Danbol Senki preview: Virtual-On Jr.

I don't know why I'd be surprised about a Level-5 game being fun. Aside from a few missteps, the company is one of the most consistently great developers in Japan, with the sales to prove it. And yet, I was only driven to try out the PSP game Danbol Senki when I noticed that it had no line at the Level-5 booth, and I was not at all expecting to be won over as I was.

Having not really followed the game. I expected a Pokemon-style RPG (the premise of Danbol Senki involves collecting model robots), and Pokemon-style RPGs that aren't Pokemon seem unnecessary. But Danbol Senki isn't that at all. Well, it is in the sense that you collect little robots, but instead of turn-based fights, you use those robots in high-speed arena battles that remind me more of Virtual-On than anything else. And since your characters are all tiny, those "arenas" take the form of the kitchen table and other household settings.

Level-5 cleverly introduces the battle mechanics by having the protagonist, Ban, and some friends stage a "pretend" fight in a toy shop, after having bought the newest model robots. In this sequence, the battles play just like the "real" ones, but the player is led to believe that all the action is make-believe on the part of the kids playing -- we just don't see their hands guiding the toys around and don't hear the gun sounds being mimicked by mouths.

In fights, you dash around the arenas, performing basic attack combos with the Square button. After stunning an enemy, you get a "chance" to launch a special attack with the R trigger. Of course, while you're working on that combo and preparing to launch that slower attack, you have other "armor frames" (that's what the robots are called) dashing about on their own, ready to shoot you in the back; so you have to keep moving. Danbol Senki moves so much more quickly than anything that calls itself an "RPG" has any right to. It's totally an action game.

After the little introduction, things begin to get real. An engineer escapes her laboratory with a prototype fighting drone that happens to look exactly like the toys, once she realizes some evil people are trying to get their hands on it. To hide it, she pushes the briefcase into the hands of ... Ban, the kid who just won the fight at the toy shop, as he's on his way home. When he arrives at his house and realizes he's been given a for-real fighting robot, he barely has any time to appreciate his windfall before Evil People show up with their Evil Robots and a fight ensues.

I can totally see this game having a Pokemon-type appeal. Not only are the battles exciting -- encouraging multiplayer get-togethers -- but the ability to customize your robot with different parts opens the door for interesting trades. However, the Gundam model craze on which this game is, err, modeled isn't as big outside of Japan, so I don't know if Level-5 will see reason enough to localize Danbol Senki -- or, since the company's publishing operations have yet to become worldwide, if it will be able to find someone else to do so.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.