I frequently find myself drawn to games that seem to be based upon/inspired by/ripped off of games I liked when I was younger. It isn’t just because I’m eager for gameplay I’m used to, it is because I know that technology and the art of game development has advanced since then, and I want to see what new spin has been put on an old favorite. When I first got a glimpse of Moon Diver, I thought, “Awesome, Strider for the new millennium.” Once I started playing though, I realized that it was a bit more than that.
The visuals of the game are good. They don’t push the limits of modern technology by any means, but they do the job well. Everything in the game is polygonal, 3D modeled characters played on a 2D field. Layered on top of these elements, though, are loads and loads of graphical effects. Gleaming flashes of swords, trailing bullets, glowing auras, and radiant lens flares all show up in abundance. The characters and enemies are typically anime styled. Heroes are either rail-thin women or woman-y men, mostly. The enemies are the sort of half jester/half demon that shows up in many anime inspired games. Enemy variety is a little lax, relying on pallete swaps more often than many of its peers, but there is enough variety in type and behavior to keep it interesting. There are hornets and mosquitoes that fill the air, foot soldiers that swipe and slash, and helmet shaped airships that drop troops or pepper you with bullets.
The settings have a strong theme, depicting an earth that has clearly seen better days. Half collapsed buildings and the interiors of dark complexes are par for the course, but they throw in the odd curve ball. My favorite was the set of maps that, in the overworld view, seemed to be islands. Once the level begins, it turns out that it is a fleet of ships in progressively greater states of disrepair. That was pretty neat. As always, the bosses are the most creative of all. They are usually on a whole different scale, and can be as simple as one of the aforementioned helmet ships, or as complex as a screen filling super demon.
I feel that the strongest part of the game’s visuals was probably the animation. The characters can run on various inclines as well as climbing walls and ceilings, and the animations remain smooth and fluid throughout. Likewise, the activation of magic spells were suitably cinematic. Other than that, the HUD deserves a mention. The primary elements are all easy to read at a glance, letting you know how much health and magic power you have left, as well as how close you are to the next level up (which is a very important thing to keep tabs on.) A kill chain counter is kept above your head as well, keeping you well aware of how many more rapid-fire executions stand between you and the all important 50 kill marks.
This is a fast paced, arcade style action platformer. As such, the controls are simple. You basically have jump, slide, crouch, magic, and attack. Everything is about killing things in rapid succession, so learning to string attacks together with little delay is crucial, and much has been done to streamline the process. How, you ask? In short, everything is an attack. Double jumps, flips up from under a platform, slides, and rapid drops from jumps all automatically do damage to the enemies, so often the mere act of navigating the level is devastating to the opposing troops. Swinging your sword does a quick, weak attack. Holding the attack button, on the other hand, charges the attack. This not only does more damage, but increases the range. Charging works its way upward through several levels, each with its own clear and obvious visual feedback. In many games, the fact that charging your attack does more damage effectively reduces gameplay to a predictable sequence: Slash, retreat until charged, slash again. Moon Diver does its best to keep your techniques varied by giving some very significant pros and cons to different attack types. For instance, killing with normal attacks increases the amount of XP you will accumulate. Not only that, but charging your weapon usually takes too long to keep a kill streak going, and kill streaks are as much about strategy as they are about score.
You see, for every fifty enemies killed in a row, you get a full refill of both MP and HP. That means that it is often worth it to sacrifice some health to sweep in and take out the next cluster of enemies, because if you take out enough of them, that health will be replaced with interest. Of course, killing enemies also has a chance to drop health and MP items, so aggression almost always pays off. While you are keeping an eye on that health and MP, though, don’t forget to be mindful of the XP gauge. When it finishes filling up, you’ll get a devastating burst of energy that will heavily damage nearby enemies and refill the other bars as well. That’s right, even timing your level ups is a combat decision. Additional levels also adds to your maximum combo count. The higher your level, the more times you can swing your sword before you have to pause.
This isn’t all about swinging your sword, though. You also have a massive array of magic spells to choose from. Before each level you can choose up to four, and their effects are hugely varied. Some are obvious. Recover health, fire a projectile, increase defense. Others weren’t obvious until I’d experimented. One such spell said I would have the ability to do a body slam. Evidently this translates to “while in effect enemies take damage just by touching you.” Most spells have four levels, increasing in effectiveness, intensity, or duration as they go. Interestingly, the spells are added to your arsenal by finding them on the levels, so it pays to be thorough while you are cutting a bloody swath through the forces of evil. Though the spell variety is cool, mostly I found that some spells were utterly worthless (I had a hard time finding use for the spell that blinds the enemy) while others are game changers. The penetrating bullet spell, which is a starting ability for one of the players, is a room clearer. The reinforced bullet, on the other hand, stops after its first hit. I don’t care how powerful it is, if one bullet only kills one guy, and another plows through a whole conga line, guess which one I’m using.
The levels, aside from healing you and hurting your enemies, provide you with a precious CP or Customization Point. After each level, this CP can be applied to HP, MP, or POW, which is attack. Different characters level differently. One gains MP very well, another MP and HP fairly well, a third is all about POW, and the final one is the obligatory even steven.
The levels are reasonably well designed. I like that there are no insta-death falls, for instance. Instead, falling in a pit teleports you back onto the board minus some health. Primarily, though, bottomless pits are rare, replaced instead with regions of purple fire that damage you. Well placed platforms are always nearby to get you back to safety, which is seldom necessary thanks to your ability to climb (almost) any surface, as well as double jump and air dash. That said, though, I felt like there was a sudden and unforgiving jump in difficulty around level five. I literally sprinted through the first four levels on my first try with the game’s heavy hitter, then proceeded to get KO’d mere steps into level five, usually by a laser cannon, a dozen times in a row.
I spent most of my time in the game playing single player, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the multiplayer aspects. Locally or over Xbox Live, you can play with upto 3 other people. In true arcade fashion, they can join in mid game, which is pretty nice. Playing with more than one person adds a few strategic options, like combining your magic spells to save MP and affect multiple people, or rescuing a dead character by cutting away the demon chains that bind him or her.
The sound faded into the background for me, which I guess is good. You can probably already conjure to mind the soundtrack, with its typical guitars. The voices are likewise anime standards, with a lot of high pitched cries of “haaaaaAAAAAA” as you charge, and the occasional taunt or battle cry. Nothing much to rave or complain about here.
Uh… Well, there IS a story… but I really don’t know what it is. You get a few shots of well drawn cel shaded characters, and one or two lines of text, but even after seeing most of them, I’m not even sure if I’m playing as the heroes who want to save humanity or the kill-crazy demons who want to wipe it out.
The simple gameplay and character development made me want to keep coming back to this game. It is a fun multiplayer title, and the pace is fast and challenging.
9.1 / 10: Despite minor balance and difficulty problems, this was a Strider-like action game that had me hooked.