Uppers

1 month ago 31

Uppers is an over-the-top experience, and it knows it.

I think perhaps the most important data point I can provide is that the game is directed by Kenichirō Takaki, whose other credits include the Senran Kagura series. If you are familiar with that franchise then you probably have some idea of what to expect from this entry. If you are looking for a game that has a bit of that awooga awooga bombastic fan service then Uppers has you covered. At the same time, I wouldn't say it is a game devoted entirely to fan service, and what is there ranges wildly in tone.

I think it should be noted up front that Uppers is clear about its intentions. This is a special island where only the strong survive and all of the island's women love strength first and foremost. Our two heroes want to impress The BabesTM and set out to do just that. There's no grand philosophy here, no moralizing about the place of men and women in the world, and no attempt to pretend this is representative of anything other than a ridiculous action-movie-like setup. In that sense I can't fault it.

The game's story is broken up into acts, and each act is broken up into chapters. The chapters open with short dialogues between the cast members, usually done with in-game models or still images and text scrolling across the bottom. These small dialogues are mostly the main cast being surprised by gorgeous women, meeting new opponents, or occasionally getting insight into the backstory of Last Resort. There's not much here and it seldom does much more than introduce you to the next boss you'll have to fight within 1-3 chapters. As you progress through the acts your Adoration level goes up (more on that later) within the Act. You cannot unlock all the Chapters in an Act until your Adoration is at least 60%. Your Adoration goes up normally, but often this means you will have to replay prior levels to grind up the percentage, and beating on harder difficulties can earn higher benefits. When replaying a Chapter you can either use the story team or a custom team.

The core gameplay is familiar to anyone who has played a beat-em-up like this before. You have light and heavy attacks that can be strung into long combos. You have a grab button that can break through enemy blocks. The grab button has a secondary function that lets you interact with environmental objects, such as throwing bikes or spinning around lamp posts. You also have a rush attack button that normally just shifts your character forward slightly for a single hit, but is generally used to do Homing Kicks to launch your character across the room or to stomp on an enemy you sent flying. You can block and dodge enemy attacks, and if you dodge at the right time it zooms in and allows you to open up with a counter attack.

Your character has a few other side options in their arsenal. They can taunt, which is exactly as it sounds. You can also tag in/tag out with a backup character, which allows you to have two health bars in most levels. Lastly there is the Rise Up which is a super mode that you generate by fighting and engaging with the level mechanics. You generate meter and store these Rise Up charges for use whenever things are looking dicey. The Rise Up's activation does a burst wave that hurts and knocks back enemies, then you are able to attack faster for a considerable duration. Additionally, at the end of combo strings during Rise Up there will be times when a quick-time-event prompt gives you a chance to activate a special hyper-combo where you pummel the controller and your enemy as fast as possible for big damage.

Another key mechanic has to do with the women of Last Resort. When the game says that women only value strength it says it with its whole chest. There will be groups of women placed throughout the level who are cheering from the sidelines. These groupies love to see the carnage that you cause, and if you defeat enemies near them it will activate a Panty Slot mini game and if you get three matching pictures of up-skirt panty shots you will receive a bonus for a short time (yes really). Most importantly, each group in the level has a certain request that you can only fulfill while near them. These requests come from a pool of possible candidates that could include: beating a certain number of enemies within a time limit, knocking enemies against a wall a certain number of times, taunting twice without taking damage, finishing enemies by using throws, activating Rise Up, and others. If you complete these objectives you earn more Adoration and Love Points, as well as earn a chance to get love letters, panties, or other rewards from the girls.

The last main mechanic is your Support Queen. Initially Ranma and Michiru are followed by Luna, a fellow high school student. She accompanies you through the level and gains “experience” of a sort as you complete tasks. As her level increases she adds more passive buffs, such as making light attacks stronger or increasing throw damage. As the game progresses you earn new Support Queens who have different passive benefits to assist your team. During story missions the choice of Support Queen is the only major mechanical choice you have, while during replays you can customize your leader character, side character, and Support Queen.

All Support Queens have a health benefit and Rise Up mechanic. In the case of health, whenever one of your fighters drops to zero health a mini cutscene plays where the enemy knocks your fighter across the room and face first into the Support Queen's crotch. This rejuvenates your character and brings them up to half their health bar. If they drop to zero again they similarly get punched towards the Support Queen but instead get slapped so hard it ends the level. The Rise Up benefit comes from interacting with the sideline women of Last Resort. Sometimes when you go to take a love letter from them it will trigger a mini cutscene where a random enemy surprises you and (once again) knocks you across the room at the Support Queen - the twist being that you end up face first in her chest. This gives you a “free” Rise Up (no snickering in the back!) that does not consume one of your super meter stacks.

Most Chapters have you enter one of the games maps to clear it out of villains. You typically fight mobs of enemies that are anywhere from 3-8 enemy combatants, using the various tools at your disposal. The standard pattern is enter an area, beat up as many goons as are present, the gate unlocks and you move onto the next area to do the same. At some point you either fight a boss or the level ends. Occasionally a level will focus on one or two boss combatants, who usually are more aggressive and likely to use counters (or strings of counters) than standard opponents. But the objective is always to beat up all the enemies present and move on.

There's a hub area where you can make mechanical and cosmetic changes to your team. A training gym lets you spend love points to increase attack and health on your characters, as well as unlocking passives like increased damage resistance, longer combos, or more Rise Up stocks. You can change out Support Queens at the hub, and buy+equip new fashion for them as well as Ranma and Michiru. The changes range from color palette swaps to truly outrageous skimpy outfits for the Support Queens. You can also go and spend time with the Support Queens you've unlocked back at your apartment; this mostly involves rotating them in the outfit you've picked out and occasionally making parts of their body explode in hearts (interpret that as you will).

Uppers is a fairly straightforward experience. It is not particularly challenging and the core gameplay is simple enough that you could likely mash light/heavy at random and progress through the majority of the game without learning or utilizing the other mechanics. It feels great when you are delivering bombastic combos, whether or not you are actually trying or simply smashing buttons, with eye candy exploding off the screen with such force it is hard not to get caught up in the fun. In fact, the game often rewards your efforts so enthusiastically it can be hard to tell what is happening on screen.

That said, the game does do a good job of rewarding the player for good play. Perhaps one of the best is when there are location-specific special attacks, such as being able to dunk an enemy in a basketball hoop in the gymnasium, or upper-cutting an enemy into a low-flying helicopter down by the docks. I can't say what you should want out of your free time, but upper-cutting a street tough into a low-flying helicopter while my adoring fans chant my name is exactly what I want out of a video game.

The countering mechanic looks terrific when you execute it. It's not terribly hard to make it happen, since most enemies give off a flash or glow right before they attack, but the timing can be tricky depending on the enemy and not all of them give off this telegraphing. You don't really have to master it to beat the game - you can likely just tank every hit your enemies throw at you and then mash them into oblivion anyway - but when you do counter moves you get a slick camera zoom-in with speed lines, then a big flashy counter. Dodging multiple strikes form more than one opponent then scattering them all with counter-attacks looks and feels amazing, and that is when Uppers is really in its element. The most interesting mechanic is the cheering groups of women scattered throughout the levels. Sometimes they ask for rather mundane requests, but most often they ask for you to alter your playstyle or try something you wouldn't immediately go to if you were left to your own devices. Because the game does everything in its power visually and mechanically to encourage you to appease the roaring crowds of ladies, I tended to do whatever I could to make those happen. In a sense, it's almost like an achievement system in how it makes you try to do things that either don't come naturally, require you to up your mechanical precision, or have you think outside the box. In fact, due to the radius of the ladies' observation, I would often pull aggro on enemy mobs and run them back over within line of sight of a group of women I wanted to impress. We can (and will) discuss the fan service component of the game, but that is actually a great example of how mechanics can reinforce the game's story/premise: you are here to impress women and will go out of your way to do it.

The game has adjustable difficulty settings and the levels theoretically tell you the difficulty in advance, but this seems to be entirely arbitrary. In my experience every level felt identical in difficulty: really easy, unless I was trying to do all the ladies' challenges in which case it was just easy. I only truly felt challenged to learn the game in a random battle midway through the game where you switch to a younger protégé of the team and have to face two bosses at the same time. Suddenly learning how to counter attacks, space my Rise Ups, and use the environment became crucial to completing the stage. That was one of the most rewarding wins of the game by far, and while it was a challenge I left the stage as a better player than when I entered it. Sadly, the game never meets this challenge again, and my most common reason for losing a fight was because I accidentally kicked a goon into an explosive canister and it knocked off a third of my health.

One of the major factors for your enjoyment of Uppers will be repetition. On the one hand, who are we kidding - every beat-em-up has repetition. You mash buttons until bad guys fall down, no matter the franchise. The problem here is that the usual methods for alleviating the grind are not really present. There are maybe ten locations in the game tops, and you spend most of the game seeing the same five or so over and over again. They are not terribly detailed and there is no exploration to speak of. The enemy types are all carbon copies of one another even if they look slightly different, many of them having little to no thematic resemblance to the stage they're in. None of them have unique move-sets, just different levels of health and aggressiveness. The same tactics that defeat the first low level goon are the same tactics that defeat the end boss, with little to no variance in between. There are additional post-game challenges too, but they involve beating hordes of enemies in a survival-mode scenario and that is basically more of the same.

The upgrade system adds a few numbers to your baseline abilities but you don't gain access to new weapon types or fighting styles as you progress. Even though you technically unlock new fighters as the game progresses, you have to use the core duo for the story missions. Plus the new fighters all have the same move-set even if the animations are slightly different. Every now and then a character has a slightly different minor ability - such as Hiroshi's strong attack doing an AoE style pulse - but the effects are minimal at best. Combined with the high reward of doing what the cheering fans want rather than what you might want to do, and you end up playing the same way more often than not.

There are minor technical issues that hamper the experience as well. More than once I randomly crashed to desktop, particularly prevalent during failed panty slot sequences - not a sentence I ever thought I'd type but life is full of surprises. My PC is no slouch, able to run most modern PC games at high or ultra settings, but I still had major framerate drops when the screen got busy and given that it's a four year old Vita title I'm guessing it was more optimization than my technical specs. The camera is also comically bad at times, easily stuck behind walls or pushed in too close for comfort. Even when it is normally spaced it feels pushed in, which is a holdover from it being a Vita game I would imagine.

Another minor annoyance was that the tutorial/pop-ups that gave directions always indicated the keyboard keys even when I had a gamepad plugged in. That's a minor note for most functions - when the game says ESC I assumed it meant Start and was correct - but sometimes it was more difficult to figure out what the correct action button would be. “When it says ‘press HOME to throw the bicycle’ does it mean X, Y, A, or B?” sort of situation. It's a minor quibble within the same playthrough, but if you walk away from the game for a day or two then come back you may have to reset your mental bearings and that can be an unneeded frustration.

The fan service is another major variable for your enjoyment. In one sense, it is everywhere. You're going to see a lot of women in variable amounts of clothing, and whether you want to engage with the “apartment visiting” segment of the game or not you will be getting knocked face first into private parts and seeing wind-blown up-skirt shots quite regularly. It's also important to note that a significant portion of the women in the game are 16-17, and therefore underage. For myself that was absolutely the biggest flashing warning sign.

By the same token, the fan service itself is very surface level. There is no outright nudity, and many of the situations - while ridiculous - never cross over into bizarre non-consensual territory. While I agree that the premise of “all women want to see is strong men” is absurd, the core gameplay loop is “do what women want you to do and they will cheer for you and/or give you love letters.” That is… relatively tame, at the least, especially compared to what it could be (as I mentioned this is the Senran Kagura team). While the constant stream of fan service is a lot, I would also say that no single instance of it is out of bounds for what you might see in a modern shonen anime (and compared to certain titles, a lot less than that even).

For the record, as someone who was only in this game for the action, I was mostly able to roll my eyes and move on with the game. If you want to check out the title and fan service is a concern for you, I'd recommend just never visiting the Apartments area and you will probably be able to do the same.

The game is not terribly long either. I was able to finish the main campaign in about ten hours, and spent a little extra time clearing the side levels and goofing around in survival mode to get more unlocks or level up Support Queens. At the time of this writing, the game retails for $29.99. Some gamers want as much playtime as possible for their dollar, while others I know actually want a game to resolve in a timely manner so they can feel it is “finished” before they move on. At that price point the game seems to straddle the line between the two camps, though whether or not that is a fair price is ultimately up to your expectations.

Honestly, the game is fun even with its flaws, though the biggest draw for me probably comes from the character designs and artwork. The legendary Hiroaki Hashimoto, or HIROAKI himself, does the character artwork for Uppers. If you have spent much time playing any of the King of Fighters franchise in the past twenty or so years, his art work will jump right out at you. The characters are gorgeous and varied, whether the still shots or their fully-realized cell-shaded in game models. For a game that is leaning so heavily into its look, this was probably the best decision they could have made because Hiroaki's work is so evocative. Because his style is synonymous with that sort of street fighting bravado it drew me in immediately, and in part I was eager to keep playing if only to unlock new characters done up in his signature style.

Overall, Uppers is bombastic cheesy fun. At no point does the game force you to go down any one of its rabbit holes, but if you want to pursue a certain avenue it will reward you with a good time while doing so. If you can roll with the initial premise it's a fun quick ride that will likely give you a good weekend's worth of entertainment.

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