Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle is not so much aesthetically bizarre as it is literally awkward. A paraplegic jockey riding across Old West America is, in and of itself, not absurd when compared to contemporary fighting game characters; but when said paraplegic helplessly and awkwardly drags himself across the arena—vulnerable and pathetic—and is only agile whilst riding a horse (the horse kicking and spinning aggressively at adversaries; including other horses), whilst he also occasionally crouches on severed limbs to reinvigorate his paralysed body; then it becomes apparent that one is not dealing with an entirely traditional fighting game.
At first this awkwardness is frustrating: even for unparalysed characters movement feels stiff and unresponsive; dashing forwards (double tap a direction) is not as crisp as one would hope; jumping, dodging and blocking are confusing impossibilities: how can one easily jump by pressing up whilst one tries to traverse the arena, and assail one’s opponent as well? How can one dodge an adversary’s assault, when said assault juggles the player until completion? How can one quickly move from blocking to attacking when, to block, one must move in the opposite direction of one’s adversary and, when attacking, one must always be close for, beyond heavy attacks, most characters’ offensive reach is languidly impotent?
These slow, contemplative and awkward mechanics are completely alien—as vastly different as the mechanics of The King of Fighters, Tekken, Street Fighter and Dead or Alive (amongst others) might be, their intention is the same: to create a complex and tactile expression of kineticism; a quality which All Star Battle shares only in its special move and attack animations; which are comedically violent and amusingly ridiculous.
The environment also plays a more prominent role than in some fighting games: although many fighting games have made use of environmental traps, the environmental traps in All Star Battle are triggered directly by the player. Once the trap has been triggered, then it is incumbent upon the player to lure or juggle their opponent into the trap.
But, then, after this initial quagmire of confusion; one realises that button mashing square as fast as possible results in a powerful combo for but every character in the game; and even triggers a special move after said combo is complete so long as one’s relevant energy bar is adequately filled—and then one realises that, because of the often unavoidable nature of many of the combos, one should not only button mash square; but also dodge and jump out of the way of the initial, ensnaring trigger. This, combined with the miniscule offensive reach, results in an absurd, amusing, and highly intense game of cat and mouse; player and AI (or player) jumping and dodging in blind anticipation of an incoming attack; and otherwise flailing awkwardly mere millimetres away from one another due to the requisite intimacy in which one can land a blow.
And, then, if one wishes to dig even deeper; one begins to realise the great advantages of learning combos and cancels and jumps and the proper use of stands (ephemeral projections whom fight a step or so in front of their projector), or horses, or vampiricism—characters are divided into separate classes each with a separate base ability to complement their special ability and unique set of moves. It’s a transition that can be reached only through commitment on the player’s part; for no part of the story or campaign mode requires more than a minimal investment of skill. It is to All Star Battle’s credit that it manages to remain engaging whether one is button mashing, or playing more seriously—up to a point.
However, the point is partly reached with the (consistent) 30 frames per second frame rate (the cause of some of the initial awkwardness; one is used to playing fighting games at 60 frames per second!) which does mean that the more finicky moments of excitement can become awkward in a bad way—but the extra 30 frames per second have been put to good use in the vivacious and amusing animation.
Story mode recounts the manga in a rudimentary, but suitably preposterous fashion: loading screens are inundated with textual (sometimes voiced) exposition as explanatory and eliciting as well proof read fan fiction—which nevertheless manages to meld well with the ridiculous, soap opera twists of the actual plotlines of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (enemies become allies and allies become enemies at an incredible rate), and only add to the absurdity of the spectacle. The missions (fights) in story mode offer optional objectives (such as performing a particular combo) which unlock various rewards upon completion (artwork, 3D models, etc.).
Another way to procure some of these rewards is the campaign mode—a rather strange combination of visual novel storytelling and traditional fighting game battles. One has a list of bosses to defeat; but one must first find the listed bosses by advancing time; with no guarantee of finding the boss one wishes to defeat; unless one has beaten said boss within the last ten minutes, or paid one of the popup characters to seek out the requested boss for the player. The ten minute rule is important: bosses have a set amount of HP, and this HP is whittled down every time one defeats the boss in question—thus one must defeat every boss multiple times. Not only do bosses popup, but also AI-controlled ghosts of other players whom fight with a little more spontaneity than the AI normally does (and one’s own ghost battles other players as well; increasing one’s ranking without one even playing!).
Meanwhile one unlocks customisation medals allowing one to customise character appearances as rewards for their rising international (online) stature; but rewards are sometimes redundant repetitions from other modes. And campaign mode is unfortunately a long, heavy grind if one wishes to make any genuine progress—and the reason for this appears to be insidious: the items which might speed up one’s progress (guaranteed boss encounters, buffs, etc.), are paid for not with the currency amassed during play; but the currency amassed during work—or however one makes one’s money (who am I to judge?).
The (unlocalised) voice acting is overacted to the point of absurdity: thus perfectly in line with the tone of the visual and gameplay aesthetics; and thus the labyrinthine plot twists are far more palatable, in spite of the translation; and thus one can appreciate the carefully detailed character models on a more personal level than the characters of other fighting games—as one should but expect given the source material. All Star Battle is awkward, but that is why it is one of the most exciting fighting games to be released in recent memory: proving that fighting games needn’t rely on shallow, indie novelty to create an original fighting game engine; and that awkwardness can be just as exciting as grace.