Back in the 90s when Pokémon and Digimon fought for the money of the young, the digital creatures managed to win over many would-be monster trainers thanks to a decent television series, but flash forward two decades, and Digimon has long since past its prime, while Nintendo's catch-'em-up continues to dominate the handheld market.
Digimon has never quite found its footing when it comes to gaming – barring a few apparently great titles that never made it outside of Japan – so it's a little strange that publisher Bandai Namco has decided to release Digimon All-Star Rumble over here in the West – especially since the native version doesn't even have a launch date yet. The question is: does this game do enough to satiate the franchise's starved Western fanbase?
In case the release's title didn't give it away, this is a brawler that supports up to four players; if you imagine Super Smash Bros. except on a 3D plane, with Digimon and health bars, then you're on the right track. Arenas are generally rather small, combat is relatively simple, and overall, the release is a somewhat competent fighter. Unfortunately, in a genre that tends to pride itself on quality, the game doesn't quite match the standards that we've come to expect, even on the ageing PlayStation 3.
Indeed, as mentioned, the game's a colourful and accessible brawler at its core, but it's let down by some unnecessarily frustrating gameplay elements and a distinct lack of polish. Outside of the Digimon themselves – of whom there aren't many thanks to a disappointingly small character roster – the visuals range from bland to barely passable, while menus, results screens, and dialogue boxes just look cheap. There's a sense that with a little more time in the oven, the title could have appeared much more impressive, but as it stands, it sometimes doesn't seem like a full retail release.
It's a shame too, because it feels like the game just never gets to digivolve. Spread across basic combos, power attacks, and special moves, each Digimon's moveset is unique, and there's an enjoyable learning curve to figuring out each combatant's most effective playstyle. Combos are easy to pull off, and blocking is your one reliable form of defence, so success often leans on your ability to navigate the stages and catch your opponent in an offensive before they have a chance to strike.
Each 'mon can also temporarily transform – or digivolve – into a more powerful creature that hits harder, sports a whole new range of moves, and doesn't flinch when attacked by standard foes. Again, the combat system is easy to get to grips with, but its simplistic nature is bound to displease some quicker than others. That said, there should be just enough depth on offer to keep fans interested until every character is unlocked and the title's story mode is completed.
Speaking of which, the game's central mode may not be what you expect from such a brawler. There's a thin narrative about a fighting tournament that strings together duels, but when you're not beating up other playable Digimon, you'll be traversing small, linear environments that contain very basic puzzle elements and generic enemies.
What seems like an interesting concept slowly turns into the release's worst feature, however. Initially, running around these locations is quite a nice way to spread out the mode, but later on, larger foes that soak up huge amounts of damage and refuse to be staggered start showing up, and any sense of adventure is stripped away. Some of these opponents are even capable of locking you in place with their primary attacks until death is your only option, and to make matters worse, defeat boots you right back to the start of the level.
With accessible combat mechanics and plenty of colour, we'd be tempted to say that All-Star Rumble would be a good choice for younger players who may be interested in the franchise, but these frustrating skirmishes would probably have kids of all ages smashing their DualShock 3 off the nearest wall.
Fortunately, outside of story mode, the game redeems itself – at least to an extent. The only other gameplay option on the main menu is versus mode, and it's here that you'll get the most out of the release. There are plenty of rules to alter and different types of matches to play, from survival to points-based battles, and with a pure focus on the combat itself, it's hard not to feel that story mode would have been better off had it followed suit. Nevertheless, whether you're playing against the computer or friends, there's good, chaotic brawling to be had, and it's all topped off by a records screen that keeps track of every character's statistics.
You better get used to playing locally, though, because the title boasts no online options whatsoever. In this day and age, a fighting game without any sort of online multiplayer is more than enough to put many potential buyers off completely, but we dare say that given how unbalanced the playable cast is, the lack of such features may be a blessing in disguise.
At its core, Digimon All-Star Rumble is an accessible brawler that may be a hit with younger gamers, but numerous issues put a dampener on the fun. Story mode will frustrate, and while the fleshed out versus mode is easily the title's best asset, the total lack of online multiplayer will be the nail in the coffin for fighting enthusiasts. With tempered expectations, fans could get something out of this, but for everyone else, there are better brawlers for better prices already on the market.