Konami's Rave Master is better than I expected. Granted, I have no experience with the anime that inspired the game and very little with fighting games in general, so my expectations were pretty low. Did Rave Master blow my mind with the awesomeness of virtual swordplay? No. But it wasn't bad, and it has made me more interested in the fighting games, if only because there are surely shinier examples of the genre that I'm now itching to play.
Rave Master the game won't make players fans of the TV series and manga. When one knows nothing about the logic of its world, the game starts out as a web of if-then statements (e.g. If Haru has his TCM sword and Shiba's Rave Stone and the Rave of Knowledge, then his sword morphs into Blue Crimson) that gets more straightforward as time passes.
Still, there are so many things to keep track of that neophytes to the Rave Master universe can get overwhelmed pretty easily. Not only is there a smorgasbord of weapons, but fighters can further trick themselves out with Rave Stones: shiny power-ups that raise their attack power or burst opponents into flames with every hit. Sometimes there are even extra fighters to keep track of—depending on the stage or the stuff one has unlocked, the player may go up against two opponents at once.
Often it's the fighter's collection of Rave Stones that spells the difference between moving on and getting clobbered. Also, these stones are essential for using an Ultimate Groove Attack—a character's signature move, brimming with flashing lights and catch-phrases that inflicts major pain. But this super-move can only be performed if a fighter has his or her favorite weapon and a certain set of Rave Stones and a Groove Gauge filled to the max.
Once I could keep all these variables in my head—what weapon I had, which Rave Stones were in my possession, exactly how full my Groove Gauge was—Rave Master sloughed off its strangeness and became downright logical. And easy. "Why did I ever have so much trouble with this game?" I wondered, pushing the R button so that my Thor-ish thunder hammer swept ripples of electricity across the stage. But Rave Master's simplicity is not really a good thing. While there are no Mortal Kombat style combo-strings that feel like calculus problems, there's no kinetic variety among the characters, either. All fighters' moves (even ultra-special ones) are performed with the same buttons, in the same way. But the depth of a fighting game comes from learning a fighter's skills and eccentricities inside and out. When characters don't feel like separate people, duking it out round after round gets boring.
It's too bad that Rave Master's fighters all play alike, because each one has his or her own reasons for fighting. The five characters in Story Mode really do have stories, each with a beginning, middle and end that's revealed between rounds. While some characters' goals are more interesting than others (they run the gamut from collecting all the Rave Stones to saving the world to making a movie), they all have much more depth than I expected. Rave Master's writing is pretty stilted, but aspiring novelists can write their own stories in an unlockable "Story Edit" mode…if they don't mind typing with a thumbstck.
Such unrealized potential plagues Rave Master's graphics also. I loved the flat anime drawings that graced the Character Select and Versus screens. But why didn't the developers use that art style for the actual fighting? Call me a fusspot, but I think cartoons should stay cartoons. Characters meant for two dimensions always lose something when they are forced to be in three. Their speed, fluidity of movement, and overall beauty is compromised. The game would've been so much more fun had Rave Master's developers not messed with its anime appearance.
If the game has a strength, it's in the sheer amount of goodies players can unlock. Pictures, voice clips and new characters are theirs for the taking. My favorite extras were the "round calls." Hearing butt-whomping actress Rosa shout, "Ready? Fiiiiight!" amuses me endlessly, for some reason.
In general, Rave Master is a perfectly average game. Players who wade through the game's early mishmash in hopes that they'll be rewarded with an unusual, engrossing game will be disappointed. Rave Master is a middle-of-the road game. It doesn't do anything badly, and it doesn't do anything particularly well. Even its interesting ideas choked to death on problems like poor writing and clunky, uninspired graphics. The game is perfectly, almost proverbially, meh.