"By the Power of Grayskull... I HAVE THE POWER!!!"
Mention He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to anyone who remembers the cartoon from the late eighties, and chances are that half of them will holler back with this catchphrase. The popular animated series was on the air for only two seasons from 1985 to 1987, but the episodes were rerun for years... Recently an all-new version of the show debuted on the Cartoon Network to strong ratings, and now TDK Mediactive is bringing the franchise to videogame consoles for the first time with Masters of the Universe He-Man: Defender of Grayskull.
The game's story opens with the kingdom of Eternia in turmoil... He-Man's arch-nemesis Skeletor has beseiged good Castle Grayskull once again, and this time he's done it while Prince Adam happened to be away on an errand in Snake Mountain. For those of you not familiar with this alter-ego, Prince Adam is He-Man's normal human form before he transforms and "HAS THE POWER!!!" It's a bit like Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk.
Without He-Man around to defend the Castle, the Sorceress of Grayskull must pull back all of her power reserves to stave off Skeletor's legions. Unfortunately for He-Man, that means that he's going to have to set out as lowly Prince Adam and slowly regain his strength over the course of the game. It's a clever plot device by the developers that starts the player out with a limited set of abilities and gradually increases them in each level as he gets closer to Grayskull (but don't worry, it's not far into the first stage before Prince Adam turns into He-Man). He-Man soon gets the word from the Sorceress that there's trouble at home, and so he must battle his way out of Snake Mountain and traverse Eternia, ultimately reaching the Castle where a showdown with Skeletor awaits.
The style of the gameplay is pure third-person action, with an emphasis on the creative variety of combat moves used to defeat enemies. As He-Man fights his way past familiar bad guys from the show, such as Beast Men and Shadow Beasts, he adds new weapons and techniques to his repetoire. At the outset only the two-handed power sword is available, but later he can swing a one-handed sword and shield combo or wield his mighty battle axe. Each weapon set has three basic moves plus nine special moves apiece, giving players a wide range of choice in how to take on the opposition. Certain attacks are more effective for different types of enemies.
Ah, but there is a limit to even He-Man's power. Players must keep an eye out for two gauges at the top of the screen: the requisite health bar and the Grayskull Power bar. The health bar functions like any other game's--if He-Man takes too much damage and it reaches empty, the game ends and Skeletor's forces have prevailed. Fortunately the developers made sure to scatter frequent save points throughout every level, so you never have to fight too long without being able to check your progress. As for the Grayskull power bar, it represents the energy you have left to perform special attacks with your weapons, similar to the magic points in an RPG or a Zelda title.
Game developer Savage Entertainment has made good use of the supporting cast of characters. Instead of just being a person to rescue, the Sorceress of Grayskull actively helps you during the game by telepathically communicating gameplay tips to He-Man. If you get stuck, chances are that the Sorceress will have a hint or two to nudge you in the right direction. This keeps the game flowing smoothly and the focus on action with a bit of light exploration. Boss enemies in the game are plucked straight from the cartoon, so you can expect epic battles with Skeletor's lackeys like Tri-Clops, as well as brand-new original game characters such as the Sphinx. Some bosses even become He-Man's allies after being defeated and fight alongside him in combat.
Fans of She-Ra (He-Man's sister from the parallel planet of Etheria) will be disappointed to find out that she's not in the game; "Unfortunately, She-Ra's a separate license," explained a TDK rep. However, there's still Teela, He-Man's love interest and the daughter of his older comrade, Man-at-Arms, to provide a little girlpower (of Grayskull). More importantly, his trusty tiger steed Battle Cat is along for the ride in about a third of the game's levels, and makes for one of the most enjoyable aspects of combat.
We went hands-on with an early build of the game to get a feel for the controls, which are pretty intuitive considering the wide range of attacks at your disposal. For example on the GameCube version: Down + A = backspin strike, up + A = rising slash, left + A = ground slash, right + A = highspin, Y + B = axe launch, A + X = axe spin... and that's just for starters. The degree of choice you have in how to dispatch enemies keeps the combat fresh, and often a nice slo-motion Matrix-style camera effect will kick in when you land an especially good combo.
The loading screens during level transitions also display the controls for any new techniques you've recently learned--a nice touch. However, the preview build on display still showed signs of being early in development. There were clipping and collision detection problems that sometimes made the combat seem disconnected, and once in awhile the slow-motion camera would trigger when no one was even near He-Man. Hopefully these issues will be cleared up by the time the game releases.
The Battle Cat levels have great potential because he's a force to be reckoned with. Riding Battle Cat offers the flexibility to either recklessly dash into enemies for a claw attack, or to sit back and pick them off from afar by launching missiles from his tiger armor. While riding Battle Cat, you still have limited control over He-Man and can strike from side to side with his sword--a key component since enemies often swarm in from all angles. Altogether there are thirty-five to forty unique combat moves expected to be in the game, including Battlecat's attacks. The many level locations include lava-filled caverns ("Escape from Snake Mountain"), mountain-top cliffs ("The Gathering Storm"), and one called "Skeletor's Trap" that has us wondering what the villain has up his sleeve.
He-Man: Defender of Grayskull really seems like an effort to do justice to the Masters of the Universe franchise, and the game should be especially fun for fans of the cartoon. So far it looks to be a real success at capturing the action-packed spirit of the show, though a bit rough around the edges at this point. The graphics are colorful and attractive for this stage of development, and all the actors from the new Cartoon Network television series are on board to voice their respective characters (longtime cartoon voice actor Cam Clarke reprises his role as He-Man). That's important, because not just anyone can cackle wickedly like Skeletor or say, "I HAVE THE POWER!!!" with the proper He-Manly note of authority. Except maybe me.
The Masters of the Universe - He-Man: Defender of Grayskull comes out this holiday season for Playstation 2, Xbox, and GameCube.