At first glance, Kill la Kill The Game: IF passes the fighting game smell test. With sharp cel-shaded cutscenes, including loving recreations of critical moments from the beloved Hiroyuki Imaishi anime series and the endorsement of its animation studio Trigger, developer APlus and publisher Arc System Works want you to see and get excited about the prospect of an authentic, official Kill la Kill game. Unfortunately, authenticity isn’t everything. Kill la Kill The Game: IF feels like a stripped-down version of the prototypical 3D anime fighter. Its loose, mashy fighting fails to create the opportunities for strategic depth I’ve come to expect in great fighting games. Meanwhile, its story and single-player modes feel less than substantial.
Kill la Kill The Game: IF is a fairly basic version of what we’ve seen in other 3D anime fighting games like Jump Force or the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm series. Unlike those games, Kill la Kill’s matches are one-on-one duels, and take place on dull, flat arenas. The fighting is very simple, with each character using his or her own versions of the same three attacks: a close-range punch or strike, a chargeable long-distance projectile or dash attack, and a slow-moving heavy hit that breaks your opponent’s guard. Fighters also have flashy, powerful versions of each attack called deathblows, which are limited by a special meter. They do more damage, though not so much that pulling one off feels particularly satisfying, even if they come with a short cutscene intro to make them feel more epic.
Though the controls are simple, the characters attack styles are not completely identical. Certain characters have variations that may push you to approach a fight in specific, sometimes unintuitive ways. For example, Ira Gamagoori, a BDSM-inspired character who whips himself to build up power, takes a very small amount of damage when he blocks to build up his strength, which then makes his attacks more powerful. Other character’s eccentricities are much smaller – Uzu Sanageyama, the oversized, armored fighter with a wooden sword, has a charged version of his heavy attack that teleports directly behind his opponent. Unfortunately, there are no character-specific tutorials to help you learn each of their variations, so you will need to figure out how each character works through trial and error.
Though the attacks and fighting styles distinguish one character from another, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you’re just mashing your way to victory. There’s a system in place where blocks beat attacks, guard breaks beat guards, and dodges beat guard breaks, but with an air dash that can reach your opponent from any distance and a lot of single-button combos, it still feels like just rushing in and mashing an attack button is the optimal strategy. You can spend half your special meter to burst out of combos using the Bloody Valor system, a mid-match minigame-style mechanic, but it doesn’t do a great job of teaching you this. If you don’t know it, or recently used Bloody Valor already, then trading strings of hits doesn’t feel particularly enthralling when dishing it out, and can be exasperating when you have to take it.
Bloody Valor is ostensibly a “comeback” tool, offering some recourse when you’re in a one-sided fight, but it does more harm than good. It’s a rock-paper-scissors-style power-up mechanic, letting you spend half of your special meter to gamble for a battlefield advantage (such as healing your wounds or recharging your super meter) and raise your Ketsui level, which makes you generally more powerful. If you initiate Bloody Valor and win, you do it again to gain an even larger advantage. If you can win multiple challenges in a row, you’ll charge up a match-ending super move called a Lost Fiber Secret Art.
And if you start a Bloody Valor and lose? You lose a little health. There’s little incentive not to try it as often as possible, especially if you’re outmatched, which breaks up the flow of the fight in an unwelcome way. I’m not a fan of injecting random, tide-turning game mechanics into fighting games. Putting stat boosts and a match-winning attack at the end of a minigame separates the prospect of winning from your skill in combat, and undermines the fight as a whole.
The best defense may be Kill la Kill The Game: IF’s incomprehensible camera. Rather than following your character, the camera floats freely around the arena allowing your fighter to move out of focus or even all the way to the background, making it difficult to keep track of what you’re doing. There were times, particularly while playing the story mode, when I lost track of my fighter because the camera didn’t move as anticipated. There’s no auto-center button or way to turn the seemingly randomized camera off. You have to learn to go with the flow, which… I’d rather not. Fighting games are intense enough when you can keep track of the action.
Once upon a time at Honnouji Academy…
Despite being a fighting game, and therefore inherently multiplayer-focused, Kill la Kill The Game: IF puts single-player first. Its primary mode is its story-driven campaigns, a pair of abridged retellings of the original anime series’ final two-thirds -with some key differences that bring the playable fighters to blows in ways the original story wouldn’t allow. You should know right from the get-go: It’s all fan service, and you’re expected to know the whole Kill la Kill saga before you start, which makes sense for a tie-in game but feels limiting.
Though the campaigns are short – each one takes about three hours to complete – both feel like they drag on for far too long. The campaigns follow Satsuki Kiryuin and Ryuko Matoi, respectively, and are only ten fights apiece, including a mix of standard one-on-one matches, three-way duels, and brawler-esque engagements with dozens of generic “cover” opponents. The multi-character fights and brawls add some variety, but all three types are used repeatedly so they don’t feel especially refreshing by the end. Plus, that wayward camera has a tendency to make some of the fights borderline unreadable.
The real issue with the campaigns are the wait times between each fight. Long cutscenes separate each match, full of expository dialogue that rushes you through the plot. Though the cutscenes look good and are well shot, it doesn’t feel like much is happening if you know major plot points already, and isn’t effective storytelling if it’s new to you. Instead, the changes sprinkled throughout feel like they exist to facilitate fights, rather than make the story interesting in a new way.
The poor balance of cutscene to combat also seems to be in service of the story. During the campaigns, you’re restricted to the protagonists’ perspectives, to the point where you wind up watching fights take place in cutscenes rather than playing them yourself. In some cases, you watch multiple scenes and progress through entire chapters of the story without fighting at all.
Even if it weren’t mostly recounting events fans already know – key moments from the anime like the Naturals Election and the Great Culture and Sports Festival take up multiple chapters – the perpetual wait to pick up your controller and start playing tested my patience to the point where I wasn’t particularly interested in watching.
While I didn’t love how long and redundant the cutscenes were, I will say there were very well made. Kill la Kill The Game: IF employs an elegant cel-shaded art style both in gameplay and cutscenes. It isn’t as inventive as the multi-faceted art style of the anime, but it’s clean, looks good, and really does feel like watching an anime in its rare, exciting moments. In cutscenes, the art gets an aesthetic boost from strong cinematography, which makes many sequences, especially action scenes, look striking.
But the story fails to give you additional insight into the characters or world of the anime series. Despite the fact that it was “supervised” by the Kill la Kill anime scriptwriter Kazuki Nakashima, giving it an air of canonical importance, IF’s story bends over backwards to make sure you know that what happens is of absolutely no consequence to the story you already know.
The story is clearly the centerpiece of Kill la Kill The Game: IF, so much so that you are required to play at least some of it before doing anything else – the training and local versus modes only unlock after completing the first chapter. Online play isn’t available until after chapter six. I, and I think most fighting game fans would agree, that this is a cardinal sin. There will always be people who just want to jump into fighting with friends or simply don’t care about the campaign. Forcing you to consume even a small part of it feels, quite frankly, out of touch.
You’ll also unlock new modes, various collectibles, and other characters as you progress, growing the paltry starting roster of six fighters to a still meager ten, including secondary versions of the two story protagonists. Two more characters are coming as free DLC later “this summer,” but even 12 characters feels light when the anime is jam-packed with weird, wonderful supporting characters who could add variety and personality to the lineup.
In addition to the story mode, Kill la Kill The Game: IF has a few extra single-player modes, including a training room, a single-player Survival Challenge mode where you continue fighting opponents until you die, and Covers Challenge, which is a wave-based brawler mode where you fight groups of generic enemies similar to some of the fights from the story campaigns. Though these modes present options to play solo using any fighter, including the more interesting characters not usable in the main campaigns, they lose their luster quickly with such a small roster.