Fifteen years ago, Nintendo released Pokémon and capitalised on a truly disturbing fact: humanity loves nothing more than to capture innocent creatures, lock them inside little balls, and use them to fight their own battles. Since then, we've seen countless Poké-imitators, each spawning an insipid card game, television series and videogame of its own. But where others have tried and failed to capture the universal appeal of Pokémon, Bakugan: Defenders of the Core fares marginally better.
Of course, that wasn't always the case. Cast your mind back to 2009, and you may recall Bakugan: Battle Brawlers, a solid – if predicable – videogame adaption that took the mystifying table-top game and slapped it onto a disc. Bakugan fans lapped it up, but everybody else was left in the cold. The latest entry in the series, Bakugan: Defenders of the Core does away with card-battling formalities of its predecessor and instead grants players real-time control of their Bakugan.
Though the game's cel-shaded aesthetic might suggest Street Fighter levels of complexity, Bakugan is a refreshingly simplistic take on the fighting genre. As such, controlling your Bakugan couldn't be simpler – almost to the point to being a button-masher. Still, there is an element of strategy to be had here. A player's success-rate hinges upon their ability to combine both weak and strong attacks to form effective combos. Strong attacks are typically slower to pull off than weak attacks, meaning it's often a good idea to gauge your opponent's stamina level, before hitting them with the offensive.
There are also a number of special attacks that players can be used in battle, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Each Bakugan boasts a standard long-range attack, which can be activated with a tap of the B button. Players can also hold the B button down for a more powerful long-range attack but since charging it leaves you vulnerable to attack you'll need to use it sparingly - or only when your opponent is downed. If there's one thing I'd love to change about the battle system though it's the counter margin which feels terribly short for a game of Bakugan's nature.
Of course a great fighter wouldn't be complete without a comprehensive story mode - and Bakugan: Defenders of the Core is no exception. Following an unforeseen malfunction in the Interspace - a strange contraption that allows Bakugan brawlers to stage fights in virtual reality – our hero is transported to an alternate Earth, in which inhabitants can no longer brawl. It soon transpires that Spectra and the Vexos armies have erected gigantic Vexos Crystals throughout the land, in a hope to steal all the Bakugan for themselves. As the last remaining brawler it's up to you to bring Spectra and the Vexos down, before retuning return home in time for tea.
The story mode offers a lot more than just battling though. As well as the stunning Bakugan brawls themselves, the game is interspersed with RPG-lite exploration - with NPCs, collectable loot and the occasional bit of stealth gameplay to keep things interesting. These sections rarely demand more of players than heading from A to B, usually to trigger a scripted brawl, but they do a great job to ensure that players are never doing the same thing for too long.
While it's nothing to keep Kojima awake at night, Bakugan's stealth sections unfold in much the same way as Metal Gear Solid - with players shimmying around CCTV cameras, distracting security guards (by throwing Bakugan balls), and generally attempting to stay out of sight. Needless to say that timing is crucial here; get spotted too many times and you'll be forced to restart the entire level - although such instances are indeed rare.
Occasionally, you'll even have to get creative in order to avoid detection. Not only can players throw well-timed Bakugan balls to deactivate patrol 'bots, but they can also use their invisibility cloak and laser-detecting glasses to stay out of harm's way. You'll have to use them wisely though as they're only available for a limited time. While it may seem as though the game is stalling for time these sections not only allow the storyline to progress but also build tension for upcoming brawls.
Bakugan: Defenders of the Core also borrows elements from turn based strategy games, making for some truly original brawls. In addition to fighting players are often required to protect various landmarks or destroy Vexos crystals (which, unless dealt with, spit out an endless supply of enemies). Occasionally the game requires you to go a step further by placing element-specific holograms - which resemble the landmark you’re protecting - onto the battlefield. This not only buys you more time to defeat enemy Bakugan, but ensures the safety of your landmark.
The story mode also offers plenty of incentives to upgrade your Bakugan, and it's all thanks to Core Energy - which can be accrued throughout the course of the game, either by collecting it in towns or by racking-up successful combos in battle. Earn enough Core Energy and you'll be able to improve your Bakugan's attack power, dash ability, health, and more. You can also upgrade their Bakugan's Ability Cards which allows to them to activate special offensive and defensive moves mid-battle.
Bakugan: Defenders of the Core is not only a fantastic piece of fan service but a competent brawler in its own right. Its stunning cel-shaded visuals, beautiful environments and well-rendered characters perfectly capture the essence of their animé-counterparts, and it's safe to say that fans of the franchise will be in seventh heaven. Street Fighter fans need not apply but if you're on the lookout for an upbeat brawler you can't go too wrong with Bakugan: Defenders of the Core.