Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Elite Beat Agents - Review

A 17 year old girl has got her house to herself. Her parents are out of town and she's invited over the guy she's been dating, Don. He's a star receiver on the football team, but beyond his rugged jock exterior, he's really a sweet guy. He is definitely worth exclusivitiy and she wants to go steady. While Don is recounting last night's game and she is working up the courage to ask him, disaster strikes. The doorbell rings and it is one of the neighbors that she babysits for. Something has came up at work and she needs the girl to babysit her three kids for a few hours. Babysitting is the girl's primary source of income and she doesn't want to sully her reputation, nor does she want to leave her neighbor in the lurch. But what will Don think? He came over, thinking he would be with her. He certainly didn't expect to have to put up with three kids and deal with changing diapers, feeding them, and general rambunctiousness. How will she be able to handle looking after the kids and furthering her relationship with Don?

Fortunately, the Elite Beat Agents are here to help. Their commander has been monitoring the situation and sends these men in black out to give the girl the inspiration she needs to make it through the day. By dancing along to a song and cheering her on, these men will help her take care of the diapers, the food, and the noise. Because she is so motivated and professional about her job and because, quite frankly, he likes her, Don also helps out when he can. By the end of the day, the kids are calm and she is going steady with Don.

These are the types of scenarios one is presented with in Elite Beat Agents. On a map of the world, one sees various situations with people calling out for help. By completing these scenarios, more are opened up. The scenarios are almost always of a positive nature, such as helping a lost dog return to his home, helping a little girl deal with the grief of losing her father, and even at the end of the game literally saving the world through the power of song and dance. Portrayed as a series of panels, like a comic book, these scenarios work because of their believability and identifiability. Even when the scenario is far-fetched - like a fire golem attacking an amusement park - the people in it are not. You really feel for the former baseball star that lost his drive, feeling that saving the kids from the golem is his chance to redeem himself. There are two scenarios that ring a little hollow - one where you are helping obvious nods to Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie survive on a deserted island by wooing the animals into helping them and another where you are helping an oil tycoon who lost his money get rich again so he can once again be with the gold-digging wife who kicked him out of the house when he became poor. Despite these two missteps, the rest of the scenarios are utterly charming and really make you want to help the people. Some are even a bit emotional.

During these scenarios, you control the Elite Beat Agents as they dance along to whatever song is playing for that scenario. The songs are all, pretty much, US pop songs. They include such varied titles as Queen's I Was Born to Love You, Avril Lavigne's Sk8er Boi, David Bowie's Let's Dance, Sum 41's Makes no Difference, and Ashlee Simpsons's La La. Oftentimes, the songs are picked to go with the scenario, like Chicago's Your the Inspiration when helping the young girl cope with the death of her father and Madonna's Material Girl when helping the material girls on the deserted island. Many people are turned off by some of the artists included in this game. I was initially leary as well because no more than a third of the artists in this game would ever be in my album collection. What I found was, regardless of my opinion of the artist or song, it really worked well with the game. While I would never be caught dead voluntarily listening to Ashlee Simpson, I thought the use of her song in its scenario worked well. It also helps that people will know a lot of the songs which helps one to play the game. It should also be noted that all of the songs in the game are covers as it is much cheaper to obtain rights to perform the song than to obtain a recording of it. The covers are all fairly close to the original and the only song where I thought having a cover really detracted was the Jackson 5's ABC.

The way you control the dancing of the agents is by tapping on the screen in the rhythm of the song. Dots will appear on the screen as the song is playing. Hollow circles will also appear around these dots and gradually gets smaller. Once the hollowed circle completely encloses the dot, that is the right time to tap it. If you know the song, you will pretty much know by the rhthym or lyrics what time to tap it. Still, the visual of the shrinking circle generally works fine up until the harder difficulties when you have many dots to tap in rapid succession. Fortunately, the dots are usually numbered. A particular phrase or portion of the song will have dots in all the same color that are numbered sequentially. You get points for correctly tapping on a dot - more for how close to the rhythm you hit the dot. In addition to dots to tap, there are sliders that require you to drag the stylus on the screen following a ball as it moves between two dots. Once or twice a level you will get a spinner which just requires you to rapidly move the stylus around the screen in a circle. The spinners are the most annoying par of the gameplay as they are not related to the rhythm of the song and spinning fast enough can be very frustrating.

While you are progressing through the song, there is a health bar of sorts at the top of the screen. The health bar is constantly decreasing as the song progresses. Hitting the dots to the rhtyhm keeps the Elite Beat Agents dancing and increases the health bar, failing to properly hit the dots causes the agents to fall down and decreases the health bar. If the health bar is ever depleted, you fail the song, get to see a failure animation, and can choose to play the song again or try something else. When not depleted, the health bar has two states: "yes" and "no". Besides telling you that you are near failure all the health bar being in "no" means is that you get negative animations at various breaks in the song and the agents will look like they are about to collapse. Once you complete a song, you are given a score and a grade. Your score is based on how close you hit each dot to its beat. Hitting several dots in a row increases a multiplier for how many points you get for correct beats. You also get a rank which is based solely on percentage of beats hit perfectly, near perfectly, barely, and not at all.

The game has four difficulty levels, two of which are available at the start of the game. The other two must be unlocked by beating every song on the difficulty level below it. You can also unlock three songs. To do this, you must achieve a certain point total. The total points scored in all songs is your point total and upon achieving certain point totals, you achieve new ranks and at some ranks come new songs. The easiest difficulty level features songs with few dots that are on screen for a long time before you need to tap them. Also, the health bar decreases very slowly. As the difficulty increases, more dots appear on screen, the interval between needing to hit them is shorter and health bar decreases more rapidly. The easiest difficultly should be completable by just about anyone. Once you get to hard difficulty, there is much less margin for error. At the highest difficulty, the only way you can successfully complete a song is by hitting the dots near perfectly.

The game is incredibly addictive. It is one of the few game that I wanted to complete 100%. What makes it so addictive is the feeling that you can get better if you try just... one... more... time. You always feel like you are getting better. You do a little better at a song every time you try it. Once you complete a song, you want to see how well you can do at another one. Even once you know all the stories for the scenarios surrounding the songs, you still want to see if you can complete that song on the harder difficulty. Really, the only time I got frustrated and felt like I really wasn't getting any better at songs was for two songs on the hardest difficulty.

Elite Beat Agents has charming stories drawn in comic-style art that make you smile. It has gameplay that keeps you coming back for more. It has songs that, while you might not love them, are great choices to tap the rhythm too. Elite Beat Agents is the first game for the Nintendo DS that I would recommend to anyone, regardless of their general taste in games. At first, I was a bit surprised Nintendo made this part of their "Touch Generations" line of games which are intended to be games anyone in the family can pick up, play, and enjoy. After experiencing this game, I can fully agree with that decision.

Rating 9 / 10

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