Game Description: Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu is a third person action game starring the Caped Crusader, Robin, Nightwing, and Batgir las they team up to stop a diabolical new character named Sin Tzu. You will be able to battle Batman's foes using an assortment of 35 martial arts moves and combination attacks.
It used to be that "beat-'em-ups" were one of the major staples of videogames. I know that I sure played a ton of Final Fight, Golden Axe, Double Dragon and countless other games that were all variations on the theme of "keeping moving right while smashing the absolute crap out of anything that moves." As the medium has progressed, the beat-'em-up has become relegated to the back burner. There have been moments of brilliance, such as the Dynasty Warriors series, but increasingly the beat-'em-up is only the mechanical underpinning for games designed purely to cash in on an existing license.
This decline is probably an unfortunate result of the seeming simplicity of the mechanics involved in the beat-'em-up. As noted above, the genre is typified by an unrelenting march through an army of disposable enemies, interrupted only by the occasional boss fight. On the surface, it seems easy for a company to take an existing license, slap the appropriate likenesses on the characters, cook up a workable plot, get basic beat-'em-up action coded and wham, a game. Up to a point, it sounds like a license to print money, but it usually winds up producing a game that's barely palatable—Charlie's Angels and Aquaman are two recent examples that spring to mind.
Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu might initially seem to dodge the grisly fate of most license-based videogames. After all, it does seem to involve a fair amount of original content, including a new Batman character exclusively created for the videogame by comic "legend" (the box says so twice to avoid any confusion) Jim Lee, and a decent foundation in the Batman mythos in the form of the animated TV series. Unfortunately, it winds up feeling more like an extended advertisement for the Batman franchise in general and the animated series in particular rather than anything somebody would enjoy purely on its own merits. The first hint of this is the coyly placed ad for Batman action figures on the back of the game manual. The second and more substantial hint is the game itself.
Where Rise of Sin Tzu falters most is implementation. As a game, it is an aggressively retro experience in all the wrong ways, failing to take its wealth of available material and turn it into a coherent experience. The characters (there are 4 different ones available to the player) all have your basic punch, kick, jump and combo attacks. The player also has a combo meter that fills up every time they damage an enemy. Some combo attacks can only be used with a full combo meter and if the player wishes, they can deplete the meter to deliver attacks far more powerful than the basic ones. Every one of the characters has a "unique" set of combo attacks, but these attacks seem to be unique only in the sense that they were given different names. Although there is some slight variation from character to character, the attacks are mostly carbon-copies of themselves. This means that most of the difference between the playable characters is in their base attributes of speed and strength. It's up to the player whether this is enough to justify playing through the same missions again.
Or should I say "mission?" That might be overstating the case, but Rise of Sin Tzu remains a very monotonous game. Every mission is either fighting your way from checkpoint to checkpoint against the clock, a timed fight against a pre-determined amount of enemies, a boss fight or protecting something that can be damaged by enemies, the latter of which only occurs once in the entire game. By the end of the first level, the player will have encountered every type of objective that the game has to offer, aside from the afore-mentioned "guard the thing" scenario. This depressing formula repeats itself throughout the game, with the levels distinguishing themselves solely through window-dressing and increasingly difficult enemies.
As an example, the first level involves Batman (and/or his cohorts) moving through a series of linear alleyways, beating up thugs and rescuing civilians while a timer counts down. Rescuing a civilian adds more time to the timer, and if it runs all the way down, a life is subtracted from the player. Early on, the player can easily find themselves wasting too much time learning the moves, taking too long to dispatch weak enemies. Spurred on by the decreasing timer, they charge down the alleyway, spotting a civilian behind several roving thugs. Racing toward the civilian, the player unceremoniously splats into an invisible force-field, forced to backtrack and deal with the thugs before they can move forward and rescue the innocent.
If that scenario wasn't bad enough, the camera system leaves much to be desired. It is easy, even with only a single player, to lose track of enemies that have been knocked off-screen, and this is a situation that happens often, especially with two players. There is no indication as to where they are, or even if they are still alive. In games like Rise of Sin Tzu where time is the limiting resource and progression is blocked until all enemies are defeated, this is inexcusable.
One thing that the game does manage to do well is ramp up the difficulty level and try to convince the player to expand their repertoire beyond just hitting "kick" repeatedly for the entire game. This is more of a suggestion then a requirement, as it wouldn't be out of the question to make it through just using the basic attacks. The player gradually explores the combo system and the timing of using the combo meter for setting off powerful attacks, especially when it comes to the boss encounters, which is reasonably satisfying. However, it's not a perfect experience. The lack of targeting for the majority of attacks is frustrating, as the characters will happily combo right past their intended target, opening themselves up to retaliation. The fighting system is also so loose that button-mashing is a fairly viable strategy, generating combos more often than not. The end result is a promising system that winds up feeling like flailing rather than fighting.
Like most beat-'em-ups, the game is far more interesting when there are two players instead of one. Aside from the usual back-and-forth of managing power-ups and enemy disposal, the game also allows the players the ability to use buddy attacks where the two heroes team up to deliver some extra whup-ass to some unlucky thug. I was fairly enthused to try these out, but was disappointed to see that it basically amounts to one player holding a thug down while the other does some faux-Matrix maneuver to smack him. Combine this with the fact that these attacks are useless against more powerful enemies and the buddy attacks are a nice idea that wind up being almost completely wasted.
The story is as basic as it gets. A new super-villain emerges, uses established other villains as his henchmen and plots dominion over Gotham. Did I mention that this nefarious plan involves taking over Arkham Asylum? I guess it's a handy setting, but at this point, I'm surprised that Gotham doesn't just raze the place to the ground and build a series of maximum security cells all placed far away from each other. The cutscenes are additionally problematic. Is it too much for a game with multiple playable characters to provide the player with alternate cutscenes? Apparently it is, as Rise of Sin Tzu plays the same bland cutscenes every time, regardless of what characters are being used. The disconnection is comedic at times, with the cutscenes playing out as "The Delusional Adventures of Batman," where the Batjerk himself boasts at various cocktail parties about his fabulous crime-fighting exploits while Nightwing and Robin are back at the mansion applying Bactine (Bat-ctine?) and kvetching about possibly forming a Sidekicks Union. Even when it isn't Batman talking about his imaginary adventures, the cutscenes are pedestrian and frankly disappointing given the quality of the series that the game is based on. (Actually, they can be somewhat entertaining, but only if the sound is turned off and the dialogue is supplied by the player[s].)I guess it isn't much of a shock. Licensed game winds up not-so-good. I guess I'm not completely jaded yet, as I still manage to be slightly surprised every time a game is released that doesn't even try to reach its full potential. I mean, how can you make a Batman game that's all about beating people up and doesn't include a single "BAM" or "POW?" Or maybe even a "PAF?"
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.
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.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Violence
Parents should be advised that there is little going on here other than people punching other people. If that's fine with you, it's unlikely that there's much more in this videogame to upset you, as the closest this game gets to graphic is when a thug is punched off a rooftop.
For Batman fans, this isn't a must-get game, but it's one that's probably worth at least a rental, especially if you're a fan of the animated series.
Beat-'em-up fans should keep looking—there's nothing here that hasn't been done elsewhere.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will miss out on the cutscenes, as there is no subtitle option, but gameplay shouldn't be much of a problem.