Kaiju Busters (or "Monster Busters" as its effective English translation goes) is just one in a long line of monster-based video games that we don’t often get to see in the West. This handheld effort from Bandai Namco inevitably draws comparisons with Capcom’s massively popular Monster Hunter games, and in that respect already has a lot going for it: an RPG set in a fantasy universe, with a plot-lite storyline and plenty of fantasy monsters to slay along the way.
With Japanese popular culture seemingly intrinsically drawn to the colossal and bizarre, it might go some way to explaining the appeal of these games in the East. Now that Nintendo has seen fit to grant the release of Capcom's Monster Hunter 3 on the Wii for the US and Europe, perhaps now is as good a time as any to take a further look into this curious sub-genre. Intriguingly, Kaiju Busters is tentatively linked to the long-standing Ultraman serials in Japan, and although the man himself doesn't make an appearance here per se, this is in fact a spin-off storyline of the recent TV series, which focuses on the exploits of the Science Patrol team. A cheap way of shoehorning in a popular licence to an otherwise simple premise perhaps, but to the unaware it shouldn't make that much difference either way.
So, with all that out of the way, what's the game actually about? The Science Patrol explores distant planets, collecting data on the inhabitants and, most crucially of all, kills a lot of strange monsters in the process. Even in the name of science, there’s some questionable motives going on here, but we’ll ignore that for now. The game opens by designing and naming your own character – a space marine whose job it will be to descend onto the unknown planets and deal out all of the disconcerting slaying. Over time you can acquire all kinds of impressive and strange suits, helmets and weapons. Most of the creatures encountered are familiar enough already, but the ultimate aim of many of the missions is to seek out and down the over-sized varieties that essentially act as the bosses of each level. As you encounter these strange beasts, they are paraded across both DS screens, just to give them an even more impressive sense of scale.
This all essentially boils down to a simplified hack-and slash adventure, sprinkled with all manner of weapon, character upgrades and associated levelling and stats so often associated with the genre. The characters and game world are rendered in full 3D, albeit slightly crudely, and the DS’s extra touch screen is mostly used to simple effect for menus, maps and item allocation. Although mission types fall into only a handful of categories (collect, search or destroy), Kaiju Busters can create an undeniable sense of intrigue each time your character explores a new planet or encounters an original foe, even though the worlds themselves are somewhat familiar (lava worlds, sand worlds – you get the idea).
What’s pleasing away from all of that is the NPC’s interaction with your own character before and after missions on the vessel. They’ll have you running errands around the ship and ask for you to find items during assignments, alongside all of the usual chitter-chatter and tactical help. It has to be said these parts of the game break up the play nicely, as although the missions themselves are plentiful, many can repeat or offer too little variation from others to hold your attention long enough. The little details dotted around the ship and computer terminals, not to mention the charming space opera atmosphere means there’s happily enough to engage between quests.
Less satisfying (and certainly one of the biggest concerns with the game) are the controls. Sluggish and sometimes annoyingly slow to react, traversing the planets – particularly on those aforementioned repeating missions – becomes tiresome. Even though the range of weaponry from swords, guns, shields and giant hammers allow for a bit of variety and tactics, and with the promise of the unseen never too far away, it can all get a bit droning. There’s a real sense that Kaiju Busters unfortunately seems unable to decide what it wants to be: an RPG or a more free-flowing adventure game, highlighted by what feels like an afterthought approach to combat. Luckily a multiplayer download play option is thrown in for good measure, and with up to four players navigating the game world together unsurprisingly makes those missions far more enticing and enjoyable.
It’s worth noting that non Japanese-reading importers might find progression a hard slog, such is the reliance on understanding mission briefings and character conversations to progress, not to mention the menus in general. If you fall into that bracket, there probably isn’t enough here to keep you engaged beyond a few hours, especially by that time those stodgy controls and repetitive missions will have long-since left their mark.
It’s ultimately disappointing to realise that Kaiju Busters fails to deliver the kind of intense entertainment its promising title suggests.