Make no mistake, the single player of Kid Icarus Uprising is as strong as the multiplayer. KIU is not like Meteos where the single player is a series of themed multiplayer like matches against computer AI. KIU is not like Smash Brothers Brawl where the Subspace Emissaries single player story was interesting enough while the gameplay was a bit of a slog, lacking in diversity and challenge highlighting the best of Smash gameplay. Rather, Kid Icarus Uprising's single player campaign has achieved excellence in story, voice acting, gameplay, variety, difficulty, and more.
Though this is a review focused primarily on game design I want to briefly talk about the story in Kid Icarus Uprising. The story content is almost entirely presented through player control combat scenarios with Pit as the main character. The scenarios consist of missions broken up into 3 parts; a flying segment approaching the actual mission site; a ground segment where Pit navigates lanes, hallways, and a few open spaces on his way to the boss; and an arena boss battle. The flying segments are about 5 minutes each, the ground missions are typically longer, and the boss battles are the short, climactic finish.
Click to enlarge
Commentating nearly non-stop throughout the entire game is pantheon of voices. As an angel agent of Palutena, a goddess, Pit lives in a world filled with powerful and mythological figures. And in classic style, these gods have the power to communicate with each other despite not being in physical close proximity. Also these characters are often quite observant, knowledgeable, and somewhat jovial despite the fact that serious events transpire like wars and betrayals.
KIU features some of the best voice-acting I've ever heard, and I think the quality comes across better because most of the dialog isn't acted out with 3D models or animated images. Aside from the emotive character portraits on the bottom screen, everything is conveyed through the voice performances. It's remarkable that the voice performances and the writing mesh so well considering that Sakurai, the script writer, uses the dialog for several purposes.
First, Sakurai uses the dialog to contextualize the mission in action. There are no cutscenes before hand or any kind of mission briefing. You simply leap out into the sky and get to work. Sakurai explains this in the Iwata Asks interview: "I thought up all kinds of dialogue so that when the players enter a new chapter, even if they suddenly encounter a situation they haven't experienced before, they can easily slide right into the game world." This design choice keeps the experience focused on gameplay.
Second, the dialog is used to deliver instruction and practical information on gameplay challenges. Controls, special moves, and even enemy data are all communicated contextually and dynamically according to what's happening in the game (see example here). So instead of approaching every encounter with blind trial-and-error experimentation, you often get an explanation on how to take out the more complex enemies. This a bit of knowledge helps players engage with gameplay challenges by making informed decisions. Of course, the dialog can't tell you everything. There's still plenty to discover and learn on your own.
This video is a playthrough of the first mission.
Third and finally, the dialog is used to characterize and describe story events. For example, in an early mission players learn that the reaper enemies are "putting in overtime" because of an on going war among the humans (see video here). This isn't just a story detail merely conveyed through dialog. Players get to see this war happening later in the game. In fact, all these details are woven together tightly in the game's timeline and thematically. But as interesting as the story lines are, I find the little quirky details and jokes just as interesting and supringly relevant. You may think that the jokes like the one Palutena cracks about being able to see the naughty thoughts in Pit's heart is just for laughs (see video here), but the script is very carefully written to support the core themes of the story. In this case, the joke ends with Pit in a bit of a panic as Palutena explains that she can't really see into his heart. This joke ties into the theme of inner motivations, souls, and the truth that we reveal to ourselves, which plays out later in the same mission when we observe the human Magnus and consider his motivations (see video here). These themes come back in a bigger way at the end of mission 5 when something surprising emerges out of Pit's encounter with the legendary Mirror of Truth. Talk about a thematically relevant and literal character foil!
Kid Icarus Uprising's story is filled with resonating themes, clashing sides, twists, turns, and laughs all the way to the end. The single player is also about 3 times longer than I thought it would be, yet it stayed tight and focused. I got to meet a pantheon of characters many of whom, despite their initial flatness, ended up changing due to the main events in the story. I never knew where I was going to visit next. And I never imagined how varied and wonderful the fly-by and on foot environments could be. I also appreciate how the story supports the gameplay in a way that puts gameplay first.
Now we must cover the gameplay design of Kid Icarus Uprising's single player. Because we've already covered the core gameplay design, the topic up for discussion is the elements in the single player design that make the gameplay particularly unique and particularly interesting.
Single Player Wrinkles
The air battles consist of on-rails, shoot-em-up gameplay in which you do not have access to your powers. Instead you can use a special attack that clears the screen of enemy attacks and damages all enemies. Many shumps feature "bomb" mechanics like like this. They're neat mechanics that give players a escape plan when things get too overwhelming. You only can use 2 of these special attacks at a time, and after each use, the special attack gauge slowly fills back up.
Offensively, all the weapons in the game with their various charge times, ranges, and damages are tweaked for air battles so that you're not stuck with a completely ineffective weapon. Most notably, the continuous fire shots have less of a pause between volleys, and the melee attacks of clubs launch short ranged attacks that can reflect enemy fire.
Defensively, players cannot DODGE in the air. Instead by flicking the circle pad in two opposite directions, Pit can do a quick evasive SPIN maneuver. Time it just before colliding with an attack, and the attack is reflected back at the attacker. Finally, shooting in air battles slightly reduces Pits maximum movement speed, a design wrinkle that works well will the auto-charge feature to create more interesting gameplay choices. I many ways KIU air battle design is what I hoped for in my imaginative sequel to the shmup Everyday Shooter.
Another feature of the air battles is the variety of target movement. Because of the dual analog controls, and the effectiveness of touch screen aiming, the on screen enemy can move in fluid, curvy, organic, and unpredictable ways without being too slippery for players to shoot. Furthermore, the camera is free to rotate and swoop around the action packed flying set pieces without throwing off player aim. The enemy shots typically home in on Pit while environmental obstacles are more static. These design wrinkles along with the occasional powerup, a few branching paths, and extra points awarded when all enemies of a group are destroyed, give air battles more than enough gameplay potential to fill out the game's 25 levels.
In both air and ground battles most enemies bullets do not feature bullet v bullet interplay. Enemy tells, their large size, limited attacks, and overall lack of complexity give the player enough of a defensive and offensive advantage. Giving players the ability to cancel incoming enemy shots would probably make the enemies too weak of a contrary force. In terms of enemy numbers, KIU presents very engaging challenges with single enemies to groups of 5+ enemies.
In ground battles, though the progression is fairly straightforward with the green arrow guiding you through the level, there are still plenty of secrets to uncover. Some are simply tucked off the beaten path, while others have to be unlocked using powers like jump glide. Some are hidden in mazes and others are placed behind false walls. Some are time sensitive so that you'll have to act quickly after you enter an area. Keep your eyes open and your wits about you, and you'll find many secrets as you make your way to the boss.
Be mindful of your health in air battles and ground battles. Unlike just about every western shooter I've played in the past ten years, Kid Icarus Uprising doesn't feature regenerating health. Even if you pack a healing power, there's a limit to the amount of health you can regain on your own. Kid Icarus Uprising is the kind of game that designed to be fair. You have all everything you need to make it through the hardest missions without taking a single hit. Instead of relying on frequent check points as part of the save system design, which can allow and encourage players to "abuse" saves, Sakurai design Kid Icarus in a way to encourage players to play well from the start of a mission to the end. Even with max health potions posted before every boss battle and healing food items dropped at the beginning of every ground battle, survival is a big part of the KIU gameplay experience, which brings us into the topic of difficulty design.
In part 6 I'll explain the difficulty design of Kid Icarus Uprising. It has more to do than just challenge.