Review: AquaPazza: AquaPlus Dream Match is an Enjoyable Fighter But Lacking in Execution
Every once in a while, by some miracle or other, a game as distinctly Japanese and unique as Atlus and AquaPlus’s AquaPazza gets green lit for an international release. AquaPazza brings together characters from various AquaPlus visual novel series (such as Utawarerumono and To Heart) ties them together with a comical, paper thin plot, and then pits them against one another in flashy battles. So, how well does the formula work?
AquaPazza seems like a niche fighting game, even amongst niche fighting games. I imagine that this title is most appealing to fans of any of the franchises the game pulls characters from. If you aren’t familiar with these franchises then there is very little pretext before you’re actually enjoying the meat of the game and you’re truly only here for the fighting.
Like most fighting games, AquaPazza leaves a bit to be desired in the story department, but it is nearly impossible to fault it here because the game is technically a crossover/mash-up title. Before even playing it, you can imagine that an event of some sort led to characters from various universes winding up in the same place. That is what happens in this game, and of course to set everything back to normal someone (whomever you choose to play with) has to defeat the cause of this anomaly.
AquaPazza fancies itself as having two story modes, but once you play them you realize that they would be more accurately described as arcade modes. You play a sequence of about eight matches, occasionally broken up by brief, completely unimportant dialogue scenes and topped off with a congratulatory image and brief blurb about what happens next for whichever character you played with.
It isn’t a big deal that the game is almost completely devoid of narrative value because it’s a crossover title in addition to being a fighter, so I can’t imagine that anyone actually expected a meaningful story out of it. I am a little bit irritated by the big bold “STORY MODE” option you’ll see on the main menu, when the mode itself hardly deserves to be referred to in such a way.
The game’s music is poppy and appropriate. Much of it sounds like generic techno, but it’s generally instrumental and upbeat. It sounds quite similar to Arcana Heart 3, which I suppose is to be expected given the developer. Of course there is only Japanese voice acting in the game, which is great for Japanophiles but no so great for anyone hoping to understand the taunts and what not being thrown around during the matches. The game is boldly and unashamedly Japanese, and the sound really helps drive this home.
One area where AquaPazza does not slouch is the visuals. The game’s sprites are colorful, sharp and highly detailed. The stages, while not as dynamic or exciting as you’ll see in some other titles, are also colorful and lively. The sprites themselves look exceptionally smooth, and the game doesn’t look pixelated in the slightest. The character designs are diverse and interesting. If there is an anime fan in you at all, this game will appeal to it.
The super cut-in animations are some of the most unique I’ve seen in any fighting game. One thing I noted was that the character portraits move at the character select screen, instead of simply being static images like we’ve all seen so many times before. There are a lot of fighters out, but AquaPazza’s visuals help it stand out from the crowd, and they’re probably the strongest individual component of the game.
AquaPazza’s gameplay mixes traditional genre elements with some new mechanics to make for a rather interesting system. The general combat and progression of a match in the game seems far slower than it usually is in anime fighters. Characters like Sasara for instance seem ridiculously slow, but this isn’t a problem because this is more in comparison to other games I’ve played. The pacing is far slower than something like Guilty Gear, for example.
Mechanics vary from character to character, giving you a lot to learn. Some characters can double jump, others can air dash, others can run, and so on. The game has a rather small roster of 16 playable characters but there are also 16 assist characters you can choose from, Marvel vs. Capcom style. Although most of the characters seem different (and they all play differently), it would have been nice to see a larger roster and greater variety between them. There are far too many girls wearing school uniforms, for example.
It would also be nice if we could be expected to recognize any of the characters on the roster. Other than the Utawarerumono characters (thanks to having seen a few episodes of the anime years ago) I wasn’t familiar with any of the fighters. White Album was never released in North America. Neither was Routes, and neither was Kizuato. It’s impossible to understand any of the jokes, or one character’s reference to another or anything like that simply because the characters and franchises are so obscure and unfamiliar. I don’t blame anyone for this, but it is a feeling worth mentioning.
Most characters have rather small command lists as well, giving the game an overall simplistic vibe. There is a simple mode as well as a normal mode, so if you were hoping to just jump in and mash your way through arcade mode with a few characters then you can do so easily.
One unique element of the gameplay is emotion. Depending on how well you’re performing in battle your character will accumulate high, middling or low emotion levels. With high emotion your characters glow red, move faster and deal more damage with attacks. With low emotion you suffer greater damage from your opponent’s attacks. The system seems generally designed to encourage rushing down and attacking your foe, with the disadvantage going to players who would rather play keep-away and escape their opponent.
The increased speed of emotion makes possible extravagant chains and combos that are otherwise impossible. The increased damage is a crazy buff too, so it will be really interesting to see how players implement the mechanic and which strategies emerge. Attacks eat up a lot of stamina in AquaPazza, with some of the flashier commands even outright consuming an entire stamina stock.
One thing that I didn’t like about the gameplay was the blocking system. There is no on-screen meter or gauge that monitors how many attacks you’ve blocked, which means that it isn’t easy to know if you’ve been blocking too long. I know now that you can look for certain sparks or flicks that indicate that your guard is weakening (thanks in no part to the game itself but to looking online, more on that in a minute), but I think a more obvious way to keep track of this would have been better. Perhaps it just takes some getting used to.
Another issue with blocking was that during arcade mode it seemed the boss was free to crush my guard whenever she wanted and I couldn’t figure out how to take control of the situation.
The assist characters will feel familiar to fans of the Marvel fighters. No particular assist character is bound to any character, which means you can mix and match point and assist characters as you see fit. This opens up a lot of tactical options and it’s interesting to see some of the combinations other players come up with.
I should also note that the assist characters can use more than one attack during a match in AquaPazza, and that’s also fairly unique. You press X and the character launches their attack, although it is cancelled if your main character is hit before the assist attack finished its execution.
While it does lack a big list of compelling modes, at least AquaPazza has a functional online mode. Players can compete in ranked and free matches, as well as in multiplayer lobbies with a spectator mode. Online play is smooth enough if you pick your matches according to the connection strengths, but you should already know that this game’s online community is modest at best. Anime fighters never amass the same player bases as the fighters Capcom releases, but the number of people playing this game seems low even considering that. This is especially worrying since this game just released and games tend to be busiest at their newest.
As you play online you can unlock different titles to customize your player profile. The game lets you store a set of characters and colors so that you can choose them quickly and easily if you’re playing several matches in one session–an appreciated feature. You also accumulate “Love Points” and “Victory Points” as you play, although the game never explains why these are useful, beyond being an indication of player experience.
The gallery mode contains various illustrations and animations that you unlock by completing the story modes with various characters. There are a lot of pieces to unlock, and anyone who likes to unlock and view all of the art is in for a treat. You can also view the super cut-in animations and things like that in the gallery, which is really neat. Since such a big part of this game is its anime look, you should be able enjoy unlocking and viewing all the different pieces.
What may be AquaPazza’s single greatest shortcoming is the lack of content and modes it comes with. At the main menu you’ll find the story/arcade modes, local versus mode, score attack mode, training mode, the online mode and an art gallery. Compared to other fighters currently available for around the same price, this is a very weak lineup, especially when you consider that clearing story mode with any character is unlikely to take much longer than 10 minutes. Clearly that list leaves plenty to be desired, but the most painful omissions could be the tutorial and challenge modes.
There is no introduction or explanation of any of the game’s mechanics whatsoever within the game, which is never good. Be prepared to scour threads and community forums for a decent introduction to the title’s mechanics, because AquaPazza will provide nothing of the sort. Other than score attack mode, there are no unique and entertaining single player game modes. You would think a more fully featured and realized story mode was possible with all of the visual novel sensibilities but I suppose not.
Still though, there is fun to be had with AquaPazza and it’s hard to be too nitpicky for $29.99. It has gorgeous visuals and charming character designs, a unique, easy to grasp combat system and a decently featured online mode that holds up well enough. Mixing and matching assist characters and learning or witnessing powerful combinations is addictive. Yet, the laughable story and the general dearth of interesting content and modes make the game impossible to recommend next to other similar fighters.
I have to imagine that anyone familiar with the franchises represented in this game could appreciate it a lot more than I. It has fan service, it has lovely visuals, it has interesting combat and a decent online mode, but it has virtually nothing else. I’m glad we get the opportunity to play AquaPazza, but it honestly left me wanting more.