Moon Diver is a very odd beast of a game. As a single-player experience, it’s a strict old-school, arcade-action throwback, complete with the incredibly tough level of difficulty we’ve come to expect from the era. As a multiplayer experience, it’s a game where you and up to three of your pals, locally or online, basically bulldoze through everything in your path, having a great time just slashing everything that moves to shreds. In other words, it’s a solid game with a strange identity crisis.
The core concept of the game is similar to that of the action classic Strider – which isn’t coincidental, considering that Strider creator Kouichi Yotsui headed up this title. You select one of four very slick-looking ninja characters (five if you purchase the well-planned-in-advance DLC character), each with their own distinct strengths and weaknesses, and then make your way through dystopian side-scrolling stages filled to the brim with platforming challenges and enemies that want you dead. The odds are very much against you, but you do have a lot of different attack skills: a lightning-fast slice, a jumping lunge, a double-jump burst, and a sliding tackle.
Though the skills might not seem like much at first, once you master the controls (which takes a while – the game’s “tutorial” dialogue bubbles don’t really touch upon the effectiveness of certain techniques) and learn how to effectively utilize and chain together your abilities, your attacks become much more effective. If things get really tough, you’ll have to utilize special magic attacks to get out of a pinch. These spells have varying effects, ranging from healing to giving you limited projectile power to completely wrecking onscreen enemy AI for a set amount of time. Additional spells can be found hidden throughout Moon Diver’s stages and can be equipped in between levels. As you fight and destroy stuff, you’ll also gain experience and stat boosts for your chosen character, which are retained even after you quit the game, making subsequent challenges considerably easier.
All this sounds like a lot of fun, and it is… most of the time. There are a few factors keeping Moon Diver from true platforming greatness, and the biggest one is the weird feeling of inconsistency the game has. The game supports up to four players, and there are considerable benefits to playing in a group: you’ll get access to extremely powerful combination magic, as well as be able to revive teammates who run out of health. The game’s difficulty doesn’t scale based on how big your ninja squad is, however, meaning that a stage or boss that’s incredibly hard with one or two players is a pushover with three or four, especially if a couple of them are high-leveled.
The level design feels similarly uneven at times: for every tricky, trap-filled corridor or big, challenging foe, there are a few dull areas where you’re “locked in” and forced to slice up a couple dozen cannon-fodder enemies to escape. And while the boss fights are usually awesome, some of them have some very, very nasty gimmicks that can utterly decimate you unless you figure out the trick to avoiding them. And if you do die, well… hope you’re not attached to the idea of checkpoints, since you’ll need to start the stage over. It’s definitely old-school, but having to replay them over and over makes some fun stretches of the game grow tiresome.
Moon Diver is a game that’s both immensely satisfying and somewhat frustrating at the same time. For the most part, it’s a great solo arcade action title or a crazy slash-em-up with a bunch of pals… but it never really reaches its full potential in one area or the other. It’s also got some frustrating snags that will turn some players off to it entirely. But for those of us who love 2D action games - with or without a posse – Moon Diver is still worth checking out, flaws and all.
Apr 20, 2011