After twenty-one years out of the spotlight, Pit’s return on the 3DS sees him going up against his most dangerous opponent yet – smartarse reviewers. The series has the unique problem of being named after a legendary figure whose wings burned up because of his over-ambition. Hyped up on pop-cultural memories of George Costanza lamenting that he ‘flew too close to the sun on wings of pastrami’ and Lucille Bluth admonishing Michael for letting Buster out in the sun, it’s all too tempting to convince yourself, as a reviewer, that Kid Icarus Uprising has suffered the same fate, aiming high and ruining itself in the process.
A few levels in, this seems like a likely conclusion – despite its excess content, dazzling scenery, clever difficulty slider and online multiplayer, Uprising appears to have bitten off way more than it can chew with its control scheme. Once Pit hits the ground five minutes into each level and starts running around, things get seriously clunky. But thankfully, the more you get to grips with the controls, and the further you dig into the game’s systems of mechanics and unlockable items, the more there is to like about Pit’s return.
Kid Icarus Uprising is the brainchild of Masahiro Sakurai, the man responsible for the Smash Bros. series. His style is plastered all over the game’s menus, its numerous play options, and its habit of hurling collectables at you whenever you do absolutely anything. Everything in Uprising is based around the game’s ‘heart’ currency. You collect hearts for almost every action you perform in single-player and multiplayer, which are used to modify the ‘Intensity’ of levels in the campaign. With the intensity turned down, the game is a cinch; turn it up all the way and most players will have no hope of getting past the first level without dying a bunch of times.
Playing at a higher intensity means putting more hearts on the line, but it also means that better loot is available to you, and you’ve got a better chance of unlocking cool new weapons. The game is jam-packed full of weapons, all of them with different stats and attributes, and you can fuse them together to create new weapons that share attributes of the two you fused. It’s a fun system to play around with.
Each level in the single-player campaign is comprised of three parts – a flying section, a ground section, and a boss battle. Uprising is at its most confident during the first third of each level, as Pit swoops over majestic vistas, hurtles through canyons and chases down enemies at a fantastic speed. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, and the shooting action plays out like a
heavily modified Starfox, with very few choices offered for which paths to take – you’re mostly just dodging with the stick and shooting with the stylus and the L button (or the R button if you’re left-handed and have nabbed yourself a Circle Pad Pro – the controls would otherwise be untenable, sadly).
Flying is an absolute joy, and an activity that the developers clearly revel in. Pit himself is at his most excitable in the air, and the set-pieces in these sections get wilder as the game goes on. Best of all, at some point during every flight section the game’s excellent music will briefly cut out, giving you a moment of silence (and typically respite from the enemies) to take in the grandiose nature of the environments you’re flying through. Whether you’re soaring over a battlefield, zipping between columns of lava or marvelling at a physics-defying space ocean, these ellipses are a clear statement of pride from the development team at Project Sora, and an invitation to flick on the 3D and drink in their achievements.
And then, eventually, Pit will land for the second part of the level. The controls remain the same as they were in the air, but ironically you don’t feel quite as stable once you’re on solid ground. The stylus is used to control both your aiming reticule and the camera – slide it to aim your weapon, flick it to move the camera. At first this feels like a camera system devised by an inferior third-party, one new to the hardware and utterly unsure of how to work around the machine’s design. But within two or three hours you’ll learn to live with, and even appreciate, the controls. They’re not comfortable by any means – and the included stand doesn’t really do much, so don’t expect to get much use out of it – but they’re about as good as they could possibly be for the game Project Sora wanted to make. As long as you don’t mind taking a break every two or three levels to avoid cramps, they’re manageable.
Once you get used to putting the game down occasionally, you’ll come to appreciate these parts of the game, filled as they are with hidden treasures, rooms locked to those playing on lower intensities, kooky vehicles to pilot, and a whole cabal of monsters to kill. The level design is frequently a tad dull, with plenty of bland interior sections, although there is the odd exception. One level in particular, a crazy technicolour tribute to the art of deception, really stands out.
For the most part though you’ll be focused on combat, which isn’t quite as elegant as it could be thanks to the limited controls, but can get suitably hectic when you’re dodging and strategically firing back at several different enemies, targeting weak points, pack leaders and particularly dangerous foes first. The game likes to get you into a tight space and then spawn enemies all around you, which makes for frantic combat. You can equip certain powers to use in combat as well, but choosing which one you want to use means scrolling between several tiny icons on the touch screen, which is incredibly awkward in the heat of battle.
It’s this portion of the game that the multiplayer takes after. Every player gets to choose their own weapon and item load out, so battles are a good cross section of different attacks and strategies. There are only two modes – a free for all and a three on three team battle mode – but they’re both surprisingly great fun. The awkward controls are a little less of a pain when you know that everyone else is dealing with them as well, and being able to unlock new weapons and items by playing gives incentive to go online in lieu of any familiar XP structure. It won’t keep you going as long as Mario Kart 7 will, but Uprising’s multiplayer is pleasantly addictive, and even comes with bots if you want to put in some practice.
Going back to the single-player campaign, the boss fights are all great fun too, usually relying on sheer grunt determination on your part rather than memorising patterns or waiting for weak points to be revealed. None of them stand out as being particularly incredible, but then none of them are frustrating or unfair in any noticeable way either. The best thing about them is the banter between Pit and these enemies, which is indicative of the game’s surprisingly sharp sense of humour.
Nintendo characters aren’t typically known for regaling the player with recorded dialog (let’s try to forget about Metroid: Other M’s script), but Pit rarely shuts up. The charm and humour that the game milks from Pit’s banter with his mentor, the goddess Palutena, is very welcome, and the interactions between these two and their various enemies veers between being very funny and surprisingly thought-provoking. The unhinged Earth goddess in particular has a pretty reasonable motivation for wanting to destroy humankind. It’s certainly not writing on par with, say, Metal Gear Solid 3, but it’s more than we expected.
To come back to our earlier appalling (but inevitable) metaphor, Kid Icarus Uprising definitely soars a little close to the sun, but manages to get away with only slightly singed wings.