Super Mega Tournament Arc!

by groggydog


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Sometimes more is less, June 14, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Folks remember Indigo Prophecy, right? It was Quantic Dreamís breakthrough game, a studio which later gained even more attention for Heavy Rain, Detroit: Become Human, and Being a Complete Garbage Fire of a Workplace. But going back to the beginning, Indigo Prophecy was cool because it immersed the player in an immediately-gripping mystery, with your protagonist waking up from a dissociative event to realize theyíd just murdered someone; starting from your desperate attempts to cover your tracks, the story allowed you to slowly peel back the layers of a sinister conspiracy, with clues to the true nature of what was going on always remaining elusively out of reach.

Then you got to the midpoint of the game, the developers ran out of money and/or ideas, and the back half of the narrative saw your everyman protagonist develop superpowers and win a three-way kung-fu struggle against a Mayan human-sacrifice cult and the physical personification of the internet.

Even leaving aside the letís-just-say-problematic elements here, a fundamental problem is that nobody who enjoyed the low-key, street-level mystery the opening promised wanted what the second half of the game was offering. Frustrating playerís expectations can lead to exciting twists if itís done right, but yank the rug too much, and folks will check out even if the individual elements are sound, is the lesson.

The connection here is that while Super Mega Tournament Arc! seems to promise one kind of story, from its blurb, NES-style graphics, and enthusiastic title, it winds up delivering something quite different Ė actually, two or three things. And while thereís some good writing and individually engaging pieces, I felt like the whole was less than the sum of its parts; as the ending kept escalating and throwing more and more narrative shocks, I found myself wishing to rewind time and go back to when this was just the story of a simple gladiator-cyborg fighting their way to the top.

That opening part of the game is I think the most effective. Itís a little slow-paced, as the first-act training sequence stretches on for a while, but the storytelling is effective, as the backstory for your plucky fighter is gradually revealed, you pick practice options to determine your style in the ring (choosing between lawful, entrepreneurial, and individualistic Ė more or less relying on discipline, scrappiness, and defiance, respectively), and your lovable-stereotype trainer helps you figure out whatís what. True, thereís a jarring moment where a white-cloaked patron shows up and drops some mystery on you, as well as gifting you a weird death mask, but on the whole the sports-movie cliches hit their beats well. The prose here, and throughout the game, is solid, though never quite as over the top as the exclamation-marked title made me expect Ė I think itís down to personal taste whether thatís a good thing or a bad thing, though I thought it fit the unexpectedly low-key vibe.

The second act sees you thrust into the arena, running through a series of fights against colorfully-costumed competitors. I donít think itís possible to lose, but each bout is dramatic, and escalates the challenge and the stakes; the exact approach you take to win also depends heavily on the choices you make during training, which gives the first act a pleasing retrospective weight. Again, itís maybe a little long Ė six fights is a lot Ė but I was jazzed to see where the climax was headed.

The third act is where things went off the rails for me, though. Iím going to spoiler-block the specifics, but suffice to say the story makes a hard left into a very different genre. (Spoiler - click to show)Rather than a cyberpunk sports movie, it turns out youíre in a Norse-themed superhero one, as the patron uses magical artifacts of the Aesir to defeat the mob boss who organized the tournament, take their ring which is literally Draupnir from Norse myth, and then threatens to use it to bring about Ragnarok. The issues here arenít confined to genre coherence, though: the mysterious patron also takes over the narrative, in the way that an annoying GMPC can sideline the player characters in a tabletop RPG session. There are also some fourth-wall-breaking shenanigans that similarly feel like they come out of nowhere in a game that hadnít been especially meta to that point.

Eventually the good guys win, and the story gets around to circling back to the personal stakes that motivated your character to enter the arena at the first place, but by that point I had a hard time feeling engaged; I felt like the protagonistís struggles, their relationship with their family, and the close dynamic theyíd built with their trainer had been too thoroughly revealed as unimportant to what the story was actually about, so this was too little, too late. Iíd definitely play enough game by this author because the fundamentals of each act are strong Ė to say nothing of the cool pixel art Ė I just hope they tone down their imagination next time and recognize when less is more!