two ways. First, through static character portraits in the first person perspective. Also, there are some 3D sections where the characters will move about as they talk. These bits aren’t the best part of the game, and lag behind some of the recent achievements in DS graphical power, but they’re above the curve for this kind of game. Certainly, they’re better than similar scenes in the latest Yu-Gi-Oh game.

The real star of the show is the arenas and Bakugan themselves. The arenas are in full 3D and each has a ton of detail based on whatever themed element it uses. There are also items, obstacles, platforms, and such that you can use before you land on a card. Not to mention the moving Bakugan ball is animated well as it rolls around. There’s a lot going on with these sections and it all looks good. Players have animations for different actions in the game, there are moving characters in the background, and it’s pretty impressive to watch.

Also, when the Bakugan battle, you’ll get introductory animations and battle animations much like those I mentioned in my Fossil Fighters review. The thing is, they are just done better here, even if the Bakugan never actually touch each other on screen. The models are more detailed and the animations are smoother.

This isn’t one of the best looking DS games I’ve seen, but its a darn good one.

Audio

For when there is voice acting, (mostly relegated to lines in battle and the FMVs) the game uses the American voice cast. They do a solid job of bringing those characters into the video game world. Often you’ll find that licensed games have horrible voice acting because the actors phoned their performances in. This is not the case here.

The music is fitting, though a bit pedestrian. Generic rock tracks that change depending on the arena you battle in abound. I’m certainly not going to be looking to find these songs to put on my MP3 player anytime soon, but they were decent enough to listen to as I played.
There’s also a fair amount of sound effects. From the Bakugan rolling along on the arena floor to the roar of Dragonoid, it sounds authentic. The voice samples are great for this effect as well. Having your character announce that he’s activating an ability card is a lot better than reading it. It would have been better if there was more than one clip for each situation, but what’s here is pretty good.

Overall, this is a solid effort on the presentation side of things.

Gameplay

I’m assuming most of the people who are going to read this already know a good bit about how Bakugan is played, so I’ll be brief. Players carry three Bakugan and six cards with them as their deck. Three of the cards are called Gate Cards. These are placed on the field. The goal is the roll your Bakugan onto these cards, where they will then open up and “stand.” When both players have a Bakugan on a card, they battle. Every Bakugan has a base strength, measured as GP. When the battle occurs, the gate card is revealed and bonus GP is awarded to each Bakugan based on its attribute (earth, wind, fire, water, light, and dark). The other three cards in the deck are ability cards and these are used to supplement a Bakugan‘s GP. The Bakugan with the highest GP wins and the player receives the Gate Card as a prize. First player to three Gate Cards wins.

bakugan2For the DS game, the idea is roughly the same with a few tweaks. Now, the total GP is used to determine not the winner, but who has the advantage when battle starts. There are a variety of stylus minigames that ultimately decide the winner. These include spinning a wheel, tapping symbols as they appear in the center of the screen, rubbing frantically, tracing a symbol as it moves down a path, and a couple of others. Performing these actions counts as your attack. Successfully attacking pushes a meter on the bottom screen in your favor. In a kind of reverse tug of war, whichever Bakugan‘s controls the meter when time runs out wins the battle. This makes combat more involved and ultimately skews battle into a more action oriented direction.

An important part of the toy line is rolling your Bakugan towards a Gate Card. This is accomplished in the game through complete stylus control. You throw the ball by first moving a target around the arena and then running the stylus up the screen. From there, you can continue to control the ball by rubbing the stylus in the direction you want the ball to go. This sounds like its just ripe for all kinds of control issues, but it actually works pretty well. I had very few problems when it came to getting the ball to where I wanted it to go. I was shocked at how well this was implemented into the game.

As you battle, Bakugan will actually gain experience and level up. While granting GP bonuses, you’ll also have stats that can increase. These don’t affect battle at all, but instead affect your Bakugan‘s ability to attain desirable positions on the field. You can increase speed, defense, control, steering, and magnet. Speed equates to how fast your ball moves on the field, defense is how well it can handle another Bakugan rolling into it (If one ball knocks another off of a card its called a “critical KO” and the player who knocked the other’s off gets the card without battle.), control is how accurate you are when you throw, steering affects how long and how well you can maneuver the ball on the field, and magnet is how strong the pull is towards the card. You can feel the differences with some of these stats more than others, but the bonus GP is where it’s really at. Each Bakugan can get to level 10 before it stops gaining experience, so maxing stats isn’t possible. Some Bakugan will have higher stats when you buy them, but you can only hold one of each Bakugan of the same attribute.

In the arenas are all kinds of items, obstacles, and platforms to use. There are experience orbs, orbs that grants additional GP, trampolines that propel your Bakugan through the air, speed boosts that rocket your ball in one direction, lava pits that subtract GP, and even some tornadoes that whip your ball around. Working around these items is ill advised. Instead, you need to work with them to get bonuses that can tip the GP tug of war in your favor. It makes throwing the ball a lot more interesting that just trying to land on a card. It should be noted that your ball can’t go forever. If you fail to land on a card when you stop, it counts as a forfeited turn. This is yet another reason why working with the terrain is so crucial.

There are also special shots. Each attribute has its own special shot that grants varying effects. The water special shot, for instance, allows the Bakugan to move indefinitely. Others grant effects such as guarding against critical KOs, scoring critical KOs, and greatly increasing the magnetic ability. In order to use these shots, the Bakugan in question must be at least level three, and you must have filled up a meter. The game at no point told me how to fill this meter up other than pick up a few items that would charge it. These rarely show up, and I almost never got them, yet the meter would still build up. I’m honestly not sure what’s going on there. The computer managed to fill it up somehow, so they used them the most.

The last thing worth mentioning is that you can actually interfere with other’s throws and battles. By making the same gestures you use when your throw the ball, you can make subtle but effective changes in an opponent’s Bakugan. They do the same thing to you as well. This usually only results in items being missed, but it has caused the odd miss of a card completely. During an all AI battle, you can rub the icon of an AI’s Bakugan in order to give it a small boost. This is useful in tag battles and battle royales, as you can help someone out or hurt someone who’s doing too well. Thankfully, its not overpowered, so it isn’t a game breaker.

All in all the battle system can be fun and works pretty well. There are some balancing issues thanks to the stylus controls, but that’s for a later section. This is a pretty faithful adaptation of the toys and what you see in the show. Strategy is important, and facing a well constructed deck with a poor one is a good way to lose.

Replayability

The main story lasts a paltry five to six hours. All you do is compete in tournaments that move the story forward, while occasionally going to the store to purchase new Bakugan and cards. After the story is over, that’s when you can play the toughest versions of all the characters in an attempt to unlock and purchase the last remaining items. If you want to get your very own Dragonoid, you need to wait until after the credits roll. Still, given that games like Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon have legitimate multiple DOZEN hour campaigns, the fact that this only lasts about half a dozen is extremely disappointing.

I’m not going to fault the game too much for not having Wifi support (although again, the two games I just mentioned have it); given the frantic stylus action during combat and ball throwing, any slowdown would be very bad and break the game. The multi-card play should be fine as long as you know someone else with the game, which given this game’s target demographic, is more than likely.

bakugan3You might think that the ability to level up all of your Bakugan would mean it’d get some brownie points here. The truth is that there are very few individual Bakugan in the game. Most of them are just a palette swap of each other. There’s one for each attribute. There really isn’t a difference, apart from the GP bonuses they get, and there’s always one attribute that a Bakugan is best for. The best thing to do is to buy each one for only their primary attribute. Also, the lower leveled Bakugan become useless at the end. They just don’t have the base GP to deal with the legendary Bakugan that most characters have. Sorry Saurus and Serpenoid. You’re just useless.

Also, you can purchase upgrades by paying for the amount of experience you need to level up. This makes it all too easy to get your ideal team leveled up quickly, and you won’t have a real reason to work on any others, especially since there aren’t any push over opponents later on in the game to work your newbies out on.

If you get really into the multiplayer aspects of the game, you’ll find it will be worth your while. For a single player adventure only however, it pales in comparison to other games of its ilk.

Balance

So about those stylus minigames….

They’re too easy. Not once during the story did I lose even a single battle. It was a clean sweep from start to finish. There were times when my Bakugan was down 500 GP and I still won with a perfect rating. Spinning a wheel and rubbing on the screen is something every DS owner has done time and time again. The computer just doesn’t, and simply can’t, keep up. It makes the game ridiculously easy. It takes away any need for strategy and therefore any feeling of accomplishment when you win. When I can throw my weakest Bakugan out on the other player’s Gate Card against their strongest guy and still dominate, something is wrong.

That’s not to say you’ll never experience those things. If you play with another person, this problem is mostly mitigated. Still, if one player is better at the games than the other, he or she will have a substantial advantage. Its the kind of thing that simply doesn’t come up in the actual game because the winner is determined solely on who’s got the higher GP.

I will say that during the post game activities, it became harder to win when certain minigames were being used. The Elite Beat Agents style game where you tap icons as they appear on screen was actually difficult to win at. Granted, that was because it didn’t seem to give much boost at all rather than level the playing field, but it was welcome. I should have lost that battle and I did.

On the whole, I can’t think of a game I’ve played recently that was as easy as this. Some will argue that this is a kid’s game, but kids shouldn’t be treated like morons.

Originality

This will probably be the hardest part of this review to judge. I can honestly say that there is no game like Bakugan Battle Brawlers out on the market. Sure, it borrows heavily from past successful games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, but it never feels like a clone.

It’s very easy to put this game in the whole “gotta catch and train them all” type of gameplay, but I’m not sure it really applies. This is more of a strategy game than anything else (stylus games aside). If nothing else, its a great use of the DS’s capabilities. Activision did a great job of using the DS’s strengths to make the game more tangible and more like the actual game. For as great as those other two games are, they do under-utilize the touch screen (Pokemon‘s mild uses are a joke and Yu-Gi-Oh‘s just don’t work as well as the d-pad). I can honestly say that Bakugan does not.

If you’re looking for a playing experience that feels familiar but still new, this will definitely fit the bill.

Addictiveness

This is where that whole “horribly unbalanced” shtick comes to bite the game in the butt.

bakugan4The game just doesn’t suck you in. There’s never any anticipation towards a battle because there’s no question about who’s going to win. There’s no need to tweak your deck for a big fight because you can win with the crappiest cards and the crappiest Bakugan. Its a completely deflating feeling from start to finish. If the game were much longer, I really don’t know if I could have brought myself to finish it.

Part of what makes those other games I keep mentioning so addicting is that your victory is almost never a foregone conclusion. You need to be constantly thinking ahead, planning, and building your strategy to get ahead. I can easily see this happening in a Bakugan game, but as long as those awful and cheap stylus games are around, this is a game that can be put down quickly and then forgotten.

That is, of course, unless you’ve got a group of friends to battle with. That always makes things better.

Appeal Factor

Bakugan is no doubt one of the hottest things in children’s entertainment right now. The show is popular, the toys are already being hyped as being must haves for early Christmas shoppers with kids on their lists, and this game in particular is on the system with the largest installed base of any current gen gaming platform. It should sell gangbusters.

Fans of either the toy or the show should probably pick this up. Its a lot cheaper than buying all the merchandise to stage battles at home (though I see the appeal). It’s also much more travel friendly. Being able to battle in the back of a car during a long road trip can stave off boredom extremely well.

Basically, if you’re a parent and your kid A) likes Bakugan and B) has a DS, then they want this game and you could count this as a safe bet for a gift.

Miscellaneous

I want everyone reading this to know that I had a mostly positive experience with this game. Had they taken out the stylus games as deciding factors in battle and added some online functionality, this would be getting a much higher score.

If I were young enough to still be in to this kind of thing, I’d be all over it. As far as a licensed game goes, this is surprisingly good.

The Scores

Story/Modes: Decent
Graphics: Very Good
Audio: Good
Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Very Bad
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Below Average
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Enjoyable
Final Score: ENJOYABLE GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary:

diehardjackThere are only a few things holding Bakugan back from being a great game, not just for kids, but for anyone with a DS. First, the stylus games make the game far too easy and take any sense of accomplishment or anticipation out of experience. Secondly, Wifi support, even if it was just to trade Bakugan and cards, would have been great. In the end though, this ends up being a pretty safe buy. The post game stuff and the multiplayer should be enough to justify the purchase. I wouldn’t be against playing another one of these games in the future.

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