It is, in short, an excellent game. And it's one I almost didn't bother to play, because -- to put it charitably -- its controls are a barrier to entry that is uncharacteristic for Nintendo. To put it bluntly, the controls are uncomfortable and hard to get used to. Nintendo is aware of this, hence the stand. I was fully ready to write the game off based on the controls, if only it weren't so consistently awesome in every other way. These control difficulties can be attributed in part to the hardware. It's uncomfortable and unwieldy to hold the full weight of the 3DS steady with your left hand, manipulating the Circle Pad and L button, while aiming with your right hand on the stylus.
But it's not all the fault of the 3DS. The rest can be attributed to Uprising director (and Super Smash Bros. creator) Masahiro Sakurai himself. Dodging and dashing, which help you avoid shots and shoot more powerful charged shots on the ground, require you to yank on the Circle Pad -- or, to put it in Sakurai-style terms, to "smash" like you do in Super Smash Bros. Because of that control quirk, it's impossible to dodge in the direction you're running; and because of that, you'll get shot a lot.
There are many options for tweaking the control scheme; you can set aiming or movement to the face buttons, alter the sensitivity of the touchscreen, or play lefty-style with the Circle Pad Pro. Unfortunately, the one option everyone wants -- dual analog with the Circle Pad Pro -- isn't present. And none of the alternatives work as well as the touchscreen.
Let me back up. Those controls are really only problematic half the time. The first half of each chapter is an on-rails shooting segment in which Pit flies through formations of enemies, able to move around onscreen but not alter the course of his flight. In this mode, aiming with the stylus, moving around with the Circle Pad, and shooting with L works just fine. In fact, these sequences are comparable to something like Sin & Punishment 2, though with a lot less strategy and a much faster pace.
It's impossible to dodge in the direction you're running; and because of that, you'll get shot a lot.
It's when Pit lands -- his power of flight is limited to five minutes at a time -- that the controls become problematic. On land, the Circle Pad controls Pit's walking and running, and the stylus is used for both aiming and moving the camera. As a result, you'll be smashing on the Circle Pad and swiping at the touch screen in constant staccato movements. Time to invest in a screen cover!
Though there's a lot to learn about how to move around in these segments, and there's a lot of being shot in the back to deal with before you do, once I became comfortable with the controls I loved them. Looking at first like your basic Zelda game, these ground battle segments are actually twitchy, dodge-heavy action sequences in which you destroy waves of enemies using ranged, charged, and melee attacks in order to progress from room to room. There are hidden rooms to explore, treasures to pick up, and, well, nothing even remotely resembling a puzzle.
The whole time you're playing the game, Pit and Palutena banter in corny, fully-voiced dialogue -- talking about what's happening, what's coming up, and who Pit has to fight ahead. The bosses themselves even show up to join the conversation. This would be a dealbreaker for me, but in this game it totally works, for two important reasons: first, the corny dialogue is charming in a goofy way, and actually funny. Characters frequently break the fourth wall to reference the original Kid Icarus game -- or the fact that they're in a game right now. "We're going to rack up some serious Nintendogs training points together!" Pit says of a giant canine boss.
Second, the game never stops to deliver dialogue in a cutscene. Instead, the characters just happily chat away as the game is going on, with text and character portraits on the lower screen (as well as occasional sprite art from Kid Icarus depicting enemies as they once looked) and full voiceover throughout. You can enjoy the cutesy banter between Pit, Palutena, and whichever boss has showed up to taunt them, without ever having to stop playing. This, it turns out, is exactly the right way to present voiced dialogue to a cutscene-skipper like me. It gives the whole game a sense of lightheartedness, not that a game with a Tempura Wizard that turns you into fried shrimp needed help there.
You customize your Pit with a large selection of equippable weapons, which have almost infinite variety. There are dozens of variants of different weapon classes (bow, blade, club, etc.), all of which have different class-based effects on your ranged and melee attacks and movement speed. On top of that, each individual weapon has its own random bonuses, like "+1 petrification" or "+2 side-dash charged shot," meaning one set of Paw Pad Orbitars (floating cat paws that shoot bouncy cat-paw projectiles!) might be way more useful than another. You can buy new weapons with the "hearts" you accrue through gameplay, or "fuse" two weapons to make a new weapon with some of the characteristics of the two starting items.
The game never stops to deliver dialogue in a cutscene.
On top of that, you can equip a series of consumable "powers" that allow you to heal yourself, set traps, add elemental effects to weapons, etc. These are all represented by groups of blocks, and your loadout of powers is based on how many shapes you can squeeze into your rectangular power allotment.
All this lets you do spectacular damage against bosses in single-player, and it forms the entire basis of multiplayer. In multiplayer (online or local), your character's stats are based completely on the weapon and powers you've chosen. The only way to customize your character's speed, stamina, etc. is with a different weapon -- and that turns out to be enough. With the absurd variety of weapons, each player has a different feel and a different strategy -- some sniping from far away, some blasting giant shields out at every opportunity, and some dashing in for a quick melee combo. Furthermore, weaker weapons are balanced brilliantly against strong ones through the use of a point value. In team games, players with higher point values count more against their team when they die.
Multiplayer matches have a Smash Bros-ian set of options, allowing you to change out arenas (or randomize), alter the item drop rate, and change game type between a six-player free-for-all and a team "Light vs. Dark" game. In this mode, teams have a group life bar that depletes when each team member dies. When it empties, one of the players becomes "Pit" or "Dark Pit," complete with new equipment. When that player is killed, the game ends, so it's incumbent upon the rest of the team to protect their angel.
No matter which mode I was playing, or how many AIs I was playing with instead of friends, I had a great time throughout. The intricacies of dodging and melee, the randomness of weapon drops, and the insane variation in arena layout suggest that Uprising multiplayer is something that could keep me entertained for a long time.
It's one of the elements that screams "Sakurai." From the moment you turn the game on and see the menu, with its irregular boxes full of all-caps serif text, you can see his authorial hand. You can also see his influence in the overabundance of collectibles. You can earn "idols" (essentially character and item trophies) by playing a minigame, or through multiplayer, or through scanning hard-to-find AR cards. You also unlock puzzle pieces for a big piece of artwork by completing in-game tasks, like finding five clubs, or finishing a certain level under five minutes. These Achievement-like unlocks give you motivation to replay levels you already made it through. The "intensity" system also encourages replay, while dynamically changing the difficulty to suit almost any player.
I already know reactions to this game will be polarized, and it basically comes down to whether people can get used to those (again, admittedly) uncomfortable controls. And I feel a little embarrassed, exposed even, to see myself on the positive side of that divide. But I can't help but be glad I stuck it out through the overlong adjustment period. The upbeat, funny, deep action game that comes after is totally worth the investment.
This review is based on a retail copy of Kid Icarus Uprising for 3DS, provided by Nintendo.
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