We first really noticed Moon Diver at E3 2010, as a trailer running in Square Enix’s booth. Back then, it was known as Necromachina. Before that, it was Moon Diver. No, we don’t know why, but neither name really makes sense anyway, so it doesn’t matter. Anyway, the game looked like a fast-action side-scroller with physics and craziness, like a cross between Strider and Super Smash Bros. Brawl‘s Subspace Emissary mode. (That Strider thing makes sense, as it’s made by some of the same people.) We’re suckers for four-player co-op, and the customizable elements kept it firmly on our radar.
Now that we have it, it’s everything we thought it would be. Not everything works out as well as we imagined, though.
You play as one of four characters, each with strengths and weaknesses. The three base stats are all fairly close between the four, but leveling up gives you a point to increase one stat, and each character has certain attributes that go up more with each point. For example, there’s a guy who is incredibly adept at power, and his will go up twice as much per point as the rest. The problem is that you sometimes do need a bit more health or something, and that balance-vs.-specialization tension can be interesting.
In the game, you jump around, attack things, hang onto walls, climb across ceilings, and generally do everything. At first, the freedom is fun, as there are so many ways to take on enemies. You can hang off platforms and shoot special attacks, you can jump around everywhere and slash, or you can remain on the ground and hit an attack button until you fall asleep. At some point, it starts being less liberating and more frustrating, since the lack of restraints makes for not-as-interesting level design, but it’s still fun.
Moon Diver focuses on speed, though, so you’ll power through things quickly. Whether it’s constantly-spawning bombs at your position that hit you if you don’t keep moving, enemies that blow up and explode in lines across the screen Bomberman-style or just hordes of bad guys that spawn right as you hit the last platform that you can just speed past, this isn’t a game in which you’ll ponder situations.
Along the way, you can pick up special attacks to equip to your character. These are called “MoonSault Combinations,” but that sounds ridiculous, so we’re not saying that again. Each character starts with one, and you can assign four to each direction on the D-pad. These can be big screen-clearing items, shields, buffs or just slightly-enhanced basic attacks that use small chunks of your meter. We wish these were tailored for each character to give them some, well, character, but everyone can access the same moves if they collect them on a stage. It’s still probably best to go with your strengths, though.
Moon Diver plays up to four players both locally and online, which is wonderful. Playing alone feels more like an old-school action game if you want that, though the levels are clearly designed for team play and will thus be less tightly-woven in single-player. There are leaderboards to try to climb after the game’s done, though we see this more as an evening-with-friends game than something to train at.
There are many downsides to the trend toward $15 downloadable titles, but the upside is that we’re seeing a lot more attempts from larger companies. Moon Diver would get a wholehearted endorsement at $10 (and we could see a sale in the future), but even as it stands it is a worthy purchase, simply because the team knew what a game needs to have some staying power. If a sequel comes (and we hope for one), we’d like to see a bit more variety in the characters’ fighting styles, and some changes of pace in the level design.
Pros: Fast-paced play, co-op, interesting character progression
Cons: A bit too frantic, Story so bad we didn’t mention it until now