Take three nightclub bouncers, a kidnapped girl and an army of evildoers and you have the makings of perhaps the best fighter game yet for the PlayStation 2.

Squaresoft has created a compelling world of explosive combat with "The Bouncer." It has smart features and a story line with enough mystery to keep you involved until one of its three endings.

There are some nicely detailed cut scenes, but they slow the game's pace when it should be speeding up. It's a minor problem, worth a mention because it's the only drawback to a nearly perfect product.

The game focuses on the bouncers: Sion Barzahd, Volt Krueger and Kou Leifoh. Each is playable through most of the game, although one occasionally monopolizes the action during certain scenes.

Each bouncer has a selection of fighting moves, but you're not stuck with those limited options. In each combat scene, you select one of the three to control. Punches, kicks and other moves are summoned in the usual fashion, with your nimble fingers flashing over the controller's buttons.

When you win a scene, you earn upgrade points. You can use them to expand your life, power or defense — or you can save them and buy moves that make you even more dangerous.

Our heroes are looking for Dominique Cross, who was rescued as a child by Sion and has become the mascot of Fate, the bar where the three work.

Each bouncer also has mysterious ties to Mikado, and these too are clarified as the game progresses.

The game can be played in several modes. Story leads you from the initial assault and abduction through the resolution of the tale. Versus allows up to four players to indulge in hand-to-hand combat without worrying about story details. Survival pits you against waves of enemies, with the goal of recording a high score.

You can save the game after every combat scene you complete successfully. Take advantage of every opportunity, since losing in the fighting sequences means "game over" — and you don't want to have to go back to the beginning, since there's no way to skip the cut scenes.

Graphics get an A. They are wonderfully detailed and colored, and the characters move smoothly during combat. The cut scenes are remarkably well done, although there are too many of them.

Control also gets an A. Characters respond quickly to commands, are easy to move around during fight scenes and you don't have to use half a dozen buttons for each action.

Sound is a B-plus. The mostly excellent voice-overs, especially during cut scenes, keep the action going. The music blends seamlessly with the action.

"The Bouncer" gets an A. It might sound like another mindless slug-and-smash, but it's far more. The game takes advantage of the PS2's powerful internals to create a virtual future world, providing a long and interesting story along with a variety of less thoughtful modes for those who just want to throw a few punches.

The Bouncer is rated T, for ages 13 and older.