Life can be capricious. One minute you're on top of your game. The next your hopes and dreams are floating white-gilled and belly up in the fishtank of despair. And then, when all seems at its blackest, three burly men wearing the type of suit favoured by the secret services burst into your living room. Just as your most paranoid fantasies seem to be materialising around you, the spooks start dancing.
Clearly this isn't MI5. The men in question are the Elite Beat Agents, an international taskforce of motivational cheerleaders. Their mission, assisted by some choice cuts of vintage to contemporary pop music, is to buoy the spirits of the downtrodden through the medium of dance.
Imagine a cross between a wedding DJ and a personal trainer, then send him to James Bond's tailor (Diamonds Are Forever era – all boot cut trousers and sideburns), and you'll get the picture.
Each level of Elite Beat Agents is built around a pop song, from Madonna's Material Girl and the Stones' Jumpin' Jack Flash to Avril Lavigne's Sk8er Boi. The action is interspersed with manga-style comic strip sequences that show the hapless soul's predicament and the effects, positive or negative, of the agents' cheerleading.
Your role in the affair is to keep the agents grooving, which you do by using the stylus to tap or slide along the different types of marker that appear in colour-coded sequences on the touchscreen. Timing is everything, and failing to hit that perfect beat results in the agents losing their footing, and dignity.
Luckily, the markers have timer circles that close around them, indicating the right point to tap. Crisp timekeeping scores higher points, and also boosts your rapidly decreasing Elite-o-Meter. If the bar empties, the music ends and an unhappy conclusion to the scenario is triggered.
Combo bonuses for uninterrupted hits and beat bonuses for hitting all markers in a single sequence further boost your score as well as the time left in the meter, while a third type of beat marker provides another opportunity for raking in points. As this involves rapidly spinning a wheel by rapidly tracing circles on your touchscreen, you may want to invest in a screen protector for your DS before undertaking the mission.
Successfully complete a level and you'll get a score and an overall grade from Commander Kahn. He's a tough guy to please for someone who prefers driving a desk over scuffing his dancing shoes, and hence there's considerable replay value available in trying to beat your high scores.
Meanwhile new levels unlock in batches, which can be found by scrolling around a world map. Beating all of a batch will unlock the next, up to a total of 19 songs. And while that might not seem like a great deal of content, the sharply ramping difficulty level means you won't breeze through them in one sitting, even on the easiest setting. The game begins with two levels of difficulty, Breezin' (easy-ish) and Cruisin' (harder). A further two wait for you to unlock them, offering some fearsome challenges for hardened rhythm gamers.
At this point of course, diligent DS owners may now be experiencing déjà vu – Elite Beat Agents is fundamentally identical to Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, a Japan-only DS title from 2005 that saw a similar squad inspiring Tokyo citizens to strive and succeed over a J-Rock soundtrack.
Indeed, Elite Beat Agents is best viewed as something of a sequel to Ouendan!, which due to its Japanese narrative and musical content defied a straight translation. While Elite Beat Agents' songs and scenarios are western, the gameplay is identical and the offbeat charm of the original has survived – particularly in the endearingly daft narrative sequences, where you'll find yourself helping a casino magician and assistant defeat a gang of robbers using card tricks, two glamorous celeb-utantes survive on a desert island by wowing the wildlife, and a salty old sea dog recover sunken treasure (to The Village People's YMCA, no less).
There's multiplayer too, which features all new stories and comes in Co-operative or Versus modes, both of which are equally compulsive. The former is only available if everyone has a version of the game, but the latter enables up to four players to compete in team battles using a single game card.
In conclusion, there's little bad to say about this game. It's novel, engaging, accessible and challenging. Our only slight criticism would be some of the musical choices, but frankly Elite Beat Agents is so much fun, it's even worth wincing your way through Jamiroquai's Canned Heat in order to progress to more pleasurable levels. And you can't get much higher praise than that.Gavin reviewed a US copy of Elite Beat Agents. The game is due to rock Europe in spring 2007.