For years the phrase "It's for the kids" has excused many a shallow, soulless piece of entertainment. But for the same excuse to be so widespread in the games industry—a craft in which many of the most brilliant exponents have been eminently suitable for youths (Mario and Zelda to name the first that roll off the tongue)—is pretty dispiriting.
Not that there isn't merit in catering to your audience, and perhaps Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu is just the kind of button-bashing marathon that young fans of the cartoon will relish. Certainly, it'll provoke enough suitably rowdy behaviour in a room of 11- year olds, fizzy drinks and empty McDonalds bags, but the overriding feeling for an adult like myself is one of pity. Surely there are better ways for children to spend their time than this!
Don't think this the start of a haughty cultural fusillade, though. In fact, I feel too many critics unfairly dismiss these kinds of games as shadows of the "great" late 80's/early 90's scrolling beat-'em-ups (like Final Fight, Golden Axe and Double Dragon, to crib Thom's examples), without acknowledging the entire genre's inherent lack of modern appeal. Indeed, Rise of Sin Tzu is actually rather good at (unwittingly) conveying the shallowness of those much-loved games of yesteryear, and as an example of the genre itself it's pretty much standard fare.
There is simple fun to be had in Batarang-ing an explosive-holding goon and watching the resultant blast take out him and his fellow hoods, or in combo-ing a bad guy into the sea by the docks, and in 2-player mode such incidents (and they are merely incidents) are reminders of the scrolling beat-'em -up's classic core appeal. But Batman lacks the pizzazz and variety to breath new life into its worn genre trappings (a la Viewtiful Joe), and as such is never able to rise above even its own lowly expectations.
At least it looks and sounds the part. That is to say, production values are generally slick and worthy of the licence, and the cut-scenes—which unlike Thom I thought crisp and well produced—are nice treats for Batman fans. [NB: A mixture of personal dignity and snobbish pride will prevent me from using the phrase "Bat-fans".] In fact, the quietness of the cut-scenes—does anyone know why cut-scenes are always so damn quiet?—even forces you to turn up the volume, whereupon the main game is (again unwittingly) presented in its most favourable light: as a blaring, button-bashing beat-'em-up which passes the time in a reasonably entertaining manner.
Yet whilst some games start off as button-mashing only to surprise you with some ingenious, compulsive twists—like the aforementioned Viewtiful Joe or the venerable Astro Boy: Omega Factor— Rise of Sin Tzu is simply fatiguing. Character moves do become rather "cool" later on—odd that a game so unendingly repetitive should threaten to hit its stride in the final few stages—but the combo system around which the entire game revolves obeys a tiresome and largely unsatisfying rhythm throughout. And if that sounds like a little too subjective a criticism, some annoying design lapses don't help the game's cause any: the time limits and enemy wave numbers are horribly erratic and it is generally considered poor beat-'em-up etiquette for enemies to be able to hit the player whilst they're attacking a different thug. As with many games of this type, it can be dumbly compulsive—in the same way that anything can be if it's easy and repetitive enough—but it's still not very good.
Adding flagrant insult to injury is the storyline. With all the talk of WMDs and Asian warlords, the creators haven't exactly stretched themselves in their pursuit of appropriately inappropriate crime fighting fodder. "Die, western dog!" shouts an enemy in the final level. "No mercy" mutters our hero darkly. An unpalatable undercurrent if ever I saw one. Oh, and this all takes place in a criminal insane asylum by the way; because all criminals are crazy people and all crazy people are criminals, right?
If disengaging one's brain is the purpose and sign of good entertainment, then Rise of Sin Tzu is a fine (or should I say effective) piece of modern entertainment and there is certainly an abundance of mindlessness to be had here—the number of "rewards" (typical throwaway filler like character models and concept art) is obscene for such a shallow game, and makes this a punishingly comprehensive experience for those poor Bat-fans (whoops!). But if you value your money, and have enough intelligence to ask more of your precious leisure time, then…well, then I shan't insult you by finishing that sentence. Just try to keep your kids away from it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the GameCube version of the game.