Pit packs a punch... and a staff, and a club, and a blade, and a...
Taking place 24 years after the original, Medusa has returned to torment humankind, and Palutena calls upon Pit to take down the snake-headed goddess and her Underworld Army. Though it's populated by many of the same monsters, Kid Icarus: Uprising is nothing like the original games, but it's a huge mish-mash of several types of games. I played Uprising for over two hours at Nintendo's offices, and had a chance to play through chapters 1, 2, 3, 6, and 8. What I found was a unique highly polished title featuring great gameplay, lots of unlockables, a ton of character, and some carpal tunnel.
Chapters in Kid Icarus: Uprising are split into airborne and ground-based sections, culminating in a boss battle. The on-rails sky sections are highly reminiscent of Sin & Punishment: Star Successor, where players move with the Circle Pad, target shots with the touch screen, and shoot with the L trigger. Dodges are performed by moving left and right in quick succession. On the ground, you move around with the Circle Pad and the touch screen is used to target and turn. Flicking in a direction allows you to turn quickly, which is especially necessary if enemies are attacking from behind. You can dash and dodge by double tapping the Circle Pad in the desired direction.
One major concern with the game at E3 was the controls. They've been tuned and now work very well, including turning while on the ground that many had trouble with in the past. The trick here is to flick and then tap to stop turning and re-target. Once I understood the controls, they quickly became second-nature, and are pretty optimal given the available controls of the 3DS. That isn't to say you won't end up with cramped hands after playing some of the intense sections of the game. Fatigue can set in, making it particularly hard to perform the quick dash type moves.
I did get a chance to try out the game with the included 3DS stand, however, I actually preferred playing without the stand. While the stand alleviates some stress from holding the 3DS in the air, I couldn't find an angle to hold it that felt comfortable. Despite using the stylus, I found it best to support the 3DS with not only my left hand, but my right pinky. Unfortunately, due to the dimensions of the dev cards, I wasn't able to try left-handed play with the Circle Pad Pro.
Sakurai's influence is heavily felt in the game. For instance, the menus and atmosphere are extremely reminiscent of Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Kirby Air Ride. There are an absurd number of weapons in the game, much more in line with an RPG. There are the nine base weapons classes (blade, bow, cannon, arm, claws, palm, orbitars, staff, and club), each of which include many types. But each individual weapon has its own unique stat boosters, meaning that even two weapons of the same type are different, providing an practically innumerable number of armaments. Each weapon has three modes of operation, a longer range projectile attack, a close-up melee attack, and charged projectile attack, which charges automatically with non-use.
The varied weapon types significantly alter gameplay since each weapon has different speed and range attributes and special effects. Players will have to carefully balance the pros and cons each weapon in both air and ground combat. You can only change weapons at the beginning of each chapter or after you die. What works well in the sky may not work well on the ground or in the boss battles. This was made especially clear to me during the Dark Pit battle where my slower cannon weapon made the battle difficult, but after dying and re-equipping with orbitars, I decimated my opponent in seconds. In another case, though I equipped a slow, close-range club, it had the ability to reflect enemy fire, which proved even more useful than homing shots.
Treasure chests contain a number of special items that will last for a limited time such as auto dodge, a back shield, and a centurion that will assist you; however, some chests may contain enemies. In addition, Pit can use specific powers such as a mega laser or health recovery from a menu on the touch screen or using the D-pad. These powers can be used a limited number of times. The game also includes various vehicles that can be commandeered.
Outside of the weapons' stat modifiers, there is another system where collected artifacts can be used to boost stats and provide powers. Each modifier is represented by a puzzle piece reminiscent of Tetris's. These pieces can be moved and rotated to fit into a grid and any that fit will become active. You can request Palutena to automatically fit pieces into the grid, and she will do so randomly. You can lock pieces into place before the randomization as well. On top of this, you can store up to four different configurations to easily switch between the ability set of choice. The RPG-like system certainly adds an interesting twist.
The first three chapters were previously shown in a timed format, but that was only for trade shows -- the final game will not have a time limit. Chapter 6 changes up the pace where Pit must face off against Dark Pit, who attacks throughout the level, both in the air and on the ground. Unlike some of the more orchestral tracks of other stages, Chapter 6 features a Spanish guitar. Overall, the music is varied and excellent and worthy of a soundtrack release.
Chapter 8 goes in a completely different direction, taking players into space to infiltrate the Space Pirates' ship. It reminds me strongly of portions of the Subspace Emissary both in its bright and colorful presentation and off-the-wall story. Somehow, the Space Pirates have taken the Three Sacred Treasures (which Pit needs to fight Medusa), and Pit must recover them. Here, Pit battles mechanical soldiers, who hold no allegiance to the Underworld Army. In fact, in certain areas, the Army and Pirates fight each other, instead of choosing to engage them, you can sit back and let them take each other out.
Sakurai was apparently trying to incorporate elements of anime, interspersing humor and absurdity into what seem like they should be serious moments. Voiced dialog takes place on the bottom screen almost non-stop with Pit, Palutena, and even Medusa frequently chatting it up, and occasionally providing tips. These scenes are better experienced on lower difficulty settings, as under more intense difficulties, it's pretty impossible to pay attention to. The story itself is a giant bowl of Velveeta, with cheesiness oozing out at every moment. Pit, far from a glorious hero, is pretty dense and can't even fly without Palutena's power, and even the bright and youthful-sounding Palutena can be a bit mischievous, for instance, using monster pheromone on Pit to get monsters to attack him. There are also a number of references to the original game, complete with NES graphics.
The game plays on RPG stereotypes with chapter two introducing the rough and sarcastic human Magnus, who wields a giant sword and Dark Lord Gaol, the stage's boss who turns out to be a young woman under the armor. The third stage introduces the serpentine Hewdraw (one of the many re-introduced enemies from the original game), but this time he's giant, can fly, and has three heads. Comically, these three heads bicker with each other in an English accent.
One very cool new feature is the Fiends Cauldron, which serves as a difficulty modifier for the game. Here, the difficulty meter runs from 0 to 9 in 0.1 increments with 2 as the base difficulty. Higher settings have more enemies, but also better weapons and treasures to find. Some stage sections are also blocked off below a certain difficulty level. For difficulties above 2, players bet hearts (the game's currency), which are dumped into the cauldron for the chance at those rewards. If you die, you lose some of the hearts and the difficulty drops by 1. At difficulties below 2, players can directly pay hearts in order to breeze through the stage. After completing a chapter, the game will recommend a difficulty level for the next chapter based on your performance, and it also keeps track of the highest level at which you've beaten a chapter. Overall, it's a pretty ingenious difficulty system, which nicely caters to players of all types so that anybody can play, but the challenge keeps people coming back for more. The higher difficulties are absolutely brutal, where it can be challenge to stay alive for even a minute.
From what I've seen so far, the game packs a ton of extra content, fun rail shooting sequences, colorful scenery, an excellent sound track, and humorous dialog -- and there's a lot I didn't see yet. The Fiends Cauldron is perhaps the best difficulty adjustment mechanic I've seen, and it should greatly increase replayability. A welcome and long-awaited new entry into the franchise, Kid Icarus: Uprising went from not even being on my radar to a must-pre-order.