There’s nothing wrong with a game that conforms to generic tradition. After all, not every single game needs to be experimental. However, games do need to understand how they use those traditions if they want to craft a holistic experience. Otherwise, parts don’t quite fit and the game starts to suffer. You end up with the visual novel that should have been an action game, or the beat-em-up that could work so much better with just the right twists.
I bring this up because that’s exactly the case with Taito’s Pu-Li-Ru-La Arcade Gears. By all means, this game should be every bit the bouncy, delightful experience it presents itself as. Unfortunately, the gameplay can’t match that level of glee. It conforms too slavishly to beat-em-up conventions, adapting nothing to the game’s cartoony premise. That doesn’t mean that Pu-Li-Ru-La is a bad game, but it does mean the game amounts to less than it could be.
Not that the game would have been this unsung masterpiece if it were in a different genre. Still, the game’s early moments hold promise. While the premise of a wizard stealing time from the world lends itself well to an enchanting storybook adventure, it’s really the art that does it for me. Both the early anime art style and the fairy tale premise (along with a slight dose of the surreal) create a warmer, more inviting world than the game has any right to.
On a pure technical level, this shouldn’t be the case. Look at how often the game uses flat, muted colors. And yet it’s able to express so much using only those colors. It renders a wide variety of distinct textures, from crystal to wood to dirt. Each one reads as though it were printed on aged parchment. And the visually well-defined characters squish and stretch about the world. Pu-Li-Ru-La’s art absolutely succeeds at imparting a sense of childlike joy into the action.
I just wonder if the gameplay can match that level of joy. As I said before, it’s typical beat-em-up fare: move to the right and smack crowds of people about when you can no longer move to the right. While this formula brings with it the typical beat-em-up problems (empty level design, a dearth of actions to perform), I’m more worried about the choice of genre for this context. Very little about the beat-em-up formula comes close to matching the game’s childlike tone.
And why should it? That formula wasn’t designed with playful experiences in mind. It was designed for games like Streets of Rage and Final Fight; games where cops/vigilantes patrol the mean city streets to put an end to crime, one felon at a time. None of that would make even the least amount of sense in the saccharine world of Pu-Li-Ru-La, so it should come as no surprise how out-of-place that design feels. For example, why would a young lad’s attacks feel so brutish? And why would a world as whimsical as this amount to little more than open expanses of nothing?
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the game has to abandon beat-em-up conventions for another genre. I can imagine plenty of ways the game can utilize those conventions for its own benefit. To do that, though, the game needs to adapt them to its own particular circumstances. True, the game already makes some efforts. The random nature to magical attacks quickly come to mind. Yet the magic attacks aren’t something that you use frequently in battle. They’re rare attacks you only use once in a while. Thus, they lie at the periphery of the gameplay experience, unable to affect the game’s core. This puts us back where we started: with a game that appears conflicted at best and emotionally flat at worst.
What Pu-Li-Ru-La truly needs is something that changes the structures themselves. One of the best examples of that happening comes toward the end of the game. The hero has just returned time to a village on the brink of a flood, and wouldn’t you know it? The water starts flowing when time does, too. Caught in the flood, the game gives you a bonus mini-game to partake in: spend twenty seconds beating up reverse mermaids. The mechanics aren’t different from the rest of the game, and your only reward for playing are some paltry bonus points.
But none of that matters. The section fits the game’s ethos so well that you want to engage it anyway. Every element of its design conveys the frantic fun that’s missing everywhere else. Enemies don’t meander on stage from off the screen; the game lobs them into your environment. That probably explains why this part of the game plays like a fast paced Whack a Mole, especially when compared against the slow processions that are the other fights. What’s more, the game hasn’t changed its mechanics one bit. All it’s done is frame them to match the action. Why can’t the rest of the game do that?
I fail to see the reason why that can’t be the case. Pu-Li-Ru-La would even be able to keep its core gameplay mechanics. All it would really need to do is pace them out a bit more thoughtfully and alter some of the animations so they represent the rest of the game more closely. Unfortunately, by following genre traditions so tightly, the game only distances itself from where it needs to be. This is why holistic game design is so important: it helps prevent empty experiences.