Before I begin this review, I wanted to say thanks to ININ Games for providing us with a copy of Jitsu Squad! Second, the comments and photos are from the pre-launch version of the game. At the time of its launch, several things like performance issues, framerate, graphics, and others will be fixed via a Day 1 patch. Personally speaking, I hadn't had a problem running this on our PS5, and it in no way affects my score or thoughts.
Jitsu Squad was an experience I'd compare similarly to eating a bowl of Rice Krispies, drowned in sugar, on a Saturday morning while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is on the TV. It's a rather specific experience, bathed in nostalgia and the woes of being an adult having to adult. But much like the return of the Turtles in Shredder's Revenge, Jitsu Squad gave me a moment's reprieve from the chasms of reality. In short, it was a fun experience overflowing with references to arcade culture, gaming gems of the past, and content creation. I'll explain the "content creation" bit in a second, but first, what is Jitsu Squad?
The squad consists of four anthropomorphic members, Hero the Tanuki, Baby the Rabbit, Jazz the Frog, and Aros the Boar. Each fighter plays differently from the other, some focusing more on ranged than melee and vice versa. While I would get a chance to play as all four characters later, I chose Baby for my playthrough because of my affinity towards ninja characters in beat-em-ups. She wound up being the most unique of the four specifically due to her melee attacks, or lack thereof. With the exception of a few attacks, she's exclusively a mid to long-range brawler, an archetype I don't see often in beat-em-ups.
For now, the story centers around this artifact known as the Kusanagi Stone, a stone that has the power of a demon. A sorcerer named Origami has summoned heroes all over to claim the stone. Under the protection of Master Ramen, he summons four warriors of his own to stop Origami and protect the stone from falling into evil lands. It's not immediately known to the player, but each warrior comes from a specific land and/or time period. Aros is roughly related to Viking culture while Jazz, Baby, and Hero are all based on the Far East.
It's assumed that the quartet knows each other but their origins are left for interpretation. I'll do my own theory crafting later on in this piece, but for now, I'd want to focus on the gameplay.
UPDATE: As it stands, it looks like I don't need to craft any theories because my questions are answered on the official websites. Each character has their specific reasons as to why they fight, but they were once legendary warriors with their souls bound to an animal. This also explains why during their transformation in "Hype Mode," they temporarily turn human. Their human forms are their real form! It's just that this Origami dude turned everyone into an anime version of Animal Farm.
Controls are like your average beat-em-up. You can move in the foreground and background, dash, jump, and even parry attacks. The way parrying works is that you're caught in an animation for a brief window. If an attack hits you during this animation, you'll parry it with 10% damage added to your next attack. The parrying window is lenient but getting hit while left vulnerable is punishing. Getting air juggled is possibly one of the worst states to be in as you are in permanent hit stun until you tech out of the air.
Jumping in general is a highly risky maneuver as the incredibly useful parry is unusable while in the air. This also leads to my main, and only, major complaint with Jitsu Squad. Every jump in this game is committal, meaning jumping in the left direction means you're locked in, for example. You can't change directions while in the air, at least without abusing your own character's mobility. This leads to scenarios when you desperately want to turn in a specific direction yet you can't avoid the enemy because you're "trapped." Each fighting stage in Jitsu Squad is vast, meaning if the player allows themselves to get cornered, they deserve it.
Baby is a highly mobile character with two specials she can use in the air. The witch attack can be tilted upwards or downwards, the latter causing her to fly high enough to chain Chun-Li's Stomp, which if it lands on an opponent's head, stays in the air. Replace the stomp with a drill and it works the same way. She can change directions during the recovery frame of each move, and with enough practice, you can stay in the air indefinitely although it is a challenge.
Aside from the jumping mechanics, the gameplay is highly smoothed, matching the animated sprites and attention to detail. There are many references covered in Jitsu Squad that it'll be nearly impossible to name them all. Hence, I'll name the ones that stood out to me the most starting with Baby. Baby's attack chain has her transform into various costumes including a reaper, a baseball player, a buccaneer, and a witch. I immediately thought of Super Gem Fighter Mini Mix, a game where the fighters attack while "transforming" into various costumes.
All four characters have access to a DP (or a rising uppercut) and a projectile at the very least. Everyone's Dragon Punch resembles various fighters' "uppercut." Referring to Baby and her "Gem Fighter Mini Mix" motif, she uses her umbrella to perform an uppercut, again, not unlike Sakura from the same game. Jazz doesn't sugarcoat it; His "dragon punch" is Rugal's Genocide Cutter. Seeing a frog with an afro performing one of the most hated moves in fighting game history was just humorous. But the fighting game references are only beginning. There's a level named Primal Rage if that's any indication of how much of fighting game fans the developers are.
Some variants of the Emaki warriors you fight have claws and when they swipe to attack they yell "Emaki Barrage!" much like Wolverine in Marvel vs Capcom. There are Marvel parody machines on an arcade-based level. Inside said arcade, there's Sol Badguy wearing Vegeta's "Bad Man" shirt (which was a very nice pun by the way). However, the biggest fighting game reference isn't just a referral. It's a cameo featuring Benny The Dog! Oh and I guess his owner Maximillian, a famous content creator with over a million subs, is also included in the cameo but it's all about Benny The Dog!
UPDATE: Moments after I published this review, I found out about the passing of Benny on Maximillian's Twitter. Out of respect for Max and his family, as Benny was indeed family, I'll offer my public condolences as well as a link to the original video so others can offer their condolences as well. Well wishes to you and your family.
The "spirit" of Jitsu Squad reminds me of Ninja Baseball Bat Man, an obscure beat-em-up with cartoonish effects and vibrant visuals. What led that game to a cult following is the same feeling I got while playing Jitsu Squad. It's a fun blast of nostalgia for the Saturday Morning Cartoons crowd and the 90s gaming audience. There's even a Neon Night Riders-style auto-scroller with cheesy yet epic vocals! By the time I wrapped up Baby's campaign, it took under an hour so I'd imagine it'd take around 3 hours to do everything. Beating the game once unlocks tag mode, giving players an opportunity to play as all four characters at once.
If you missed out on the PC release and/or waited for the console version, then this is a worthy game to add to your collection physically and digitally. I can imagine it being a blast to play via four-player co-op and the community support for Jitsu Squad has been impressive and I feel this will be one of 2022's late-game sweepers, releasing in December but leaving a lasting impression on me.
Jitsu Squad is available on Steam. The console versions, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch, will release on December 9th.