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Rag Doll Kung-Fu: Fists of Plastic
Graphics: 8.4
Gameplay: 5.7
Sound: 6.6
Control: 5
Replay Value: 5.3
Rating: 6

We’ve already seen some uber-fun PSN titles, and that includes everything from the stellar quality of Wipeout HD and echochrome to the silly yet seemingly ceaseless entertainment offered by the likes of Magic Ball and Burn Zombie Burn!. We really couldn’t be happier with the full downloadable games we’ve seen over the past year – how awesome was Flower? – which is why we were excited to give Rag Doll Kung-Fu: Fists of Plastic a try. Unfortunately, after spending a full afternoon with the game and learning of its inherent downfalls, we have come to the conclusion that while it might be worth a look, there are better options currently on the PlayStation Network. The problem doesn’t necessarily center on the concept, but in this case, on the implementation. The controls are iffy, the fun factor suffers due to a general lack of direction that leaves us feeling unsatisfied, and we just found ourselves losing interest after a mere hour of gameplay. This isn’t exactly what we were looking for, although we do applaud this title’s originality.

Easily the most impressive aspect of Rag Doll Kung-Fu is the graphics; they’re definitely some of the most accomplished we’ve seen from a downloadable title so far this generation. They’re not only sharp, but surprisingly detailed, and those zany “rag doll” animations are expertly depicted and always a joy to behold. There are a few shortcomings that plague the presentation, but they affect the gameplay more than the visuals. We could’ve used a bit more variety in the background environments and we certainly wanted those environments to be larger, but the graphics remain mostly smooth and appealing throughout. Perhaps we could’ve used more in the way of character diversity; the base designs of the faceless enemies we often fight are okay, but can’t measure up to the main characters on display. It’s a strange contrast, really: “hey, that’s a great-looking character but who’s this detail-less enemy all of a sudden?” There’s a character customization option that’ll definitely keep you occupied, though, and it adds some fantastic flavor.

The sound is good, but it doesn’t stand out like the graphics. There are a few hilarious voice and sound effects tossed into the mix, but the soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired and the game is altogether too quiet. Something like this needed some zany music and a slew of kooky effects to complement the strange style, but instead, the sound takes a backseat to the action. Normally, we wouldn’t complain, but in this day and age, sound has become essential to great experiences, and PSN games aren’t excluded from this rule. The good news is that what we do have is professionally instituted; the balance is solid and the various crazy effects are sparse, yet tight. Custom soundtracks would go a long way to making this game more appealing, but it could also use an overhaul in the effects department as well. Or perhaps it’d be more accurate to say it doesn’t need an “overhaul,” but just a fair amount of addition and enhancement. When we’re flying around our little battlefield and smashing enemies with all sorts of loopy attacks, we had better have the appropriate ambiance. We kinda get it, but…

When a game has the title, Rag Doll Kung-Fu, one immediately assumes the controls will be basic and straightforward. But as we worked our way through the tutorial, we quickly began to realize that it will take a good amount of skill and reflexes to master the battle mechanic. This wouldn’t typically be a problem, but Tarsier Studios takes the ill-advised route that includes motion-sensing; they try to combine this with standard button-pushing, and this poses a few problems. The biggest issue is simple: the game moves very quickly, as expected, and it asks that the player switch their brains quickly between button pushing and manipulating the entire controller. For instance, holding the Circle button to block is one thing, but when you tip the controller up and then slam it down, your character executes a special smash maneuver on the screen. It’s easy to pull off, but you have to reconcile your brain to this combination mechanic. Some players will find it difficult to fly across the screen with a super punch by holding certain buttons and yanking the controller to the right or left…it just doesn’t come naturally to most people.

This is part of the issue; the other revolves around the gameplay setup. You’ve got the Challenge mode, which is the meat of the game, and starts you off easy. The objectives are a little nutty, but then again, they’re supposed to be; for example, the second challenge has you trying to toss a fish into a big basket, all the while hounded by enemies. This just grows a little tiresome, even though you can unlock Trophies and new pieces of equipment for your character. New legs, torsos and even heads will be available to nab, and provided you can hit the goal in each new Challenge, you’ll open up the next mission on the list. All of this should point towards plenty of entertainment, but for some reason, we just started getting bored. We didn’t like the combination of the motion sensing and standard button pressing, and in our opinion, it’s never a good idea to have the right analog stick dictate an attack. You can pick up a variety of weapons in the game – including a staff and nunchuks – but the right analog completely dictates the direction and execution of the attack. No good.

Your character is a spry little devil, though. Even though he flails about – this is “rag doll kung-fu,” after all – he can punch, kick, and utilize special Chi attacks to decimate his enemies. He can even pick up weapons, as we just discussed, and various items to throw at his foes; this includes random urns and vases that fall from the ceiling and every ninja’s best friend, the shuriken. Throwing objects is easy, and probably the best-implemented battle mechanic- you simply pick it up with the R1 button and aim and throw with the right analog stick (much easier to do than attacking with a melee weapon). Your character can also grab ledges and swing around, kicking any enemies that might be in the vicinity and even preparing for a leap to another ledge. R1 lets you grab your foes, too, but if you fail, you might get nailed… All in all, the biggest benefit of the gameplay is the number of options you have when trying to complete the latest Challenge. Even if you find certain maneuvers to be too difficult, there are plenty more that should see you through to the end.

There just isn’t a whole lot here, and we weren’t enthralled enough to recommend a purchase. If this had come out a few years ago (the original Rag Doll Kung-Fu hit the PC in 2005), we might’ve gone easier on the drawbacks, but as we said earlier, there are plenty of better downloadable titles on the PSN. Perhaps the biggest downside is the fact that their target audience may find the gameplay to be too complex and frustrating. It’s okay once you get the hang of it, but it never gels into a cohesive battle system; we never feel as if we have full control of what’s happening on the screen, and the difficulty can spike erratically. Some of it’s fun but it loses its appeal very quickly, and while somewhat ambitious and unique, it’s just not a streamlined, polished production. We expect more, plain and simple.

4/14/2009   Ben Dutka