Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Elite Beat Agents Post-Mortem

If there’s one group of people in the world who know how to get funky on a dance floor, I’m sure we can all agree that it’s shadowy government organizations.

It only stands to reason. What would be the point in training elite federal assassins in gunplay, interrogation and infiltration if we didn’t also fully outfit them with some world-class powers of groove?

Luckily, you too can now live out the glamorous life of one of these disco agents provocateur through the surprisingly good medium of Elite Beat Agents for the DS. It’s the western adaptation of the wonderful Japanese title Osu! Tatake! Ouendan! and despite some dubious English-language design decisions it retains all of the original’s addictive gameplay and quirky charm.

Elite Beat Agents will see you leading a team of crack beatmasters into a range of harrowing international incidents with the aim of protecting democracy and overcoming terrorism. By “crack beatmasters” I mean the Elite Beat Agents themselves, who, Japanese version to the contrary, are absolutely not male cheerleaders – the fact that they aim to raise morale through synchronized dance just shows how elite they really are. “Harrowing international incidents” turn out be tasks such as helping a lost dog return home or aiding a salty sea dog in uncovering pirate treasure. And “protecting democracy and overcoming terrorism” mostly boils down to tapping coloured circles on the DS screen in time to the music. Actually, I lie, the game really has nothing to do with democracy or terrorism, although it does have a reasonable facsimile of the Hilton sisters, who in my mind are probably worth invading Afghanistan in order to bring to justice.

Each level will see you engaged in an improbable scenario and tasked with using sharp dance routines and popular music to save the day. There are 20 songs in the game, including titles such as “YMCA”, “Material Girl”, “Sk8er Boi” and “Jumping Jack Flash”, with the mix skewed sharply towards party classics and teen pop instead of hard rock or indy anthems. That’s a short jukebox compared to what the Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero franchises offer, but it’s still enough to offer you a reasonably lengthy play experience.

Each level starts with a short sequence introducing the story for the level, whether it be prompting a girl to get together with the boy of her dreams or helping a cat to save a baby from a dangerous construction site. Then you’ll be dumped into the song. Coloured dots will appear on the screen, surrounded by a rapidly closing-in circle. The trick is to tap the dots just as the circle hits them, which coincidentally will also match a beat in the song. Succeed, and your agents will bust some moves on the top screen, and the hero of the level’s scenario will meet with fate and fortune. Fail, and you’ll be tripping over your own toes while the story takes a sharp turn south.

The basic beat-tapping gameplay is both fun and addictive, and is further mixed up by the addition of slides that you must follow with your stylus and wheels that you need to spin in a circular motion. The easier difficulties are fairly tame, with only a small minority of beats requiring action, but as you move up to the hard and expert (Hard Rock) difficulties you’ll start hammering out some pretty insane rhythms. It’s unfortunate that in order to attempt hard you first need to defeat the normal difficulty, and to try expert you’ll need to beat hard. This means that a difficulty with a single song can keep a lot of the game’s content locked away from you, but ultimately the game is good enough that it’s worth persevering.

The stories that frame each level are delivered with a wealth of humour and charm. They’re told in the same manga-esque style as the Japanese version, and have the same kind of goofball logic. Many of the stories have different endings based on your performance, which makes replaying the same levels again and again (which you’ll be doing a lot of) much less irritating.

Multiplayer in Elite Beat Agents is well managed. Up to four players can take part in a session, with or without individual game cards. (Sessions that include at least one player without a card are limited to a choice of only five songs.) You can then divide up into two teams for versus play, or work together for a co-operative session. Co-op plays much like the versus in the original Guitar Hero, with the beats being divided up between the players. Versus gives everyone the same beats, but adds the option to unleash a devastating combo attack that leaves your opponent’s screen shaking and their targets shrunk to miniscule size. These modes aren’t perfect, but they provide a strong framework for enjoying Elite Beat Agents with friends, or for demonstrating it to those who haven’t played it yet.

It’s worth mentioning a frustration that I’ve experienced on the harder levels of the game, which I’m apparently not alone in experiencing. As the beats gets faster and the targets get smaller, the game seems to develop recognition problems in the lower right quadrant of the game screen. Occasionally taps which should be dead on target will just be ignored. At first I was worried this was a problem with my DS, but it’s turned up on multiple systems and on other people’s copies of the game. This makes some of the songs on Expert a lot more frustrating than they should be, but it’s unlikely to worry the majority of players the majority of the time.

If you’ve played, or even heard about, Osu! Tatake! Ouendan! and are wondering how the westernization stacks up, the answer is “pretty well”. The most noticeable change is the difficulty – Elite Beat Agents is significantly easier than Ouendan!. The music, obviously, now has an American bias, but in practice the tracks aren’t anywhere near as annoying as you may think, and many will leave you humming them for days. In terms of graphics and gameplay, Elite Beat Agents is actually a little better than its source. The agents do specific dances for specific songs (most notably for YMCA), and generally look a little more polished than the boys from Ouendan!. The beats seem generally better matched to the songs (although the sequence for “Canned Heat” is notably horrible), and all the bells and whistles from Ouendan! are present, right down to the Elite Beat Divas you’ll unlock for reaching the Hard Rock difficulty. Elite Beat Agents also throws in three bonus unlockable songs, which give you just that much more incentive to reach the higher difficulties.

All in all, Elite Beat Agents is not only one of the better DS titles available, it’s one of the better rhythm games on the market generally. If you think it sounds even remotely entertaining then it’s not to be missed, and like all good rhythm games you’ll find yourself returning to it again and again long after you think you’ve finished with it.

4 comments:

Xantar said...

Everybody I've talked to about this game says the last level made them cry. How about you?

GregT said...

I don't know; "Jumping Jack Flash" is pretty fucking hard, pardon my Gutterspeak, but I don't know if it's worth crying over. I beat it all the way through to Hard and then got stymied by "Material Girl" on Expert before getting anywhere near it. It's really those Hilton sisters who make me weep. Can't I leave them stranded on the stupid island to be eaten by bears or whatever?

Xantar said...

Hmmm...maybe it wasn't the last level they were talking about, then. Apparently, there's a level in there that has to do with a dead father and his little girl that reduced all my hardened friends to weeping masses on the floor. Do you know what they're talking about?

GregT said...

Oh, THAT one. That's about halfway through the game and I assume they're weeping because of the story rather than the difficulty. The same level appeared in Ouendan. Yeah, it's a girl who wants her dead father to come back to life. Tear-jerker or creepy HP Lovecraft story, you decide.