Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Bright Light Studios
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: Cartridge
Released: US 03/10/09
Japan 01/22/09

Graphics: 75%
Sound: 85%
Gameplay: 85%
Control: 80%
Story: 75%
Overall: 80%
Reviews Grading Scale
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Have you ever seen Bruce Lee looking so happy?
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You've got a lot of teammates to choose from.
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This is going to be the meanest game of patticake ever.
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Momma always said not to get too close to the speakers...
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John Tucker
John Tucker

In any genre of games, there are some entries that appeal to the masses, some that only hardcore fans have the background to enjoy, and some that are intended to bring in new fans. Many times, these last efforts are geared at younger players, and that makes sense. Zubo is clearly one of these "gateway" games, intended to bring younger players into the fold of RPG fans, and I was actually surprised to see it come out of EA.


Zubo's story is, like the rest of the game, fairly easy to follow. You are a human who is magically brought into the Zubos' homeland to lead them to defeat Big Head, who is attempting to take over with his Zombos (zombified versions of the Zubos). Your quest will take you through five different lands, meeting and recruiting Zubos to your army as you go. It's cute, and if you're reminded of a Saturday morning cartoon when playing, I imagine that it was intentional. It's not necessarily anything special, but I felt that it fit the target audience well.


In some ways, Zubo will remind you of Pokémon: it's a traditional RPG, each of your Zubo team members can only know four moves at a time, you can recruit up to 55 different Zubos (gotta catch 'em all), and battle strength is based on levels and a rock-paper-scissors system. However, Zubo is more forgiving than Pokémon, in that your characters can switch moves that you've unlocked at any time outside of battle, and in that the rock-paper-scissors system only has three elements (as opposed to fire-water-grass-psychic-ghost-etc.).

You can take up to three Zubos into battle, where one member of your team takes one turn, then one enemy takes a turn. You can use whichever Zubo you choose on each turn, but it's worth noting that most attacks can only be directed at the enemy who took the last turn. Characters on both sides are conveniently marked with icons over their heads showing which of the three types they are and whether the character you're choosing is strong, neutral, or weak to the active enemy. This is really helpful because it stops you from getting mixed up and using a weak character instead of a strong one.

Attacks are rhythm-based, and use a system that reminded me of Shadow Hearts' wheel system (in gameplay, not graphically). Tapping the screen at just the right time earns you a grade of "sweet," and you'll only attack at full strength if all of your taps for that attack were sweet (although it's worth knowing that the timing is fairly forgiving). Even better, you have a fairly good chance of earning an extra turn for that perfect attack. In one battle, I managed to completely destroy an enemy by getting three turns in a row. Doing well also earns your team power points, although perfection is not required for them. Most attacks can earn you two power points, and your attacks cost from zero to four power points each, while basic attacks are free. Thus, after an initial basic attack, you can use your two-point moves for all of your turns in the battle. However, the strongest attacks, which cost four, may attack just one enemy for massive damage, or they may do things like damage the whole enemy team or heal your whole team, so you'll want to save up power for them as well.

One of the things I really liked about Zubo is that since your enemies are zombie versions of the same people you can recruit, they follow the same rules as you do. Their good moves cost power to use, and while they can earn extra turns, I didn't feel like it happened any more often for my enemies than it did for me. The attacks are cute, and since you're focused on your rhythm during your turn, it's actually nice that the enemies use the same attacks because it lets you see what they look like. Even better is the fact that you can fast-forward through the enemies' attack animations, because watching a game of patticake go horribly wrong may only be funny the first 10 or 20 times you see it, and with five chapters to go through, players who finish the game will probably see each of the attacks a lot more times than that. On the other hand, you have fairly limited inventory space, mainly used for healing items, and you can't use them in battle, which can be frustrating.


As you'd expect from a game aimed at a younger crowd, Zubo is a fairly cute game. All of the characters except for you are built on a similar model, but their skins make them quickly distinguishable from each other. Although it's not a sequel, you'll run into many familiar faces during the game - two of your first three team members are Zubo versions of Bruce Lee and Robocop, and you're later joined by classic storybook characters like Pinocchio and Little Red Riding Hood and friendly monsters like Dracula and the Mummy. Kids may not actually recognize folks like Bruce Lee, but it's a nice touch for those of us who are "kids at heart."

Outside of battle, you and your Zubos are three-dimensional characters running around in a land of 2-D sprites that I found rather pixelated and unattractive at times. However, when you're battling, the game looks great, with smooth animations and generally very clear indicators of when you're supposed to tap the screen. I can only think of two attacks off the top of my head where the animation moved around too much for me to get the timing down quickly. Of course, they were strong attacks, so I made the effort to learn.


As a game with rhythm-based attacks, music is very important to Zubo. Different areas within each land have different music, and it's generally pretty decent, although nothing really stood out to me as excellent. Your attacks are timed to go with the beat of the music, and I was impressed by how well they managed to sync up the attacks with all of the different music because it really helps you earn those extra turns. Come to think of it, that may be why no one theme stuck out to me as great - all of the music must have followed the same basic beat, or the attacks wouldn't work with it.


I have never played a game with simpler controls than Zubo, and I doubt I ever will. Everything in the game is done via the touch screen, from walking around the world to choosing attacks to actually making those attacks. The controls are accurate (also important for rhythm-based attacks), but there were times when the camera moved me into a corner, and I would have appreciated being able to use the D-pad to walk around. I could still get out via the touch screen, but it would have been easier with the D-pad. My only other gripe is that when you try to hand your Zubos a healing item from your inventory, they jump up and down, and you'll sometimes have a tough time actually getting them to take the item. Fortunately, the game pauses while you're in your inventory, so you're not in danger of anything other than getting a little frustrated at the wasted time.


Zubo should work well for its target audience of younger gamers who haven't necessarily had much exposure to RPGs, but it doesn't lack appeal for more experienced players who aren't turned off by "cute and uncomplicated." It's unlikely to make it to the top of anyone's game of the year list, but it's still worth a look if you're between AAA titles.


© 2009 Electronic Arts
All Rights Reserved.

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