BattleCON is one of my favorite game systems. Ever. If I were to compile a Top Ten list — which I haven’t and probably won’t, so don’t ask — then Devastation of Indines would almost undoubtedly be right near the top. It’s incredible.
Perhaps for that reason, Exceed almost goes out of its way to look like a pretender to the throne. Or is that an usurper of the throne? Either way, D. Brad Talton Jr.’s other fighting-game simulator seems intended to sit quietly alongside its predecessor despite looking so similar that the cards might have been swapped at birth. Exceed bills itself as a lighter alternative to the cerebral brain-crunching and jaw-busting fun of BattleCON, right down to the fact that it ships in smaller, more affordable boxes. Whether it’s better, on the other hand, is the tougher call. So tough that I’ve had my hands on a review copy for about nine months and haven’t yet come out and said it.
Well, I’m saying it now: Exceed is better than BattleCON. And yet it isn’t something I feel I can wholeheartedly recommend. How’s that for a quandary?
Five Minutes in the Lives of Shekhtur Lenmorre and Vincent
The best way to settle my feelings on the BattleCON versus Exceed debate — both of which share their creator’s love of flamboyant character names, by the way — is to hold a duel of my own. After playing a ton of both, here’s a glimpse at five minutes of each.
BattleCON: We’re in the middle of the fight of the century here. As King Alexian XXXVII, I’m one of the hardest hitters in Indines. So hard, in fact, that every successful strike makes my character get all bleeding-heart noble and hand out a chivalry token, which increases the speed and power of my opponent. The problem is that I’m facing Shekhtur Lenmorre, who’s already blazing fast. For the first half of our fight, she only darts forward to land a jab, then disappears out of reach again. For this beat, I’m determined to land a hit even though Shekhtur is dancing out of melee; perhaps I’ll use a ranged Mighty Burst? That would mean Shekhtur most likely couldn’t land a shot, since my “mighty” card cancels out any of her ranged modifiers. Then again, she knows I’m holding that card. Is she going to dodge beneath my burst by closing into melee range? Or is that too dangerous, since I’m so good up close?
I chew over that for a bit before finally settling on Mighty Burst, placing the cards face-down before me. Shekhtur grins as she lays out her own hidden cards, then almost chuckles as she antes one of her malice tokens. I swallow hard. That means she needs an extra burst of speed. Which means she might have played one of her slower options, like “spiral.” Which means she just ducked under my attack. Which means I’m an idiot.
Exceed: I’m Reese, a dude with fabulous platinum hair, and I’m squaring off against Vincent, who looks a bit like a haunted Revolutionary War general. We’ve been doing the duck’n’weave for a few minutes, but now that I’ve finally positioned myself right next to him it’s time to put my plans into action. I draw an extra pair of cards, hoping for something that will supercharge my next attack; he plays a boost that increases his armor and makes him immovable. I mutter a mild cuss, since this means my attack won’t hurt as much, but that’s okay — I’ve drawn a card that gives me a boost of my own for extra attack power. Once I’ve done that, to my surprise, he strikes.
Now we’re out of turn-by-turn mode, both of us playing our intended attack at the same time. Fine, I’ll just go with my original plan, a little thing called Knight Wave that’s way more badass than it first sounds. He flips over Majority Whip. I’m faster, so I attack first. Knight Wave hits for a bunch of power, not only thanks to my boost but also thanks to the move itself, since I’ve timed this for the moment when Vincent was holding more cards than me. Unfortunately, his own boosts have enough armor and guard that he still takes damage, but he isn’t stunned. His own attack kicks me against the far wall.
Our boosts disappear to the discard pile. Not too bad. I landed a better strike, and his kick put me out of easy range. This means I have breathing room.
Except it turns out I’m not out of the way. After drawing some more cards, Vincent announces another strike. This is puzzling to me, since he isn’t much of a ranged guy. I’m not holding anything ranged, so I announce a wild swing and draw a move at random from my deck — a Gauntlet Flurry, nothing usable. His attack, on the other hand, is Phoenix Revival, one of his ultra-charged attacks. Since he just landed his third attack, that means he’s earned enough gauge — Exceed’s special resource — to afford this thing. Not only does it hit me for six damage (that’s a lot), it also lets him regain a bunch of life.
Which means I’m an idiot.
Who Brawls the Brawlers?
The point of this exercise is to highlight just how different both of these games feel in execution. BattleCON is a cerebral match of wits, full of double-guessing and trickery and a whole lot of time spent on every single move. And this isn’t a slam on BattleCON in the slightest. Pulling off a successful hit feels like you’ve truly outclassed your opponent, combining speed, defense, positioning, range, and any number of modifiers.
Exceed, on the other hand, feels like a fight. As in, a bare-knuckle, flying-kick, plasma-laser-chucking fight. It’s as swift and crunchy as a knee to the teeth. This isn’t to say that it isn’t full of cerebral moments of its own. But in addition to some very smart ideas, it’s also an immediate experience. It excises BattleCON’s occasional incongruity between theme and play, and fills that gap with brilliant design choices that build the momentum to a blur and never let up.
For example, it’s possible to stack similar moves into boosted EX attacks, giving you a reason to accumulate duplicates in your hand. In fact, the entire thing is one big exercise in careful hand management. The cards themselves are valuable in any number of ways, pulling triple duty as strikes, ongoing boosts, or discarded to act as “force,” which is a resource you can spend to draw extra cards or move around the board. Where BattleCON would merrily give you a hand of tough-to-deploy cards and chuckle — it was your fault, after all, for not planning three moves in advance in order to make them worthwhile — Exceed is all about empowerment. If you’re out of range, just dump some cards to move forward. Locked in a corner? You can dodge out of the way. Need better cards? Go ahead and draw them. The tradeoff is that your deck itself is your health pool. See the table beneath that deck a second time and you’re done. This means that every one of those acts of empowerment means you won’t be able to stay on your feet quite as long. And that’s what we call a smart tradeoff.
Add all this to the way Exceed bounces between players. BattleCON is all about both fighters setting up their moves simultaneously, with a big emphasis on agonizing over the cards on both sides of the table. With Exceed, rather than handing you a small number of momentous decisions, it doles out smaller choices at a rapid-fire staccato. One fumble doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Rather, it’s a game about tempo, about recovery from slip-ups, about pressing the advantage.
And hoo boy, is it breathtaking to see in action. Taking a wild swing — a strike pulled randomly from your deck — is always uncertain, but actually landing a solid punch that way is nothing short of exhilarating. Cultivating a solid hand of options and a stable of boosts on the table, and then unleashing them in a game-swinging strike is even more so.
The Butt End of Exceed
It’s probably apparent by now that I dig Exceed. It’s one of the smartest, most enjoyable, and most immediately rewarding game systems I’ve ever had the joy of interacting with.
Even so, there’s something that any prospective buyer ought to be aware of. And it’s that, unlike BattleCON, Exceed doesn’t do a great job with how it represents its female characters. Where BattleCON’s women were generally allowed to be both sexy and capable, and never once felt like they were behaving or dressing up for anyone other than themselves, the ladies of Exceed are, well, a bit more preposterous. As in, fighting naked. Or in sexy French maid outfits. Or dressing up like the “cute girl” fascists from that Barbarossa card game. Or donning loincloths that look uncomfortably like pubic hair, probably because it’s liberating and expressive.
Or because Exceed can be a bit tasteless in company. It’s hard to be sure which.
It’s disappointing that such a wonderful game has been so hard to get to the table, but there it is. Time and time again, I’ve struggled to introduce it, in part because multiple of my friends have expressed discomfort with the way it seems to leer at the female form rather than celebrate it. Not all the time, no, but often enough that a whole bunch of its characters feel like fantasy objects rather than capable warrior-women.
Hey, if that sort of thing doesn’t matter to you, that’s great! You’re going to have a hell of a time with Exceed. But for some people this is going to be a deal-breaker. Which is a mighty shame, because Exceed is fantastic and deserves to reach a wider audience.
That aside, I really have no complaints with Exceed. By drawing on years of experience with BattleCON, Brad Talton has created a fighting-game game that’s fast, hard-hitting, and brutally immediate. It’s the sort of game where every decision matters without mattering too much, where the think-space is focused without ever becoming claustrophobic, and where the matches conclude with a knockout rather than a whimper.