Same Joe time, Same Joe station.
A glance at any modern anime proves that the Japanese have a knack for making sense out of chaos. One minute two friends are having a chat about bullies; the next, the universe is collapsing around them while a giant robot squid battles a demonic skyscraper, who in reality is the enraged superego of a schoolgirl witch. Fast forward a little and I guarantee someone will have destroyed the world in order to save it, and yet still turns red with embarrassment when kissed on the cheek. It makes perfect nonsense.
Such preposterous storytelling and twisted thinking has given rise to a whole new generation of anime adoring kids, but it takes a special kind of Weird to please adults as well. And when it comes to odd Japanese cartoon heroics, there is no game character groovier than Viewtiful Joe.
The first game was a critical and commercial hit thanks to its unique style and fantastic action, leading Capcom to turn what looked like a Gamecube exclusive into a PS2 crossover. Like any do-gooder, Joe knows to strike while the iron is hot. Viewtiful Joe 2 has sped on to store shelves just in time to compete for your holiday dollar, and though this hero hasn't learned many new tricks, he still knows how to stick it to the bad guys like a pro.
Having just saved the world from destruction, Joe and his girlfriend Sylvia are suddenly tossed into another bizarre romp on the other side of the silver screen. A mysterious force is threatening to do something nasty by using a multi-colored collection of magical Academy Awards, which Joe and his lady must liberate. It's all decidedly stranger than that thanks to an insane, tongue-in-cheek script, wacko bosses and what seems to be intentionally poorly translated text.
For the most part, VJ 2 plays out just like the original game. You'll battle scads of enemies on a multitude of side-scrolling levels, all the while honing your VFX talents and collecting 'Viewtifuls' with which to buy new moves and lives. The three original VFX powers – Slow, Mach Speed and Zoom - all make a return, although for some reason you acquire them slowly over the course of the first few levels instead of getting them from the outset.
Using these powers is key to defeating enemies. You'll use Slow the most since it comes in handy on both offense and defense. Mach Speed creates multiple versions of Joe and lights 'em on fire, dealing extra damage. Zoom dishes out the biggest hits and triggers the essential Ukemi defense move (after it's been purchased, of course.) The better you use these powers to dispatch foes, the more Viewtifuls you'll acquire and the quicker you'll gain cool new moves.
The more astute of you might have picked up the fact that now you get to fight as Sylvia in addition to Joe, which is as simple as pressing Z to toggle between the two at any time. Sylvia's main benefit is her unique VFX power (and the only new VFX power in the game), Replay. Pressing Replay before hitting something will trigger three replays of that move, resulting in more damage to enemies or Sylvia, depending on who got hit during the move. She gets an electric charge after a successful replay, which, like Joe's fire, does extra damage.
Sylvia also comes equipped with her own move set and some handy pistols, giving her much longer range than Joe. Her Replay ability comes at the expense of Mach Speed and is far less useful, which sadly goes for Sylvia in general. You might use her for a few screens, but most VJ fans will rightfully opt to play as the hero since he's clearly a more effective character thanks to his brutal melee attacks.
Either way, VJ 2 is just as fun as the last game. The combat system is a study in smart, simple design, giving you a multitude of ways to dispatch your enemies despite only two attack buttons. Using the VFX powers to full effect creates plenty of exciting, cinematic moments, the stuff that great games are made of.
Viewtiful Joe 2 is also filled with a variety of tricky puzzles requiring quick reflexes and clever use of the characters' abilities. You'll need to swicth back and forth between them to get through some of the tougher bits, perhaps lighting Joe on fire to ignite a candle, then using Sylvia's Replay to smack a button three times before it goes out. The puzzles break up the monotony of the combat and really show off the creativity of the VFX powers.
But even if you master the ways of the VFX, expect to die a lot. VJ 2 is as ruthlessly challenging a game as its forbear thanks to plenty of crazed fighting sequences and increasingly difficult boss fights. Veterans of the first game will handle it well, but newbies, consider yourself warned.
The game also retains the original's somewhat aggravating lack of a checkpoint save feature. You'll get rankings after passing certain small segments of a level, but will only be able to save the game right before and after boss battles. In the later levels, that means you might spend 20 minutes kicking butt through a level, die on the last sub-boss a few times, and have to start the whole thing over again. This makes VJ 2 the kind of game you'll play in chunks rather than one monster sitting; you'll need to calm down and sleep it off after replaying the same four screens a dozen times.
At least this time around, there's a bit more to the package than meets the eye. The main Story mode will take a good 15 hours or so to complete, after which you can try your hand at the new "36 Chambers." These are unlocked as your play through the story and are essentially tough little Survival mode missions. Not very deep, but hey, more is more.
A bigger surprise is the fact that despite the addition of Sylvia as a playable character, there is no multiplayer at all. The game seems like the perfect candidate for cool co-opping, but alas, it's only for lonely gamers.
The graphics, on the other hand, are for everyone to enjoy. VJ 2 looks exactly like the original, which is to say, it looks great. The terrific cell-shading, faux 3D scrolling and pixel perfect animations couple with a downright bizarre sense of design to form a genuinely beautiful game. It's as close to playing a comic book as you'll get. To the likely dismay of Gamecube owners scrambling for more exclusive beauties, both consoles run the game equally well.
The sound is hardly as notable. The effects are fine and the music matches the hectic gameplay, but whoever wrote the script should be slapped for creating such long-winded bosses, droning on forever rather than just screaming out your name and starting the fight.
Which is really what Viewtiful Joe 2 is all about – tons of fun, difficult fighting set in a delightfully obtuse world. Of course, the same could be said of the first game, and the inclusion of Sylvia doesn't really add much to the sequel. But this kind of thing doesn't come along very often, so embrace Japan's love of nonsense and make this Joe a real American superhero.