For all intents and purposes, Mega Man Star Force is the seventh entry in Capcom's Mega Man Battle Network franchise. There's a new story featuring a brand-new pair of heroes, tweaks have been made to some aspects of the battle system, and now it's easier for you to trade and share attacks with your friends. However, the core structure and gameplay are largely the same as they were in previous installments. As such, this game, like its predecessors on the Game Boy Advance, is a role-playing game geared toward people who will tolerate pouring dozens of hours into fetch quests and random battles, as well as the obsessive pursuit of putting together a customized repertoire of attacks to unleash in offline battles against friends.
Structurally speaking, Mega Man Star Force doesn't stray from the formula established by earlier Mega Man Battle Network games. As a young boy named Geo Stelar, you walk in the physical world. However, by putting on your activator goggles and merging with an energy being named Omega-Xis, you become Mega Man and gain the ability to explore the electromagnetic world that exists parallel to our own--and do battle against the energy creatures that dwell there. For the roughly 30 hours or so it'll take you to finish the main quest, you'll find yourself constantly alternating between the two worlds in search of the bosses you need to defeat and the items you need to collect in order to advance the story along. The only difference in pacing in Mega Man Star Force that distinguishes it from its predecessors is that it offers a wider selection of optional fetch quests. Indeed, if you choose to, you can run an errand for literally every character you meet to stretch the story out for a good 40 hours.
When you're walking in the electromagnetic world, battles occur at frequent random intervals. These encounters still take place in real time on a 3-by-6 grid. However, for this game, they've rotated the viewpoint so that you see the battle from behind Mega Man's back, with the enemies facing you. Enemies have free run over the entire combat surface, but your own movement is primarily restricted to sidestepping left or right at the back of the grid. It is possible to move forward, however briefly, by first locking onto an enemy. If you tap down on the control pad before pressing the attack button, Mega Man will leap onto the combat field and unleash the attack right in the enemy's face, effectively giving you the option of wasting an attack card when you want to jump over an incoming attack. This new third-person perspective isn't necessarily any better or worse than the old way. On the one hand, movement is certainly more restricted. On the other hand, timing plays a greater role in your ability to dodge an attack or nail a shifty opponent.
For the most part, battles unfold just like they did in previous Mega Man Battle Network games. You still need to deplete your opponent's health meter before he or she obliterates yours, and the best way to do that is still by using the attack cards that are randomly selected for you when the confrontation begins. Each card depicts a hero, minion, or boss performing an attack from one of Capcom's numerous Mega Man games. When you play one of these cards, you'll perform the attack that's shown, hopefully deducting the indicated health from your opponent in the process. Cards vary in terms of damage doled out, blast radius, and elemental attributes. You can only bring 30 cards into battle with you, so that's where most of the game's strategy comes from: collecting and organizing useful battle cards in the folders you've set up. In all, there are more than 150 unique cards to find and collect. Capcom has simplified the rules underpinning the use of cards in Mega Man Star Force, generally for the better. Without giving you an entire essay on the subject, all you need to know is that six cards are now drawn instead of five, and you can play cards situated in the same column or that have the same name or border color. The end result is that you have a better chance of pulling the card you need, and you can unleash multi-card chains more readily.
Another way to bulk up is by adding people to your friends list, also known as a brother band. When you add another person to your brother band, you can use his or her cards and combos in battle. You also gain various health and ability boosts that you otherwise wouldn't get with an empty brother-band list. Becoming brothers with someone is easy. All you need to do is wirelessly link your two systems together offline or exchange friend codes to establish the link through Nintendo's WFC service. Once that's done, you can send messages to each other, trade cards, and enjoy the automatic bonuses that the brotherly bond entails. The lone downside to the brother-band list is that you can only have six people on your list at any given time.
Confirming that we still live in an age where players "gotta catch 'em all," Capcom has published three different flavors of Mega Man Star Force. The subtitles are Dragon, Leo, and Pegasus, and they refer to the specific transformation that Mega Man can undergo in each particular version. In the Dragon version, he's aligned with the wood element. In the Leo and Pegasus versions, he's aligned with fire and ice, respectively. Each version also offers a different status bonus to the friends in your brother-band group. Otherwise, all three flavors of the game share the same story, characters, and major assortment of battle cards. You can acquire the star-force transformations you don't have by forming a brother band with someone playing another version, so there's really no reason to go out and buy all three versions of the game.
While the various gameplay tweaks and friends-list improvements are nice, they don't do much to fix the problems that have been with the Mega Man Battle Network series since its inception. The constant back-and-forth travel and random encounters in the story mode get old fast, and the story itself unfolds at a snail's pace. Capcom's writers came up with charming tale, and the localization people did an excellent job of transforming the original Japanese script into peppy English dialogue, but quite a bit of the dialogue is filler. It already takes an hour or so to move from one plot point to the next thanks to the dungeon crawling, so the superfluous chatter doesn't help speed things along. Furthermore, Capcom has once again neglected to implement online battles. You can duel against other players in the same room, but the WFC link is limited to the trading of messages and cards. Last, but certainly not least, the battle system tends to wear thin after a period of time. Early on, you'll enjoy customizing your decks and doing battle against CPU or human opponents. At some point, though, sometime after you've built the deck of your dreams, you'll realize that you're just performing the same attacks over and over. Your interest level will plummet as a result.
Capcom is guilty of phoning in the graphics and audio as well. The three-quarter-view environments and tiny, big-headed characters in the traveling view are holdovers from the GBA. In the battle viewpoint, the cel-shaded 3D characters look snazzy, but the quality and fluidity of the animation is inconsistent. Some enemies move their feet and flap their wings. Some hardly move at all as they travel from square to square. By the same token, some attacks are seamless and accompanied by jarring visual effects. Others are choppy and/or matter-of-fact. As for the audio, the music rules and the sound effects drool. You'll hear some familiar Mega Man themes, as well as a gaggle of new compositions, all of which are melodic and rich. However, the lasers and explosions are crude and sound like they were lifted directly from the GBA games. To add insult to injury, Capcom recorded a few speech samples to accompany menu selections, but none for attacks or any of the story dialogue.
Ultimately, it comes down to how burned out you are from playing previous games in the series. If you're a newcomer and don't mind a drawn-out story or a gajilliondy random battles, you'll probably get a good amount of enjoyment from jumping between the two worlds, building your card decks, and watching your attacks manhandle CPU and human opponents. If you have one or two Mega Man Battle Network games under your belt and still have the itch, you'll appreciate the minor improvements that this new game brings to the table, especially if you plan to set up an active friends list. If you didn't like the previous games, or if the last one you played was enough, then Mega Man Star Force probably isn't for you.