Picture this: you’re a suave, well-dressed gentleman enjoying an extravagant gala with a martini in hand and the lustful gaze of one of the ladies from across the room. Little do they know that you’re an expert in hand-to-hand combat and have at least five tools disguised as fountain pens. You are a spy and yes, you’re a dang fine one! Sadly, this was all in the past; just how has the spy evolved to adapt to the modern era? It’s simple: make them a reputable salaryman who can casually defy gravity… That wouldn’t have been my first guess, but that’s where Assault Spy takes it.
Assault Spy is a 3D action game developed by a small group called Wazen and published by NIS America. Available via Steam Early Access before being fully released in October 2018, this highly ambitious title aims to recapture the style and flair of high-profile action titles such as Devil May Cry and Nier Automata. Does it succeed? Well, button up your shirt, straighten your tie and let’s take a look!
Despite the name, Assault Spy has you take the role of two protagonists across two campaigns. The first follows the exploits of Asaru Vito; our titular Assault Spy. Under the guise of a Japanese salaryman, he’s actually an agent for an underground spy agency, though his track record hasn’t been too strong as of late, no thanks to his pink-haired protege, Kanoko. The second shines the spotlight on an American CIA operative: Amelia Smith. Part-time agent and part-time waitress, she gets a mission from a fellow agent and self-proclaimed casanova, Kazama. Both campaigns lead you to the headquarters of Negabot, an international security company. And as luck would have it, a terrorist group takes over the company on the same day and Asaru or Amelia are now obligated to put a stop to their scheme.
The best part isn’t what happens in the story itself, but rather the characters within it. For the most part, characters are often paired together, allowing for plenty of humorous back-and-forth exchanges throughout the whole game. My favorite pair would have to be Asaru and Kanoko; Asaru is the no-nonsense straight man who’s just doing his job and Kanoko is his snarky partner who goes out of her way to antagonize and annoy him. This works so well because Asaru regularly quips back at her and leads to some hilarious exchanges that I couldn’t get enough of!
Good thing too, because as I alluded to earlier, the story itself isn’t as engaging… at least for Asaru. It’s your usual game plot: bad guys show up, go through multiple levels to thin their forces, and take on the final boss at the top of the building/tower/castle.
The antagonists themselves don’t compare to the main cast; one of them is your typical snooty secretary and the other one doesn’t talk unless you count mumbling and hysterical laughter as dialogue. They serve as a threat, but that’s about it. This is unfortunate since they could have been so much more! As an example, four of the game’s bosses are robot officers themed off suits of cards, i.e Officer Diamond, Club, etc. They are introduced by showcasing a unique talent each one has, such as mind-reading or having perfect business etiquette. This is serviceable, sure, but these bosses could have been so much more! Why not have each one be the head of a department like marketing, PR, or development? It would have given each of them a distinct personality that reflects their profession and would have aided the office theme the rest of the game has.
Amelia’s story is quite different by comparison. While it uses the same characters and settings, you’ll notice some pretty big differences when compared to Asaru’s campaign. This gives Amelia’s jaunt through Negabot a sense of mystery and intrigues you into wanting to learn more. Plus, playing her campaign is the only way to see the true ending, which is easily the highlight of the game!
Assault Spy is an action game, but that alone is an incredibly broad term. We’ve seen tons of subgenres that can all be classified as “action.” From Streets of Rage to Senran Kagura, as long as flailing your fists solves all your problems, you can technically classify it as an action game!
To be more specific, Assault Spy is what’s known as a Character Action game. It’s a bit of a vague term, but put simply, these games revolve around a deep combat system relying on combo crafting, only has around one-to-three playable characters, and aims to be as stylish as possible. Upon hearing that, you may think of comparing this game to Capcom’s Devil May Cry series, and you’re not wrong in doing so, since Assault Spy was inspired by it.
Before I get into explaining the combat system, there is one thing I must stress. Despite being a PC exclusive, this game was designed with a controller in mind. While you can play the whole game with a mouse and keyboard, I wouldn’t recommend it.
You have a light attack and heavy attack that can be strung together to make combos or launch enemies to continue the punishment. But if things get hectic, you have a handy dodge button that can avoid all incoming attacks, just as long as your timing is right. Sounds simple right? It is until you realize that timing your button presses or using certain combinations leads to different and more fruitful results. It’s elements such as these that make Assault Spy’s combat system deeper than it appears on the surface. But that’s only the beginning!
Things get more interesting when you see the differences between the playable characters. Asaru and Amelia couldn’t be any more different and their differences are what elevates Assault Spy to one of the most satisfying combat systems I’ve had the pleasure to experience!
Asaru is all about speed and locking down your robotic adversaries with a flurry of attacks, while Amelia trades speed for brute force, using punches and kicks to get the job done. Asaru’s arsenal has him using the weapons you may expect from your average salesman: a metal briefcase to flail at his enemies and an umbrella that appears to cut the air. He can even call upon Kanoko to distract enemies to not get overwhelmed. But the best tool in Asaru’s kit are his explosive business cards. Talk about making a good first impression! With these, you can mark enemies and manually detonate them or use them in the middle of your attack strings to further extend your combos. These cards can be canceled from any attack, whether you’re on the ground or the air, and open the door to some creative combos that never fail to impress! So if you hate the concept of gravity, Asaru is your man!
Amelia mostly relies on ground combat, with a lot of her aerial moves sending her opponents back to the ground. To be good with Amelia, you have to keep attacking! She has a meter that fills as you do damage but decreases when you stop. This meter can be used for area clearing ground smashes or powerful punches, so having your meter filled up is always ideal. To top it all off, she has a counter system, so with proper timing, you can keep up the offense while parrying attacks and counters with extreme force. Amelia encapsulates the phrase “punch first, ask questions later” and the sense of power you get from her is immensely satisfying!
Last but not least is the super meter below your health bar. Once filled, you gain a temporary buff and become immune to damage. Asaru overclocks his entire body to move absurdly fast, but this comes at the cost of control. You’ll find yourself regularly having a hard time hitting enemies because you move far too quickly, so I rarely used it. Amelia uses the meter to gain access to absurdly powerful super attacks at the cost of draining the whole meter. Their damage output and sheer force made them both useful and gratifying, so I found myself regularly powering up as Amelia.
As you get a feel for how your character plays, you can improve their skill set with a smorgasbord of upgrades! I love the freedom of choice you have when it comes to improving your character. The game does a wonderful job at letting you learn the game at your own pace by allowing you to upgrade your character the way you want, with the inclusion of a handy practice mode letting you try your new moves!
All of these options and upgrades culminate with the fantastic boss fights. These fights are where the combat is at its best! You’ve got to learn and adapt to your opponent and slip through their openings to get the most damage. There’s nothing more satisfying than breaking through your opponent’s defenses and unleashing a dazzling combo with every tool the game gives you! And the best part? It was all because of your actions as a player! There aren’t any obvious weak zones you can exploit, nor can you wait for them to tire out. You need to find openings and wear them down yourself. This is what makes every boss fight in Assault Spy a memorable and magnificent experience!
So if it wasn’t apparent already, Assault Spy’s combat system is what makes the game a joy to play, almost to the point that the whole game is worth it for that alone! Some major issues hold it back though. A lot of the environments you find yourself in are not all that interesting; mostly just devolving into simple halls, boxed areas, or office spaces. Not only are they bland, but you’ll often grow irritated by the prevalent amount of office cubicles and other environmental objects that impede your movement.
The game tries to add some variety to combat areas with bombs, laser traps, and bottomless pits, but they mostly just get in the way. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I fell off a platform because of both the ridiculous amount of knockback and when your character jumps back to recover from damage. At least you don’t take damage when falling, so thank goodness for that! Near the end of Amelia’s campaign, the level design does greatly improve with creative usage of hazards, but it’s too little, too late at that point.
Then there’s the inclusion of platforming, which in all honesty, should have been scrapped. Even when you upgrade your jump, it feels as if you’ve got lead weights attached to your ankles. It’s even worse when you dash and jump; the camera pulls back while running, so when you jump, you’d expect your character to make a massive leap forward, right? Nope. There’s no difference in jump height or distance when doing so. Thankfully, there isn’t much platforming to deal with, but it’s still a problem.
But what kind of spy would you be without a little espionage? Apparently, not a very good one because the stealth segments are awful. It’s clear as day that this game wasn’t designed for stealth, so these sections feel shoehorned in. The movement options available for you are for destroying robots, not sneaking past them, so it makes for a very clunky experience. It’s a short segment in each character’s campaign, so at least it doesn’t go on for too long.
This is where Assault Spy can’t escape its identity of being developed by a small team. The game’s visuals are very rough with all the characters having flat textures and stiff animations. The worst offense of this was in a scene where you can see Asaru typing on a laptop, but his hands were typing above the keyboard! Strangely, the animations in combat are perfectly fine, except for some awkward looking walk and run cycles.
The environments don’t fare much better. Often relying on whites, greys, and muddy colors, it creates dull looking areas. I know the point is to juxtapose the monotone atmosphere of an office building with these colorful characters trashing countless robots with flashy combat. Despite this, the locations could have looked better.
Speaking of which, one thing I’ll praise wholeheartedly. The character designs are visually striking and are easily the best part of the presentation! Helping this are the dialogue segments, which go for a visual novel style. All the main characters have a wide range of beautifully illustrated and expressive poses and make all their exchanges very entertaining! You could argue that they break the pace of the game when they occur throughout a stage, but they don’t overstay their welcome and a handy skip button is there for repeated playthroughs or retries.
Assault Spy only includes a Japanese dub with multiple subtitle options. I usually prefer playing action games with an English dub, since it can be hard to read dialogue boxes when you’re in the middle of fighting for your life. Regardless, I’m glad we got a vocal track at all! Most of the game is fully voiced and for the most part, all the characters sound appropriate to their designs and personalities. Kanoko’s actress can be a bit much at times, but I feel like that’s the point. She’s actively trying to sound annoying, so mission accomplished.
The soundtrack goes for a mix of techno and rock and much like the visuals, the results are rather mixed. Don’t get me wrong, the music itself sounds great, matching the intense combat, but a lot of the tracks just blend together and with a few exceptions, I barely remembered any of them.
Each campaign will take you around three to five hours to finish depending on your skill level, but there’s more to do once the credits roll. After finishing the campaign with Asaru or Amelia, you unlock a new difficulty mode called Hard Work for that character. Completing the campaign on Hard Work unlocks the hardest difficulty: Extreme. I dabbled a bit into the Hard Work difficulty and it is a legitimate difficulty increase: you have less health, the enemy patterns change and you keep all your upgrades from your first playthrough to make up for the higher challenge.
Outside of the story mode, you have access to a survival mode, a Boss Rush mode, a challenge mode named Spy Must Die, and even a secret boss fight. Adding post-game content is never a problem; it’s something I greatly encourage. The issue is with how you unlock these new modes. To unlock everything, you’ve got to finish the game at least six times! Three times with each character on Easy/Normal, Hard Work, and Extreme difficulties. As fun as the game is, asking a player to play it six times in succession is just too much to ask. Plus, with artwork this good, it’s a huge shame that we don’t have any kind of gallery mode, especially when concept art is regularly used for loading screens.
For a game this ambitious, I am incredibly impressed with what was accomplished! Sure, it’s quite rough around the edges, but what’s on offer here can’t be understated. Assault Spy is a highly enjoyable action game with quirky characters and an excellent combat system. Though some story and design issues prevent the game from being a truly great title. Even so, the game even continues to receive updates almost two years after its release, which is highly commendable!
Whether you’ll enjoy the game or not depends on what kind of a gamer you are. If you enjoy games with a slower pace, you’re probably going to get overwhelmed by the game’s frantic pace. But if you find yourself yearning for a deep combat system that rewards experimentation, I certainly recommend Assault Spy!
ASSAULT SPY IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Seamus’ Wallet for a PC review code for this title.
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