A brawler that takes some of manga and anime's biggest names and pits them against each other in what can only be described as explosive battles, J-Stars Victory VS+ is a welcome addition to the PlayStation 4's library for fans of Japan's numerous colourful creations. With a reasonably big character roster, plenty of fan service, and more devastating special moves than we care to count, the franchise's first Western escapade is undeniably fun.
However, dedicated fighting enthusiasts may not stick around for very long. The game's combat is accessible, but at times, it borders on the very basic. Standard combos can be mashed out using a combination of the square and triangle buttons, while character specific special attacks are delivered by pressing circle. There's just enough to see and do when it comes to the intricacies of each fighter, but it's the combat mechanics themselves that don't leave much room for experimentation or variety.
Everything from basic combos to powerful, stamina-draining specials will knock your opponent to the ground when they connect, and although there are some ways to juggle your enemies ever so slightly, the fact that characters become temporarily invincible as they get back up tends to slow the pacing of each brawl. As such, J-Stars isn't quite the hectic, bombastic fighting game that you may have been expecting – it's more about basic positioning than it is pulling off outrageously cool moves, and that's perhaps a bit of a shame, considering the source material that's being drawn upon.
On the other hand, because the combat is easy to get to grips with once you know the controls, you can jump from one playable character to the next without having to take the time to relearn too much. This is good news, because the cast offers a great range of personalities, from instantly recognisable heroes like Dragon Ball Z's Goku and One Piece's Luffy, to more obscure characters like Dr. Slump's Arale. Needless to say, seeing fighters from across the manga and anime sphere beating the absolute snot out of each other will be a dream come true for many a fan.
Your initial hours with the title will likely be spent unlocking most of these personalities, and you do this by spending points that are earned whenever you fight. The in-game store offers both playable and support characters, which, when combined, makes for an impressively large amount of representation across dozens of properties. Unlocking them all can take some time, but the fact that you're constantly getting rewarded, no matter which mode you're enjoying, ties the whole experience together quite well.
Speaking of modes, one of the release's biggest time sinks is its story. Split into four separate tales which each involve a different ragtag group, story mode offers some light role-playing game elements and a plot that's essentially an excuse to lump all of these characters together. What's quite charming, though, is how the title admits to this laziness by having the narrative glazed over by a faceless God, who simply states that a big tournament is happening, and you shouldn't question it.
Indeed, the plot itself is daft to say the least, but the whole thing's told through some cheesy character dialogue which keeps it moderately interesting, particularly when one of your favourite fighters pops up. What's more, story mode actually incorporates a world map, on which you control a ship that can eventually sail on land as well as sea. Key battles are opened up across the map as the tale progresses, and there are even optional quests to undertake, all while you level up your group and recruit other characters.
All in all, it's a decent mode – if a little repetitive – and the aforementioned RPG elements add a touch of spice to things. However, the same can't really be said for what else is on offer. Versus mode, both offline and online, is pretty bog standard, while arcade mode puts you up against predetermined teams of combatants one after another, and is equally banal. That said, it's clear that the main draw of the title is its concept and cast, and in that regard, its failure to deviate away from the basic expectations of a fighting game is forgiveable.
As for fights themselves, you can either enjoy one-on-one duels, or team battles. The latter is generally what the game is built around, as arenas are big, destructible, open spaces that are nicely designed. Team battles are two-on-two showdowns, and a winner is determined when one duo notches up three K.O.s, which also means that each team can only respawn one of its members up to three times. The title employs a lock on mechanic to keep track of your enemy, and as such, team matches tend to boil down to you and your ally fighting two separated foes – usually across the map from one another. That said, this also means that you can gang up on one singular opponent when their partner is busy respawning, which can lend itself to some slightly more tactical play.
The real fireworks start when you activate your victory burst, though. As fights drag on, you'll eventually gain the ability to press R3 and trigger a victory burst, which powers up both you and your ally. In this state, you can let loose with a dangerously effective ultimate attack, which can have a multitude of effects. For example, Goku attacks with his trademark spirit bomb technique, and afterwards, he'll remain in Super Saiyan form. All of the ultimate moves are great to watch, and it's especially satisfying to end battles with such destructive offensives.
As mentioned, J-Stars' combat isn't the deepest, but it really can be a lot of fun when you've used to the flow of battle. Although you can win clashes on easier difficulties by simply hammering your attack buttons, blocking becomes an important part of higher level play – even if such play isn't all that advanced to begin with. Holding R1 makes your character adopt a defensive stance that chips away at your stamina bar for every incoming blow that hits you, and timing a block just right allows you to dodge it entirely, leaving your foe open.
Management of your stamina bar is crucial at times, as without it, blocking is impossible, and you won't be able to pull off any special moves. Likewise, support characters come into play with a tap of L2, and they'll dish out some impressive looking individual attacks that can get a persistent opponent off your back, but you'll have to wait for their abilities to recharge before you can call on them again. Again, it's simplistic stuff, but it's still all about enjoyable, accessible mechanics in a title that puts its crazy concept front and centre.
Moving onto the game's visuals, you can certainly tell that it's releasing on three different platforms, all of which differ wildly when it comes to hardware specifications. While the title can look decent on PS4 thanks to some cool visual effects and detailed character models, stages are filled with muddy textures, and some fighters look like they've had their charisma sucked out of them due to the game's rather uniformed art style. Obviously, though, it's always going to be difficult to mash numerous art styles together in one release.
An accessible and ultimately enjoyable brawler, J-Stars Victory VS+ may not hold the attention of dedicated fighting fans for long, but it's sure to provide plenty of entertainment for those that are interested in the included manga and anime franchises. A solid character roster coupled with some eye-catching combat is what this beat-'em-up is all about – even if it could afford to take some more risks, given the wealth of source material on offer.