There is a term used in Japan to describe the bevy of licensed anime and manga games released every year: "kyara-ge," an abbreviation of "character games." The term carries some negative connotations, since it's generally presumed that the quality of the game itself will be subpar compared to its non-licensed peers. But as kids who grew up with classic series reach adulthood and get jobs developing games themselves, there have been marked improvements in kyara-ge: when you have genuine affection for a licensed franchise, you feel a lot more invested in the quality of the product. It's still exceptionally rare to find kyara-ge on the level of something like Batman: Arkham City, but these games are often at least mildly enjoyable--a category that Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers falls into nicely.
Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers is a one-on-one 3D fighting game based on Saint Seiya, a Japanese anime and manga franchise that began in the mid-'80s. Many kids growing up around that time period, especially from France, Italy, and Latin America, have fond memories of Knights of the Zodiac, which had a following comparable to that of The Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in North America. Previous Saint Seiya games have actually been localized and released in several of these territories--including a Warriors-style PlayStation 3 action game--but this is the first time Namco Bandai games has released a Saint Seiya game in English. From the heavens to the oceans to the underworld, everywhere is a battlefield!
Brave Soldiers developer Dimps is no stranger to anime-themed fighting games, having also worked on numerous Dragonball Z games. It knows well what fans expect out of this sort of game: true-to-the-source visuals, a story mode, online and offline versus, and a whole mess of unlockable characters, collectibles, and extras. Brave Soldiers delivers on all these fronts: there's a very lengthy story mode that covers multiple arcs of the anime/manga plot, a gigantic roster of characters (over 50, with up to 15 variations for each), character variants to use, beneficial items to customize your fighters with, and a massive gallery filled with art, music, and a staggering number of images and info about Japanese Saint Seiya toys and collectible cards. If you want to unlock everything the game has to offer, Brave Soldiers is going to keep you busy for quite some time. However, you're going to have to actually want to unlock everything, which entails either being a preexisting Saint Seiya fan, becoming a fan through playing the game, or enjoying the gameplay enough to want to play over and over again. This is where problems start to arise.
The biggest issue is that Brave Soldiers' fighting engine is noticeably shallow. Every character has strong and weak attacks that can be chained together for basic combos, a basic jump/dash maneuver, and throws. Stronger strikes, special attacks, and homing maneuvers can be performed at the cost of your cosmo meter, which builds up on landing and receiving attacks but can also be charged up manually. A hugely damaging big bang attack can be executed using three full cosmo bars, resulting in an impressively animated attack sequence that expertly showcases the fantastical, melodramatic fighting attacks of the source material. Another gauge, the seventh sense meter, builds up over time and can be triggered when full, giving the character that triggers it a power boost. Combat is pretty easy to get the hang of, but there isn't much in the way of depth: don't expect many advanced combos or strategies here. It's fun to assault foes with special skills and big bang attacks, but the luster wears off as time rolls on. Everything in the world of Seiya is pretty, especially the heroes.
And time does roll on, especially if you're going through the game's story mode. The story covers three arcs of the original story (Sanctuary, Poseidon, and Hades), and takes many hours to complete (more if you aim to fulfill every fight's optional objectives). Don't expect things to make much sense unless you're already familiar with the franchise, because a good chunk of the story is skipped over to drop the heroes smack-dab in the midst of the Sanctuary arc's temple fights. I had a passing knowledge of Saint Seiya, but I required someone who was a longtime series fan to watch me play through parts of the story mode and explain elements that were omitted or glossed over before things even began to make sense.
The presentation doesn't do much to help, either: dialogue between characters is presented with still heads above dialogue boxes, and rather than rendering the more dramatic twists and turns of these epic fights with cinematics (or having you play them), the game simply presents them as touched-up screenshots lifted from the original anime series. The voice-over is in Japanese with English text, and the translation is lacking, with some odd text display choices (not fitting all of a character's spoken dialogue into a single box, for example) and stilted, awkward exchanges that fail to capture the excitement of a bunch of hyper-powered, extremely pretty armored anime men beating the ever-loving crap out of each other. If you don't know much about Saint Seiya, the story mode won't make you a fan, and if you do, you might still be disappointed in some of the ways it's presented.
The CPU fights are also a slog. On the standard difficulty, the computer is downright brain-dead, falling for simple tricks and repeated attacks, all while choreographing special attacks in such a way that makes them incredibly easy to dodge. Battles typically devolve into using the "dodge behind foe" skill when taking damage to interrupt foes and start your own combos, and then running away, charging up, and spamming super skills until somebody tries to get in close and the whole process repeats again There are some fun dialogue exchanges between the fighters during battle, but it's hard to read the subtitles in the midst of a fight. Even worse is that, for story reasons, some fights have to be repeated multiple times before chapters are cleared. Since all of the interesting fight elements occur in text outside of the fights, the CPU combat feels all the more unexciting. Battles are dynamic, but they aren't terribly cerebral.
Fights against human foes are considerably more fun, simplistic as they are. You can use characters and variants you've unlocked through story mode, as well as customize your characters with status-augmenting orbs you can purchase with currency earned in-game. Online play supports both player and ranked matches, and features fully functional lobbies for the latter. The game features a staggering number of character and costume choices, many of which are unlocked in-game, though there is plenty of downloadable content for devoted Saint Seiya fans to download and add to their collections.
There's no denying that Saint Seiya has had more effort put into it than a run-of-the-mill licensed anime game. It expertly captures the look and feel of the '80s anime, and gives fans the means to feel like they are in control of a hyper-powered character launching all manner of crazy attacks. And once you've got a fair number of characters unlocked, you can have simplistic fun going up against other players. But with its limited depth, Brave Soldiers can't hold its own against more technical fighters on the market, and the tedium and lackluster presentation of the story mode won't give anyone who's not already a fan of the series much of a reason to become one. But if you were one of those kids who grew up with this series--or perhaps discovered it many years later when the English editions finally began rolling out in the early aughts--then you'll find a lot of nice fan service to enjoy here.