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.