I wanna take you out to dinner, and then I wanna go back to my apartment and watch Kung Fu. Do you ever watch Kung Fu?
It’s everything you might expect from your typical kung fu classic: fighting, ancient Chinese culture, fighting, and more fighting. Yes, it’s Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao for Xbox Live and PSN, and it’ll run you fifteen bucks. This game’s definitely pretty good at playing a kung fu flick… but unfortunately, it’s considerably less adept at being a game.
Just as you might expect, Invincible Tiger’s story is simple and to the point—just a vehicle for the pulse-pounding action, of course. The Star of Destiny, an ancient and magical artifact, is stolen by an evil emperor. You play the part of the once-mighty Han Tao, a legendary warrior who inexplicably fell into disrepair with the help of a little bit of alcohol here and there. It’s your job to stop the emperor and retrieve the Star of Destiny, and you’re tasked to do it via the classic 2-D beat ‘em up route.
The story is relayed via graphic novel-style cut scenes, and the theme is obviously intentionally laden with the relevant lore. The entire game is also dressed in classy 70’s kung fu from head to toe, right down to the swanky (and quite catchy), waka-chi-waka guitar-meets-traditional Chinese soundtrack. Very retro.
The various environments are attractive, as well. Though it’s 2-D, the game has a commendable sense of depth to its backgrounds, featuring boss characters leaping to and fro and basic enemies hoisting and climbing ladders or lowering themselves from rooftops into the heat of the battle. The stylish combat animations are really well done. Dead enemies fade into flower petals, swept away by the wind. There’s a nice desaturation effect that’s directly related to your health. If there’s one thing the game’s got, it’s style.
But substance matters too, and that’s where things begin to fall apart.
First, let’s cover the basics. You get:
Six levels, each broken up into chapters
Classic side-scrolling beat ‘em up gameplay
Competitive score-centric gameplay featuring your typical combos system
Some goofy 3-D mode in case you have stereoscopic glasses (and probably illegal substances)
Classy presentation with aforementioned swanky waka-chi-waka music (“Any movie with waka-chi-waka in it is fine by me.”)
The gameplay’s simple enough. You’re dropped into an arena of sorts (each level consists of a few different ones, including a boss battle), where the game then throws wave after wave of bad guys at you. (These may include—but are not limited to—shirtless martial artists, sumo wrestlers, and ninjas of varying color.) Each of them adopts a somewhat different combat strategy and possesses a unique set of vulnerabilities to specific attacks and combos. Once you finish with one wave, you move onto the next (and occasionally a new venue along with it).
You punch/kick with X and Y, jump with A, and perform context-sensitive actions with B (such as entering doors and climbing poles). Different combinations of X and Y in conjunction with the analog stick provide different combo techniques as well, some of which can stun the enemies or knock them backward. When you get the hang of which ones of these do what, you can begin to tag them to which enemies are weak against that particular string of attacks, helping you push your way through the relentless groups of adversaries you’ll encounter. As you beat down your attackers, you’ll also gain some power in your Yin Yang meter, which can be used, among other things, to execute a short-lived but powerful Hyperstate where you’re faster and stronger.
Should you lose some health, you can regenerate it in a couple of different ways. The first is by standing still and holding LB, which also drains some of your Yin Yang energy. The second is by pursuing and killing enemies holding evil souls (they’re marked visibly on the screen), which you can then hold up to three of to regain health as you fight. If you’re hit too much, however, you’ll lose your souls. And if you’re really cocky, you can actually drop them off at a dragon statue—and once you’ve placed three of them, you can then perform a single super attack that hits all enemies in the area.
To try and help keep combat feeling fresh, various items in the environment can be used to your advantage if you pay attention to your surroundings. You can kick buckets, swing and kick from bars, and throw knives.
Oh, yes, and you can also dodge… sort of. Using the right analog stick allows you to dodge left/right and even up/down (Viewtiful Joe style), and, again like VJ, successfully dodging an enemy’s attack leaves them momentarily stunned. It all sounds fairly entertaining, right?
Not so fast
Well, there are some serious problems. Remember that stylish animation you read about earlier? It often gets in the way of the actual gameplay, resulting in slow response to button presses in critical combat situations, which is exasperating to say the least. You’ll find your character carrying out the entirety of the aforesaid animations, which are, by the game’s own pacing standards, dreadfully and impractically slow. This leaves you vulnerable as you mash on the controller and pray that a break in the sequence will allow you to execute another move or jump to safety. Sure, it’s probably by design, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun, right?
Wors e yet, the controls and combat don’t always seem to even work properly. Dodges occasionally fail, enemies come flying from out of nowhere and connect, and even just after dying, it’s possible to lose all your life immediately again within just a few seconds (trust me; all it takes is a few ninjas on either side of Han Tao). When you jumped into a hole on Mario, you didn’t blame Mario; you blamed yourself. Likewise, on Viewtiful Joe, even Fire Leo—in all his relative impossibility—did a better job encouraging your twentieth attempt than discouraging you. (Not to mention the game offered constant rewards—even after losing—and an upgrades shop to help offset the challenge after so many failed attempts in case the player fell off the difficulty curve at some point.)
Invincible Tiger, on the other hand, offers no such incentives and provides very little comfort in the way of solid mechanics. After getting pummeled by the infinite droves of assailants, it’s hard not to get utterly pissed off at the game and just say “screw this”. That’s partially because of the fact that the game most often feels like just string after string of button-mashing battles with greater depth only if you can stand to wrestle it out of the formula. A combo here, and well-placed stun move there—yes, you can influence your success by choosing the right techniques in the right places. But where the game falls short of the likes of Viewtiful Joe and other great brawlers, however, is in its inability to quickly captivate the gamer and make them want to succeed—to dissect their enemies’ combos, experiment with different options, and give it “just one more go”. Viewtiful Joe does this by visibly telegraphing the enemies’ attacks just before they connect and by offering constant incentives to continue playing. Invincible Tiger, in contrast, leaves it all up to experimentation and tedium; or, at best, poring through the included “Book of Knowledge” via the menu, which lists combos and other hints attached to collectible cards gained throughout the game. It also discloses which combos are effective against which enemies, which means if you want to truly stand a chance, you’ll have to fully embrace the role of rote memorization in your success.
And there’s very little to look forward to, as the endless waves of similar enemies and bosses (which, for the most part, are more exhausting than anything else) are only separated by short, playful interactions between hero and adversary and the aforementioned comic-style cut scenes. In the end, it’s just far too repetitive and artificially challenging to accomplish anything more than mere frustration. In short, the game simply expects far too much patience from the player.
Actually, before I even continue, let me break out of the norm for a moment and go for a bit of personal disclosure that may shock you. As a matter of principle, typically, I will attempt to complete a game before judging and writing my review of the product. With Invincible Tiger, my approach was no different—but after trying to pass the third level for over an hour and a half and failing repeatedly, I completely gave up on the game. Make no mistake; I’m no newcomer to this type of challenge, either (after all, I completed Viewtiful Joe in total on all difficulties). Problem is, I just couldn’t bear to keep trying. This is the first review in a long time where I’ve not made it through a significant portion of a game prior to writing my assessment; and therein lies the fundamental problem with Invincible Tiger: it’s just not very fun. On the contrary, it’s often an absolute chore to play.
For sake of completion, it’s worth mentioning that there are a couple other game modes to be had as well, including co-op, which goes by all the same rules with just a few twists on the formula: you share lives and Yin Yang meters with your partner, and enemies tend to pick on whoever’s low on health. In addition to that, you also unlock Endurance and Time Trial modes for each of the game’s six levels, both of which are obviously just minor variations on the theme. And then there’s the 3-D mode mentioned earlier—though the last thing I think I’d want to witness is a three-dimensional version of Han Tao repeatedly getting his ass kicked by the same one hundred enemies over and over during the second boss battle.
What else can be said? As aesthetically pleasing and stylish as Invincible Tiger is, when you boil it all down, games are about fun. And while I’m certain that a special group of gamers out there will find something to enjoy in this torturous kung fu brawler, for most players, the incentive to continue trying will be sorely absent. Your $15 could go a lot further elsewhere.
Full Disclosure: Reviewer made it to the third level and is damn proud of it.