The 2D beat-up genre was a giant during the 8 and 16 bit generations, as well as dominating arcades with their quarter munching gameplay and cooperative game design. With the decline of arcades and the birth of new genres in 3d, the popularity of beat 'em ups waned, making way for new gaming zeitgeists. In recent years the 2D beat-em up has settled for reboots of classics with little success, luckily the love for the genre burns in the hearts of indie developers and with this, Aces Wild Manic Brawling Action comes to life. Does this beat 'em up deliver a first round knock out punch or does it feel like being roughed up and having your lunch money taken away by a bully?
Taking control of the title character Aces Wild, who must participate in this year's Maximus Circuit in an attempt to preserve the lands held by the Wilder Family. His brother Rex has struck a deal with key entrants of the tournament to ensure his victory so he can sell the lands for a hefty sum. In classic beat 'em up tradition, the story stops there allowing you to pummel your way through the games stages without narrative interruption.
Aces Wild's obvious key focus is it's stylized fast paced aerial combat. The controls consist of a light and heavy attack which are linked to the wild meter located at the top left corner of the screen. The meter is filled with every light attack landed increasing the potency of all your attacks. It's also used for health recovery, and charged attacks. These simple mechanics create a system in which managing your wild meter becomes crucial. You'll find yourself debating on whether to use it for a quick heal, full on charge attack or conserving it just a bit longer for an array of potent light attacks. The three selectable characters also bring a distinct combat style to the table, each with their unique skill set. If you find yourself in a bind consider a new route by selecting another character.
The combat is a bitter sweet. While it is mechanically solid, the level design and enemy encounters undermine it's strengths. One minute you will feel like you are a part of a knuckle sandwich catering service and the next you will find yourself beaten, battered and tossed out on your @$$ like an unruly patron at a biker bar. This often becomes a one sided affair in the later stages when the screen is cluttered with enemies, and one missed dodge results in ten enemy hits. A handful of sword, fists and draggers to the face is a high price to pay for missing one dodge in a cluttered an chaotic melee where sometimes the greatest challenge is keeping track of where your character is at among the action. Enemy's moves don't necessarily evolve either, spamming becomes their default strategy and it becomes extremely irritating when the difficulty is ramped up by cluttering the screen with enemies instead of providing a clever mix of foes that complement one another's attacks and patterns.
Boss battles continue the trend of being frustrating. Like their lesser counterparts, they have a bit of a penchant for spamming the same attacks again and again creating very narrow windows in which to land attacks. Small mistakes and missed dodges are also punished severely. Earlier bosses are formidable at first but quickly become a joke as you learn their patterns. Later encounters ramp up completely taking much of the fun away as they become tedious and annoying. Knowing what to do is one thing, but succeeding is another when everything consuming the screen seems to be at the right spot to put a hurting on you. All is slightly remedied though, as you can select any stage whenever, infinite lives, and the instant respawn with full health after a loss. Still, place fragile valuables in a safe place while playing to ensure their safety.
Leaderboards have recently been added for those looking to ascend them and local mutiplayer is available if you and friend want to tackle the challenge as a team. Co-op play isn't all that exciting though, other then adding a second player on screen the game is exactly the same. If played on a small screen the zooming in and out of the screen can be a pain, making it even more difficult to keep up with what is going on. Unless you have a large monitor and two controllers at hand consider passing on this feature.
Aces Wild channels the style of late 90's Capcom fighting games and side scrolling titles with the UI design and the character animations but is a bit lacking when it comes to detail. Many of the environments feel lifeless and static. There are few interactive objects nor props. Generally, stages are constructed with a photographic backdrop layered with platforms that are crisp and clean but lacking in personality or style. A more dynamic environment could easily add another layer to the static world of Aces Wild and payed better homage to a genre where using objects in the environment as weapons has been a long standing staple. There's also a dearth of detail missing throughout all the characters with little to no animation involved. Fortunately, the soundtrack is well done delivering some fantastic 16bit tracks and sounds.
If Aces Wild Manic Brawling Action gets a sequel a more polished experienced shouldn't be too hard to achieve. The foundation of a great game is present but the overall experience becomes a bit repetitive as the variation in enemies and environment do little to evolve along the way. Manic Brawling Action is a tough game with some infuriating segments, there is no escaping the anger along the ride, but in some ways, that's inherent to the genre. Aces Wild is large dose of nostalgia for a low price, if you're itching for a beat-em up and have run out of other options pick it up. It might just be enough to scratch you right where you need it.