Maybe it’s because I wasn’t even born when Transformers became a big hit, but I never really got the appeal behind the whole mech trend. It always just seemed to be a highly impractical solution to a problem to me to build a giant robot, as those things must consume petrol faster than any supercar could manage, a single tiny electrical fault could potentially turn a giant machine of death to a giant piece of immovable metal and it’d cost a fortune to fire a single weapon due to how much work would be needed to make anything that can be fired by it. I like the IDEA of a giant killing machine, I’ll admit, but the practicality of it is something that I’ve always found rather questionable, which killed any major enthusiasm I could have had for it.
Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways for me to enjoy it. After all, you don’t have to be a fan of heavy metal music to enjoy Brutal Legend (though it is hard to deny that it helps), so games with mechs in aren’t exactly off limits to me. In fact, one of the first PS2 games I ever played was Robot Warlords, which is a mech based RTS game (granted, not a great one, but still…).
Which is where we turn to this game, LBX: Little Battlers eXperience. Probably best described as being like a handheld version of Gotcha Force (a game with a remarkably similar premise to this game), this is a game which is in the unique position of being both the first game in a reasonably long running franchise (well, OK, 2011 is hardly long running by most people’s standards, but it’s definitely an older franchise than it might seem at first glance) to make it out of Japan and the second enhanced remake of the original game in the franchise, making this the perfect jumping on point in the franchise and a rather good starting point should Level-5 consider continuing localising the franchise in the future.
Whether this will happen or not is hard to say, as it seems like the game managed to slip under a lot of people’s radar (certainly, I can’t say I’d heard of it until I found a copy of it in a second hand store and one of my friends, who is a HUGE fan of mechs in general and is fairly familiar with Nintendo’s game releases, didn’t know about it until I mentioned it to him) and I haven’t seen it pop up in any sales charts yet, so it’s likely that it won’t have gained enough of an international fandom to justify bringing it over (or, if it does, it won’t be a high profile release like the Project DIVA or Monster Hunter games have become in the last few years). Which is a huge shame if that is what happens, because this is actually not a bad game in its own right and is probably the next best thing there is to an actual sequel to Gotcha Force (if not potentially a BETTER thing, because you can take this game on the move with you).
Let’s start with the plot of the game. Now, I’ll admit that I have not played the game through to completion, so I’m basically judging this game from the first three episodes and the introduction to the fourth one (hence the slightly weird title of this article), but what I can tell you is that it’s kind of like your typical “ordinary student find themselves having to save the world through playing games” kind of thing that most people will know through watching stuff like Yu-Gi-Oh!, as the protagonist is a kid who gets given a mysteriously designed LBX and finds that it contain a special chip which, if it falls into the wrong hands, will result in it being used as a powerful weapon. Hardly a deep plot, but it gets the game moving and, as the game goes along, newer plot elements get added which add a much more personal reason for the protagonist to get involved in everything (though I won’t reveal these details to avoid spoilers), showing that their only incentive to do it isn’t just “because the fate of the world depends upon it”. It helps the game to avoid the serious business side of things that can bog down franchises like Yu-Gi-Oh!, but it keeps the stakes high enough that it makes the conflict rather compelling.
The gameplay itself is mostly fluid, albeit with a few minor criticisms on my part. For some reason, there is a slight delay between how some of the inputs work (not to the extent that it’s a major issue, but sometimes, this can lead to irritations, such as requiring you to count your ranged weapon shots because you can’t fire continuously), the angle you move at on the D-pad isn’t necessarily going to be the angle you want to move at on screen due to some poor angles being used and there are elements of the controls which will irritate some users (I find the boost mechanic for moving faster doesn’t really get a lot of use from me because, when combined with the jump, it can be weird to control properly) However, the controls themselves definitely work fine and, once you get used to some of the niggles, they don’t detract too heavily from the experience.
I find the characterisation of the main cast to be pretty solid. You can definitely tell that the characters are middle school students (though they don’t really SOUND like it) and they handle the situations in ways which seem very fitting for their characterisations. While I do think that one or two moments are a little bit of a stretch to believe (I’m pretty sure most middle school students who saw a giant death machine would not think to send tiny toy soldiers near it, but would run away screaming in terror), the characterisations definitely feel believable for characters of their age and they’re handled fairly well. The side characters are also reasonably well handled and serve their roles well. The villains, however…while I will acknowledge that the point of something which a child as the protagonist is to show children being very intelligent and handling tough situations over adults, part of me could only look on some of the decisions made in this game and go “Why don’t you just do [option]” and which, despite REALLY not being in keeping with what one would want to see in an anime, served as a reasonably valid question, with the prime example being when the main cast breaks into the villain’s’ base. Instead of doing the sensible thing of simply sending some security guards out to apprehend them and handing them over to the police, they let the protagonists continue travelling through their facility, no doubt finding out a bunch of trade secrets (and DEFINITELY finding out some facts about their company which could get them into a lot of trouble if revealed to the public), and try to focus on defeating an LBX held by one of the protagonists. OK, I get that they can’t get the chip while the LBX is active and they have to overpower the protagonist first to obtain it, but, on that example, there is literally nothing stopping them from sending out a couple of guards without any LBX models to escort them off the premises.
While I never personally used the customisation in my time with the game, I did take a look at it and there is certainly a lot to it, with features ranging from increased battery sizes, frames which have different resistances and weaknesses and adjustments to the special weapons being used. I was fine powering through the game with the default equipment I was given, but I appreciate that there is a lot to the customisation in the game, so players who find this stuff of utmost importance will definitely get a good kick out of this and it certainly is something which proper understanding of could result in some really powerful tactics and combinations.
The sound and voice acting in general across the game is really solid. I know that it seems a bit lazy to say that and then move on, but the only major fault I could find was that the child characters tended to sound less like middle school students and more like young adults, to the extent that I was joking that one of the protagonists could have been voiced by Dan Green (due to his hair reminding me of Knuckles the Echidna from the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise) and nobody would have noticed anything wrong…and, being realistic, I’ll take a vocal performance which sounds too old, but is otherwise great, over an appropriately aged performance which is just a bad performance (as tends to happen with child actors of middle school age doing voice acting: most child actors don’t tend to do well at voice acting, from my experience). So, nothing major to say here, really.
This all said, I do have a couple of pretty damning criticisms of the game. The first one is that the game isn’t really all that difficult. Now, in fairness, I am reasonably good as action RPGs to start with and my usual tendency when playing games in this genre is to grind up a couple of levels before trying to advance the main story (I blame playing too much Pokemon as a kid!), so I probably was a bit overleveled, and one could make the case that the game is more intended towards younger gamers (the age rating is 7 and above), so an insane difficulty curve is probably not really necessary. That said, I can’t say that I could see this game being a huge challenge to most people: it has a difficulty curve, but it says a lot that the biggest challenge I faced in the game was a fight which I HAD to lose to advance the story…and I still managed to take out half of the opponent’s health in that fight. I also must point out, as a polite counter response to the “can’t make difficult games for kids” argument, that a lot of gamers back in the 80s and 90s were kids and yet they were playing games like Rayman and Comix Zone without any real complaints (well, I know I wasn’t!), so it’s a bit disingenuous to act like younger gamers cannot handle a challenge just because they are younger than adult gamers.
I also don’t feel the graphics hold up especially well. Now, in fairness, the game was originally a PSP game and it is VERY animesque, so one could make a case that the art style suits what the game is aiming for, but I personally think that the art style is a bit too bright and colourful, which will give it the unfortunate association of being just a kid’s game to a lot of people. Even if that wasn’t a potential hurdle, the graphics in general are pretty underwhelming for what one would expect to see from a game like this. The 3DS can definitely handle games with 3D models that look better than this (Monster Hunter Generations proves that), but the graphics here feel very flat and closer to what one would expect to see from a demo or beta build of the game, not the final game itself. That said, this game DID originally get released in Japan in 2012, which was fairly early in the life of the 3DS, and it was the fourth 3DS game that Level-5 had done at the time (and, as far as I can tell, the first game with 3D modelling on the system that they had done as well), so some of this can be fairly put down to a lack of proper familiarity with the system and how it would handle these models. The problem, in my eyes, is that, to an international audience with no previous exposure to the franchise, this game is the one which needs to sell people on the franchise as a whole and the graphics just don’t really live up to the level they should do. While I’m sure that most would have regarded this as an unnecessary decision and pointless additional work had it been made, perhaps the international release of this game should have had a special remake to overhaul the graphics to better suit what the 3DS is known to be able to do nowadays so as to avoid this criticism and help to sell an international audience on the game, because I definitely could see people getting turned off of this game if they had been pointed towards it and the graphics were the first thing they had seen about them.
It’s somewhat hard to say how long the single player actually is, but I have put about five hours into it and I feel like I’m getting towards the part of the game where everything is starting to get serious and the training wheels have come off, so I think it’s reasonably safe to say that, if you try to power through the game as quickly as you can, you’ll definitely be looking at over 10 hours worth of gameplay (I personally suspect 20 hour is more accurate, but I’m only making an estimate and I’m pretty confident that the game will push past the 10 hour mark easily, so that’s my reasonable guess on it). However, you’ll be missing out on a lot if you do that, so one should bear that in mind. That’s not really a bad length for a 3DS game, if I’m honest: it’s long enough to keep you busy for a good while, but not so long that it starts to become a grind to keep playing over long periods of time.
While I have not been able to do anything with the game’s multiplayer due to being the only person I know who owns a copy of the game, I feel that I should point out that the game is unusual in that it offers six player co-op and that you can choose to play either a free-for-all or a three vs three mode. This might not SEEM like a big deal, but the 3DS usually tends to be restricted to 4 player co-op unless you’re talking about games like Mario Kart, so this is a very nice change of pace and the fact that you can have up to six players in multiplayer games allows for some really interesting ways to play the game, especially if you’re lucky enough to know five other people who have the game. Unfortunately, the game does NOT have download play at all and (to the best of my knowledge) does not have online play, so you will definitely need to find a group of people with the game before you can play the game with others.
Overall, I think I can see why LBX: Little Battlers eXperience didn’t really catch on when it had its international release. The graphics aren’t great, the difficulty curve is too lacking in real difficulty to offer a proper challenge to most people, the villains should be far more intelligent than the game makes them out to be and the gameplay has a couple of flaws which should have been removed. However, I can’t say that I have disliked my time with this game at all. It’s not a flawless game, certainly, but there’s some cool ideas in it that don’t really appear much on games on the 3DS console and I could see this being a solid enough purchase to be worth checking out if you don’t mind action RPG games and mechs in general. Not an essential purchase, but, if you’re looking for something that is a bit unusual for the 3DS system, you could certainly do far worse than this!
LBX: Little Battlers eXperience was released in Europe on the 4th of September 2015, developed by Level-5 and published by Nintendo. It is rated for ages 7 and above.