The Bouncer Hands-On

We get our hands on the final Japanese version of the Bouncer to see if Square's latest PS2 effort is a fighting game, a beat-'em-up, or an interactive movie.

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The Bouncer, Square's highly anticipated PS2 effort, has finally reached Japanese shores. Since the game's announcement, press and fans alike have been curious to no end, and understandably so - Square's marketing strategy intentionally left the gaming community in the dark regarding most of the game's key aspects. Most suspected that the game was some kind of take on the classic beat-'em-up genre. All speculation was based on select gameplay sequences released by Square - sequences depicting, at their most candid, throngs of fighting bodies, punching, kicking, and slamming each other in tight spaces. Eventually, Square began allowing information to trickle, and now that we've got the final Japanese version, we're able to get a complete look at the game. The Bouncer is indeed some kind of gameplay-light beat-'em-up, albeit one heavily embellished by a huge amount of full-motion video. But in the end, The Bouncer is little more than a glorified and highly cinematic version of Final Fight using the dated Tobal animations.

The Bouncer tells the story of three unlikely heroes, all of whom are employed at a seedy bar called Fate. Volt, a solemn, hulking man, mysterious and wise; Sion, the young and scrappy hero with a tragic past; and Kou, the high-spirited, silver-tongued charmer with questionable motives. The trio - all of whom are playable - are eventually drawn into a series of dark affairs involving the mysterious Mikado corporation. After their mutual friend Dominique is spirited away by some of Mikado's more heavy-handed operatives, the trio sets off after them.

The import version of The Bouncer we've been playing with may as well be domestic - Square has added English language support, making the game wholly playable in English. All the menus are translated, as well as the in-game text and the voice work. Though the North American release (which is currently scheduled for March) may see some changes, we've reason to believe that what we're playing now is effectively identical to what'll hit stores, come two months.

If you've played any classic beat-'em-up, The Bouncer's formula will ring true. Cinematic pretensions aside, the game's execution is textbook to the bone, from the foe-littered gameplay sequences to the quintessential kidnapped girlfriend story hook.

At the heart of the game lies a version of DreamFactory's renowned Tobal fighting system. Admittedly, the system is much, much deeper than what you'd find in most beat-'em-ups. Each of the Dual Shock 2's four face buttons represents an attack type - high, middle, low, and jump. Each basic attack has two variations, which are based on how hard you press the corresponding button. If you tap the button lightly, you'll execute a swift strike that can often be used to start a combo. Press the button down hard, and you'll let loose a strong attack that'll leave your foes reeling. Blocking is simple undertaking - hitting the R1 key protects you from all frontal attacks, high and low, though you're still vulnerable to assaults from the flanks or rear.

Each character also has a set of special attacks at his disposal. Executed by means of the extra skill button in tandem with one of the basic attacks, The Bouncer's special attacks take a variety of forms ranging from slams and rushes to kicks and tumbles. The default place for the ES button is the L1 shoulder, so the special attacks are always readily accessible, provided you've paid for them. The special trinity rush attack is a bit more situational. To execute it, all three of fighters on your side have to occupy certain positions on the battlefield. Once in place, one of them will alert you. When this happens, hitting the R2 button will execute the powerful attack, which not only does a huge amount of damage to the enemy in question, but it also treats you to a ridiculous cutscene of the three characters unleashing the attack.

After defeating an enemy, your character will earn a certain number of bouncer points, or BP. Bouncer points are awarded to you depending on how well you pummeled your opponent. You can spend your BP on your character after the combat sequence closes, and you use the points to buy new special attacks, as well as to increase your character's basic stats. A decidedly light RPG element, to be sure, and one that carries on well after the game is completed - once you beat the story mode once, you'll be able to plow through it again with your juiced-up characters, which allows you to unlock more moves and such.

Graphically, the game is quite competent. The majority of the game's narrative sequences occur in real-time, and when they do shift to FMV, it's often difficult to tell. The character models are easily the presentation's most impressive element. Each is rendered using an obscene number of polygons, and the attention to detail is astounding. In and out of combat, the characters animate astoundingly - the most explosive attack is given its due, as is the subtlest facial expression. The primary colors that the main characters dress in contrast well against the often gritty industrial hues native to the stages they'll inhabit. The whole package never fails to impress, when seen in motion - which makes sense, as Square obviously focused on the game's visual and narrative presentation, as opposed to its actual gameplay systems.The Bouncer is extremely light on gameplay. In fact, skipping through every cinema will yield a play experience no longer than 45 minutes in length. While the game does feature a survival mode and a two- through four-player battle mode, the small diversion that is its primary mode ultimately seems a bit disappointing. Granted, the presentation is second to none, but in the end, do gamers want a pretty technological showpiece or a robust, feature-filled game?

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