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Nintendo provides plenty of rhythm/action greatness in its latest DS title...
- Beat gameplay suits DS.
- Unconventional style and humour.
- Story suits rhythm/action gameplay.
- Score system can seem unfair.
- There's not enough.
- Dated visuals.
Mix equal parts Blues Brothers, Charlie's Angels and Space Channel 5, chuck in dual screens and a stylus; the result will be something approaching the unusual delights of Nintendo and INiS rhythm/action title for the Nintendo DS. From its original guise as the considerably different, Japanese heavy, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan in 2005, the Elite Agents have bided their time before strutting their stuff in Europe, but thankfully the wait appears to have been well worth it.
Answering the cries of "HEEEAAALP" from across the globe, Elite Beat Agents offers 16 different musical tracks to master in a variety of offbeat scenarios. Using their prowess on the dance floor to inspire the assortment of distressed characters, it's up to Agent Chieftan, J and Spin to help people in circumstances such as a novice magician's fight against bandits in a Las Vegas casino to the slightly more sombre note of maintaining a girl's Christmas promise from her late father. Each of the songs/stages are split into several sections showing the progress of the character's story with stylish comic-book visuals, which depending on success or failure, provide three different outcomes for each stage.
Although the basic premise of hitting the dots to the beat of the music and maintaining a combo remains identical to the concepts that have governed the genre since its inception, the execution provides a unique offering in the rhythm/action genre and puts the DS features to excellent use. Portraying the desperate characters journey to an outcome on the top screen, it's unfortunate that the fast pace and frenzied nature of the game means you'll rarely have time to pull your eyes away from the bottom one. Cluttering the bottom screen with a bundle of initially bewildering numbered dots, success stems from tapping these in order and on the time of the beat indicated by outer circles converging on the dot. Frequently the action is intensified even further with double taps, phrase markers to follow a path onscreen and spin markers to put the DS screen durability to the test.
With varying scores determined by the accuracy of hitting the beat, Elite Beat Agents provides a surprisingly sophisticated scoring system that drives the addiction the game quickly manages to muster. Chaining beats and markers together in more and more devilishly designed strings of anywhere up to 15 beats, a 'Beat' or 'Elite Beat' award is provided at the end of each string based upon whether every beat in the chain has been hit perfectly. Decreasing at a constant rate throughout the song to fashion a desperate sense of urgency, the Elite-O-Meter governs success in the song as it slides between 'Yes' or 'No' based upon hit or missed beats and determines whether the character in need makes progress to the outcome or suffers a setback. Like the best rhythm/action titles, Elite Beat Agents provides little scope for error, whilst the fast tempo and constantly dwindling Elite-O-Meter combine to create a gameplay experience that you'll want to keep playing until every stage is mastered.
There's also something tangibly satisfying about the physical nature of tapping along with a stylus to the beat of the song, which elevates Elite Beat Agents above button-pressers like Boom Boom Rocket, yet without the necessity of a costly added peripheral ala Samba De Amigo and Guitar Hero. In many ways, Elite Beat Agents is a shining example of a DS game that would be hard to achieve so effortlessly on any other platform.
Occasionally the scoring system can cause a few confusions, particularly when it comes to the stage ending abruptly despite keeping a mega combo on the go. With the archetypal grades granted at the end of every song and different endings, Elite Beat Agents provides plenty of opportunities to replay songs in search of the ultra difficult 'S' rankings. On top of the 16 tracks featured in the main game, a further three bonus tracks are unlocked by achieving high scores across the various difficulties. Although the game begins easy enough, later stages ramp up the difficulty with elaborate chains and fast tempos. Those with a quick eye and sense of timing will have fun with the increased challenge, unlocking the Elite Beat Divas in the Hard ROCK mode.
Strangely for a rhythm/action game, the list of cover songs takes an almost secondary role to what's occurring in the stage. Complimenting the various stories of anguish you have to overcome with a well-choreographed routine as opposed to single-handedly driving the stage, the highly eclectic soundtrack includes tracks as diverse as Avril Lavigne's 'Sk8er Boi' to Deep Purple's 'Highway Star'. Generally, the covers remain surprisingly close to the official tracks, although it's definitely a game you'll want to play with headphones as opposed to the tinny tones of the DS speakers.
Given the game's origins as a two-year old title with niche aspirations, the lack of any Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection features is perhaps expected. Instead, DS owners wanting to sample some of the action can take advantage of the Game Sharing compatibility and the VS Replay ghost options. Staying close to the same format as the single-player mode, multiplayer continues the fast and frantic brilliance that Elite Beat Agents provides in single-player with the twist of disrupting the other players during the section splits. A turn-based co-operative mode is also on offer, providing you can find a second person with a copy of the game.