With Draglade billed as a rhythm-based fighting game, I wasn't quite sure how to approach the DS-exclusive title. On one hand, I'm a huge sucker for titles like Gitaroo Man (PS2, PSP) and Elite Beat Agents (NDS). On the other, I tend to enjoy the occasional round of Street Fighter or Soul Calibur. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't imagine how the two genres would intertwine.
As it turns out, neither could Banpresto or Dimps, the folks responsible for Draglade. Though one portion of the game certainly features an element of rhythm, it's nothing integral. In fact, the entire concept of carefully-timed button presses coinciding with user-created beats can be ignored with hardly any impact on performance.
That's not to say Draglade is a horrible game, far from it. It's a rather competent 2D brawler at heart, and the story mode provides a nice mix of character customization, one-on-one duels, and sidescrolling beat 'em up segments. There's support for local wireless co-op, just in case someone in your immediate vicinity happens to have a DS and a copy of the game. You can even hop online and fight against other players.
It is not, as the back of the box suggests, a rhythm-based fighting game.
The basic controls of grapping--the moniker of Draglade's fighting system--are a simple affair, perfectly suited for the handheld. Special moves aren't performed by complex button combinations and d-pad motions, but rather by pressing a direction in conjunction with the one of the two attack buttons, a la Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers series. Blocking only requires a player to hold down the right trigger, with no need to worry about the strategy behind blocking low or high attacks.
Instead, the real strategy comes from customizing a fighter's various abilities with what is referred as bullets. Each bullet contains a different ability--such as healing, a fireball, poison, or increased physical damage--that can be activated mid-battle with the press of a button and one of three d-pad directions. Up to six bullets can be equipped at any given time--a tap of the touch screen switches between the two bullets assigned to a direction--and more bullets become available as players progress through the game.
While fussing with the touch screen in the midst of a fight may sound clumsy, it works quite well in execution. Because inactive bullets are placed on the right side of the bottom screen, I was able to quickly and consistently swap out them out using my thumb, without leaving myself vulnerable in-game.
The last major component of grapping--beat combos--represents the part where rhythm supposedly comes into play. Following a tap of the left trigger, players can perform a devastating series of attacks. A little bar in the lower right-hand corner shows the timing required to pull off the moves, and rates each button press as either cool, good, or bad.
Problem is, the timing of the button presses and the subsequent ratings don't really matter. Sure, users can can customize the beat to their heart's content--I named my fast-paced jam "LOLCATS"--but mashing the buttons over and over again works just as effectively as well-timed presses. Even with an all-bad rating, the combo still results in massive damage, to the point where there is no incentive to try and be accurate enough to get a cool rating.
That said, there's a lot to like about Draglade, so long as you're not judging it as a rhythm game. Substantial single-player campaigns for the four main characters deliver a variety of scenarios, including boss fights and 2D sidescrolling levels, all with thankfully skippable cutscenes.
Toss in the numerous bullet attacks and the potential of online multiplayer--which I was not able to test as I couldn't find an online opponent for the purposes of this review--and you've got a handheld fighter that will keep you coming back for "just one more match."