If you ask a randomly-chosen teen off the street how Pokémon affected his childhood, or even the better part of his upbringing, there’s a good chance you’ll get a positive endorsement for the franchise. Digimon, meanwhile, hasn’t exactly been so lucky. Though the series does command a loyal fanbase of its own, its days as a fad never reached the heights of either Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh!, nor has it weathered the test of time nearly as successfully. It’s now been 17 years since Digimon was first brought into the world, and for all its history, Western gamers in 2014 are left with Digimon All-Star Rumble as the sole interactive means of experiencing the franchise. Is that good news, or a sign of bleaker things to come? Read on to find out.
The short answer is that while all hope is not lost, I’d place the chances of Digimon righting its ship in the wake of All-Star Rumble at about, well — let’s be kind and say less than 50%. You may recall the Rumble series from its PS2 days. While those titles weren’t exactly critical darlings, they released into simpler times where if your game was playable, aimed toward a passionate niche, and could be feasibly enjoyed with the help of friends (and/or alcohol), you’d earn yourself a pat on the back. Unfortunately for All-Star Rumble, not only have times changed dramatically, but its publisher picked the absolute worst time to test the waters. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, an absolute megaton release of essentially the same genre, releases today — less than two weeks later.
If you’re wondering just what exactly this game is even about, here’s the gist. The world of Digimon (known as, fittingly, the Digital World) has grown humdrum and dull, with an extended period of peace rendering fights and conflict entirely unnecessary. It becomes so dull that the Digimon actually begin to argue over their boredom, and — you guessed it — begin fighting again! And so, the game’s events are set in motion.
The choice to position Rumble’s story mode as the main course is an odd one on the part of developer Prope, and the more I played the more I realized that this mode is just an excuse to pad battles with subpar platforming and general filler. Each level or stage has a few components; first is an initial area you must traverse, where smaller enemies may be encountered. These areas are usually linear, a bit dull in their design, and contain little points of interest aside from the Digimon that inhabit them. Once cleared, a boss is reached, and the real battle begins. It’s here where Digimon All-Star Rumble at least attempts to flaunt its strengths, and to its credit, it does a solid job.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, Digimon All-Star Rumble is a party-fighter in the vein of Super Smash Bros. (or, more accurately, something like Capcom’s Power Stone from the 90s), and no matter how boggling other aspects of its design and structure may be, pitting the game’s wide selection of digital monsters against each other does yield substantial entertainment value. As you might expect, local multiplayer makes things exponentially more fun, but that’s not necessarily a win for the game — it’s fun in the same way a $5 used copy of the original Budokai is. In other words, the real-life social interaction makes the experience.
If your friend goes home, you may as well start counting your blessings. As I spent more and more time with the battle system, its flaws and shortcomings slowly revealed themselves to me. Chief among them is the way combos are implemented. While it is possible to pull off surprisingly lengthy chains for devastating effects, All-Star Rumble is more Smash than technical fighter. As such, as you fumble with any advanced moves you may be trying to learn, your opponent will already have button-mashed you to hell or simply hopped out of the way.
There are also power-ups, which I’ll admit can be very fun, but the novelty wears thin all too soon. My favorite is a power-up with a Super Mushroom-esque effect, but it too proves double-edged; the tendency to simply be interrupted or obliterated by a power-up any time you attempt something advanced ultimately led me to abandon strategy and mash my way to victory. Worse yet is that the game rewards this behavior. All-Star Rumble is far from challenging once you realize what works, with the only real head-scratcher being the pursuit of a purposeful, deliberate way to play. Multiplayer has its moments, as mentioned, but in the end my pursuit remains continuous.
What’s mind-boggling is that Namco Bandai had the option of localizing proven, well-received Digimon games from Japan like Digimon World Re: Digitize or Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, but opted to create and release All-Star Rumble instead. I suppose I can understand a low-budget effort to hop on the party-fighter bandwagon… but to release the same month as Smash? I’m no businessman, but something smells fishy. Or maybe that’s just the exceptionally ordinary stench of poor planning.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that All-Star Rumble is worthless, and if you and your friends like Digimon then by all means go buy it. Unlocking the worthy selection of fighters is an enjoyable task, and with 32 forms for your Digimon to assume, you certainly won’t run out of different ways to play. Still, this is a very specific and likely very small target audience we’re talking about here, some of whom won’t have the patience for what is, on the whole, a mediocre game.
All-Star Rumble may slide by with a pass from Digimon fans this time, but they aren’t going to eat dirt forever. It’s time for Namco Bandai to either step up its game in the West, or localize some Digimon games fast. Otherwise, a lengthy hiatus may prove to be the next-best option.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game, which was provided.