By Rich Stanton on March 20th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Certain developers stick in your head. The first time I played Radiangames‘ Super Crossfire I thought this is good, looked out for other stuff like the brilliant Inferno+, and eventually found out these neat packages were the labours of one man – Luke Schneider. But disaster struck! Radiangames tried to hit it big with Bombcats, a mobile F2P game, but found only the black dog of rejection and financial ruin! It looked like the end for Luke! Was there nothing to be done? Wait, is that a bird? A plane? No!
POWERPUFF SAVE THE DAY.
The city of Townsville! This is the setting for The Powerpuff Girls, a Cartoon Network show that ran for six seasons of brilliance and happened to hit its peak while I was a student ‘high on life.’ The whole schtick of the series is taking the mickey out of other superheroes, basically, and filling each episode’s running time with pop-culture nods and whip-smart dialogue.
You could say I’m a fan. And in Radiangames’ hour of need, Luke Schneider got the chance to make a tie-in to a new CGI Powerpuff special – so fair play to Cartoon Network. Defenders of Townsville is a 2D shooter with an explorable back-and-forth map, upgradeable abilities, ‘new’ and ‘classic’ visual styles and, of course, the primary antagonist of one dome-brained monkey Mojo-jojo (say it ain’t so-so!).
The word Metroidvania has been used but, while Defenders of Townsville does kinda fit the description, don’t expect hugely sophisticated environments. Here it means acquiring gradually more powerful shooty weapons and being able to bypass previously-impassable blocks – which is fine! My personal perspective is that a Metroidvania needs to share the spatial complexity of yer Super Metroids or Symphony of the Nights to deserve the term, but the semantics are more about avoiding confusion than being prissy.
What Defenders of Townsville gets exactly right is the pace of progression. At the start of the game the fiendish Mojo-jojo strips the girls of their powers, and you begin as Buttercup (she is the toughest fighter) able only to walk back-and-forth. Within a minute you can punch. After another few minutes you’re bored of walking and punching, then BOOM you can fly. After five minutes of this you’re thinking ‘oh I wish I could fly a bit faster’ and et voila you unlock air dashing.
This aspect really is well-tuned, almost uncanny in fact – as soon as I was beginning to get bored of my current abilities, or frustrated at a certain kind of impassable lock, within the next thirty seconds things would change. The first runthrough of Defenders of Townsville will take about two hours, and throughout it maintains this steady rhythm of boosts just at the moment you want them.
The key ability to unlock is the boost dash, which makes covering the map a much quicker affair and lets you start being deliberate about hoovering up the goodies. Life and energy boosts, new abilities, boosters that provide passive buffs, with a little route-planning you can have them all. Buttercup soon enough rescues Blossom (Commander and the leader), and the two of them in turn rescue Bubbles (she is the joy and the laughter) – once you have the full Powerpuff team on the go they can be switched in and out instantly, though you can only be controlling one at a time.
The upgrades and boosters are great, though from the creator of the shooteRPG (sorry) Inferno+ they do seem a little conservative – more focused around beam types and upgrading existing skills than anything wild. Combat is built around punches, which are more often used for deflecting projectiles than whacking things, and various ‘bullet’ types – it never quite reaches a level you’d call manic, outside of some of the very final challenges, but you’re always moving.
The girls share two types of attack and each have a unique third, but in terms of ripping enemies apart the big ability is charging. This can be comboed with certain passive boosters, and changes up the way you’re playing – where previously you kind of batter stuff and fire constantly, now you try to line ‘em up and unleash a hail of fire. Or I do, at least.
What lets Defenders of Townsville down is the menagerie of foes – which are nearly all Mojo-jojo’s robots. Now I’m fine with a bit of that, and obviously this is first and foremost a shooter that needs staple enemies for every room in the game. But the robots themselves don’t exhibit any particularly inspired visual design, nevermind anything approaching a personality, and when you look at the type of crazy villains the girls are normally fighting this seems like a missed opportunity. No thugs with jetpacks? No possessed poodles? Not even semi-anthropomorphised robots?
I’m not saying the game should have one or any of these things, but it’s enormously surprising that a license with so many colourful antagonists, both major and minor, should produce a whole game full of rather faceless robots. The bosses are a particular letdown in this regard, despite one or two fine Mojo-jojo based moments.
What rescues Defenders of Townsville is, basically, the main mode – which is only unlocked after you’ve completed the game once. This remixes the game’s map in a devious way, with ten keys placed at various points to unlock certain doors, and starts you off with the majority of the Powerpuff Girls’ abilities.
This is also the first time you’re able to select ‘Hardcore’ difficulty – that point about the game’s pacing applies here, because you finish the ‘main’ game just at the point where it’s beginning to plateau. And then start the remix version, where all of a sudden those enemies you’ve mastered have different behaviours and more damage, where the cap is on your skill at using the Girls rather than what items you’ve found – and where all of a sudden the game seems to get a touch more… well, Radiangames than it was before.
Powerpuff Girls: Defenders of Townsville is certainly the best game this license has ever had by a distance, though that’s not saying much. I wonder whether anyone who didn’t spend their student years in front of the cartoon might enjoy it as much as I did, but then that’s the whole point.
One thing it does convince me of is that Radiangames, as respectable a job as this is, was not put on this Earth to develop licensed products. It’s a good shoot but lacks a certain fizz that his best work, from the Crossfires to Inferno+ to JoyJoy, has always had – call it originality, or surprise, or simply bigger explosions. Things feel a tad muted here. One can only hope Defenders of Townsville does very well for Radiangames, and sets up the studio to do something truly special. Now that really would be the Powerpuffs saving the day.