Asterix and Obelix, the beloved Gaulish duo created by French comic book artists René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, are hardly a new or unfamiliar phenomenon throughout most of Europe. In fact, the two intrepid Celtic tribesmen from the year 50 BC have been bolting down shanks of boar, whomping Roman occupiers, and generally causing trouble throughout the classical world since 1959, when they first appeared in animated form. They've been rendered in a variety of media over the years, including a canonical set of 31 brightly colored print adventures, a number of fairly obscure cartoons, and even several video games. None of these products have attracted much notice in the US, where the Asterix series has been, at best, one hip pop-culture reference below a cult phenomenon. Sadly, Atari's new PS2 Asterix game, Asterix & Obelix: Kick Buttix, isn't likely to raise the franchise's profile here. This budget platformer's few interesting ideas are submerged under its litany of half measures and conventionalities, which include an outdated graphics engine, relentlessly boring level design, and heaps of sterilized button mashing.
At the beginning of the game, the petite but quick-witted Asterix and his oafish, immensely strong buddy Obelix are in a major fix. It seems that nasty old Julius Caesar has finally scored a major coup. After fulminating for years over the "indomitable village" of magic-potion-fueled Gauls who refused to yield to Rome, Caesar set his legions upon the pair's hamlet while they were out hunting, putting their huts to the torch and scattering the villagers all over the Roman Empire. Now you must guide Asterix and Obelix through one province after the other, seeking out their friends from the comic book series and turning Caesar's orderly plans and vast armies into historical footnotes.
By and large, this process involves running and jumping through enormous landscapes, temples, cave networks, and palaces, switching occasionally between Asterix and Obelix as you go along. Each character has different strengths: Asterix can fit through small holes, carry torches, and become invincible for a short time by drinking magic potions. Obelix is quite a bit stronger, so he can beat up enemies faster, as well as break iron crates and move enormous blocks of stone. You can control only one character at a time, and the majority of character switches come in scripted situations--such as when Asterix hops on a platform suspended from a zip line, and you switch to Obelix to lead him along by a rope from the ground. The rest of the time, the game will control the other warrior for you, and it'll occasionally give you some aid in combat, but it won't fight intelligently or use special moves. Obelix's microscopic mutt Dogmatix also makes an appearance, although his presence is almost entirely cosmetic. He comes in handy in a select few gameplay situations, as you can command him to disarm particularly pesky enemies, but otherwise he's just along for the ride.
Touring the Roman ruins several millennia ahead of schedule seems like it would be a lot of fun. In this instance, it isn't. The game's six provinces--Gaul, Normandy, Greece, Helvetia, Egypt, and finally Rome--are staffed by what seems like tens of thousands of Roman legionnaires and their collaborators, who all fall into a few basic categories: little guys who you can kill with three punches, big guys that block your punches for two seconds and then succumb after about 10 blows, anachronisms like jetpack legionaries, lions, Roman formations, and catapults, and the occasional boss. You'll spend the larger part of Asterix & Obelix's quest repeatedly pressing the bash button to puree these stooges and collect their helmets, which serve as the game's currency and can also number in the tens of thousands.
There are a few other basic combat actions you can perform--including grabbing a stunned soldier and whirling him around your head like a bullroarer, having your CPU partner do the same, or using Dogmatix in the aforementioned manner--but these tactics are all worthless. The bash is the name of the game here, backed up occasionally by the combo that you can purchase using your stock of helmets. Combos are special moves that you can unleash by executing a particular button combination--provided that you've bashed enough baddies to fill up a combo meter on the side of the screen. If that's all taken care of, you can use such classic Asterix maneuvers as "the mole," "the power hammer," and "the twister" to dispense with enemies even faster. However, the combat is so simple that you won't really need to use combos to progress until midway through Egypt, when enemies start to overwhelm you through sheer force of numbers.
The rest of Kick Buttix consists of fairly straightforward platform-based navigation through each level, with a healthy dose of item collection along the way. The levels themselves are surprisingly expansive, but very linear in nature--if you simply run around the perimeter of an area, you'll soon discover where you're supposed to go next. The game does feature some interesting logic- and timing-based puzzles, some of which you must solve to advance and some of which will give you bonuses. Many of these puzzles involve keeping a sputtering torch burning long enough to reach a barrel of explosives, finding all the switches in a huge area, or splitting your characters up to get past an obstacle and then reuniting them. None of the puzzles will keep an experienced gamer busy for long, but a good number of them are cleverly conceived and help to maintain some interest in the game.
Unfortunately, most of the game's noncombat elements seem like contrivances to negotiate you into the next utterly mindless brawl. For example, you might be stopped dead in the middle of a neat spelunking exercise to unlock a vital switch, torch, or block by defeating 80 enemies, who come at you five or six at a time. You can use combos to blow through your foes faster, but doing so depletes your combo energy, which you must then replenish through hard labor on the bash button. You have to deal with a ton of these locks in each level, and some are simply ludicrous. To earn the privilege of entering Rome, for instance, you are tasked with beating up 1,000 enemies. No Dynasty Warrior or Drakengard clone could--or would want to--duplicate this perverse nightmare.
Asterix & Obelix: Kick Buttix's graphics aren't impressive. The game's visual presentation as a whole has a decidedly last-generation feel to it, even if it is based on a cartoon. The huge levels create pronounced draw-distance and scaling problems, and most of the textures are quite bland. The water and lighting effects are particularly ugly, and would have looked somewhat dated even a year ago. The game also suffers from a lack of environmental animation: Boxes shatter into three or four pieces of wood, and giant boulders and snowballs disintegrate into eight or nine parts that simply vanish in midair. On the other hand, the game's character animation is a definite bright spot. Asterix, Obelix, and the Romans look like they walked straight out of the comic books, and the interpretation of the Gauls' distinctive fighting style--which involves sending hapless Romans flying with a variety of slaps, two-handed uppercuts, and belly bops--is spot-on, even if the novelty is short-lived.
In terms of sound, Asterix & Obelix: Kick Buttix fares a little better. The game's music is a strange amalgamation of hypnotic organ-, chime-, and flute-based melodies that are actually quite lovely and rank Euro-house that is actually quite obnoxious. It's too bad that the Euro trash seems to win the day through most of the game--the "big fight" music is particularly grating. The sound effects are competent, though not spectacular. Your Roman enemies scream in dozens of different voices as they are launched into orbit, including a specially recorded voice for enemies in masks, which is a nice bit of detail. The game's voice acting would be pretty standard, if it weren't delivered at a ponderously slow pace. In addition, much of the dialogue is blatantly recycled from level to level. The irritating Roman turncoat who serves as your guide throughout the adventure likes to repeat himself during similar gameplay sequences, which is more than a little disappointing.
In all, Asterix & Obelix: Kick Buttix can't really even muster the audacity necessary to become a dud. There's a lot of content to wade through, but that's literally what you feel like you are doing during play--wading through huge groups of enemies, traversing large distances, and solving the same puzzle sequences again and again. The game's boss battles are exemplary of its larger lack of ambition: Many of the game's bosses are more or less identical, and are merely placed in more-challenging environments from level to level. The budget pricing and cartoony subject matter might suggest that Asterix & Obelix: Kick Buttix is intended for a younger audience, but this sort of lazy design is never defensible. This game is dull for most of its 10 to 15 hours of gameplay, and even though collecting 51 hidden "golden laurels" through the course of the game provides some incentive for replay, only the hardest of the hard-core Asterix fans will want to go back and search for them. There are many, many superior options available for everyone else.