(The Japanese version of the title is “Toaru Majutsu no Virtual-On“)
A fantastic return to gaming for SEGA’s arcade classic fighting franchise which integrates a popular anime series extremely well, leaving an all-around great package.
|Physical English||No – JP only|
World-building & Story
In A Certain Magical Index, the worlds of magic and science have collided. Academy City on the outskirts of Tokyo has been host to numerous scientific advances including the development of ‘Espers’, humans with incredible powers whose brains have been re-wired; conversely ‘Magicians’ also possess powers but through mystical artefacts and both factions are largely at odds with each other. The anime begins with a young man named Touma with the power to negate magic, who has a chance encounter with a magician named Index and the two begin an unlikely friendship from there.
A Certain Magical Virtual-On is the sequel to a light novel that was born as a non-canon spin-off to Index, where the residents of Academy City each possess a ‘Personal Device’ that acts like a smartphone, but also allows them to play a game which – coincidentally – is based on SEGA’s mech combat series Virtual-On. Hence, the two universes collide and the characters from Index become embroiled in a plot involving this brand new phenomenon.
As you can probably tell from the description, this is a niche within a niche – while Index is relatively popular, being a spin-off and then adding mechs from an old arcade franchise that has been dormant for more than 10 years makes it decidedly less mainstream. Yet it works – if I had no prior knowledge of things here I would have easily believed that the Virtual-On elements were just a natural part of this universe. After all, they feel scientific and perfectly in-keeping with the rest of the tone here.
The actual plot here is going to be sort-of interesting if you’re an Index fan (after all, it’s written by series creator Kazuma Kamachi) but is otherwise a little bland. You’ll take part in the Voosters Cup, a mech competition, as a variety of members of the extended cast including fan-favourites like Accelerator. Yet something more sinister lurks below the surface as emotionless ‘Shadows’ appear – it’s standard anime fare, but executed well enough as you flit between the overlapping scenarios and discover more about what’s going on (particularly with the use of ‘to be continued’ at the end of each chapter to make it feel like you’re watching TV episodes).
Presentation & Sound
‘SEGA blue skies’ was a term coined during the Dreamcast era to describe the numerous bright, colourful games coming from the publisher such as Crazy Taxi, Jet Set Radio and Sonic Adventure. A Certain Magical Virtual-On definitely fits into this description thanks to its varied palette and striking design, even if some of the technical elements aren’t quite up to snuff.
The first thing you’re introduced to – which is a big part of the game – is the visual novel scenes which feature the various Index characters talking. These are pretty well done – portraits look like the characters from the anime and they all feature minor animation when conversing with each other. Backgrounds tend to be static screens of Academy City but these provide a fairly pretty backdrop with the nice sunset shades of purple and orange. Menus are also all well-designed and easy to look around.
In combat, things are even more visually spectacular. Again, arenas tend to feature Academy City backdrops which looks really nice with big skyscrapers and plenty of detail – although this is where you might begin to see the first technical problems. For example, each has a little introductory video and you’ll notice things like trams that look like they’re out of a PS1 game or skyboxes that are just a massive blur. Still, I’m a big fan of the use of colour here and generally was impressive with the environments, even if they have a few little flaws.
The mechs too are well designed – I’m no expert of the Virtual-On franchise so this was a fairly new experience for me, but found that each had distinct features and movement patterns which I liked. Someone like Fei-Yen is fast and quick, floating around and launching hearts at opponents, while Raiden is slow and lumbering with a melee attack that literally consists of a body slam. The differences between them make battles visually interesting, especially early on.
It’s when the arenas and mechs combine that Virtual-On gets really pretty though –particularly in 2v2 combat lasers and beams fly all over the place (my favourite being the metal-ice dragons that one character summons) and the screen lights up, with the occasional cutaway to show someone launching a special attack. I was particularly impressed to see some of the effects used deliberately low-poly looks presumably to emulate the feel of the original SEGA Saturn Virual-On title which worked really,r eally well. Unfortunately this is where problems come in – the framerate doesn’t exactly hold stable when there’s a lot going on and slowdown can occur which is a little frustrating.
There’s full Japanese voice acting here which is very nice but it’s the music I was most impressed with. It feels like there was a real effort here to emulate the feel and sound of a 90’s arcade fighting game and I was massively impressed with so many of the tracks here that I’d rank it up there with classics like Tekken 2 – I’m definitely hunting down the OST CD for this one.
Gameplay & Content
The easiest way to explain the gameplay in A Certain Magical Virtual-On is to say that it’s a 3D arena mech fighter in the same vein as Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs Force, except here things are even more nuanced and just as enjoyable, despite a couple of blemishes with repetitive content (plus Virtual-On predates Gundam Versus by about a decade, which makes it feel like somewhat of a dis-service to describe it like this!)
When you first boot up, you’ll be introduced to the AI character who acts as your game guide and explains the rules of Virtual-On – which is extremely useful for someone who hasn’t played before. You’ll be piloting a mech as one of the characters from the Index anime and engaging in 1v1 or 2v2 combat, where the goal is either to deplete your opponent’s stamina bar completely or score enough points within the time limit to win the round. There’s two control schemes to choose from, but I found myself sticking to the lock-on version which made things a lot easier to keep on top of.
Compared to Gundam, at first I found the mechs here a lot slower to move and less responsive (although a lot more manoeuvrable than something like Armored Core), but I quickly discovered that was a deliberate design choice – you’re often locked into animations which leaves you vulnerable to attack, meaning you have to be careful when choosing what to do so as to ensure you don’t leave yourself open to damage. The same goes for the enemies of course and you’ll need to leverage moments when their defences are down to inflict maximum damage.
Once I’d gotten used to this, I found Virtual-On to be a game with a fantastic sense of manoeuvrability and was zipping around the screen in no time. Each mech can jump with x and dash with square and with the two combined you can often cover ground extremely quickly. To inflict damage, you have a melee attack on triangle and two ranged attacks on the shoulder buttons – pressing both together unleashes a third ranged attack, although each one has a little cooldown timer to ensure you can’t spam them.
It’s how all these abilities you’re given interact with each other that makes things truly special though. For example, if you’re dashing, your ranged attacks will change into something different – but you’ll still have to wait for the dash animation to finish before you can attack again. Working out when to use what you have access to is part of the fun, as is managing cooldowns to ensure you’re always doing something helpful. You’re also given a special move which is activated by double tapping the screen when a meter is full (which fills when you take damage) and learning when best to use this is often key in mastering a character.
It all feeds into making a really strategic fighting game – even the point scoring system plays a part in this, as you’ll be given a ‘hit point violation’ if you don’t land an attack within a certain timeframe, meaning you constantly have to be on the offensive while ensuring you don’t over-extend. The combat is action-packed and exciting and particularly the 2v2 matches evolve into tense games of targeting the weak link in the opposition team while attempting to protect your AI partner from damage.
You’re given a variety of modes to hone your skills in – training will help you get to grips with things, network play allows you to battle real-world opponents, but the meatiest is undoubtedly story mode. In this, you’ll view visual-novel scenes which are interspersed with fights including basically the whole cast – the main thing it’s good for is giving you experience with each of the mechs, which you can then carry over elsewhere; as well as currency which can be used to unlock different things in mission mode. I found the story mode fairly enjoyable, although there was a lot of chatter at times compared to very little fighting.
Mission mode, as the name suggests, allows you to play various different rulesets with whatever characters you like. There’s a survival mode where you need to kill wave after wave of enemies before the time runs out, an arcade mode where you face a series of enemies and can enact various buffs or debuffs and a deathmatch mode with increasingly challenging odds. All of these can be played on a variety of difficulties and this is where most of your gaming will be done once you’ve finished the story – but it does begin to get a little samey after a while.
Herein lies my biggest problem with A Certain Magical Virtual-On though – once you’re done with the story and have had a little mess around with the different missions, there’s not actually a whole lot else here unless you try your hand at online. I certainly enjoyed blasting through what was available, but I couldn’t help but wish for a little more variety in terms of things to do at times – it doesn’t help that the game is a little on the easy side too, although admittedly the difficulty does ramp up towards the end in story mode and you’ll face some very challenging bosses at the end..
That’s somewhat of a dis-service – after all, the story mode should take you a good 5+ hours and the ability to make custom matches does give the game a high amount of replayability. There’s also a good selection of playable mechs (13 in total, although the most important thing is that they all feel different when playing, meaning they’re all fun to try out) but I did find the arena selection a bit lacking – 10 total including big and small zones designed for different sized battles, yet a lot of them share aesthetic elements making them a bit repetitive.
The online seemed to work well enough for me, although I did struggle finding opponents to face-off against at times – there’s also local ad-hoc co-operative modes which means you can play alongside a friend if they have a Vita and a copy of Virtual-On, which is a pretty big ask but at least it’s there! (I didn’t get to try this out for lack of friends nearby who own the title).
Still, the gameplay base is so solid here that it’s difficult to be too disappointed with the final product. Virtual-On’s return to the gaming world was long overdue and it hasn’t lost any of its magic over the past decade – it’s still a balanced, strategic and unique 3D fighter that’s a hell of a lot of fun to play.
You can get a number of DLC packs for the game which add new character routes to story mode – as always, unfortunately you’ll only be able to access these with a Japanese PSN account.
Ease of Understanding
Thanks to a handy manual included in my physical copy of the game, which can be quickly Google Translated, it’s extremely easy to get to grips with A Certain Magical Virtual-On (the thing I struggled with most was select to switch targets, but now you’ve read this review you’ll know that before you go in!)
Otherwise, menus are fairly accessible and it’s easy enough to navigate the game. The only thing you’ll struggle with is the conversations during story mode – there are a lot of them (you can skip with R) and while it’s always a shame to miss out on content, the title is still very enjoyable without this.
A fantastic return after a long absencefor one of SEGA’s classic franchises, Virtual-On retains all the fast paced 3D fighting action of its predecessors and maintains a good amount of strategic elements to boot. The addition of the A Certain Magical Index setting meshes much better than I expected too – it’s just a shame that a couple of performance and content niggles keep it from perfection.