Jordan Mechner, the creator of the classic Prince of Persia series, has returned to his first game as inspiration for his latest. Karateka is an HD remake of an old Apple 2 game, of which I have no memory or experience, but one which is held in high regard.
It starts off with an eastern vibe, with Japanese string and wind instruments playing over a thickly drawn traditional temple on a simple start screen. It is a nicely calm introduction, and upon pressing the start button, you are greeted with a text scroll introduction. The story goes that you are the hero, The True Love of a princess named Mariko kidnapped by the evil warlord Akuma, and it is up to you to reach and rescue her.
The action takes place as a series of one-on-one encounters as, the warlords minions block your path and the only way to dispatch them is to engage in hand to hand combat. These opponents form a gallery of kung-fu stereotypes, such as the drunken warrior and the burly henchman. Timing is crucial, and initially difficult to spot and successfully execute. You have two attacks and a block, and it is important to look closely at enemy movements, which can be fast and unforgiving. Combatants become harder, faster and stronger, progressively introducing concepts such as double attacks and double blocks in an attempt to add further depth to the combat. You build up ‘chi’ by fighting well, which you release with the ‘A’ button, giving you the ability to follow successful blocks with stun moves, which allow you to inflict heavy damage whilst you opponent is incapacitated.
Occasionally the action is broken up by the appearance of the villain’s hawk, which will attack you, forcing you to time a block and respond with a high or low attack, whittling down the avian’s health before a penultimate encounter with the warlord.
You pick up Mariko’s dropped Lotus flowers as power-ups, giving you much needed health boosts. Markio’s health power-ups can be hard to miss, and despite their seemingly obvious blue glow, I often bypassed them, cursing my lack of concentration. Success in the game all comes down to how careful you utilise these flowers and your stun moves, turning the game into what is essentially a score attack game, and a very ‘on-rails’ one at that, as to move from one enemy to the next, you simple move the thumbstick, in any direction.
So, eventually you reach a point where True Love is low on health and chi and is inevitably defeated before he reaches the warlord. Next life? Continue? Game Over? Wrong on all counts. In a short cut scene showing our hero fall to his death over a rocky cliff face, we are introduced to the Monk, who is also in love and has watched the princess from afar. He too is on a quest to rescue her, and he takes over from the progress of the true love. He has more health and greater strength, and so the quest continues, but as a different protagonist. Die as the Monk, and your quest continues as the hulking Brute, a common but strong man, who has also coveted the princess from afar. Each of the characters has progressively better stats, making the progress with the later characters easier.
Obviously, this leads to a situation where the ‘best’ ending is reserved for the true love character, requiring and challenging you to play through wholly as the weakest character to maximize your score and time. Die as the Brute and you are given the chance to continue as said character, with a points penalty. The first playthrough of the game feels excellent. The physics feel good, if a little difficult to follow, and there is a compulsive propulsion to the flow of moving from enemy to enemy, area to area.
However, the game plays its hands early and repetitiveness soon sinks in, and the game reveals itself to be shallow. There is challenge here, but it is difficult to muster the enthusiasm or the motivation to attempt repeated runthroughs. My second attempt felt like a serious case of déjà-vu, and despite its score attack mechanics and its different endings, there is very little here that is appealing to replay.
It is a shame, as the core fighting, though simplistic, feels fun and substantial and the presentation is charming. But there is very little to do in Karateka beyond the initial playthrough, and what originally feels like a stylishly controlled series of strong blows soon turns into a couple of limp slaps.
MLG Rating: 5/10 Platform: XBLA/PSN Release Date: Out Now
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a digital copy of Karateka HD for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of one week on a Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.