Jitsu Squad Review

Saving the galaxy for ramen

By Paul Hunter

I love it when a game that wasn't on my radar hits me like an RKO out of nowhere. That was my experience with Jitsu Squad, the outrageous, fast-action beat 'em up from Dutch indie developer Tanuki Creative Studio and publisher ININ Games. I knew the game was released earlier this year on PC, but only found out recently it's launching this week on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC. It's a milestone release for the publisher, too, being its first-ever title on Xbox platforms.

Jitsu Squad is one of the best-looking brawlers I've ever played, easily rivalling the graphics of hits games like TMNT: Shredder's Revenge, Castle Crashers and Streets of Rage 4. It's an homage to classic 90s beat 'em ups that fans of the genre will want to check out. Let's arm up and see what this brawler dishes out, here are three things I liked about it...and two I didn't.

Liked: Great Playable Characters

Gameplay makes or breaks a brawling game and in the case of Jitsu Squad, the team at Tanuki Creative nailed it—big time. The gameplay feels like a mixture of Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. Fighting and brawler fans will feel right at home with what's offered here.

It all begins with the four anthropomorphic playable characters, which you choose from on a very Street Fighter 2-like character select screen. First up is Hero Yamagiwa the Shinobi, an all-around tanuki fighter wielding a sakura katana. Next is Baby O Hara, a vengeful cyber ninja bunny with fast reflexes and projectile-focused attacks. The third is Jazz Amun, a magic Kung-Fu frog master possessing a golden pipe and telekinesis powers. And finally, there's Aros Helgason, a dragon-slaying warthog who's the team tank and relies on brute force and a heavy machine gun. All four fighters have incredible visual presentations and unique playstyles for a variety of preferences.

The animations in Jitsu Squad are super slick, keeping the action fast, furious and flowing. Take Baby O Hara for instance, she attacks with a variety of projectile attacks including sai, baseballs, scythes and missiles. Not only does each attack have its own animation, but she even changes costumes for each one. In a dizzying flurry, she'll change from her default ninja suit into a baseball uniform, then into a black death robe and follows up the combo by turning into a pirate. The attention to detail in this game, all the way down to the many hand-drawn facial expressions or battle poses, is just so impressive.

The lightning-fast combat places a heavy focus on combos—including infinite combos once you get skilled enough—and a parry/counter system that feels straight out of Street Fighter III. The parry system is quite generous as well, if you tap the button a half second too early it'll usually still register and give you the chance to dole out some punishing counterstrikes. You can also grab enemies, often to funny effect, like how Aros can piledrive enemies much like Final Fight's Haggar. Or if you play as Jazz, you can grab enemies with your telekinesis and repeatedly bash them into the ground and then toss them away like yesterday's trash.

As you brawl, you can pick up soda cans to fill your fury meter. Once you've got eight fury points stashed away you can transform into your Fury State where you'll put on invincible armour and have temporary access to your most powerful attacks. The comedy continues here with Aros essentially becoming a Thor look-alike, while Hero transforms into a Conan the Barbarian clone. Alternatively, you can trade in your eight fury points to launch your character's Super Special that unleashes screen-wide devastation.

Over the course of the eight-mission campaign, you'll collect scrolls that give your character XP. Nab enough and you'll gain a level, which unlocks new moves like powerful rising uppercuts, ground pounds or area of effect attacks. You can even learn to throw a fireball using the classic down, down-right, right, attack method. The game also features a training mode where you can battle against a dummy, a nice addition but really I found it was easy enough to quickly learn new attacks during the campaign.

Liked: Comedic Nods to Other Games

I'll keep this section light on details since I don't want to spoil the fun: But wow are there a lot of easter eggs in this game. The background of each world features a plethora of nods to classic fighting games like Marvel Vs. Capcom, Guilty Gear and Samurai Shodown, and it even has random hat tips to franchises like Kill Bill and Final Fantasy. There are dozens of references if you look closely enough, a real testament to the attention to detail that went into each planet you visit.

The references to other franchises don't stop at the background visuals either. During levels, you'll fight through waves of enemies and the final foe you defeat each wave dies in classic Samurai Shodown fashion with the screen flashing and the camera zooming in. There are also hilarious areas where your Jitsu Squad team will acknowledge beat 'em tropes like beating up baddies while going down an elevator, or starting the obligatory surfing level. You can really tell the development team has been lifelong gamers and have a deep passion for the fighting and brawling genres.

Speaking of the eight planets that comprise the campaign, they all have their own colourful theme paired with matching music and unique enemies. It's awe-inspiring how different the levels are: in one you'll visit the prehistoric era and battle cavemen and dinosaurs, and the next you'll visit modern-day Japan to bust up some big-headed Yakuza mob members and evil Japanese Oni monsters. There are also worlds themed to pirates, ghouls, Egypt, a jungle, and two with fire and ice motifs. The amount of creativity and thought that went into each planet is very commendable.

One final way Jitsu Squad shows appreciation beyond its borders is the crossover assist characters that'll destroy all enemies on screen. The game features Yooka-Laylee who performs a punishing Reptile Rush steamrolling foes in your way. Another perhaps odd-yet-funny inclusion is YouTuber Maximilian Dood and his dog Benny, who jump on screen for a Hype Beam blast. There are a bunch of other assist characters, although I didn't recognize them, like a guy that eats a chilli pepper and then explosive farts on enemies.

Liked: Stellar Presentation

The graphics in Jitsu Squad melt my eyes—they're that damn good. Characters and levels are colourful and dazzling, and all hand-drawn to boot. Pair the cartoon visuals with the excellent 2D animations and this game visually just shines.

The soundtrack quality is right up there as well with thumping arrangements by Sebastian Romero. Each world has a catchy new tune to indulge yourself with, ranging from snazzy jazz beats to the high-energy guitar rift tracks that are synonymous with this genre. Plus, the game features the occasional vocals from Crush 40 singer Johnny Gioeli, famous for his iconic contributions to Sonic the Hedgehog's soundtrack.

Didn't Like: Lacks Replayability

Arg, this downside hurts bad. Jitsu Squad is such an incredibly fun experience, but it is a bit lacking in content overall. You can play the main campaign with up to four players locally, but there's no online mode and you only get one save slot. Worse, there's no drop-in, drop-out co-op, so you're locked into the number of players you began the campaign with. In one case, I played through six of the eight planets two-player, and then later wanted to beat the game but I couldn't solo: forcing me to delete the save file and start over again from the beginning.

In a rather bizarre decision, you can level up your characters and learn new moves, but there's no New Game+. So every time you beat the game you have to start all over again and relearn all the moves you previously acquired. Another strange element that needs tuning is I usually unlock all my character's moves by the seventh planet, which only leaves one last planet to use my final few, and arguably best, moves. This game really needs a better progression system and New Game+, that alone would significantly increase the game's replayability.

When you beat the game you unlock Tag Mode, which lets you play single-player (or two-player) and control the entire Jitsu Squad, swapping between characters as you choose. It sounds great on paper, but since it takes around seven levels to max out a character there's little incentive to swap: why would you when it means you'll end up with a bunch of only partially levelled-up squad members?

There are also no unlockable characters or collectibles to incentivize further replays. The potential saving grace to all this is the game originally began life as a successful Kickstarter campaign, and there were a lot of funded stretch goals that haven't materialized yet. Assuming the game will eventually get free post-launch DLC, the stretch goals include NG+, a playable boss, a Boss Rush mode, an in-game art gallery, a Speed Run mode and tower challenges. Seeing this huge list of tantalizing features really makes me hope this content is eventually coming.

Didn't Like: Bugs

Another issue I encountered when playing the game was a couple of frustrating hard crashes. It was quite aggravating because the both crashes resulted in my save data not getting synced with the PlayStation Network, so I lost my entire progress. One of these crashes happened after playing for 90 minutes and making it to the end of planet seven. I've seen communications from the developer that they're working on bug fixes, so fingers crossed they get ironed out soon.

The Verdict

Jitsu Squad is pure brawling awesomeness. I had a blast playing through the campaign with all four playable characters, plus a few additional playthroughs using the local co-op. The gameplay is buttery smooth, lightning-fast and thoroughly satisfying—exactly what you'd want from a beat 'em up. Mix in the eye-popping hand-drawn cartoon graphics, finessed animations and a thumping soundtrack and this game delivers the goods. It's a shame then that in its current state the content is a bit lacking, but hopefully, the Kickstarter stretch goals get rolled out soon as they'd make the game an unqualified recommendation.

Final Score: 8/10 - Great

Jitsu Squad details

Platform: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: Tanuki Creative Studio
Publisher: ININ Games
Genre: Beat 'em Up
Modes: Single-player, Multiplayer
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

A key was provided by the publisher.