"Mega Man Star Force is the start of yet another direction for the well-known video game hero, but it leaves a lot of room for improvement in later titles."
Mega Man Star Force is one of the newest of the Mega Man franchises. It began in 2006 as a successor to the Mega Man Battle Network series on the Gameboy Advance, and while it borrows some concepts from the Battle Network series, it also adds new elements and modifies the formula greatly. Unfortunately, in this first title in the series, it seems that many of the changes were either unneeded or simply made the gameplay worse. The story is extremely bland and straightforward, there are many more or less recycled sprites, and the graphical changes do not improve the series despite being on a new system. Moreover, the battle system has been robbed of much of the depth that was built throughout the Battle Network series. Like its predecessor, Star Force offers multiple versions of the game (Pegasus, Leo, and Dragon), which only vary slightly in the powers available to the player. This review is based on the Pegasus version of the game.
Mega Man Star Force picks up 200 years after the events of the Battle Network series in a world where everyone wears a "transer;" a sort of portable computer and communication device. People can be linked in relationships called "Brother Bands" through these transers in a process that solidifies one's friendships. The protagonist is a boy named Geo whose father disappeared while searching for other planets. His disappearance has made Geo afraid to get close to other people, so he does not go to school, preferring to keep everyone at a distance. While staring into space, an alien creature made up of EM waves appears to him and takes up residence in his transer, introducing himself as Omega-Xis of the planet FM. Together Geo and "Mega" (as he prefers to be called) can fuse to become Mega Man and enter an electronic world of EM waves, computers, and programs that also happens to be populated with dangerous viruses. Though Geo does not initially have any interest in living with Mega, he is soon forced to fight with him against other "FM-ians" who would endanger the Earth.
After things get started, the game takes an episodic approach with a different invader and theme for each part of the game, the basic formula for each being that a person is spurned by others in some way and is possessed by an FM-ian who takes advantage of his or her loneliness. Throughout these struggles, more of Geo and Mega's past is revealed, and Geo slowly begins to open up to other people in addition to learning more about his father. There are some minor plot twists, but the story is mostly predictable and obviously intended for younger audiences. It is light-hearted and starts off more like a cliché superhero story with Geo trying to conceal his identity as Mega Man from those around him.
Gameplay in Mega Man Star Force consists of exploring the real and wave worlds in an isometric view and fighting battles. There are a few real-world areas open to you, but the game is not expansive until you enter the wave world. In the wave world, you explore a labyrinthine network of roads above each real area and can "pulse in" to various electronic devices, from cars and doors to satellites. The game alternates between story-related scenes in the real world and areas in the wave world that function as dungeons with a boss FM-ian lying in wait at the end. Often, these areas are deliberately littered with dead ends. These dead ends force you to get in more random battles than you might desire, but once again appealing to younger audiences, none of the areas are particularly difficult, and the game is quite forgiving overall.
The battles are where Star Force lacks the quality of its predecessor. The view of battles is a 3D view from behind Mega Man on a grid. Mega Man can only move in a row of three squares, while enemies have about 12 squares in front of him to move through. This makes the movement in battles seem extremely restrictive. Battles are conducted by choosing battle cards with various offensive and defensive effects from a random selection of 6 (out of 30 in your folder), using them against the enemies, waiting for a gauge to fill up, then selecting cards again. This pattern very closely mimics the Battle Network series, but the method for choosing battle cards has changed. Out of the six cards the game presents, you can choose any two in the same column or two with the same name. Moreover, you can designate 6 chips in your folder at a time to be "favorites" that make them easier to choose together in battle. There is no real level up system in the game. Instead, your power will grow as you collect more powerful chips from enemies and data found exploring. There are some other battle minutiae such as a shield that can block attacks and a primitive lock-on system to make up for the restricted player movement, but overall, the battle system gets both boring and predictable. Much of the strategy in the original Battle Network games was the construction of a solid chip folder, a process akin to building a trading card game deck. While Star Force retains the folder building aspect, the new system for choosing chips makes even the most streamlined folders subject to more luck than players may want. All of these elements combine to make a straightforward but clunky battle system.
The graphics of Mega Man Star Force are another somewhat disappointing part of the game. During the exploration portions, the graphics are more or less exactly the same as the Gameboy Advance graphics used in the Battle Network series. There is literally no improvement in the move to the graphically more powerful DS other than the addition of a status screen, which is displayed on the second screen. The battle graphics do show some improvement with the new viewpoint and three-dimensional enemy sprites, but these seem almost out of place when the rest of the game looks like a Gameboy Advance title. The new viewpoint in battle makes it more difficult to comprehend a battle situation, between enemies who get behind each other and attacks that are sometimes hard to spot. In addition, the enemy models seem a little rough around the edges and certainly could have used some more polish. And given that many of the enemies are just recolored versions of each other, this doesn't seem like too much to ask for.
Speaking of recycling, a noticeable number of sound effects, from attacks to menu sounds, are ripped straight from the preceding series. This does not detract from the game in any sizeable way, but it seems like more effort should have been put into the first game of a new series. The music is passable and features mostly electronic, upbeat tunes for the real world areas and some foreboding music in the presence of enemies or dire situations. I thought the boss theme was probably the best music in the game, but it's on a little too short of a loop. The regular battle music you hear throughout the game is so bland that you will likely stop noticing it altogether.
The controls are what have come to be expected from most Nintendo DS RPGs. Pretty much every major function in the game is controlled without the use of the touch screen. During battles, you have the option of using the touch screen to select battle cards. In some exploration portions, the touch screen must be used to solve simple puzzles such as connecting stars to form constellations. The portions that use the touch screen seem extremely tacked-on (e.g. pressing a button on the touch screen to make the air in a room cool down). It is almost laughably pointless, but it does not impede the game in any way.
Mega Man Star Force is the start of yet another direction for the well-known video game hero, but it leaves a lot of room for improvement in later titles. While the straightforward story is excusable, the changes to gameplay make Star Force shallower and less enjoyable than Battle Network. The lack in graphical improvement begs the question of whether this was originally intended as a Gameboy Advance game. Despite these problems, Star Force does have some charm and is not an entirely bad game. The battle system and general formula still hold up relatively well, and collecting and experimenting with the various battle cards is fun. The game is not extremely long, but it has some postgame material with many cards to collect, secret areas to explore, and extra bosses to fight. Those desperately craving more Mega Man should probably give the game a try, but anyone on the fence would be best advised to look for better titles or just play the Battle Network games.