Bakugan Battle Brawlers Review: Almost There

Part marbles, part Pokemon, anime and toy sensation Bakugan Battle Brawlers brings 2008's Toy of the Year to the console in a game that drops players into the Bakugan world, battling transforming monsters in a race to save the planet.

But can a video game capture the essence of a toy made popular by it's ability to physical transform from ball to creature?

Loved
Essence of Bakugan: The popularity of the collectible card game is driven by the nature of the little marble-like Bakugan. These balls, when rolled across a metal card, pop open to reveal a tiny monster inside. Each creature has points, which can be modified with cards. The Bakugan with the highest point count at the end wins.

The video game does an excellent job of capturing the look and feel of these tiny creatures and the way the spring to life. While the battles animate the Bakugan, everything leading up to that moment feels like the real-world game. The marbles roll around an arena responding the shape of the playing field and the tilt of your controller. And if a ball lands on a card it springs open, just like the Bakugan you may have in your home. Cards are still used to modify points. The only real difference is how the winner is determined, with mini-games modifying the final point count for each creature.

Throw and Control: To play the game, both on a console or in the real world, players take turns throwing their balled Bakugan across an arena, trying to land it on a card. In the Wii version of the game, you do this by first selecting a Bakugan with your remote, then determining if you want a standard or power throw. Finally you aim and throw the ball with your remote. Once in motion, you can guide the ball around the arena by tilting the controller. If you run out of energy before landing on a card the ball returns to your hand and it's the other player's turn. The object of each battle is to win three cards either in battle or by lading two of your Bakugan on a card. The responsive controls of the Wii remote, while the Bakugan is in motion, makes the game surprisingly fun and adds a level of skill to what could have been a game of pure numbers.

Arenas: Taking advantage of the video game medium, the developers created a number of themed arenas packed with power-ups and cards. Instead of just throwing your Bakugan at a card, players are tempted into exploring the arena on the hunt for powerful items that can be used in battle. But if you run out of energy before making it to a card you lose everything you collected.

In the Game: While there aren't a ton of ways to customize the look of your character, there are enough to make him or her look sort of like you. And once you've created your character he or she will show up in every animated cut-scene for the game, right there along side all of the characters from the cartoon. It's pretty neat.

Multiplayer: While the single-player campaign may test your skills as a Bakugan Brawler, the multiplayer, which allows up to four players to battle at a time, is where you'll likely have the most fun. It's here that the game will be most played.

Special Shots and Sphere Attacks: Another neat addition to the basic Bakugan play is the ability to rack up enough power over time to do special shots when you throw a Bakugan. You can also use shots to smack into an opponent's opened Bakugan to damage it before a battle starts. Both of these abilities add a bit more tactical action to the game.

Hated
Touchy Remote: While the controls work flawlessly when controlling the Bakugan in motion, the time spent leading up to your throw can be very frustrating. In particular, grabbing a Bakugan and then deciding what sort of shot you want can often be problematic, with the controller deciding for you because of the way the game is designed.

Plot: Unlike a game like Pokemon, where the battles with other characters are neatly woven into the framework of the story, Bakugan's story comes as an aside to gameplay. All of your gaming, with the exception of the forced training done in the park, comes during tournaments which are almost completely story free. It would have been nice to see the game presented in a bit more cohesive manner.

Limited Mini-Games: There are only three mini-games in Bakugan Battle Brawlers. Three games used to decide who wins in a match-up. Players will shoot symbols, tap buttons in a rhythm game or shake the controller. While each of these mini-games have a number of difficulty settings, they can become tedious over time because every single match up has to include one of them. It would have been nice if the developers had included a half-dozen or even dozen mini-games instead. Three is just too little.

Bakugan Battle Brawlers does a better job of laying out the basic rules of playing the game than the actual card and marble game you can buy in a store. It's an impressive feat to manage to outdo the source material and in many ways that's just what this video game does.

Will Bakugan Battle Brawlers usurp Pokemon's throne? No, not by a long shot, at least not yet. To do that the game will have to spend a lot more time on the story and building up both the characters and the creatures they collect, but I found the basic mechanic of battle much more engaging than I've ever found Pokemon to be.

Bakugan Battle Brawlers isn't without its flaws, but there's something very engaging about playing the game. The physical nature of controlling your throws, exploring the arenas and then watching your Bakugan spring to life all had me coming back for more.

Bakugan Battle Brawler was developed by NOW Production and published by Activision for the DS, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 on Oct. 20. Retails for $49.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played the campaign mode for six hours and multiple multiplayer matches on the Wii.

Confused by our reviews? Read our review FAQ.