In most countries, in most fields, it’s highly debatable who reigns as the “best of the best.” This is not true of the Japanese comic industry. Hirohiko Araki is almost inarguably the greatest manga-ka (comic artist) working today. His magnum opus, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, is one of the longest running and most influential manga ever written. Gucci of Japan held a promotional event where his famously stylish fashion designs were showcased alongside their own products. He’s the only manga artist in history to do a show at the Louvre. To call JoJo a cultural phenomenon would be to grossly downplay its significance.
Yet the most we’ve seen of the series in North America is a terrible straight-to-video movie and a PS1 fighting game from Capcom that’s best known for starting an internet meme. At the moment, broken US copyright law is the main barrier between us and the series, which names many of its characters after popular rock groups and songs. It would take mighty big deal for a localization firm to risk lawsuit over this series, but Namco Bandai’s latest licensed fighting game based on the franchise is nothing if not a big deal. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle sold over 400,000 copies in its first week (more than double Final Fantasy XIV, which released the same week) and earned a rare 40/40 from weekly Famitsu. With a hit like that, they hardly had a choice but to translate it.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s great to see anything from this vaunted franchise make it to our shores. On the other, while a solid fighting game in its own right, All Star Battle is above all else a love-letter to fans, and its arcane references to already strange source material might not make it the most friendly entry point for newcomers. The addition of the new JoJo anime to Crunchyroll’s spring lineup alleviates this problem somewhat, but All Star Battle will likely struggle to find the same traction as Namco and CyberConnect2’s Naruto fighting games.
For all those uninitiated, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is the centuries-spanning, dimension-crossing saga of the Joestar family and their battles with evil. The first two parts of the series deal with impossibly muscular men fighting impossibly flexible vampires using magic breathing techniques that send sunlight ripples through their fists. After that, it gets weird. From part 3 onward, characters develop “Stands,” psychic manifestations of their fighting spirit (not unlike Personas) that allow them to do things like stop time, transform inanimate objects into living matter, or break their entire body down into string. Those are among the more normal powers.
All Star Battle takes 40 of the most popular characters from across all eight parts of the series and pits them against each other in a massive battle royale. As a fan of the series, I can tell you it’s an absolute delight to see Joseph Joestar predict Funny Valentine’s taunting monologues, or hear Akira Otoishi ask Rohan Kishibe for his autograph in their pre-fight dialogue. The game presents an exciting opportunity to take part in the best moments of the series – like Jotaro stopping time after DIO’s Road Roller finisher – while also allowing you to explore new possibilities, like deciding once and for all whether Mista Guido with his Sex Pistols is a better gunman than Hol Horse with The Emperor.
If you’re not a fan, that’s all Japanese to you, but the game still has plenty to offer. CyberConnect2 excels at building simple but robust fighting engines with gorgeous cel-shaded graphics, and this is their best work to date. All Star Battle is essentially a 3-button 2D fighter, but with the ability to dodge around your opponent in 3D space. It makes for a subtly different experience than most fighting games, forcing you to think in 3D space while still maintaining the overall precision of a 2D fighter. It’s not as deep as BlazBlue or Street Fighter, but it’s considerably meatier than other mash-up brawlers like Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm or Super Smash Bros, and the stand and ripple mechanics give its roster a satisfying sense of variety.
There’s a fair bit of overlap in the basic mechanics of the characters – you’ll see a lot of punch flurries and basic projectiles – but there’s enough difference between them that they all feel distinctive More importantly, they all feel very true to the source material. Their stand powers allow them to do cool things like stop or even reverse time, but beyond that the little details in how they’re animated and rendered really help to set them apart. I could go on and on and on about the little touches in characters’ walk cycles, or the subtle variations in how they throw punches, or the incredible care lavished on each of their character models, but suffice it to say that CC2 have put as much effort into bringing these characters to life as they have into emulating Araki’s renowned art style.
You would think it would be difficult to balance Stand and Ripple users in the same game, considering that certain stand users can turn people into bombs that explode forever, erase time at their leisure, or even just straight-up end the universe (all of those, by the way, are special moves in the game). However, CC2 have done a fantastic job balancing them out. The R1 button allows Stand Users to turn their stands on and off, effectively giving them access to two different move sets. Ripple users, meanwhile, can hold the button down to breath and charge their super meter. In fact, that ability puts ripple users (especially Joseph Joestar) ahead of the balance curve. It’s not enough to throw the whole system off, but the game could definitely do with some tightening. Just not in the way you’d expect.
All Star Battle is a little light on modes beyond versus. There’s a paltry story mode, more or less a CliffsNotes of the manga’s 30 year run that will only serve to confuse neophytes. Unfortunately, you have to play through the story to unlock most of the game’s characters (a common problem with CC2 games) but it can be finished quickly enough that it’s not too much of a pain. The English release also has a tacked-on arcade mode, which is more or less what you’d expect. It mainly exists to distract from the campaign mode, which I expect will be a sticking point for many western audiences.
Campaign mode lets you go online and fight through variants of each character in the game in order to earn rewards like extra costumes, taunts, and poses. These are great bits of fan service, but I wish there were some other way to unlock them. See, the problem with campaign is that it’s structured like a social game. In order to go into fights, you need to spend energy, which you can only replenish by waiting or paying a microtransaction. Namco’s no stranger to predatory business models, but this just seems excessive, especially when you consider that nine of the game’s characters have to be purchased as DLC. The waiting times aren’t terrible (only five minutes per unit of energy, though it was 20 when the game launched in Japan), but these just aren’t mechanics that belong in a $50.00 game. Japanese gamers have more patience for this sort of nonsense, but it doesn’t fly in the west. Fortunately you can get plenty of bang for your buck without touching the mode at all.
Unfortunately those looming copyright fears haven’t gone away, and Bandai Namco has found a less than elegant solution. If I were to use one word to describe this localization, it would be “butchery.” Almost every character and stand name has been changed to something more copyright friendly, and in most cases not nearly as imaginative. “Sticky Fingers” has become “Zipper Man,” “Aerosmith” was bastardized into “Li’l Bomber,” and fan-favourite “Jean Pierre Polnareff” is now “Jean Pierre Eiffel.” A lot of these don’t even make sense – why change “Killer Queen” to “Deadly Queen” when the Tactics Ogre series has been using Queen songs in its titles for decades? You can still get the gist of everything, but those references are a big part of Jojo’s distinctive flavor. As were, for that matter, the hand-written character names that have been replaced by ugly comic-sans type.
Despite an atrocious translation and exploitative microtransactions, the gameplay in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle holds up incredibly well. JoJo aficionados will delight in all the fan-service, while newcomers will find a solid fighting game that sits somewhere Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm and Persona 4 Arena in terms of accessibility and depth. The huge roster ensures that boredom is a long way off, so long as you have someone to play with. With a visual style derived from one of the preeminent artists of our day, there are few games that look this striking. Pick it up if you’re looking for a fighting game that’s a little different and packed with personality.
Platform: PlayStation 3