"Failure to thrive."
It's a phrase most recently used to describe a young generation of children who fail to meet their parents' expectations. Referring, for example, to those individuals who still live in their mom's basement at age 35 and who routinely hit dad up for a loan to tide them over until the paycheck from Burger King arrives. There are a number of books addressing the subject, giving all sorts of advice to those who deal with friends, relatives and children who never get out of the starting gate to take life by the horns. There's some debate as to whether the phenomena really exists on a generational level, but that particular debate aside, I think it's a useful concept that can certainly apply to videogames.
Originally debuting back in 1997, Hudson's Bloody Roar was promptly (and not unfairly) pigeonholed as a C-list offering cashing in on the then-new trend of 3D fighting games. It has never been at the top of its class, but the earlier games, especially the third iteration, were pretty respectable.
Now comes Bloody Roar 4. Technically fourth (although really the sixth if you count cross-system updates) it's the perfect example of the sort of game that seems to poised to make its mark on the world and then inexplicably proceeds to hang out at the local mall for its entire adult life.
The game and its forebears take the idea of "Zoanthropes"—people with the ability to transform into beasts—and merges it with a standard fighting game formula. Naturally, any game about people changing into animals is going to include a wolf, but besides that traditional nod, returning faces from previous rosters include a chameleon with stealth abilities, two rival tigers who are masters of Kung-Fu, a cute kitten, a sultry she-bat, and an insectile creature who could be the long-lost brother of anime's "Guyver." New additions include a crow with flying combos, a large brawler/little girl duo who fight as one, and a rugged female that sprouts crusty armor and a long blade.
Story-wise, there isn't much to talk about. There's some nonsense about good and evil, a guiding earth-spirit, and some atrociously bad lipsynch for the voiceovers, but it makes little sense and has practically no continuity with the other games in the series, each of those plots amounting to almost zero to begin with. You don't need a story to being fierce warriors come together to fight, however, and fight they do.
For anyone even casually familiar with fighters like Street Fighter or Tekken, Bloody Roar 4's structure offers no surprises. Based upon executing long strings of combos preset by the developers, the gameplay is flashy and fast, but doesn't offer the freedom and flexibility that others do. Still, there's enough variation and difference between the characters that just about anyone will be able to find a combatant they can feel comfortable with. There is also some additional depth regarding transformations, since lifebars can be partially replenished by morphing back and forth between human and strategically. The combat system is more hit than miss, but it still needs work. Toning down the ego-crippling artificial intelligence would be a good idea, to boot.
Still, not every successful fighting game can boast the mastery of mechanics the way the leaders of the genre do, but many can still manage to meet a fair amount of success as long as there are other hooks on top of the mediocre fighting. Aside from the neat idea of beast transformations, Bloody Roar 4 offers next to nothing.
Amid a number of recent efforts that strive to give more, the variety of Bloody Roar 4's modes is laughably weak. The expected Arcade and Vs. modes are here, along with the same sort of Training and Time Attack options you'd find anywhere else. Besides those staples, there's a ridiculous Sparring mode that gives you the option of fighting against a computer opponent for an unlimited number of rounds, as well as Com Battle where you can watch two computer-controlled opponents fight each other. I was a little shocked that any developer would look at these as full-fledged modes since they amount to basically nothing.
The only other twist to note is the game's Career option, but it's no great shakes either. For this mode, you pick a character and then go to a huge grid-style map filled with locations to battle opponents. The goal is to defeat them all and earn points you use to customize your fighter with new abilities. It sounds good on paper, but in practice, it's the most poorly-conceived career mode I've ever seen, completely outclassed by Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, Soul Calibur, and others.
There aren't any special challenges or tasks in the Career, just the same "KO your opponent" you get during regular gameplay. After beating one, you get an infinitesimal amount of points, and then move on to the next opponent and do it again. What makes it especially boring is that you'll often face the same opponent multiple times in a row, with no difference between them. I fail to see how this is supposed to be entertaining or engaging since I'm not doing anything with my fighter that I wouldn't normally do in the course of normal gameplay, and with so little reward for my efforts, the entire Career mode felt like a tedious exercise with a pointless goal.
The rest of the game is as unimpressive as the parts I've just mentioned. The environments are all quite dark and drab, and more than a few of them are have been carried over from prior games with a little bit of reworking. On top of the rerun factor, I was quite unhappy to see invisible "energy walls" used as a way of closing off the rings to prevent instant ring-outs. It's not that I'm a big fan of easy ring-outs, but I would have preferred that they design areas or include features that eliminate the need for this lackadaisical design choice.
The stages weren't the only things back for a repeat performance—the vast majority of the cast remains basically untouched from Bloody Roar 3 as well. For example, if there are any discernible differences between Yugo the wolf's current and previous incarnations, I fail to see them. I'm sure that the developers and fans alike have their favorite characters, but there comes a point when you need to let some of them go in favor of a newer, fresher faces. At the very least, give everyone an all-new set of costumes and some new moves. Even most of the secret characters are repeats, the really insulting thing being that it takes hours and hours of scraping points from the brainless Career mode just to unlock tired brawlers you've already seen before.
Forgive the pun, but the Bloody Roar series has lost what little bite it had. The untapped potential vaguely present for years has dissipated, and there's no reason at all to spend time and money with Bloody Roar 4 when you can get a similar (and a debatably superior) experience for less half the price buying Bloody Roar 3 (PS2), Bloody Roar: Primal Fury (GameCube), or Bloody Roar: Extreme (Xbox) used. Without a major—and I mean major—overhaul for the inevitable sequel, the only future this series has is entertaining kiddies at the petting zoo.