The games in the Bloody Roar series have traditionally been the fighters that I pull out for people who aren't gamers. Just about anyone can pick it up and be executing flashy, really painful-looking combination moves within the hour. It's easy to learn, easy to break, goes well with a large quantity of malt liquor, and doesn't last quite as long as other, higher-profile fighters, but it's a good time while it lasts.
Bloody Roar 4 is kind of a step backward for the series, but in a good way, sacrificing a bit of complexity in favor of speed and strategy. It's still a head-to-head, 3D tournament-style fighter, featuring a widely varied cast of Zooanthropes: humans with the ability to transform at will into half-man, half-animal forms.
It's been a year since the earthquakes and outbreaks of violence that accompanied the BR3 tournament, but now, suddenly, both have started up again. Throughout the world, the only people who seem to be immune to the violent urges are the Zooanthropes.
In the middle of the chaos, a young woman named Nagi is searching for Xion. Xion--the Zooanthrope known as the Unborn, whose Beast Form draws upon a long-extinct animal--has somehow infected her with Zooanthropy, turning her into what the game calls the Spurious. In the place of an animal form, Nagi simply gets a partially-concealing chitinous exoskeleton, a four-foot sword blade protruding from her arm, and a disturbing taste for bloodshed. She wants to kill Xion for what he's done to her; Xion wants to remain unkilled; and Yugo, the Wolf, wants to stop Nagi before it's too late.
Meanwhile, Reiji, the Crow, is being controlled by a third party to stop the outbreaks of violence; Uriko is following a stray dog, which is actually a fox, that she's named "Pakupon," apparently across the world, and into the middle of several life-or-death fights, because Uriko is dumber 'n' a sack of hair; most of the other Zooanthropes are investigating the cause of the riots; and in the middle of this, acting as both bait and puppet master, a child named Mana and her bodyguard Ryuho are working to guide whichever Zooanthrope proves the strongest towards the heart of the outbreak.
Except for the three new characters, Bloody Roar 4's roster is identical to that of Bloody Roar 3; further, none of the new characters from the Primal Fury and Extreme games have made the transition to the PS2. Every character has gotten a full graphical overhaul--this is as close to Dead or Alive-caliber character models as any game on the PS2 has gotten; Soul Calibur II has BR4 beat for sheer spectacle, but BR4 is cleaner--and has been given what would appear to be the worst voice acting that money could fail to buy.
Seriously. We're talking PSX Resident Evil bad here. A "Bloody Roar Gigalo" project is not long in coming.
As in previous games, Bloody Roar 4 is a moderately flashy, somewhat uninspired fighter... until you press the Circle button. That triggers your transformation into your character's animal (or cyborg, or chitinous hellbeast, or mythical creature, or whatever) form, which, in turn, changes your entire moveslist to take advantage of your new capabilities. Your defense and hit power go up, especially relative to an opponent who's still in human form, and you gain access to a wealth of new moves.
Your Beast Form is governed by your Beast Meter, which works a bit like super meters do in other fighting games (i.e. King of Fighters). It fills up gradually as you get hit, or are hit in turn. If there's anything in the meter at all, you can press Circle to transform into Beast Form. While you're there, you can spend the meter on high-risk, high-reward Beast Drive special moves.
What makes Bloody Roar 4 play a bit differently than its predecessors is that now, your Beast Meter works as a sort of adjunct to your lifebar. If you lose all your life, you'll transform into Beast Form, and remain in it until you win or you're defeated. In order to be defeated, a character must be out of life and out of Beast Meter; further, you can regenerate Beast Meter in a hurry by landing a decent combo (or getting the crap kicked out of you) while you're in human form.
The result is a fast-paced game that depends, in large part, on when to shapeshift and how. Changing into Beast Form (a process the game calls "Beastorizing") is relatively safe, since the transformation acts as a high-priority combo breaker, but changing back to human form's harder. You have to execute a Beast Drive or lose all your Beast Meter to do it, which means that in certain circumstances, your strategy can actually revolve around figuring out the best way to deliberately whiff a super.
The second biggest change to the engine might be the use of Hyper Beast Form (hereafter abbreviated as HBF), which supercharges your character. In BR3, you could go into HBF once you built up three levels in your Beast Meter; in other words, by the time you were in HBF, it was probably too late in the match to do much with it. In BR4, you can turn into HBF at almost any time by holding down the Circle button, which reduces your life in exchange for Beast Meter. Using up all your health by charging the Beast Meter will turn you into HBF until the end of the round, and let you toss around Beast Drives for free.
It's still more of a curiosity than anything else--despite what the manual will tell you, there are a lot of combos in the game that're more dangerous than Beast Drives--but it's a lot easier to pull off. It's also not a bad desperation move, since if you're critically wounded and in HBF, you're not using up what little life you have to use your Beast Drives.
The nuts and bolts of the engine aren't bad either. No one with a straight face is ever going to accuse Bloody Roar 4 of being a deep, technical fighter, but it's got a nicely varied cast that represent most of the play styles out there: grapplers, pixies, counter characters, combo fiends, strikers, and your usual protagonist-type, Yugo, who does everything fairly well.
One problem that's plagued all the Bloody Roar games I've played is still around, and that's the issue of character balance. It's better here than it was in, say, BR2, but there are still vast disparities between fighters.
Ryuho and Mana, for example, work on a vastly different system than most of the other characters, which takes a lot longer to learn. It also depends on Ryuho, who has no Beast Form. Translation: he's a slow, powerful striker who folds up like an origami crane against virtually anyone else in the game. Assuming both players have a roughly equal amount of skill, Ryuho will have a much harder time winning than anyone else.
On the other end of the spectrum, Reiji, the Crow, is a lot better than he has any right to be. He's a damn bird, for gods' sake, and he's up against tigers, lions, leopards, and whatever the hell cyborg insect Xion is supposed to be; one would expect him to be a fragile, keepaway player. Instead, he may be the best rushdown character in the game, with an arsenal of easy combos that seem to start by themselves.
Nagi's got the same thing going for her, with a lock-on Beast Drive that can be made, via positioning, to be nearly unblockable, and a tendency to do half a life bar's worth of damage by looking at somebody funny. Granted, she's still a skinny nearly-naked girl with no defense, so somebody like Gado can knock her out with one long combo, but in the meantime, Nagi's carved out his lungs five times in rapid succession. A match between two decent Nagi players is... actually really hard to see, because they're both spraying blood like the lawn sprinklers in Hell. Just paint your screen red and you'll get the general idea.
The returning characters have their old familiar moveslists, and while the controls are more responsive than they were in BR3, they feel a bit too much like they did. Not a lot has changed.
Fortunately, with Career Mode, you can take steps to change them. By picking a character and battling your way across a map, you can earn DNA Points, which can be used to buy new moves, abilities, and qualities. Those, in turn, are occasionally given as rewards for fighting your way across the map. It's a bit like a combination of Street Fighter Alpha 3's World Tour mode and the Soul Calibur 2 Weapon Master minigame; take the earned character customizability from the former, the shops from the latter, and strip any semblance of role-playing or variety from the process. You'll get Career Mode.
That's the biggest problem, really. Career Mode is nothing more than a long string of one-round fights with a randomly selected character, in a randomly selected background. There aren't any SCII-style complications to spice up your fiftieth fight against CPU Bakuryu; you simply fight, and fight, and fight some more, until you have the points you need. You can make this more interesting by buying up new skills and toying with your capabilities, but it's still just a long string of fights against a CPU opponent who's little better than a training dummy.
I do like the options that're available, though. With Career Mode, you can transform an existing character in countless ways; you'll earn new moves, including a third Beast Drive, while enhancing their basic abilities and minimizing their innate vulnerabilities. It's more useful as an exercise in curiosity than a gameplay-extending feature, though, since you can make a character nearly unbeatable with only a token effort.
I've got a Career Mode Alice with damage enhancements, automatic heavy block, and her third Beast Drive (which combos off her running kickflip in the corner, leading to something like a totally safe 9-hit 75% before the kick power-up). Alice can already juggle people with ridiculous ease, but now she does about half again the damage, and it's really hard to punish her for unsafe moves. She is a monster in a nurse's uniform and should be hunted through the streets by peasants with pitchforks. It's unreal.
You also unlock the five bonus characters by earning DNA, which can be a long process. Long and Shina are their usual selves, while Uranus and Kohryu are both complete beasts; Uranus can move around twice as fast as anyone else, while Kohryu has the only projectile and the best Beast Drive in the game. By comparison, the final boss of BR4, who becomes available by earning a cool hundred thousand DNA Points, is too slow to really be useful in the hands of a human opponent, although he's certainly got his share of cheapness.
There are a lot of things which would improve Career Mode, and with it, BR4 itself. More characters would be nice; so would more backgrounds that you can actually interact with. (A few have breakable walls, and there's apparently one that actually has a ring out, but it's extremely difficult to pull off in the course of a regular match. They've all also got strange invisible walls to keep you within the ring, which not only leads to the occasional corner trap, but really looks kind of stupid.) Career Mode would be great, if it had a bit more to keep the player interested.
Bloody Roar 4, like the previous titles in the series, is still a lot of fun to play with friends, despite its flaws. (You know how everybody's got that one friend who gravitates automatically towards the cheapest characters, and will defend his right to do so unto death? Keep him away from Uranus and Kohryu, and you'll do fine.) It's not in the same league as Soul Calibur, although I enjoy it more than Tekken 4.
One of these days, Hudson's going to get its act just a little more thoroughly together, and a Bloody Roar game is going to be the sleeper hit of some future year. That year's not now, though, and Bloody Roar 4 is only decent.