Moon Diver has been talked up almost as a spiritual successor to Capcom’s classic Strider series. That was probably a poor choice. Strider was about precise platforming through an assortment of dangerous futuristic stages, getting powerups, and fighting off an assortment of Capcom’s most creative machinations. A Russian senate that turns into a giant red sickle and hammer wielding robo-dragon? Yep, they have those. Dinosaur level? Of course!
Also, the game was hard: Strider Hiryu could die at any time from a fall, from the exploding environment, or just from the onslaught of enemies. Because of Hiryu’s fragility, getting powerups to upgrade your sword (or give you robotic assistants) and tear through the levels felt really satisfying and rewarding.
Moon Diver, on the other hand, takes everything that made Strider fun and makes it feel inconsequential. Miss an important jump? Don’t worry, you won’t die, since there are floors everywhere. You might get hurt a little in the purple miasma, but if you’re quick, poor platforming doesn’t damage you in the slightest. Want to take out a bunch of enemies really quickly? There are so many weak enemies onscreen at once in Moon Diver, eliminating them in a hit or two doesn’t feel empowering, but laborious. It’s strange, but even attacking in Moon Diver doesn’t seem as lethally efficient as it was in Strider. It feels as though there’s a delay between my input and the onscreen actions, and that disconnect just makes the game feel unsatisfying.
However, it isn’t fair of me to just compare Moon Diver to Strider. Although it pales in comparison to the early series, it should be judged on its own merits. Obviously, the game’s probably fun without being blinded by nostalgia, right?
Well… not exactly…
Despite the ability to climb and leap all over the place, Moon Diver is surprisingly combat-centric. Although there’s only one attack button per se, there are a lot of ways to hurt enemies. Double jumping is an attack, rolling is an attack, air-dashing is an attack, getting up from a ledge is an attack, getting down from a ledge is an attack, and even leveling up is an attack. While this all seems well and good, all this attacking feels really empty when enemies hardly respond to attacks and die in a strike or two.
However, to add a little variety, you can give your attacks a bit more punch by charging them. The more you hold the attack button, the more powerful and lengthy the character’s attack becomes. While these generally annihilate any foes in their path, these strikes can also knock heavier enemies down, which can occasionally (rarely) be used to start juggling enemies.
There are also magic spells, called MoonSault Combinations. These are mapped to the circle button, use MP, and range from simple projectiles and shields to screen-clearing chaos and enemy blinding spells. Four can be equipped at a time and be switched between with the d-pad. They can be pretty helpful when the right situations present themselves, but I only really used them when my regular attacks were ineffective. Some of them can also be used to aid your allies in multiplayer, which somewhat justifies their high MP cost.
Now, if the combat was just a way to get through the stages, it would be fine. It’s underwhelming, but it does allow you to kill whatever needs to be killed. However, Moon Diver also draws inspiration from Devil May Cry. While you’re running through the levels, occasionally magical purple barriers (which are never explained) will show up and you’ll have to kill everything that pops out at you. There may be a platform or two in this little boxed in arena, but there’s no real opportunity to utilize each ninja’s acrobatics.
While you might think that this would be an opportunity to take on new and unique enemies, these are essentially texture-swapped robots and robo-mosquitos. They’re not that bad at first, but some drag on for a ludicrous amount of time, and considering how many there are per level, how much they break the flow of fighting through the already ludicrous amounts of enemies in each area, and (most importantly) how frustratingly arbitrary they feel, they get a little old after level one.
However, by fighting through hundreds of enemies per level, the playable characters can level up. Each level gives the character one Customization Point, which they can put into developing their HP, MP, or Power. Certain characters develop more effectively in some directions. For instance, the main character Seyfert will gain more HP and MP per CP invested than he will gain attack power.
If, like me, you use your points poorly, you won’t find a respec option. When I realized I was stuck with my mistakes, I switched to Ourion (the guy with the big axe) to start with a clean slate. While the game showed me that Ourion did gain power much more quickly than Seyfert, when I hopped into a level, the improvements were negligible. Frankly, I hardly noticed a difference during the 40 times or so I leveled up between the two characters.
Surprisingly, I was kind of looking forward to Moon Diver’s story. From what I’d read, it looked like there might be a bizarre but interesting story behind the art. When I played though, the story almost seemed non-existent. There were something like cutscenes between levels, which were essentially character art with nonsensical dialogue that tells you nothing about anything. I was really disappointed by the fact that even 1989’s Strider weaved a better story.
I fear that my frustrations with the game may make Moon Diver sound worse than it actually is. I think the problem is that everything about it is just barely “competent,” and it could have been so much more with a few changes. If there was a purpose for the platforming, satisfaction to the combat, or even just a little more direction to the story, Moon Diver would have been more than just overwhelmingly “okay.”
Food for thought:
A summary of this playtest: Moon Diver is to Strider what Samurai Warriors is to Devil May Cry.