The Wii is well known for a few of its high-profile fighting games, but otherwise the console isn’t exactly a haven for the genre. Everybody knows about Smash Bros, which is an unorthodox fighting game at best, and just this year we got the fantastic Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, but aside from the rather puzzling Castlevania Judgment, there aren’t many other heavy hitters on the Wii.
If anything, independent studio High Voltage Software has established themselves as innovators on the Wii. They fine-tuned their proprietary Quantum 3 engine to push the console’s graphical capabilities. They launched their first original IP, The Conduit, on the platform and are turning it into a franchise with a sequel due out later this year. They’re even working on a separate FPS version of their Left 4 Dead-style monster hunter, The Grinder, exclusively for the Wii, while the PS3 and 360 get a more traditional top-down version.
What HVS’s games lack in construction they more than make up for in ambition, and from what we’ve seen on Conduit 2, HVS is learning quickly. Early last year they demoed a strange fighting game called Gladiator AD. It used an unconventional behind-the-back perspective and sported gritty, bloody graphics in a Roman coliseum setting. At the time I thought the game looked interesting, but a bit homogenous. Apparently HVS and publisher Sega have similar thoughts: a year later and the game had been transformed into the flashy, colorful Tournament of Legends.
The result is a fighting game that looks more traditional, but retains a few of the novel ideas from its original design. If you want to visualize Tournament of Legends in a nutshell, think of Soul Calibur set in the myths of antiquity. Still, that’s only at a glance. Tournament of Legends is a game that is very hard to judge from outward appearances, because it combines so many traditional fighting game elements with new ideas.
The story is an epic tale of competing gladiators much like the Soul series or even Mortal Kombat, but the flavors of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Norse myths make it stand out. A collection of type-A personality gods, goddesses and supernatural fighters are trying to kill the god of death and claim his power, then ascend to the throne in Jupiter’s mysterious absence. The backgrounds for each character are actually well planned out, and fully voiced by an oracle-type character at the beginning of the story mode. This is accompanied by pictorial sequences showing the characters’ motivations, which works a lot better than it sounds on paper and makes each character a lot more relatable than your typical fighting game roster.
There are only ten characters in all, a couple of them unlockable, but the larger than life back-stories and the characters’ over the top personalities make each one stand out. You’ll play as insufferable Roman gladiator Marcus, a stone golem of Jupiter with a serious inferiority complex, Bravehoff the Minotaur with anger issues, the idealistic valkyrie Kara, and the spoiled-rotten Egyptian cat-goddess Bast. Each character’s voice acting is played-up and outrageous, but it does set the game apart from the rest of the genre, and in any case it’s interesting to see a Western take on a predominantly Japanese territory.The gameplay is a similar strange hybrid of established conventions and HVS’s own novelties. For starters there’s that weird perspective. You face your opponent head-on and with the view canted slightly to the right. This makes it a little difficult to judge distances, and for that purpose there are two opposing crescents—one for each fighter—projected onto the ground, which light up when you get into striking distance. Having your opponent in full view makes it easier to predict what they’re doing, but also a bit harder to judge what moves your character is performing, at least at first.
Overall it’s somewhat reminiscent of the over-the-shoulder style pioneered by Resident Evil 4, but with an emphasis on combat balanced between both arms. You can tell the basic idea was to map the Wii remote to the right arm and the Nunchuk to the left, letting you mimic your character’s body movements with motion gestures. It’s a cool idea, but the relative slowness of the attacks in Tournament of Legends and the typical loose response time of the Wii remote made it very difficult for me to get used to the standard control scheme.
Luckily, HVS has implemented the extensively customizable control options that have sort of become their unofficial trademark ever since The Conduit. You can assign any move or command to any button, and what’s more the Classic Controller is fully supported. After years of fighting games on traditional game pads I found this old-school method much easier to pick up, and it was a nice excuse to get more use out of my trusty Nyko Wing.
The rest of the gameplay flowed naturally but was a bit of a strange fit. The basics of the fighting genre are all present—combos, selectable weapons, timed matches ands KOs—but HVS has added other innovations besides perspective. While it takes the standard 3 KOs to end a fight, if you’re good enough you can get all three in a single round; scoring a KO does not automatically start the next round. When you’re knocked down both you and your opponent can perform on-screen combos to restore HP. Every character also has armor that visibly degrades in combat, and as your helmet and armor plates shatter you take increasing damage to your HP bar. Between rounds you get a brief chance to rebuild your armor and replenish health, by means of a simple minigame.
In homage to the classic Marvel vs. Capcom series, you also get a special power bar that increases as you deal and take damage. Combo-ing your special button with a stick direction unleashes one of four character-unique attacks at the cost of magic, or you can use smaller amounts to throw projectile weapons. In addition to this, however, is a second single-use meter that temporarily gives your weapon a unique attack power. These enchantments are unlocked as you progress through the story mode and can be chosen before a match. They are similar to game-type modifiers in other fighting games but can be used tactically.
All of these elements make for a curious hybrid of the genre’s longstanding ideas, many of them implemented in novel ways. The only problem is that they’re executed somewhat sluggishly, making fluid combat difficult at first. For example, each arena has a hazard that randomly attacks both opponents, which can be avoided by a quick-time event. These sequences are more like interactive custscenes, however, and break the flow of combat. In the end managing all of Tournament of Legends’ disparate ideas is a juggling act, and coupled with the slower than usual combat pace, this makes the game a bit awkward to get into.
That doesn’t mean the game is bad—not by a long shot. The production values are high and the graphics represent the same raw technical quality we’ve come to expect from the Quantum 3 engine. Like Conduit, Tournament of Legends is a first attempt at an original IP; it has several good ideas that are used in creative ways, they just aren’t put together smoothly enough for a consistent, intuitive experience.
It’s fair to say that there are considerably better fighting games on Wii with more content, but Tournament of Legends at least tries to be humorous and inventive with its story and characters, in a genre that has trended toward the same clichés year after year. For that I think Tournament of Legends deserves a little extra credit. I also place high importance on value. Tournament of Legends might be lacking in a number of areas but for $30 it’s a quality package, with more class, creativity and heart put into it than the vast majority of Wii budget titles. For that price, it’s a solid addition to any Wii library and an interesting take on the fighting genre.