Victorious Boxers 2 is a very confusing game. Not in the sense that it's hard to decipher - what's actually on the disc is a pretty straightforward boxing simulation based on a popular Japanese manga. The difficulty arises when you want to read up about it over yon interwibble.
The name suggests that it's Hajime no Ippo 2: Victorious Road, a handsome-looking boxing title with branching storylines and a boxer-training facility. In actual fact, it seems to be that game's predecessor, Hajime no Ippo - The Fighting! All Stars, which doesn't seem to branch and doesn't mention training at all. It doesn't help that the game's publisher, Xplosiv, seems to be rather light on details about the game on its website right now.
No matter - you're concerned about what it actually is, not what it isn't, and you're equally unconcerned about how your dutiful reviewer spent half a week bouncing off the walls of fan-sites and bellowing at Google in an attempt to put it in some sort of context.
Hajime-No Ippo is a popular Japanese manga (which, if you've been living under a language barrier, patriotically deflecting Japanese cultural lingo as it tries to invade the gamer's common vernacular, is the word for Japanese-made comic books), which charts the rise of one Ippo Makunouchi from humble, downtrodden nobody to the heights of boxing stardom. Ippo's a stuttering chap with big self-esteem issues, but, with the aid of Mamoru Takamura, he soon realises he's built like a brick outhouse with a right arm like a jackhammer.
The main single-player story mode doesn't explain how he came to be a stuttering nobody with big arms, but instead picks up as Ippo comes faces to face with Ichiro Miyata, soon-to-be-pro and star of his local gym. Sparring in full view of a local boxing reporter and a crowd of eager gym-goers, Ippo leaves Miyata on the ropes, at which point Miyata scampers off to train alone in the hope of meeting Ippo at the height of a regional Japanese boxing tournament.
If it seems like a waste of time jabbering on about this at length, you might as well abandon all hope, because Victorious Boxers 2 is a game that likes jabbering. The story mode fences Ippo's fights with ludicrously long and drawn out scenes featuring Ippo, Takamura, Miyata, and various ancillary characters who discuss upcoming fights in various rather boring locations, occasionally talking pointedly about the skills of Ippo's next opponent. There's an array of comfortable background tunes, which kick in at various turns to reflect the tone. Whenever arrogant scarecrow-faced Ryo Mashiba turns up, for example, the sinister jangle of guitars kicks in to accompany his boastful jibes, which suggest that he sees everyone as an amusing little ant just waiting to wander past a magnifying glass on a hot day.
The quality of the translation isn't always that great, and it's a bit tedious having to wade through lots of narrative-shaping chat - with no means to pause, maddeningly - to get the gist of Ippo's progress. But on the whole it's quite harmless and does at least give you a sense of Ippo's journey - which, given that it's a game designed to accompany a 70-plus-volume manga, does make some sense. Later on you take control of other fighters in the same arc, and the whole thing rumbles through five quite lengthy acts, each of which features - when they can spare the time for some actual interaction - a decent number of key fights.
The boxing itself, then. It's quite simple when you get the hang of it, but don't expect to wade into an Exhibition match on Normal difficulty level and smack people around, or to be trained to any particular degree. Rather like Ippo, you have to play it by ear - and the story mode's extensive dialogue sequences give you some measure of how you're expected to play it.
Fights are shot from above and to the side of the ropes, and your character always faces his opponent - the idea being to move in and out by pushing up and down on the analogue stick, and side-step around by tugging left or right. Once you're up close, you can guard, and throw left and right jabs or hooks, with a modifier on one of the shoulder buttons to enable uppercuts. There are also various special moves to get the hang of for the different characters, and even without them each boxer has defining characteristics. Aforementioned big-mouth Mashiba, for example, has a much greater reach than the average fighter, and can be handy if you just want to skirt around a tricky opponent and throw long right-handed punches.
A key defensive element is swaying. By default, this happens when you tug the analogue stick a short way, but we found it easier to switch the controls around so that sway was bound to a shoulder button and the analogue stick took care of moving your boxer around the ring (the "Expert" setting, flatteringly enough). This way, it's possible to duck in and out of the action and then sway when you choose. Swaying is key to dodging blows as they're thrown, and with practice you can happily use it to duck under big hooks and follow with a reactionary shot to the body. It's a nice balance, and there's definitely a lot of depth to explore if you're in any way interested in boxing.
Once you've got the hang of it, you can up the difficulty level, and continue exploring the story mode's many acts - each fight of which can be revisited individually - and also create your own tournaments. There's certainly a great deal of challenge here, and the in-the-ring issues - a tendency for your boxer to wind up facing the wrong way now and then and have to wheel round, and the awkwardness of watching a character wiggle manically as you abuse the sway function - are off-set by the rest of the set-up. It does feel like you're learning to box, and the character modelling and movement, as well as the types of punches thrown and the way they connect, is convincing and readable enough.
The difficulty, of course, is that unless you're prepared to sit through the occasionally-mind-numbing cut-scenes, it's just a boxing game full of characters with obscure Japanese names. The translation of the story mode seems to have lost some of the humour we're told the manga holds dear; instead, it's really basic language and the Rocky-esque sentiments seem a mite dull, while any humour, like Takamura's seemingly dramatic assertion that he'd kill himself if it was he who lost to Ippo, feels accidental at best. We have a feeling anybody who isn't patient enough to sit through the story is going to be put off by the idea of having to learn it all by feel, too, and might be better suited by EA's Fight Night series, which seems to be coming on leaps and bounds. VB2's no featherweight then, whatever Ippo's boxing class, but it's certainly an acquired taste that proves satisfying if you give it time to beef up.