With the vast amount of titles released this year, none seemed more up this reviewer’s alley than Bergsala Lightweight’s Drive Girls. Being an avowed Transformers nerd who also has a deep appreciation for Japanese weirdness, mashing the two concepts together should automatically equate to a fantastic time. Who wouldn’t want to play a game featuring anime girls that turn into cars, fighting the evils of the world? Add the fact that this very title was produced with help of the underappreciated Tamsoft and the potential behind it is even rosier. Alas, Drive Girls swerved out of the way of an oncoming good time, broke through the safety rail and tumbled down the side of a mountain, leaving this review to pick through the wreckage.
The plot revolves around the titular (very much the intended word) Drive Girls, an elite force tasked with fighting off a secret plague of mechanized bugs that have taken over the island. There’s a bit more story than that, as players are first introduced to Lancier. She’s a young woman who wants nothing more than to join the Emergency Response Team to rescue people in distress much like she was in her past. Missing the test period for the paramedic/firefighter position, she is offered a chance to do a make up exam. This exam involved beating the crud out of bugs. She passed and was told that she was now a member of the ERT. Upon arriving for her first day, she learns that she was actually recruited into the Drive Girls, a team that utilizes *sigh* “Carms” to fight the bugs that are infesting an evacuated island. It is an established fact that Lancier is incredibly dumb, even by anime standards. This silliness of the story, and the stupidity of the characters, could be forgiven were it amusing or entertaining. It is not. Indeed, the entirety of the plot manages to take the concept and run it into the doldrums, being a combination of trite, predictable, and just plain boring. To take a concept as wokka-wokka wacky as this and render it dull takes a special kind of talent.
The combat itself doesn’t help matters. The levels are broken up into battles with a group of bugs and driving portions to the next part. Occasionally, there are races. Each of these segments falls flat. In combat, the camera system veers wildly off track, with the player mashing attack in hopes of staving off damage while trying to steer the viewing angle back into position. There is a lock on function, but it requires taking the thumb off of the left stick and pressing up on the D-pad. It also has a tendency to select the exact wrong creature, just based on the fact that there are swarms of these things on screen. As each section has one or two specific enemies that need to be defeated in order to clear out the mess, this function really should just ignore the rest and choose one of those. Swinging the blades themselves does work, with systems in place rewarding extended combos with increased damage and defense, and numerous offensive options. However, the game also tends to throw in numerous extended stun lock situations as the it goes on, so even this benefit is tempered in the flames of suck.
Drive somehow fares even worse. Sections that are meant to utilize this mechanic are often intentionally blocked with a sting of landmines. Some have enough space to get around, but most don’t. There’s also a huge disconnect between the vehicle and the road, with zero sense of weight or speed felt by the player. As there are missions specifically dedicated to racing, the lack of any excitement or skill required leaves large portions of the game feeling like nothing but filler. Quick strategy guide for these sections: run over a couple of bugs in the road and collect EX to power the nitro boost. Keep pressing the button when the last use runs dry, as the next group of bugs will show up before emptying the tank. Doing this will win every race, assuming the player understands not to run into obstacles and stop for minutes at a time.
On top of all of this, the controls are atrocious. Basic attacks are fine, and actually moving a character works okay, but so many mechanics are mapped in bizarre ways. Activating the “super” EX skill requires holding down the L trigger, even though nothing else is mapped there in human form. Enjoy the free hits, bugs! Switching between modes also require long presses, meaning it’s common to trigger a boost when trying to revert from car to human. Utilizing the long ranged weapons is a fool’s errand. To access them, one needs to select it on the item list with the D-pad, and pressing down, all the while praying to a preferred deity that the game will understand the request and implement it. Again, this requires taking the thumb off of the stick, relinquishing control in the face of constantly attacking enemies. A simple rethink of the controls really should have been considered before releasing this, as it feels more like fighting the interface than playing a game.
Finally, there is the upgrade system. Instead of leveling up, improvement is done via stat boosting stickers on various parts of the character. This isn’t a terrible idea, but there isn’t a huge variety of these in the game considering that the stickers serve as both cosmetic customization and growth. There is also a separate system of gears. The player purchases these cogged implements at the in game store at no small price and installs them across one of three stats, Phys, Strong, and Acc. It’s not explained anywhere, but I believe “Phys” boosts hit points/defense, Strong improves attack strength, and Acc is for acceleration. There is no penalty for respeccing Gears. Since there are only three different states for this, though, it doesn’t matter. It’s not really possible to make a wrong choice or try different builds.
For a game like Drive Girls, having me handle the review is the closest the developer can get to “Easy Mode.” I’m more than willing to turn off the brain and get washed away in a sea of silliness, only to emerge with a big smile on my face and picking seaweed out of my hair. Titles like Senran Kagura or the Hyperdimension Neptunia series are incredibly dumb, but are also entertaining. Despite their glaring flaws, they warm this cold heart in my chest. Drive Girls drops the ball on every front that could redeem it. It squanders its concept with poor stage design, ruining the sense of momentum. It takes what should be a simple hack and slash action game and complicates with the most poorly considered control scheme this side of playing Dark Souls with a Guitar Hero peripheral. Even the story, which could have been a redeeming factor by way of just being amiable nonsense, is tedious and dull. If Senran Kagura is the one that gets too drunk at a party and embarrasses itself to the amusement of onlookers, Drive Girls is the one that pukes on the host’s pets and is confrontationally annoying. It’s unpleasant for everyone and people just want it to be gone.