By Keith C. Smith
Customability: It's a characteristic of most of my favorite games. However, it is rarely the basis of those games, let alone part of the title. And while this game is simply the ultimate take on Rock em' Sock em' Robots, the customization factor, with hundreds of available parts for your robo, makes Custom Robo Arena anything but a standard or boring game.
But, before you get any of those parts, you have to play the story mode. Story mode plays like an RPG where you can challenge several of the NPCs to battles for rank and money. The story takes place in a futuristic city where custom robos are used for recreation and as weapons. Your character is an aspiring police officer, but he still has to get through high school and master custom robos before that is possible. On his first day at school, he meets Liv and Dennis who are on the custom robo team "Numero Unos." They guide your character through the world of custom robo and take him from the school-wide tournament to the world championship. You will also have to uncover secrets of custom robo such as the mysterious Soulboost ability and a crime syndicate using custom robos for their nefarious activities.
Battles occur in small arenas with a variety of obstacles to use to your advantage. You can unlock new arenas by buying them. Each robo starts out in a cube loaded onto a cannon at the center. The opponents aim their cannons and when the fight begins, each is launched onto the field. Escaping from your cube adds an element of chance that doesn't seem fit for this game. Depending on which side your cube lands on, you can have a hard time getting up and going; meanwhile the enemy can come at you and deal a big hit before you're even on your feet. Otherwise, battle is balanced, fun and fast. None of the parts you get are actually better or worse than any other. The trick is finding the right parts that work together or that fit your style. As a result, you can fight your friends on even ground pretty early on.
As the story progresses, you will be able to visit more shops and buy parts for your robo including bodies, legs, guns, pods and bombs. Each part has a unique purpose. Some parts are good at homing in on enemies, some can lead your enemy to where you want him, some help you escape from danger. Whatever strategy you can think of, there is probably a weapon to make it work.
You can also buy dioramas to display your robo on. Even in this, the options given to you are staggering. There are dozens of different dioramas ranging in theme from steampunk to a gym. You can then position and pose your robo how you like. It has no affect on the actual gameplay, but your living opponents get to view your diorama before a match. This adds style to combat and even tells you something about your opponent.
Parts bought in the story mode are usable in any other mode, including multiplayer and wi-fi battles. You can save up to five different combinations of parts. This allows you to adapt to your opponent's style between matches by switching to a robo designed to counter it. Though, with so many combinations of parts, it's impossible to be ready for everything. Wi-Fi battles are easy to set up and really push this game to the next level. You can arrange battles with friends after you've recorded their friend code. You can also battle any random player, or someone who has the same level of experience with the game. It takes about a minute to find an opponent, and each battle is a best of three with 180 seconds per match. Between matches, you can change up your robo to counter your opponent's technique. This is key, as it means there is more to winning than just fast reflexes – there is a strong element of strategy to it. If you have a particularly intense battle with someone, you can add them to your rivals list so you can battle again another day.
While the music is generally cheesy, it still manages to rock during the all important battles. Maybe they intentionally made most of the music so silly just to lend intensity to the fight music. Whatever the case, it's definitely the right sound for robots blasting robots. From metal feet hitting the ground, to a missile launched into the air, every sound is very distinctive. This helps when you have to react to your opponent even if you cant see him.
I dare say that Custom Robo Arena is my favorite action game for the DS, due to its endless experimentation, strategy and replayability. But if you're not convinced, you can download a playable demo from any DS download station. I promise you the demo alone will keep you hooked for a while. As for the full game, it's going to keep my Wi-Fi adapter busy for a long time to come.