Virtua Quest, the fruition of one of SEGA’s most persistent rumors, has finally arrived in North America. The game itself was officially announced three years ago, but there were rumblings for almost a decade prior about an Action/RPG spinoff of Yu Suzuki’s popular Virtua Fighter series. For a while it appeared that the project morphed into the leisurely paced adventure Shenmue, so it was a surprise to see the spinoff project brought back to life. However, while Virtua Quest has direct connections to Virtua Fighter, it may not appeal to the same audience. Also, the fact that vaunted SEGA development house AM2 managed the game’s creation while they farmed the art and programming out to another developer, BOSE, coupled with the miniscule marketing push calls into question SEGA’s level of confidence in this title for the general market.
While the Virtua Fighter characters in the game maintain their quasi-realistic artistic style, the rest of Virtua Quest’s art is designed in a style similar to modern anime. The animation is mostly fluid, with the exception of some jarring lip-synching examples, and the graphics are successful enough to display game objects clearly and have a usable interface. They lack any kind of flair, however, and there is an overall sense of mediocrity about Virtua Quest’s visuals.
The music early in the game is noticeably bad, and sounds as though SEGA used rejected tracks from Sonic Adventure. Towards the end of the game the soundtrack improves considerably, and the song that plays during the closing credits is surprisingly pleasant. The voice acting is unpredictable; it ranges from the inoffensive but uninspired main characters, to some annoyingly cute NPCs, to the ghastly sounding mini-boss characters.
Virtua Quest’s setting is a simulated online world, reminiscent of the .hack series. Rather than being a massively multiplayer game, the idea here is that many people in the future live their lives through a virtual reality simulation called the Nexus. Judging by how the simulation is developed in Virtua Quest, the only interesting thing to do in the Nexus is to run around abandoned locales – or Servers as the game calls them – to search for lost treasures and data chips, the virtual world’s currency. Presumably the inclusion of abandoned locales implies the existence of populated areas to explore as well, but Virtua Quest completely ignores this issue. The world-within-a-world concept loses considerable credibility due to this inflexibility and also by the fact that the game’s eight Servers are introduced in a purely linear fashion. Ironically, exploration in this online world is forbidden all but in name, and the Nexus is simply a prop for supporting the linear game design. There are certainly perils in developing a full-bodied simulation to envelop the game, as seen in the .hack series where a big problem was that its virtual world had no depth unto itself. On the other hand, by ignoring the issue entirely, Virtua Quest creates too much of a sense of claustrophobia for its own good.
This feeling is compounded by the on-rails level design. There’s the occasional flash of variety in confined areas, but each level is structured in such a way that there is one path from start to finish. With the lack of variety in level design, the only reason for many players to replay parts of the game is to better the score accorded to them at the end of a level. These level scores have meaning in terms of the game to a small extent, as they serve as a variation on the concept of experience points. There are a limited number of experience levels, though, and by the end of the game there is little room for growth in this area. The player can also increase level points by completing missions dictated by certain NPCs. These missions consist of accomplishing specific tasks within a limited timeframe, usually collecting a set number of items or defeating a predetermined number of enemies. There isn’t much variety in these missions, but they’re over quickly.
The plot has a few strong moments, but is ultimately unexceptional. At the start of the game the story is tepid and the goal of the designers seems to be primarily to introduce the player to the main characters. Towards the end of the game, the plot twists become more convoluted and interesting, but much of the emotional resonance is lost, however, due to the blandness of the characters. Even the most well-developed characters in Virtua Quest feel like cardboard cutouts and, as a result, attempts at character development and interaction fall flat.
Combat is an integral part of Virtua Quest, and the combat mechanics are altered from Virtua Fighter in significant ways. The guard command remains, while the punch and kick buttons are now commands for a normal or special attack. Among normal attacks, the specific offense depends on its context. A standing attack may be a straightforward kick or punch while a jumping attack will be a leaping kick. Special attacks are customizable and provide the choice for several styles of attack in each context. Combos are heavily simplified in Virtua Quest; for each attack, the combo is unleashed by tapping the appropriate button several times in sequence. It is worth noting that this combat system may hold little appeal to fans of traditional one-on-one fighting games like Virtua Fighter. The convoluted attack and defense combinations of Virtua Fighter and its ilk may be off-putting to some but have a gameplay elegance that’s sadly lacking in Virtua Quest.
Scattered throughout the game are Virtua Souls, which when encountered will allow the player to fight a specific Virtua Fighter character. Once the player wins, they receive a new special attack from the defeated fighter’s repertoire. Each character’s back-story is summarized at the start of their fight and makes the game feel somewhat like an advertisement for the latest Virtua Fighter installment. The connection between Virtua Souls and the game’s villains – evil conglomerate Judgment Six – is briefly explained but its importance is diminished when it becomes apparent that none of the characters care about the history.
Combat may be prevalent, but Virtua Quest is more than just a string of fights, as there are plenty of areas to conduct platform-based puzzles. As well as wandering, running and jumping, Virtua Quest allows players to run along walls and use a throwing wire that works like a grappling hook. The game is merciful in situations requiring these skills; the most significant danger is falling into water, which subsequently finds you returned to the nearest platform and causes minimal damage. However, the mercy in the adventure sequences is tempered by the agony inflicted by the camera system.
A significant part of any 3D third-person adventure game is the management of the virtual camera tracking the player. In this day and age (of gaming), there is a standard method of having the player maneuver the camera with the right analog stick while controlling the character with the left. Virtua Quest throws this wisdom out and forces the player to control the camera by centering it behind the character with the ?L1′ button. Absurdly, the right analog stick is used to throw the grappling wire instead, and it only throws the wire straight ahead – regardless of which direction the analog stick is moved. The camera occasionally follows the player but is always several seconds behind. Camera problems are especially apparent during combat where, if the camera ever loses sight of an opponent, it is often difficult to regain perspective without incurring a pummeling first.
An easy rationalization of Virtua Quest’s design is that it’s intended primarily for kids. The visuals seems to support this idea, but the unpleasantness of managing the camera will frustrate children, not to mention adults. The first two-thirds of the game are not overly difficult and have reasonably spaced save points throughout the levels. In the final part of the game, though, the save points are separated by aggravating lengths and the overall difficulty is noticeably ramped up. Clever players will figure out that an easy way to temper the difficulty is to quickly use special attacks and then run in a large circle while the depleted special attack meter refuels, but this style of play only adds more tedium to the experience.
The biggest reason why Virtua Quest is such a disappointment is that everything about the game feels half-hearted: the bland virtual world, the haphazard integration of the Virtua Fighter characters, and the uninspired environments. Dedicated players may find some value, as while it doesn’t take a long time to get to the end of the game, there are numerous hidden artifacts to return and collect in past levels. For most players, though, the flaws will be too much to endure. Unfortunately, what will likely be remembered most about Virtua Quest is that it represents the first significant blemish on the legacy of the Virtua Fighter franchise.