Sega's Virtua Fighter series has long been one of the crown jewels in the respected Japanese developer's portfolio of games. But while garnering a sizable and devoted fan base, as well as a respectable amount of critical acclaim, the series has never quite broken through to the masses. As a result, Sega is now attempting to broaden the franchise's appeal by experimenting with it a bit. The upcoming Virtua Quest, an action role-playing game that employs the venerable Virtua Fighter license, has toyed with the franchise by presenting it in a decidedly different way.
Virtua Quest is set in the distant future, and it places you in the role of a boy named Sei, who is an aspiring treasure hunter. Apparently, the new hotspot for treasure in the future is cyberspace, which is where our boy ventures in search of valuable data chips that can be redeemed for cash in the real world. However, on one of his first outings, Sei gets tapped to solve the mysterious disappearances of other treasure hunters on the Net. The bonus that Sei is awarded for conducting his mystery solving involves the receipt of special abilities that can be used while going about everyday business.
The gameplay in Virtua Quest is indicative of a straightforward action RPG. However, this one leans a little more toward the action side. Your time will basically be spent between story segments that will have you interacting with non-player characters and engaging in your fair share of exploration and fighting. The story segments will also have you watching cinemas that will fill you in on the game's ongoing storyline as you discover what's happening in cyberspace. The exploration doesn't offer many surprises, so you'll simply poke around new environments, called "servers" in the gameworld, while looking for clues and fighting enemies. The biggest perk to the clue searching is discovering Virtua Souls, which are the spirits of the famed Virtua Fighters that are capable of teaching Sei new abilities. In addition, you'll be able to find other upgrades for Sei and his robotic companion Bit. Combat helps perk the game up considerably, since you'll be doing a lot of brawling. You'll have a modest array of attacks that are supplemented by the special abilities you'll learn from the Virtua Souls and other characters you encounter. Moreover, Sei can employ his "wire," which is an energy beam that can be used to swing to new locations. More importantly, Sei can use his wire to catch enemies he's knocked into the air so that he can zip to them to continue his combos.
The graphics are a somewhat uneven blend of fairly solid technology and disparate art that seems to be meshing with mixed degrees of success. The graphics engine is good enough to get the job done, and it pumps out solid but unspectacular visuals. The game's cast is rendered in a competent and modestly detailed fashion. Sei's various attacks and flashy special moves are accompanied by a fair amount of special effects that set them apart from the basic moves. The environments follow suit, with solid locales that feature a good amount of variety. These locales range from cityscapes to interiors to organic forests, which all feature some futuristic touches. The game's camera is suspect, because it hitches in enclosed spaces and doesn't always follow the action well in combat. You can reset it behind Sei with a button press, but this doesn't always help. The performance breakdown between the two platforms finds the GameCube edging out the PlayStation 2 game with its better overall graphics quality and performance. You'll see cleaner textures, improved loading times, and a more consistent frame rate on the GameCube. However, it should be noted that both games suffer from a little frame rate inconsistency.
From an art standpoint, Virtua Quest looks somewhat bland. The futuristic setting and even the cyberspace settings are all well-worn territories for games such as this one, so VQ doesn't necessarily stand out from the crowd. The designs for Sei and company are serviceable, but they're not really noteworthy. The Virtua Fighters are obviously well done and look great, which, of course, leaves us longing for some kind of proper Virtua Fighter title on the Cube. But this doesn't seem likely.
The audio is a solid enough offering, although it's likely to dismay any VF diehards. The normal cast of characters is voiced to varying degrees of success, but, thankfully, despite the big eyes and emotive faces, there's a refreshing degree of restraint that's apparent (most of the time) when folks are talking. You'll get the occasional stereotypical hyperanime-style speech, but it's rare, which is a good thing. On the other hand, the Virtua Fighters are all given English voices, which is a somewhat frightening prospect. The gang was a group of butt kickers of few words in the fighting games, but they're pretty chatty in Virtua Quest, which is a mixed blessing, because the voices they project lean toward the annoying side. As far as the music in the game goes, you'll hear all the familiar VF themes when fighting the appropriate Virtua Soul, in addition to hearing original tunes that are repeated a little too frequently. Sound effects, too, draw heavily on Virtua Fighter, especially for punches, kicks, and moves. This, of course, adds some meat to the game's action, though.
Overall, Virtua Quest looks as though it's going to be a quirky experiment for Sega that players will either love or hate. The core game comes across as decent, albeit a little bland. The inclusion of the VF characters adds some spice to this offering, which may intrigue players, especially younger ones, who aren't too familiar with the franchise. Meanwhile, purists are likely to be mortified. Virtua Quest is currently slated to ship January 2005 on the GameCube and PlayStation 2.