Every so often I will actively purge my videogame collection of all the games I know I’ll never play again, or those that I haven’t touched for years. I used to keep everything but, over time, I’ve managed to wrestle the inner hoarder into partial submission. After all, there isn’t the time to keep up with new releases let alone return to everything I’ve already experienced. You have to be realistic sometimes and simply let go. Tying in with this philosophy, I recently decided to turn a critical eye towards my PS2 collection. I’ve long considered this shelf to be slimmed down to the bare essentials but when “essentials” is still around fifty titles, there remains space for improvement.
Rather than simply get shot however, I’ve decided to play some of these games again to see whether or not they actually hold up in the harsh light of 2020. First up, Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance, a 2005 beat ’em up from Capcom. When I originally played this, I loved it. I considered it to be underrated; a hidden gem if you will.
But how does the 2020 edition of me feel about Beat Down?
Well, let’s put it this way: it’s highly appropriate that a bar features prominently in this game because I feel as though I must have been wearing beer goggles back in the day. With extra-thick lenses. Beat Down has not aged particularly well. The game reviewed fairly poorly in period while I was busy enjoying it, oblivious to the harsh criticism of Capcom’s game. Now, I’m not saying that videogame reviews are the gospel (always make your OWN mind up) but, looking back, I can understand the reasoning behind the low scores. On a personal level, I was hugely disappointed that Beat Down was nowhere near as fun as I remembered.
Developed by Cavia (a studio with a semi-decent portfolio), Beat Down is a semi-free-roaming game of sorts. There’s a nonsense overarching plot involving betrayal, gangs, and high-level corruption but it isn’t important. You select from a group of five playable characters who are forced to part ways and flee a dockside warehouse, after being set up by somebody from the aforementioned throwaway storyline. I opted for ex-exotic dancer Gina, because I like leggy blondes who show a bit of boob. The tats…not so much, but you can’t have everything.
The game is broken down into chapters, and there are story-driven missions/objectives that will advance the game but, as long as you don’t go to the specific target location, you are free to roam the city of Las Sombras. Not that there’s much to see or do, besides beating people up in the streets or visiting the game’s various stores, however. Rather than one large, true open-world environment, Los Sombras is more like a collection of isolated districts connected by black loading screens. There’s the docks, the gas station, downtown (which is just a single intersection), the station zone, and a few others. Everything is dark, moody, and grimy too – a recurring theme among PS2-era games which seemed to be obsessed with being all urban and gangsta. Combined with the smudgy textures and lack of interaction, Los Sombras is a pretty miserable place to spend your time.
The edginess continues with the graphic violence, liberal blood-letting, swearing, and all the well ‘ard types that make up the game’s NPC populance. These were staple design choices for a great many games from the era that were targeted at teenage boys, but they were especially utilised to reinvent the beat ’em up genre which never quite transitioned successfully to the third dimension. It didn’t work at the time, and it certainly doesn’t work today. Final Fight Streetwise, for example, had all the colour and charm sucked from it and replaced with drugs, cursing, hookers, and – you guessed it – a bleak world of urban decay, and the (then) on-trend injection of gangsta. The mere mention of Streetwise still makes some gamers feel nauseous, but that game was so bad that it was – in its own odd way – entertaining.
The same can’t be said for Beat Down which is just straight-up depressing to look at. I’m not necessarily against a gritty urban setting (I actually really like it when it’s done well), but I do get the feeling that it was often employed for the sake of it in the mid-2000’s, and it hasn’t aged well as an art direction. Neither have repetitive, short loops of background music. As with Beat Down as a whole, I seem to vaguely remember enjoying these beats (I’ll get my coat on the way out…) but, now, I wish I could travel back in time and slap my past self. The music is decent for the first thirty seconds or so, and certainly isn’t offensive to the ears, but rapidly wears thin. Put it this way: you won’t be hitting up ebay for a soundtrack CD.
But let’s – for argument’s sake – say that my apathy towards Beat Down‘s dank, murky locales and “adult” (lol) themes is all entirely my personal opinion. Let’s put that to one side for a moment. We shouldn’t, after all, forget that Namco’s Urban Reign was similarly styled but forgivable on account that it boasted engaging, satisfying-to-master gameplay. Beat Down only needed to do the same.
And to give the game some credit, it does boast some good ideas that show Cavia actually put some thought in as opposed to creating a braindead punchfest. For starters, there are two different styles of fighting. There’s the main, third-person beat ’em up perspective, but the action will shift into a one-on-one fighting game-style mode for key battles against foes that are more than just generic street thugs. You can use the same combos and special moves in both modes which is pretty cool, although some of the moves that require double taps of the analogue stick can be a bit flaky to pull off in the third-person beat ’em up situations. The combat is reasonably brutal too, with the ability to grab enemies and smash their faces against walls or the floor. Then there are weapons which are powerful, but can be stolen from you in the one-on-one battles and turned against your character.
Another of Beat Down‘s USPs is the visual customisation system. You can purchase all manner of different clothes and accessories to change your character’s appearance, as well as change their hairstyle, and tattoos. It’s pretty cool and allows you to make your chosen fighter completely unrecognisable versus their original look. But this isn’t just a standard dress-up feature. Altering your character’s image is absolutely necessary in order to keep your wanted levels (for both the police and mafia men) low. This is one of Beat Down‘s biggest innovations…and also one of its major annoyances.
You end up having to change your character’s outfit so frequently (because of how rapidly the two alert levels shoot up) that it quickly becomes more of an irritation than an innovation. It ALSO means that you are locked into burning through your funds at the stores to keep purchasing new clothes, accessories and hair styles. And don’t think that you can simply own two outfits and switch back and forth between them, because Cavia saw THAT one coming, and it doesn’t work. Oh, and you have to be at the bar to play dress-up, so prepare for a load of back-tracking and going off-course in addition to monetary expenditure.
But maybe you’ll think, “screw all of that Barbie doll dressing-up BS – I’ll just ignore the wanted levels.” Well, prepare to deal with the cops. Getting around Las Sombras is an immense slog with the law constantly coming down on yo’ ass. If you get defeated by the cops, you go to prison where two options await your character. You can either pay a bribe to the cop at the front desk, or have all of your items confiscated and be sent to the cells. The former is extortionate (and increases by $500 each time, regardless of whether you could previously afford it), while the latter means fighting your way out of the cells. You won’t have any health-restoring items to help you (since they were confiscated), and there’s at least four cops to deal with inside the station itself. Outside, there are usually more wandering around on the streets. If you can deal with all of that, then your maxed-out wanted level will cause a police car full of cops to arrive as soon as you move into the next area. There is a clothing vendor in the Police Station zone, but she’s useless if you’ve just spent all of your cash paying a police bribe.
This is all incredibly frustrating during the game’s early stages where you won’t have a whole lot of cash to play with. I got stuck in a loop of not being able to afford to pay the bribe, getting sent to the cells, getting beaten down by cops, still not being able to afford the bribe, getting sent to the cells again, getting beaten down by cops…you get the idea. I just had to keep playing until I managed to successfully fight my way out of the station, defeat a gun-toting cop outside, and buy a new shirt from the street vendor to drop that wanted level just below the 100% level. When you’ve wasted so much time dealing with bullshit, it doesn’t even feel like “gameplay” anymore. It feels like work. After all, you’re fighting through this crap so that you get back to the actual storyline.
It was after finally breaking free of this loop that I ran into another bizarre trap. The game features a “Blacklist” – a list of fighters in the city and their locations. Beating these guys and gals in a one-on-one fight allows you to recruit them to your side, so I called up a second member of my Blacklist and went to meet up with them, only to have them go apeshit about my current partner and start a fight which almost killed me. It might not have been such a struggle if my current partner had actually done something in the fight. Unfortunately, your allies in Beat Down tend to just stand around and get hit, rarely contributing much to a scrap, so fuck them.
Beat Down is simply a disappointing game; doubly so since I recalled my original play-through so fondly. It’s a game with ideas, that tried to do some new things, but the execution of said ideas was pretty bad. Don’t get me wrong, it was necessary to innovate and do new things in order to keep the beat ’em up genre alive, but Beat Down‘s innovations make the game an unenjoyable chore. The fighting itself – the absolute core of a beat ’em up – is uninspiring and mediocre at best, and I honestly couldn’t care less about any of the characters or the story.
In fact, I will close this review by saying that I actually enjoyed Final Fight Streetwise MORE than my revisiting of Beat Down. If that isn’t a statement to make, then I don’t know what is.