Saturday, October 19, 2013

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan - Review (PS3)

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan (Nura) released back in 2011 for the PS3, and is one of those confusing imports in that there is nothing about it that justifies it being an exclusive to the east. The gameplay is somewhat stylized alike the Super Smash Bros games (a universally loved gameplay-formula); the art-direction is slick water-colors roving along classic Japanese "wood-block" prints; and there is just so much stuff to simply do that surely western reviewers would have been praising Nura consistently in that there is just so much variety and replay-value packed into this misleadingly simple-looking party-fighter.
That said, Nura is very Japanese. While I cannot read Japanese there is an all-together evident focus on mythological and feudal Japan, be it by the characters themselves or the levels; in the title, though, is the keyword that may have been the overall reasoning why Nura was never picked up for an English release: Yokai, which are essentially a mammoth assortment of Japanese spirits, demons, monsters, and just about anything supernatural, with most of them being steeped in local legends also. As a big portion of what makes Nura so exciting is managing and selecting a team from the more than 100 yokai available inside the game, something that would have neither intimacy nor meaning to western gamers who don't know anything about yokai, I think that the rationale was that it just wouldn't be a well-received title due to its cultural focus--- which is unfortunate because that is absolutely not true. Personally, I've read only one book about these Japanese monsters (called Yokai Attack!, which is interesting because Matt Alt, one of the writers behind Yokai Attack!, is also responsible for the translated versions of Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan's manga), and, to be perfectly honest, I didn't absorb any of the information after reading it--- that said, even though I had no idea who or what the monsters were in Nura, I was still impressed and inspired by using them, and had a terrific time trying them all out just to see who they were. Despite them being steeped in Japanese cultural myth, I still "liked" them just as much as anyone else could; freakish skeleton monsters two-stories-high tearing up from the ground and slamming the world into earthquakes is something any person can appreciate, I believe.

As mentioned above, Nura has a base that is somewhat similar to the Super Smash Bros style. As a party-stylized fighter, Nura has only two attacks for the player, which are a physical attack like punching/kicking, and a unique attack for each character; this can be shooting giant ice-blocks across the map, setting up explosive traps, or just lunging with a spear. It all depends on the character, and of the 12 available (and two unlockable) there is a highly noticeable degree of variety between them, even if there are only about 10 total attack options each character can do. A smaller scope of options may seem shallow, but the developers made sure to make that lesser assortment more meaningful, and truly it brings out each character in surprisingly lively and more intimate ways when playing as them.
Also akin to Super Smash Bros is the level design, which is basically a series of platforms scattered throughout with the occasional level-designed intrusion, whether it's a tsunami suddenly wiping out the lowest tier or a storm casting javelins of lightning across players' paths. For the most part the levels are mostly compact though, and while the background images can be highly inspiring and filled with wonder, the actual plane that players will be playing on is just a series of tiers that aren't remarkable beyond some few destructible platforms. The levels look gorgeous and are independent visually from one another, but what the player actually interacts with is, unfortunately, about the same throughout them all. That said, each map does have unique placement of "Shima (magic stones)," and it is here that Nura absolutely shatters the idea of it being a Super Smash clone and storms through with a series of exceedingly unique gameplay options.

As any fighting game, the point is to defeat your opponent. In Nura, the way this happens is by pushing a gauge (displayed at the bottom) fully to your favor, which is done by knocking out your health-bar-less opponents X amount of times. As expected, there are two special attacks per character in Nura, which become available as you fill up a separate gauge; for Nura, these special-attacks are probably going to be the player's kill-shot most matches. To build up special attacks there is the typical route of just hitting your opponent and being hit by your opponent, but there are also shima scattered throughout each level. Hit them a few times and they become yours; while each one helps boost the speed of your special gauge, collecting all of them ratchets it up considerably. The shima create a totally new playing-field for what would otherwise be a simple party-fighter; as special-attacks are extremely powerful, building up the meter in the fastest way possible is a wise choice. Oftentimes, even when against the computer, the match will not be so much about slamming each other with attacks, but navigating the map in pursuit of claiming stones. Finding yourself dodging your opponent and focusing on stones instead is not a rarity, and pastes a new, enjoyable layer of skill to achieving victory.
Most unique about Nura is how not alone you are. Sure, the match may read as a simple One-Versus-One or Two-Versus-Two, but really it's a Eleven-Versus-Eleven, or Twenty-two-Versus-Twenty-two. Going into a match gives you the option of bringing one or two "assist" characters with you, which is essentially an AI team of the fleshed in-game characters. You control these by "activating" them with either the circle or X button, where their tag-along, ghostly silhouette is suddenly in color and just as much a part of the match as you are. Still, it's a decision that requires some attention; when active, your AI characters can be knocked out and used to enhance the gauge toward your opponent's victory no different than you yourself being knocked out. Furthermore, once activated, your AI companions are not simply "assisting" you; if you run off on the map to find stones they're going to remain assaulting the enemy; whether or not they lose is wholly up to the skill of your AI in contrast to the skill of your opponent. It's a give-and-take engine; while useful, it may equally be destructive, and that dilemma of perhaps speeding along either your victory, or defeat, instills a highly exciting sense of the gameworld existing on its own, and not just at your leisure.

But that would amount to only a three-vs-three, in terms of a one-vs-one match; but there's much more. Rather, that 3-V-3 becomes an eleven-vs-eleven when you take into account the option of bringing in a team of 8 highly unique "yokai," the above-mentioned Japanese monsters. You create your team of yokai in the form of an 8-card deck, and activate them by pointing the right-joystick in the appropriate direction mid-match. The yokai are all extremely variable; one may be a two-foot high kappa who makes a quick, single tackle at the opponent, but others can be an outrageously large bull that storms throughout the entire level cloaked in swirling dark flames, or a vicious tengu who dives claws-out at your opponent repeatedly. Each of the yokai are extremely variable, with some assisting the player, attacking the opponent, or even stalling the victory gauge for a short amount of time. Once activated though, each yokai enters into a cool-down state that varies independently from one another, creating yet another simple, yet highly suspect to craft and consideration, layer of gameplay strategy.
Nura, like other fighters, upholds traditional modes as Story, Score Attack, Training, and Online. Most notable of these is the Challenge mode though, which is a robust assortment of unique challenges that genuinely teach the player to utilize team-members, yokai, shima, and other in-game elements in more exotic and strategic ways. There's well over fifty of these challenges, and lengthen the game in a thoroughly meaningful way, and not just artificially.
Nura is the real-deal; despite appearing as a simple party-fighter it is host to some of the more unique gameplay-elements to ever grace a fighter, and no matter it being based off a manga this is certainly not some pop-culture "cash cow" entry neither. Outside of the level layouts being inspired, everything about Nura has struck the right chords for an independent fighting game; a highly unique and satisfying gameplay system, plentiful replay value, and an eclectic cast of characters that vary greatly from one another but are without advantage/disadvantage. The only hesitancy in picking up Nura is that the online-community is simply non-existent; if you're going to desire playing online than you're going to need to sleuth around the Internet for others to party up with. Still, even without an online community, Nura stands more than firmly on its own, and is absolutely worth being experienced.

Nura sits somewhere at 80/20 with the language-barrier. There won't be any trouble in playing Nura at its fullest, and while setting up Yokai decks will first appear intimidating it's really a cinch with just some trial-and-error. No; where the language-barrier is prominent is in the mentioned Challenge Mode, and in deciding on which yokai to use in your deck. For challenge mode you're going to be utterly lost; for those wondering, there is almost zero katakana usage, and so unless you can read kanji understanding exactly what the challenge expects from you is going to be little more than a guessing-game. Most of them follow about 5 patterns, but it's still going to be a pain playing it blindly. As for yokai decks, the issue here is that there are over 100 of these monsters, and each of them do an action of their own. Whether a yokai is offensive, or a buffer, or defense, or a stage-variable is not going to be understood until you actually use it. This isn't really an "issue" as experiencing all of the yokai is a treat, but it can be a hindrance for those who want to just build the deck they desire without having to do trial-and-error.
Still; actually playing the game, which is attacks and special-moves and all the yokai fun, is 100% possible without knowing a lick of Japanese.

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