A manic crossover fighting game from Spike Chunsoft and Bandai Namco that provides some incredibly enjoyable action and a sea of content, yet doesn’t quite have sufficient depth to keep you coming back.
World-building & Story
As the title suggests, J-Stars takes place in a world populated by stars from Shonen Jump manga and anime series, known as the J-World. You’re given a world map to explore where you’ll encounter a number of towns and locations taken from the various series included, mashed together across a variety of different landmasses.
There’s a very loose story thread holding all of this together involving a God calling all of these characters together in order to fight a great evil, but it’s nothing interesting and absolutely relies on your knowledge of the Shonen series included. You’re thrown straight in with a band of heroes such as Luffy and Ace from One Piece, tasked with hunting certain monsters or finding various places and sent on your way.
The world map is an interesting addition that adds a good sense of scale and size to the world, but it’s traversed so quickly that little knowledge of the areas you’re exploring come from this. Instead, the main world-building comes from running into recognizable characters from the various anime and manga series – and make no mistake, there are a lot of characters in this. I consider myself fairly clued up on a number of Japanese shows but most appearances went completely over my head, meaning this is definitely a game designed for the fans.
That’s not to say J-Stars doesn’t do fanservice well and if you’re part of the target audience for this game it’ll probably be a fantastic experience but if you’re a more casual fan, a lot of the game will be lost on you.
Presentation & Sound
J-Stars is a mix of a number of different elements in terms of presentation, with the fighting taking place in 3D arenas interspersed by 2D visual novel sections. There’s even a world map to explore in J-Adventure mode meaning there’s certainly a lot to examine.
Staring with the world map which is very basic but gets the job done. Geometry is blocky, towns have little detail and you’ll do all the exploring by a ship which animates decently but as previously mentioned diminishes the sense of scale compared to running on the ground. With that said, it’s still impressive to see a world map in a 3D brawler at all so that should be commended.
Continuing with the theme of ‘getting the job done’, the visual novel sections are a nice distraction but visually bland, with little animation and rather lifeless portraits. I got a few chuckles from some of Luffy’s more humorous facial expressions, but otherwise there’s really nothing special about these.
So it comes down to the 3D models an arenas which thankfully are much more impressive. The arenas themselves are based on different anime series which invoke a nice sense of familiarity if you’re aware of the source material – a ninja castle representing Naruto for example. They’re nothing too flashy at first with things like low-res textures and sharp edges, but what makes them special is how destructible they are. Many of the character’s moves will send opponents flying and if this is into a building, chances are it’ll crumble into a pile of rubble. It’s not possible to destroy everything and there are plenty of permanent structures in the environments, but it does help to give the game the feel of being a playable anime.
What really captures the essence of playable anime, though, is the character models and their animations. While still retaining the PS2-era, slightly plastic-y look of so many cheaper Japanese games these days, there’s a level of expressiveness in the animation that feels just right for a game like this. Little things like Naruto popping in and out of the shadows when he runs or Luffy pounding the ground to enter first gear mode are nice quirks that show the developers really put some effort into the presentation.
Attacks and special moves are the flashiest part of the game and again, this is very fitting. It’s quite satisfying to throw a gigantic ball of fire at your foes as Ace and even support moves like Kagura riding around on Sadaharu (a giant cat) remain a hilarious distraction
Sound is average – voice acting is fully Japanese and par for the course, while music is sadly background noise and not anything that’ll stick in your head after you’ve turned off the game. Sound effects are more impressive with a variety of zaps, pows and crashes making noise as the characters yell in typical anime-style at each other during battles, adding a lot of character to the encounters.
Gameplay & Content
As previously mentioned there are a fair few different elements to J-Stars, although the majority of your time will be spent battling foes in 3D arenas. The VN sections simply require you to read through text with no choices to be made and there’s a minor slot machine game which can be played to game stat-boosting cards which you can equip on a customizable deck (a nice touch which allows you to tailor a character to your specific playstyle).
There’s a variety of different modes available including Arcade; Victory Road (fighting pre-determined battles with certain requirements to progress) and free battle, but the most substantial is J-Adventure which is basically the game’s story mode. In this, you choose one of a number of teams from famous series and answer the calling to the fighting tournament.
In practice, this means navigating a fairly large world map undertaking quests and fighting battles. The missions seem fairly varied at first – gathering items; hunting down monsters etc., but monotony soon sets in as you’re tasked with doing the same things over and over. Otherwise the world map serves little purpose – a nice novelty in a game like this and a break from the fighting, but soon tiring due to the time taken getting from place to place (while the travel is fast, there are many enemies and events along the way which slow your progress).
Thankfully the game’s combat system is the most enjoyable aspect, but it’s not without some flaws. Battles take place with any combination of four fighters – 2v2; 3v1 or solo between two characters You’ll also have the option of a support ally, who can be summoned at any time to intervene if you’re taking a beating (or want to keep a combo going), subject to a cooldown timer.
Fighting takes place in 3D arenas and you’re given free reign, meaning you can often run away to a corner to recharge if you want to (and you’ll need to do this on occasion, since attacks are tied to a meter which needs to be refilled). Stages are littered with objects which, as previously discussed, can be broken in some cases which adds a nice cinematic touch to battles. In general these arenas are fun places to duke it out, with imaginative designs based on their respective series, although the game does insist on using the same few over and over during the story.
Actual combat is a flashy affair, with characters possessing many impressive moves. You’ve given basic and strong attack buttons as well as special, run and block buttons, most of which can be combined with a directional or shoulder button to produce a different move. Combine this with assist attacks and you’ve got a veritable arsenal at your disposable for taking down foes and at first the combat is incredibly satisfying and a joy to watch.
Sadly, the game’s battle system doesn’t hold up and after a while the spectacle wears off. Most characters react slowly and at least against CPU enemies it’s merely a case of who started their special attack first. You’ll find each character has one or two attacks which work much better than anything else and you end up relying on these far too often. It’s quite rare to keep a combo going as foes will be flung across the screen at every opportunity, meaning battles often devolve into chasing each other across the map. What really slows the battles down is recovery time – after a character is knocked down, there’s a 3-4 second recovery time during which they’re invincible, making the already-drawn-out battles even longer.
Monotony is staved off by a burst system which allows one team to pull off super powerful moves. A voltage meter in the middle of the screen powers up depending on which team is doing the most damage and once full allows them to enter burst mode, strengthening their attacks and letting them execute screen-clearing finishers. I found myself always enjoying this as the meter can often swing wildly between the teams and entering burst can seriously change the outcome of the match, meaning it’s a great way to shake things up.
Despite all my earlier gripes, combat remained mostly enjoyable and the game is the kind of thing I can see myself returning to every so often to be wowed by the spectacle all over again.
In terms of content, J-Stars is an incredibly meaty package – between the four story campaigns; victory road; arcade mode and free battle to unlock all the characters (of which there are literally dozens, all of whom play differently), you could find yourself playing for a long time if the game hooks you. It also offers online play which could extend the lifespan even more, although I couldn’t find anyone playing at the time I tested it.
J-Stars is a content-filled fighting game with an enjoyable, over-the-top base and if you’re in the market for what it’s offering there’s a lot of fun to be had. Sadly there’s not enough meat here to make it an essential part of Vita’s library but that shouldn’t discourage a purchase for the right price.