Tokyo Beat Down wears its intentions on two very blood-stained sleeves. This tiny DS cartridge has a serious attitude that instantly infected the office. Even Atlus threatened to beat us up depending on the outcome of this review.
The game leads through the familiar ground of a faded genre with two solid fists of justice. There’s an instant nostalgia at play, and an easy comparison to titles like Streets of Rage or Double Dragon. So seasoned gamers can anticipate punching and kicking a path through the typical foes of that genre. Expect to encounter skinny thugs, fat thugs, skinny thugs with guns, and fat thugs with pipes along the way. This pattern is broken up by mafioso-type villains and a very aggravating character that tosses Molotov cocktails – thanks for that one by the way, Success. It all works on a sliding scale that invites gamers in and eventually has them furiously shaking the DS as the difficulty continues to climb. But this certainly isn’t the whole story.
There’s a standard but solid set of moves at your disposal for dealing with Tokyo’s most vile scum. And as a cop, gamers are given the ability to draw a gun when necessary, and though bullets are limited, extra ammo and weapons can often be found along the way. The early stages will allow most to push through with a careless disregard for combos, but alternating between punches and kicks becomes increasingly necessary, allowing a quick draw gunshot to be had at crucial times. The alternative method of drawing the gun requires a delay in action, leaving players to approach with it already selected rather than relying on it in tight situations. Additionally there’s a jump ability that I never found much use for, and a dash feature that repeatedly comes in handy for knocking enemies flat before they have a chance to strike. There’s also a power attack for the punch and kick that will knock clusters of opponents to the ground in desperate situations. But the greatest joy comes from grabbing and hoisting enemies into the air, laying the beat down proper before tossing their broken bodies aside.
As with any nostalgic journey, some familiar frustrations also return. Each step forward brings pockets of enemies from both sides of the screen that will either work to swarm you or back off to fire shots of their own. At no extra cost, the classic foot sweeping enemy has also returned, delighted as ever to repeatedly knock you flat on your back when the opportunity arises. It’s essential to use the limited depth of the stage to step off the line of attack – an experience that often caused me to tightly grip the DS while cursing and working furiously to evade and counter. There’s a definite finesse to it, augmented slightly by the three different characters you’ll play as throughout the game. These characters function within a very traditional model, easily summarized as brawler cop, nimble cop, and brutal cop. However you won’t select a character, but instead play as each of these notorious “Beast Cops” in turn while following along the fixed narrative.
The story develops over a series of days, with each completed stage progressing the time. Game-play is served in segments and portioned out between bouts of story development, which helps break the potential monotony of the repetitive nature inherent to this style of game. Stages are available via the city map, with red highlighted zones signifying the next stage as your case progresses. Other areas will be marked with blue, and are meant to be revisited in order to gain crucial combo extensions and bullet-proof vests to extend your life. This process of searching can be tedious at times, but will save many frustrations toward the end of the game. The actual challenge moments revealed by this searching is a definite highlight for the combat system. Tasks that include defeating a series of enemies within a fixed amount of time, or defeating them without taking a single hit give the sense of having earned the reward for having learned the controls.
I’m obligated to mention that graphically, there’s far, far prettier games available, and though this doesn’t make the game unplayable by any means, it’s clear that this wasn’t a key focus for development. Perhaps because the game doesn’t break any new graphical ground, these moments of intensity are essential along with the inevitable boss fights many stages lead to. Fighting an enemy who is using a forklift to hurl barrels toward you is a seldom but welcomed change of pace. It also highlights an element the game could have greatly benefited from, with a challenge or beat down mode for gamers that want to jump immediately into the action serving as a noticeable absence. There is an attempt at encouraging replay by basing the ending on the player’s performance and diligence, but a challenge mode could have easily increased the longevity of the title.
And if this were all there was to talk about, we’d have a serious problem. But fortunately, where I had expected nothing beyond that initial beat-down experience, the game’s focus is split evenly between fist pounding game-play and a highly entertaining story, told through text and still framed comic images. By the time you finish the game, it’s hard to tell if the selling point was the nostalgic flashback of the game-play, or the unique humour that continually surfaces with the characters.
On that point alone, there may be no other game that does quite what Tokyo Beat Down does – bizarre as the results may be.
Our hero is Lewis Cannon, the quintessential eighties movie-cop, a mix of Sylvester Stallone and Don Johnson wrapped together with a vintage white Miami Vice suit. Naturally Cannon is continually hounded by the Chief for his trademarked excessive force. And yet this is liberally mixed with a style of humour that owes a debt to Atlus’ renowned localization team, proving that they really are in a league of their own. This Japanese crime story of ridiculous kung-fu villains and ex-cop mercenaries out to settle old scores is layered like an onion. There are blockbuster moments from American action films as Cannon leaps from a helicopter to crash through the roof of a mall, or disarms a bomb by guessing which wire to pull. There’s also a fourth wall-breaking humour that questions why life restoring hamburgers are hidden in barrels and bonus items are spread throughout the city – the game urges players not to think too hard on it. But this type of humour has been appearing more and more in games, and the real edge and proof of Atlus’ sense of fun are felt elsewhere – like when talking to a character named “Plot-Progressing Officer.”
“Third floor – clearance sale on lingerie… and justice.” Cannon has a million great lines, and isn’t afraid to use them.
Atlus has always been a smart company, honing their market over the years and understanding it like few others. I’m also certain that along the way they cracked under the pressure in the most delightful way imaginable. Tokyo Beat Down is one of many examples that Atlus is having more fun than other studios in determining what they will publish, and there’s just as much fun to be had for gamers as a result – if that’s what you’re after.
At my most abstract, I’ll suggest that Atlus is presently the Willy Wonka of the software industry. And not merely because so many of their titles are as sought after as a golden ticket. It’s because they can offer titles with the depth of the Persona series, and at the same time bring titles like Tokyo Beat Down to North America. Without a doubt, they are one of the very few companies that has always been brave about bringing unique experiences while so many others have only recently discussed innovation. And though the results are sometimes mixed, the experience is always memorable.
As for Tokyo Beat Down, it will certainly find room with a select audience that appreciates the entirety of the game. On the one hand, there is nothing here you haven’t beaten before, but how many games could that be said of, really? The mechanics remain a memorable style of gaming, and there’s a level of wit that is rarely seen. As with so many previous Atlus titles, Tokyo Beat Down wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but its charms certainly proved worthy of attention.