Platform: Gameboy Advance
Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit
Completion Level: 90%, 28 Hours
We have not watched Yu Yu Hakusho the anime. We know nothing about the apparently it is quite popular and rather venerable franchise. There’s indeed no shortage of games based upon it. The list is surprisingly extensive—dating all way back to the early 1990s. One of these many games is an SRPG. That one is in our wheelhouse. We’ll analyze it’s SRPG qualities, not being unduly swayed by the larger franchise.
We went into this game with very low expectations. In fact we believe this is the only SRPG Sensor Sweep Studios has made. They appear to be a studio whose repertoire is licensed titles. Yes, they even did a Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi game. But we understand what it’s like to have to pay the bills as a company.
With all that said you can imagine our surprise at finding out what a decent game this is. We did not say incredibly deep, but we did say decent. There are no deal breaking flaws, and the majority of the gameplay is built around solid mechanics. It’s a rather pure SRPG experience that moves along quickly, not bogged down by excessive button presses, cut scenes, or story.
As one might expect in a GBA game, the terrain is non-rotatable 2D with implied elevation. The game’s overall path is linear, with only minor order choice within map-area sections. You can field up to five characters of your choosing as your roster grows to about twice that.
Face it: From which direction a unit is attacked makes a difference in damage and potentially dodging. Some high-end SRPGs include this mechanic, and we are pleasantly surprised to see it here. Enemies do not dodge much or at all, though, so this mechanic is underutilized.
- Death Matters-duh: While we prefer the Final Fantasy Tactics styled phoenix down death handling, here some consequence for losing a unit still occurs. Characters who fall in battle gain no experience from it. Additionally if they are chosen for the next battle they start at only half power in both hit and mana points. Nice idea.
- Easy on the Controls: The button economy of the control scheme is pleasantly lean. The menus are fast and shallow. An SRPG needs minimal inputs for its numerous repetitive actions. Here Yu Yu Hakusho succeeds with a quick, navigable game.
- Rare but Satisfying Counters: Counterattacks (melee only) occur a small percentage of the time, and almost exclusively with your units. When they do, highlighted by a red exclamation point, it’s surprisingly satisfying. But they cannot be counted upon.
- Acting or Directing: There’s flexibility of choice; move or act first. Regardless of which, the other is still open afterward. There are many games out there that won’t let you move after you act, so don’t take this point lightly. This flexibility allows units of differing strengths more tactical options.
- It’s Smarter Than It Looks: Some SRPGs suffer from empty-head syndrome. Yu Yu surprised us with decent AI that is neither one-dimensional nor foolish. Enemy units concentrate their fire, withdraw when wounded and heal themselves. The AI successfully made us divide our team at times when it was safer to stay together. Bravo.
- Dodging an Attack or Just Hanging Out: The tailored idle animations for the characters are fun. We’re especially fond of the individualized dodge animations. One character floats upward, another sits back on the ground, and one seems to fade out in horizontal teleport. It’s entertaining, and we aren’t even familiar with the franchise.
- Taunting the Enemy: We didn’t expect to use the “taunt” command often, but during the course of the game it comes in handy. Not very often, but when it’s needed and successfully used to take the heat off a wounded character, we are grateful. Most nearby enemies react to taunts and only attack that person.
The Good & Bad
Conveniently Together in One Point:
- Taking the “Initiative:” Yu Yu uses an action point system they call “initiative” to determine turn order. Heavy duty actions use more points, leaving a unit to wait longer before acting again. Such an action point system is fair, but could have been more transparent. One has to call up a separate screen to see who moves in the next five turns. Additionally multiple, duplicate enemies like “Wolf” cannot be identified individually. Which one of them moves next?!
- Hiding in the Weeds: We did not expect a Gameboy Advance title to fade terrain objects like trees when they interfered with the view of a unit. We would think most similar titles avoid this by minimizing the occurrences altogether. Yu Yu did not fade such objects, and while occlusion did not happen often it was not unusual. It did not bother us much however, and in some cases even made enemy units seem sneaky when they hid.
- A Slightly Opaque Role-Playing System: Experience in battle earns ability points spent in four different categories (see below). Advancement in them determines available special attacks. However there’s no way to tell the target levels needed to achieve greater specials. Experience is precious and because of this may be spent inefficiently. We don’t like reliance on FAQs to get knowledge the game should offer us.
- You’re Leaving? As Capt. Kirk once said, “A no-win scenario is something everyone may have to face.” This game forces you into one which you may frustratingly try to win. We’re of mixed opinion as such a scenario does add to the drama. However it isn’t pleasing to lose a character in whom precious experience is spent.
- Three Squares a Day: Attacks that cover multiple grid squares are few, and they are introduced too late in the game. Trying to match their particular patterns to enemy formations adds tactical fun. But generally speaking the attacks are not powerful enough to warrant their cost in mana or action points.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Self Contained Mana System
Units have a “Focus” menu that provides interesting additional action choices beyond physical attacks. Likewise they also require action point time. “Charge” is one of the Focus options. It fills a unit’s SE (Spirit Energy) meter (mana for the sake of understanding). As a unit develops spirit power the meter is filled to a greater extent with one charge action. See all four choices in the cap below:
Defend seems practical, but in practice we didn’t use it. Taunt is mentioned in “Good.” Mend and charge together make for an unusual but solid game mechanic. A dedicated healer is unnecessary. (In fact, when one is added to your roster, only her highest level, late-game abilities were of real use to us.) The drawback, of course, is fighting units that spend turns charging and mending instead of damaging the enemy. Battles can get drawn out because of it.
The drawbacks of turns spent not fighting are highlighted in encounters featuring enemy generators, where time is of the essence and needs to be spent taking down enemies. Also, some units only have mana attacks, and are forced out of action when empty. We suggest every character have at least one non-mana attack. Overall, the mechanic is versatile and fun, but it doesn’t foster team composition strategy. With every unit able to take care of themselves, specialties are superfluous.
Some games give you X amount of mana at the start of encounter. When it runs out it must be supplemented with items. Some games start mana at zero and let it build up every turn. The self-sufficiency of Yu Yu’s system is appreciated, and perhaps matches the IP, but its pros come with some cons.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Mission Types
Yu Yu should have made encounters that required party numbers other than five. However the mission types presented have decent variety. The game, in this area, makes ample use of its core mechanics by changing up the objectives:
- Destroy all enemies.
- Destroy all enemies as we beam in more through generators.
- Destroy all enemies within a time limit.
- Reach a destination in a time limit.
- Keep an enemy unit from reaching a destination.
- Timed floodgates.
If that last one sounds unclear, it was to us too. With only a hint that the next encounter is different, we plunged into a multi generator map. Our units were worn down and generators for the first time took no direct attack damage. We had to resort to a FAQ to get the answer (after some experimental time wasting and frustrating play), which means the game failed to communicate to us.
Time limits are not our favorite thing, because they sometimes force you to sacrifice units. Enemy generators are potentially great gameplay additions, but are dangerous. Yu Yu uses them well—until the last section where numbers replace better difficulty mechanisms.
- You Call That a Story? Perhaps it makes more sense to those with knowledge of the show. For the rest of us it’s simple, even understandable, but weird. Also the Yu Yu Hakusho universe is not well explained. And sadly, we never feel any pressing need to find out more or beat this game.
- Who’s Next? Turns by individual unit adds a dimension of tactical gameplay. Not only the actions of who is ready now need to be considered, but those of the next few. Later games display turn order on-screen, making it easier to incorporate into tactical thought. Here it’s buried on a separate screen, limiting its ease of use and thus making it rare.
- Take the High Road: The designers take advantage of obstacles like water, swamp, rocks and even holes in the land. However they fail to make significant use of elevation. There seems no advantage or disadvantage to it. Additionally climbing costs are prohibitive and fun-sucking. There’s no joy in taking the high ground, nor any kind of archer class to take advantage of it.
- Goofy Enemies: Once again, maybe this is an IP thing, but most of the enemies aren’t very intimidating or exciting. You meet a few humans of like ability in the arenas, but most of the time the battles are against humanoid animals. Walking house cats and pony-ish looking wolves? Come on. This is not My Little Pony.
- Ramping: The difficulty level is generally too easy, except for the arenas (experienced only once per region). Aside from a few well designed maps, the designers did not design genuinely harder challenges. In the end they resort to numerous enemy generators. That’is a cop out, and a frustrating one.
- UNDERdrive: A special meter called “overdrive” fills with successful attacks. It doesn’t yield special overdrive attacks when full, but rather allows you an extra powerful version of any regular attack. The powered versions are not so powerful. The whole overdrive system is underwhelming. Development resources used, but for potential unrealized.
- Tune Out: Ugh. There are few music tracks. What’s provided is simple and repetitive. Don’t tell us it’s platform limitation. Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and others have fine music on the GBA.
- Useless Items: For the first half of the game, items restore so little health or spirit energy that they’re not worth taking up a battle action to use. Later in the game, when better items are available, experienced units can survive without them using their focus menu. Attack items are even more useless.
- Occasional Inconsistency: Sometimes an enemy hitting a little hard with a ranged attack can unexpectedly hit very hard with a melee attack. It can feel like a cheap shot. There’s a subtle undercurrent of inconsistency amongst certain attacks, especially considering the added variable a unit’s specific vulnerabilities.
- Friendly Fire: The unit dedicated to healing has that ability listed under the attack menu. Yes, under the ATTACK menu. You can see where this is going since that unit also has an attack under the attack menu. Ouch. Sorry.
Just when we thought we were done with the Gameboy Advance category this little game appeared on our radar. It’s not a diamond in the rough, but we’re glad we played. It’s an interesting experience for the self-contained mana system alone.
We still have no idea what Yu Yu Hakusho means. It wasn’t anybody’s name. We’ll just chalk it up, along with numerous other points, to our lack of experience with this franchise. However a game should endeavor to give players familiar and unfamiliar with the IP incentive to play. Yu Yu needed to do better on that front.
The art direction doesn’t stand out enough to warrant laud or ding. Some characters do look of indeterminate sex. A “guy” who smells roses, uses a whip, and throws some sort of flower bomb? You may think that’s stereotyping, but look at the character art (not to mention a lot of the cosplayers…).
In a game of this type where you want the player to have investment in the characters, it’s helpful to know their sex. However this is likely not the game’s fault, but rather the IP. So is the fact that the cast was almost completely male (we think).
Yu Yu succeeds in making a fluid battlefield where much maneuvering is necessary. The game moves along well and is not sluggish. Until the end we didn’t have to grind, for which we give the game props. However the problem of shallow difficulty ramping design is revealed at the end when large numbers of enemies are thrown at your team to keep the challenge up.
The solid mechanics of Yu Yu Hakusho kept us playing for quite some time. But in the end monotonous play and lack of interest in the near nonexistent storyline didn’t warrant further investment. Yu Yu Hakusho – Ghost Files: Tournament Tactics isn’t a waste of time for those who enjoy SRPGs, but now you know what you’re getting into.
If you like Yu Yu Hakusho – Ghost Files, try:
Saiyuki Journey West PS1