Review: Bakugan Battle Brawlers (Nintendo Wii)

Bakugan Battle Brawlers
Genre: Card/Board Game
Developer: Activision/NOW Productions
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: 10/20/09


So, as I mentioned in my hands-on preview of the Wii version of Bakugan Battle Brawlers, going in to the game, I knew next to nothing about the franchise, aside from the fact that you throw balls at cards and your monsters fight. The anime is practically impenetrable to me, as it’s generally written for an age group I am quite a bit out of touch with. The board and card game the series inspired is interesting enough, but seems like an amalgamation of Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering, albeit an interesting one. As such, despite trying to prepare for the Bakugan experience, I was utterly unprepared for the game, and as such, walked into my first experience with the game blind. The initial experience I took away from the preview build was a good one; the game seemed fun enough and was generally pretty interesting, and I figured that even without an online component, the game could be pretty stellar if all of the elements came together properly. Well, here we are, with the final copy of the Wii version of Bakugan Battle Brawlers, and the question that comes to mind is, did the elements come together properly? Does the game mimic the show well enough for fans to enjoy it while also taking the board and card game experience and making it accurate and exciting?

Let’s take a look.

The story of Bakugan Battle Brawlers is about what you’d expect from a kid-friendly anime franchise: it’s cute, teaches some important lessons, and is generally pretty basic. You play as your own custom character, who is starting up with Bakugan when he runs afoul of Shuji, joke bad guy of the franchise. Well, after learning the basics from Dan, who is the big hero of the series, you end up finding your own special Bakugan, Leonidas, who has a big interest in fighting Bakugan and being the best around. The other Battle Brawlers and their Bakugan don’t take well to Leonidas, and some suspicious events and shadowy evil plots cast his existence into doubt, all while dragging you into the thick of things as Hal-G and Masquerade orchestrate things directly and from behind the scenes. Frankly, the story is pretty standard anime fare, but I was pleased by the fact that the story manages to explain enough of the plot that a neophyte like myself could understand everything without feeling like the plot was going over his head. Further, the big reveals that pop up through the story are surprisingly not obvious at first, and the game throws out enough conflicting hints to make the eventual revelations that come from the story satisfying, if not awesome. Fans of the TV show will find the story to be a good time, and everyone else will be able to deal with it without being bored or annoyed, so all in all, the story is pretty decent.

Visually, Bakugan Battle Brawlers is pretty nice looking and is one of the better looking Wii games on the market. The visuals are bright, crisp, clear and well animated, and the game is visually appealing aesthetically. The Battle Brawlers and their Bakugan look as the show depicts them and are brought to life nicely, and the play environments are dynamic and pleasing to the eye. About the only negative thing to say about the visuals is that the animations tend to repeat themselves after a while, which you’ll probably notice a few hours in, but the game looks solid enough that this problem is easy enough to forgive, if not ignore. The audio is also quite nice overall. The music primarily consists of some upbeat rock tracks mixed with some rock/techno tunes for the various Battle Arenas, and it’s fun to listen to as you play. The sound effects and Bakugan noises are excellent and compliment the experience well, making the game come to life in many cases. The voice acting is generally pretty good, and while the main cast of characters sound more convincing and believable than the secondary characters, all in all none of the voice acting is bad, so I’d consider that a success.

Bakugan Battle Brawlers, as noted, works like a cross between Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering: you construct a Bakugan team and a deck to play with, toss your Bakugan out into the field to fight it out, use cards as needed, and attempt to have the Bakugan with the highest G-Power in combat. For those who know nothing about Bakugan, this is how it works. First, each player throws down a Gate Card. Gate Cards are the locations on the battlefield where Bakugan fight each other, and the objective of the game is to take three Gate Cards, either by beating opposing Bakugan, through a Double Stand (having two Bakugan on the same card), or through a Stay (having a Bakugan wait on a card for a full turn without being attacked). Once you’ve played a Gate Card, each player then takes their turn in order. On your turn, you can toss out a new Gate Card if you want, but you will have to either toss out a Bakugan if you have one in reserve or command a Bakugan to Stay if all your Bakugan are on the field. Your goal is to toss your Bakugan onto a Gate Card, but in many environments you’ll want to steer the Bakugan around to collect power-ups before landing on the card, so as to increase their abilities and turn battle in your favor. If you miss the Gate Card, you lose that turn, but if you land on the Gate Card, the Bakugan opens and you keep whatever power-ups you collected. If an opponent lands on that card or you land on a card where an opposing Bakugan sits, you engage in battle. At this point, you can play Ability Cards from your hand to improve your Bakugan, and the Bakugan with the highest G-Power wins the fight, earning the winner the Gate Card.

The game itself is simple enough to pick up and play, thanks in large part to the easy to understand controls. Pressing the 1 button on the Wiimote before you toss a Bakugan allows you to toss out a Gate Card, which can be placed adjacent to other existing cards on the field. You use the D-pad to aim the crosshair at where you want to throw the Bakugan, then press A to lock the aim and bring up your Bakugan. Picking one is as simple as holding A and B, and at that point you can choose a throw type. Normal throws bounce and roll around and are good for landing on specific cards or positioning yourself to collect items, Power throws are good for Sphere Attacks (hitting a placed Bakugan to deal damage), and Elemental Shots are VERY good for Sphere Attacks, as they deal extra damage beyond what a Power Shot can do. After picking a shot, hold the Wiimote up, then swing it down to throw your Bakugan out onto the field. If it lands on a Gate Card, you’ve completed the turn, but if not, you can steer it around by holding A or B and twisting the Wiimote around to move it, in case you want to roll onto a card or pick up power-ups on the field, like G-Power boosters, items that can be used for added effects in battle or cards that inflict negative effects on opponents or positive effects on your Bakugan. Watch out, though, as the levels that offer these power-ups are often treacherously laid out, and one wrong turn could throw you off the field entirely, costing you that turn and losing you all your power-ups you collected.

Combat is also incredibly easy to learn and work with. When two Bakugan land on a Gate Card, they face off, complete with some impressive introduction cinematics, as the Gate Card is then revealed. Each Gate Card offers specific elemental boosts to each of the six Bakugan elements: Pyrus (Fire), Aquos (Water), Subterra (Earth), Ventus (Wind), Haos (Light) and Darkus (Dark). Each Bakugan is affiliated with one of those elements, and when the card is revealed in battle, your Bakugan will gain an elemental bonus to their G-Power equivalent to what the card specifies. These G-Power boosts, on their own, can dramatically change the standing of a battle, but Gate Cards can also infer additional bonuses and effects beyond their simple elemental boosts. Silver Gate Cards only confer elemental boosts of various sorts, while a Copper Gate Card might ban you from using Ability Cards or jack the stats of specific elemental Bakugan, and a Gold Gate Card could improve the abilities of specific Bakugan if they land on the card, which can AGAIN turn the tide of battle, depending on who these boosts benefit. At this point, you can then use Ability Cards, which also come in three card colors, which have different focuses. Red Cards primarily boost stats or dictate what mini-game is played during battle, Green Cards focus on boosting the stats of specific elemental Bakugan or specific Bakugan entirely, and Blue Cards focus on conditional G-Power Boosts.

After using any Battle Cards to influence the tide of battle, you can then play a mini-game for one last chance to boost your G-Power. These Battle Games, as they’re called, allow you to either play a Target Shooting mini-game where you shoot at your own elemental targets, a Shaking mini-game where you shake the Wiimote specific ways or at specific times to earn points, and a Timing mini-game which earns you points for pressing buttons or shaking the Wiimote at the right time. The game you’ll play is determined by the color of the Gate Card you land on, though you can change this by using cards that specify the game you play prior to the beginning of a battle. Once you finish these games, the battle commences and whoever wins takes the Gate Card. These are really only the core mechanics of the battles, of course, and Bakugan Battle Brawlers, to its credit, offers a lot more depth than you might first think. Aside from being able to tear around the battlefields to pick up power-ups, you can also use elemental shots, if your Bakugan are upgraded enough, which add additional effects to your Bakugan, such as boosts to their G-Power, added damage for Sphere attacks, damaging areas of effect, and other neat tricks. Many of the arenas you can play in also offer inherent boosts and detriments to specific Bakugan elements, which can help or hinder your performance in mini-games as a result, making your choice of Bakugan important before battles. There are even more intricacies to consider when preparing for and playing in a battle beyond what I’ve explained, but the point is that you shouldn’t mistake this as just another kids game, as it’s got some interesting substance to it.

You’ll get plenty of practice with the ins and outs of the Bakugan play mechanics, thanks to the Story Mode. You start off the mode by customizing your character, where you can choose your name, eyes, nose, hair and starting element, among other things. That completed, you’ll take on a tutorial battle to learn the basics before you’re left to do what you want. There are four locations in town for you to visit, and you’ll spend a signifcant amount of time at each one. Your Room allows you to view your collection, check your rank, change your appearance, and customize your decks, among other things. The Bakugan Store allows you to spend Battle Points buy new Bakugan and cards, as well as upgrade your Bakugan. You can level up your Bakugan in six categories: Speed (increase your throwing speed), Defense (increase resistance to Sphere Attacks), Acceleration (increase your steering speed), Endurance (increase the time you can steer your Bakugan), Jump (increase jump height), and G-Power (increase Bakugan power), and each Bakugan can be increased up to Level 10. The Park allows you to test your skills against the various characters in the franchise to earn Battle Points and unlock things in the Store. The Tournament Hall is where you compete in various Bakugan Tournaments, which advance the story and earn you a ton of Battle Points in the process.

You’ll be spending a while playing through the Story Mode, as this is where you unlock everything in the game, from cards to Bakugan and beyond, and while you can blow through the story in about eight hours, unlocking all of the cool stuff, like Bakugan, Cards and arenas, will take closer to around twenty. You can also go back and buy and upgrade new Bakugan to max out everything you own, which will take many, many hours if you want to do that. You can also jump into battles with friends in the Battle Arena, which allows up to four players to fight it out in any of the arenas you unlock with the characters you unlock. You can play single or tag-team matches against friends or the CPU, and you can customize the difficulty levels of the CPU and the arenas, as well as the decks each player uses. The Battle Arena also allows you to play around with different settings, like whether or not you want to allow arena attributes to affect the game, whether Gate and Ability cards are played manually or automatically, whether or not players can interfere with your throws and so on, so you can tailor the experience to your own personal preferences and the skill levels of the players involved, making the game a solid, accessible experience for kids and adults of all skill levels alike.

Bakugan Battle Brawlers, unfortunately, is not a perfect experience, and this is primarily because there’s a ton of effort put into making the single player experience awesome, but the multiplayer component is kind of tacked onto the game and lacks the polish or depth of the solo experience. Now, okay, there’s no online play in the game to speak of, which I’m certain will infuriate a lot of people, but that doesn’t bother me as much as you’d expect. This is a game geared towards young kids, and speaking as someone who knew a man who organized a Pokemon card game tournament, then YELLED AT THE KIDS for playing wrong, I really don’t have a problem with making a game for kids that DOESN’T expose them to rude adults. However, the fact that the game lacks a way for players to bring their customized Bakugan decks to a friends house and challenge them is an immense omission and whoever made the decision to omit this from the game should be fired. Look, I don’t want to play as Dan, okay? I do not. I want to play as ME, with my awesome Pyrus deck, against my friend and his awesome Darkus deck. That’s how this sort of game should work. Let me play as Dan and Shun if I don’t have an awesome deck, fine, but this is a workaround, not an actual solution.

Games have been doing this for decades, okay? Pokemon lets kids challenge each other with their custom teams. Phantasy Star Online for the Gamecube let me make a character, bring it to a friend’s house, and play with their character. The Wii has a SD card slot FOR REASONS LIKE THIS. For that matter, the Wiimote can store game data for plenty of games; why not break down the character coding to a small enough file, store it in the Wiimote, and let the player load their character that way? Your only option is to copy your save file once you’ve completed the game, earn a ton of points and let your friend make a deck with that second save file, which is STILL a workaround, not an actual solution, and is STILL not what this game NEEDED to be a worthwhile multiplayer game. You can’t customize the decks of the characters in the game, so it’s not like your friends have any options in this situation; they can either use a default character who doesn’t quite have what they want, use a copy of your file to make their deck, or spend twenty hours building a character and deck in Story Mode if you want to play against them with decks you both designed. This is the worst idea ever and the game is immensely devalued, from the word go, as a result.

The game features a few other issues that make it less appealing than it should be. You can only make male characters in Story Mode, which is great for me since I now have to explain to my female cousin that “No, sweetie, Bakugan Battle Brawlers is for boys, you need to go back to your Barbies,” so thanks for that. You can’t turn off Battle Games, at all, and while it’s great that you CAN disable the elemental bonuses gained in these games in some battlegrounds, these games essentially take a bit of the strategy out of the experience. If you KNOW you can ace the Battle Games and can beat out an opponent, you don’t even need to worry about strategy at all, since you can just make up any point deficits in these games. The customization options for your player are also limited to less than ten items per part, and while I’m not expecting Smackdown levels of custom options it’d be nice to have more items than I can count on both hands when choosing shirts, hats and hair, for example. Your default element also dictates part of your clothing colors, which looks strange for, say, red-loving Ventus users who suddenly realized they’re wearing Christmas colors. None of these will be game-breaking issues for anyone (except maybe female fans), but they’re generally odd or lazy issues that some simple consideration and brainstorming would have fixed, and that these considerations weren’t made is disappointing, frankly.

The bottom line here is that Bakugan Battle Brawlers is a fun and entertaining game that will occupy you for a while, thanks to the solid gameplay and deep Story Mode, but won’t hold much interest for you if you’re looking for involved multiplayer or if you’re a girl. The story is cute and interesting enough, the presentation is quite nice overall, and the game is a lot of fun to play. The controls are simple to pick up, the Story Mode is in-depth and offers lots of things to earn and unlock, and the multiplayer will be fun for someone who just wants to pick up the game and play it or for kids who don’t want to devote time to the Story Mode. However, there’s no online play and you can’t pit your custom player against other custom players, meaning that half of the POINT of the whole game is essentially wasted from the get-go. The fact that you can’t create female brawlers for Story Mode, can’t disable Battle Games, and don’t have a lot of options for customizing your character also don’t help the product, as instead of making a good game great, these issues make a good game disappointing. If you’re looking for something fun to play with kids that has some meat to it, Bakugan Battle Brawlers is a solid investment for sure, but at this point, fans of the series will probably be a little disappointed and will be better served waiting for a sequel, in hopes that it won’t be so disappointing.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: BAD

FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Bakugan Battle Brawlers is the sort of game that’s solid and well designed in most of the major important points, but drops the ball when it gets to the smaller, but no less important details. It’s not that the game is bad; the story is fun and works well enough, the game is visually and aurally well designed, and the gameplay is surprisingly simple to learn but complex to really master. There’s plenty of depth to the battle systems, and between the customization options for your decks, the unlockable content in Story Mode, and the fun multiplayer options for players who want to jump in and battle, there’s a lot to love about the game. However, the multiplayer doesn’t allow friends to combat each other with their custom decks and there’s no online play, so anyone looking for something more than casual battles will be disappointed. Further, there’s no option to play as custom female characters because I guess Activision only wants boys buying the game, you can’t disable Battle Games in multiplayer matches under any circumstances, and the customization options for created characters are meager, leaving the whole experience feeling good, but unsatisfying. As a starting point, Bakugan Battle Brawlers isn’t bad and is fairly enjoyable all in all, but it stumbles in enough areas that anyone who’s looking for more than just bare-bones multiplayer and a solid Story Mode might want to wait for the inevitable sequel instead.

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