When Moon Diver was first announced, it was pegged as a new Strider for a new generation. And indeed, when one starts this straight-ahead, hack ‘n slash side-scroller, the similarities are obvious: our ninja hero can hang, cling, flip and climb, very much like that bad-ass protagonist from 1989. And in fact, it’s just as repetitive and focuses even more on button-mashing, if that’s possible. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, and when you make it so the game can’t be completed without a few online friends, you’ve successfully annoyed the reviewer. Even so, this is a highly polished downloadable game with decent control (despite a perceived lack of responsiveness), bright sci-fi environments, beautiful animations, and a whole lot of chaotic enjoyment.
The graphics are a highlight, because even though they aren’t meticulously detailed and some of the backgrounds seem hazy, the effects are sweet and the visual appeal is very high. They make liberal use of various color and design schemes as the game goes on; while the gameplay remains mostly repetitive, the stages do alter and shift the further you progress. Later stages require more platforming ability and overall control skill, and end-level bosses are all nicely drawn and appropriately intimidating. The animations are always a joy to watch and the frame rate never stutters. I do think too many of the environments are far too dark, though, and more could’ve been done with enemy design. We see way too many of the same type of foe throughout; some just change colors to signify an upgrade.
In regards to the sound, we’ve got sharp effects that enhance every slash and magical ability, and solid audio balancing on all counts. When I used the word “polished” above, these stellar effects were partly responsible. The soundtrack is fitting but those hard-hitting tracks definitely begin to grate after the first few hours, and there is no voice acting…but maybe that’s a good thing. I get the feeling any voices used for this game would be of the uber-cheesy Japanese variety. And the effects, as good as they are, can’t completely override the repetitive tracks, even if everything does fit well. It’s when you face down a particularly troublesome boss, or find yourself faced with dozens of enemies, that the sound kicks in hardcore and you feel all the more immersed.
If you’re looking for an old-school side-scroller with lots of button-mashing, a significant challenge, and colorful environments, this is it. I’m not saying it will suit your tastes exactly – especially if you have no intention of playing online – but if you yearn for a time when all we really had were games of this type, you might be intrigued. The control is smooth and simple, even though you have plenty of options: you will choose one of four possible ninjas, all of which are distinct in terms of stats and advancement, and after that, it’s just about ripping your way through swarms of baddies. The platforming is there, too, and there are magical and strength abilities you can unlock and utilize to great effect.
But they go a little above and beyond the standard old-fashioned approach by implementing experience and levels. With each level gained, you will earn customization points that let you increase your Health, Magic, or Power. You can upgrade your character based on your play style, although I will say the balance seems a tad off; it just seemed far more effective to use a lot of powerful magic later in the game. Even so, the point of this adventure is to play with others, as I found out the hard way. At some point when playing alone, you will reach a boss that simply can’t be defeated without the assistance of others and needless to say, I was a little peeved. The game is plenty fun alone; why limit the solo player?
I just thought it was cool that I could continue to gain levels and distribute customization points, even after dying in the midst of a level. That way, you can always earn a little experience, even if you don’t get very far or perform poorly. Plus, there’s definitely an addictive element to this kind of game; you just have to keep playing, regardless of the shortcomings. But those shortcomings do pile up with time. In addition to not being able to finish the game alone, the more I played, the more convinced I became of a control lag. It just seems to take a second too long to swing my blade or detach from a hanging point. The latter can be annoying, too, because you always have to press X to drop and during intense moments, that can be an issue. It just gets in the way.
Furthermore, I think there’s something wrong with a game where I do better when I actually lack concentration. If I just sort of glazed my eyes a bit and went nuts, I’d do pretty damn well. Hell, I didn’t die for a while and before I knew it, I was at Lv. 15. But I should add that in the latter stages of the game, you really can’t do that, because the platforming is just too demanding. It’s the combination of dangerous falls and flying, highly mobile enemies with ranged attacks that will be the death of you. So the challenge is appreciated and you can’t just zone out and mash buttons the entire time…even if you can for the first few stages. The problem is that even when things get tougher, the game still feels very much the same, and even the various magic abilities don’t make it feel fresh.
Moon Diver is at its best when playing with others, and all the positives really shine: the great effects and animations, the constant hack ‘n slash adrenaline rush, and that addictive “let’s-keep-going” element. But even then, things get way too repetitive, there isn’t a ton of inspiration in regards to basic enemy design, and the overall repetitiveness of the entire production becomes painfully obvious. And alone, it’s just useless because you can’t finish, even if it’s mindless entertainment for a number of hours. The technicals are accomplished for a digital title and the throwback style blended with new-age concepts works to an extent. I just wish more had been done; the entire thing feels incomplete, for a variety of reasons.
The Good: Smooth, alluring technical aspects. Great animations and effects. Ceaseless action onslaught. Fun co-op. Can be addictive at times.
The Bad: Repetitive through and through. Unfair focus on multiplayer. Control can feel unresponsive. Not enough enemy variety.
The Ugly: “He can’t die, can he…I need other people…you’ve gotta be kidding me.”