3DS review: Kid Icarus: Uprising

Following up on his return to the scene in 2007’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Pit once again takes flight in Kid Icarus: Uprising for the 3DS, a game that combines arcade-style on-rails shooting sequences with ground-based adventure and action elements.  The story begins with a simple-enough premise: the forces of the Underworld are spreading across the Earth, and Lady Palutena suspects Medusa is responsible for this sudden influx.  Calling upon her most trusted angel Pit, Palutena mounts an offensive against these ruthless invaders, with her ultimate goal being that of the retrieval of the Three Sacred Treasures, relics which were previously used to defeat Medusa and which hold the power to do so once again.

Nine missions later, and the game leads you to believe you have bested the greatest threats of myth, only to shatter this illusion by revealing Hades as the true villain.  Pit has seen only the tip of the iceberg with regards to the many foes he will face and the factions that will attempt to take advantage of the conflict between the forces of Skyworld and the Underworld.  That is one of the greatest advantages both the story and gameplay have in Kid Icarus: Uprising – there is always a surprise waiting around the corner, whether it is the game duping you into believing you’ve reached its conclusion before you’ve reached even the halfway marker, the inclusion of a top-down scrolling shoot-‘em-up segment in the vein of Space Invaders, or the use of vehicles to traverse both the Earth and the stars.

The game’s sense of humor falls into a similar category, often making fun of itself, and even more frequently seeing Palutena and goddess of nature Viridi poke fun at Pit, who – noble as he may be – is naïve and perhaps too reliant on Palutena’s powers at times.  There are references to other Nintendo properties, like when Pit quips that a certain enemy type resembles the parasitic Metroids, to which Viridi corrects him that the two fictional video game universes apparently share no connection.  For such a grandiose revival of a series that has remained dormant for twenty-one years, it’s comforting to see that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite all its successes in design.

The gameplay is intense throughout, as enemies come at Pit from all directions, and in increasingly greater numbers.  With rare exception, practically every chapter begins with Pit soaring through the skies, guided by Palutena’s power, as he shoots down airborne forces of the Underworld.  These sequences are relatively simple to control, with the joystick moving Pit about the screen, and the stylus aiming his shots.  Enemies that get too close will instead be struck by a blade attack, and there are typically only a few predetermined chances for Pit to heal before his feet touch the ground.  The second segments of each chapter generally see Pit land in some town, fortress, vessel, or other large structure to face off with enemies on a more personal level.  Pit can dash for a brief period of time, dodge enemy fire, and charge up shots.  He can also scour treasure chests for healing food items, optional abilities, and temporary items of aid like a protective shield or bomb.

As these ground fight sequences generally make up the latter half (or more) of a chapter, they frequently end with some sort of boss fight, each of which mixes up the familiar formula of firing, dodging, and going in for quick and hard strikes just enough by including grind rails, chariot races, and environmental hazards into the fray.  The boss fights are not equal in their degree of difficulty or intensity, but they are memorable encounters, nonetheless.  Between stages, players have the option to sell weapons they have collected within each stage or fuse them into greater tools.  Some weapons are more powerful in close-quarters, others better with range, and finding one’s personal preferred balance between these and optional upgrades like healing factors, quick-charge shots, stationary energy shields, and more adds a great degree of freedom in playing with whichever strategy you so desire.

At the start of each chapter, the game will ask you to bet hearts – the in-game currency – to determine both the difficulty factor and potential rewards.  More hearts bet means there is a greater chance of earning more in return, but Pit will also take significantly more damage when hit.  Most stages reward more adventurous players by including areas only accessible on higher difficulties, and these can include treasure chests with rarer items or a hot spring where Pit can bask and heal up before continuing on.  Similar to the Super Smash Bros. series, there are various challenges that can be completed to unlock new character and stage models, and an egg toss ‘mini-game’ (if it can even be considered such a thing) acts like Melee’s trophy vending machine lottery.  While these eggs are given as rewards for completing each chapter and offer different rewards based on their colors, they can also be purchased with 3DS play coins.  A multiplayer battle arena mode can be taken on with local friends or online in both team-based and free-for-all matches, which will also net players extra powers and weapons.

Visually, Kid Icarus: Uprising is one of the best-looking games on the 3DS to date.  While Greek and Roman mythos hold heavy sway over character designs, there is a significant amount of creative freedom shown in the designs of pirate starships and the war machines used by the forces of nature.  Many of the weapons Pit wields bear either stone-like textures or dull metallic shines, while the flight segments of any given chapter do extremely well to play with lighting effects that dance off rivers or the interior chambers of some of the game’s larger fortresses.  The soundtrack has a sweeping epic feel that evokes memories of a John Williams score on more than one occasion, very much befitting an adventure/action hybrid that tries so hard to blaze its own path in the realm of handheld gaming.

While it is easy to be swept away by all the impressive feats that Kid Icarus: Uprising triumphs over and forget that it is a handheld exclusive, the game does trip up over itself on occasions few and far between.  Certain stages suffer from poor choice in enemy placement - while it is always smart to check your surroundings before diving headfirst into battle, these particular areas don’t provide you that luxury.  Were it not for the fact that you need to spin the camera around so often while on foot, the need to do this and attempt to dodge enemy attacks at the same time might not prove such an annoyance.  Other stages do not seem to change up the number of healing items available from one difficulty setting to another, making their lower-level counterparts only slightly less so challenging overall, as this game is, at its core, for gamers who want an intense action experience, despite how unorthodox a hybrid design it might be.  Still, even with this handful of missteps, Kid Icarus: Uprising is a bold gamble for Nintendo that paid off brilliantly, as it is not only one of the more original titles on the 3DS in terms of both gameplay and design, but also one of the most fun to play and replay.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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