|Publisher||Marvelous, Marvelous USA, XSEED Games|
|Genre||Action, Beat 'Em Up|
|Platforms||PC (reviewed), PS Vita|
|Release Date||October 21, 2020|
In video games, simulating a power fantasy feels fulfilling. Your actions are justified because you’re the player. You solve the problems, you save the world, you get the girl (or guy), you are the winner. In Uppers, you beat up everyone else, become the strongest, and have all the girls fall for you. Uppers celebrates masculinity, but parts of it are nothing but childish.
Violence: The graphic violence is utterly bombastic. The game depicts no blood or wounds other than roughed-up clothes and scratches. The player defeats enemies by fighting, throwing, tossing large objects (like metal drums, bicycles, and even small-sized vehicles!), and using interactive environments like manholes, electric signs, and destructible walls. One playable character, Liu Wuchang, secretly operates as an assassin, though he never kills anyone. Another, Shion Ukyo, holds no qualms against physically striking women for any reason.
Sexual Content: Women wear several kinds of provocative clothing. The most explicit scenes occur during random events when interacting with an admirer, and an enemy stands behind the player character and knocks them towards the admirer’s chest. They fall into their chest and grab their breasts. The character then strikes a pose and says a line of dialogue like “I’m fired up!”. This also happens later in the game when you run out of health; the same event plays, except you fall on the girl’s crotch. There are some small “appreciation” vignettes when you acquire a new “Queen” supporter, highlighting her bust, hip, and face as she poses. Impressing admirers as you fight through stages serves as a key mechanic of the game. If you accomplish these tasks, they will give you love letters. If you create large impacts, the force knocks girls down or lifts up their skirts, revealing their panties. Panties are recorded and can be viewed in the gallery for information on the buff they give the player. Profiles on supporters and general admirers can be collected and reveal personal information such as likes, dislikes, age, cup size, and favorite underwear color.
Language/Crude Humor: A**, sh**, d***, b******, and f*** are used in the script.
Drug/Alcohol References: Cigarettes are referred to in the script and one character is depicted to be an alcoholic.
Other Negative Content: In Uppers, men compete in a hierarchy of shallow popularity, where they are judged based on their physical strength. One character, in a fit of rage, fights back and then chooses to proactively defeat every man he deems ignoble after being bullied and beaten himself. Women play passive roles and rarely have any involvement in the story other than being impressed by the player’s fighting ability. This premise, along with the game’s other elements, portrays a shallow view of the roles of men and women. It’s even more out of taste in possible team setups where you could potentially have a brother accidentally grope their little sister or even women groping other women. All the sexual content, at its worst, is childish and distasteful. But it has little relevance to the game.
Positive Content: Ranma, one of the two main characters, takes responsibility and corrects another character’s actions after being influenced by him. Being a “man” is more than just the actions you take but the ideal you uphold through those actions. We as Christians, looking to Jesus’ actions and motivations for guidance in our lives, resonate with this sentiment.
Letting out an exasperated sigh, I set down my controller after reaching the end of Uppers, wrestling with how I truly feel about this game. My experience was a staunch reminder of why I actively avoid anime games and the like. Even under low expectations, Uppers feels disappointing for a game originally released in 2016. It is surprisingly competent in its gameplay, but the many small, bad touches sour the experience.
Uppers, developed by studio Bullets, puts you in control of Ranma Kamishiro and Michiru Sakurai, two rough-housing high school punks who are aiming to be the kings of Last Resort Island, a (mostly) lawless island where only the strongest of men rule. Michiru is in it for the fighting but Ranma wants to capture the hearts of all the women on the island.
…And that’s pretty much it.
Uppers borrows from the Japanese Banchō (banchou) manga genre, which centers around young delinquents. The genre is similar to The Outsiders novel that follows young rebels who want to belong in a group of their own. The characters in banchō are generally “bad” students who are willing to commit misdemeanors but have hearts of gold.
Uppers‘s simple premise works to its advantage as a 3D beat ’em up. The player has a light and strong attack, a throw, a lock-on, and a short dash move. The dash move can be used to pursue a knocked down enemy or for wallrunning. However, these moves are strictly contextual and will not activate outside of knocking down an enemy or hugging against a wall. You can also switch to your Partner using the left or right d-pad buttons.
The lock-on is your most important button. Holding it down will lock onto one enemy, but tapping it also lets you dodge and counter enemies. Countering does more damage than your normal attacks, so it’s highly recommended to master for the later levels. There are also a lot of interactive environment objects like poles, bikes, cars which can help with knocking out multiple enemies. The camera can be a hassle as it will auto-adjust itself to track behind the player, which can lead to some awful angles and the occasional awkward bug.
Fighting enemies and utilizing the environment is easily the most fun aspect of the game. While movement and crowd control are stiff, the attacks themselves are very snappy and fast, much like old-school beat ’em up games like Final Fight. The game contains thirteen characters, including the guest character Daidouji from the Senran Kagura series. Every character has their own unique combo string and you play as all of them through the story. The only repeated attack animations are the Upper Rush enders, QTEs that activate while in Rise Up mode, which gives you added attack and speed.
The other key mechanic of the game is the admirers. Throughout the levels, hordes of girls gather and cheer for you as you engage in street-fighting. Some will request tasks for you like “Defeat 3 enemies,” “Throw an enemy 3 times,” “Activate Rise Up once,” and so on. On completing these tasks, you will recover some health and possibly their love letter. As you progress, you will also unlock “Queens” who run with you through stages and give small buffs like increased normal attack or increased damage for counters. The admirers’ tasks can be finicky to achieve as you can only do one at a time, but these prove saving graces in later missions and essential, along with countering, on hard mode.
Unfortunately, several fanservice mechanics also rear their heads. Once in a while, an “alluring admirer” will appear and give you a small Rise Up boost. This is portrayed by getting hit by an enemy from behind, causing the player character to fall into the admirer or Queen’s breasts, fully grasping them as well.
On top of that, when both your characters’ health hits zero once, they will fall into the Queen’s crotch and revive with half health. Classy. However, if you’re defeated again, the Queen will slap you and you have to restart from a checkpoint. At least there’s some justice.
As if that wasn’t enough, there is also a “Panty Slot” mechanic. This is activated by strong impacts or Rise Up. If you match the same three panties (never thought I’d be writing this out) by mashing buttons, you’ll receive a buff specific to the underwear type. Thankfully you can have this resolve automatically in the settings in a relatively small corner of the screen, trivializing an obnoxious and annoying mechanic.
You will interact with these mechanics the most as they are part of the gameplay. Not only are they childish, they are unnecessary designs slapped onto the game for the sake of having it. Ignoring the fanservice aspect, you have to sit and wait through annoying cutscenes just to get back to the action. I’m positive you die and respawn faster in Final Fight.
The story isn’t much better either. In a couple of arcs, fighting back receives some context like becoming a stronger person or fighting for what you believe in. Other than that, Ranma’s and Michiru’s motivations remain simple enough but are bogged down by story elements that fail in their attempts to add depth. The main antagonist, Mukuro Kujo, Fuka’s father, is revealed to be Ranma’s father’s close friend and it never comes up between him and Ranma, making that revelation useless.
The story attempts to justify Ranma’s actions in that he only wants to pursue one girl, Fuka Kujo, the daughter of the boss of Last Resort Island as opposed to becoming popular with every girl. But it fails to convince me that Ranma has any conviction aside from saying that she’s “exactly his type” at the beginning of the game. She also has no bearing on the plot aside from asking a friend of her father to try to defeat him. The additional story elements should have been cut altogether for a smoother playthrough.
I am incredibly frustrated with Uppers‘s execution, as the poor writing and badly implemented fanservice mar the overall experience. I became even more upset once I found out about Bullets’s prior series, Kenka Banchō, which only ever received one international release on the PSP. Kenka Banchō fully embraces the banchou aesthetic, leaning hard into the delinquent vibe and even incorporated stuff like intimidating glares and trash talk as gameplay mechanics. That series isn’t outstanding, but at least it has a voice.
That isn’t to say Uppers doesn’t have a realized aesthetic. The base premise works perfectly for the short story campaign. The visual design does the game justice and gives all the playable characters life in their animations. There’s a hint of a vision in Uppers‘s core.
The game even ends with a great Double Dragon/high school anime-style finale that I won’t spoil here, though suffice to say it’s a wonderful moment. But while Uppers is ultimately a serviceable game, I’m hard-pressed to recommend this to anyone even casually because of my frustration with it. Uppers, at its core, had some great potential but is held back by slapped-in game elements.
The Bottom Line
A competent and charmingly designed 3D beat 'em up that is, unfortunately, weighed down by shallow mechanics, lackluster writing, and tired anime tropes.