Frantic, fun and perfectly balanced.
Most people know of God Hand for the PlayStation 2, developed by the late Clover Studio, not as one of Shinji Mikami's masterpieces ranking alongside, or perhaps even above his Resident Evil 4 in quality, but as either a stiff, ugly mess of a game not worth anyone's time, or a game whose main appeal lies in its abundance of ridiculous, referential cutscenes and its hilarious ending theme. This is one of the most unfortunate misunderstandings in recent video game history. God Hand is not an especially beautiful game, but it is only stiff for the 30 minutes or so it takes to get used to its controls (just like Resident Evil 4 -- in fact, the camera and the basic movement controls in God Hand are identical to those in that game), and while the cutscenes and the ending theme are undeniably funny, they are by no means the best thing about the game. No, God Hand is, quite simply, possibly the best 3D beat 'em up ever made, surpassing even such games as Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden Black in quality.
So what is it that makes this obscure, poorly-selling game, seen by many as a joke (both literally and figuratively), so good? Well, for one, the brilliant dodging system. Dodging is done with the right analogue stick: pressing forward makes the main character, Gene, perform a lightning-fast duck, pressing right or left makes him side-step, and pressing back makes him do a backwards somersault. This is the cornerstone of the game's combat. Gene fights only with his bare fists (the right of which is the titular god hand) and his feet, and as a result, his range is not that of his weapon-wielding contemporaries (Ryu, Dante, Kratos et cetera). The game is all about getting right up in an enemy's face, dodging his flurry of punches with a series of quick ducks (or, if he attacks in a fashion that necessitates it, a side-step or a back-flip) -- which, by the way, incites an invisible audience's cheers; a nice touch that gets you pumped for your counterattack -- and then, when he lets his guard down for a split-second, punching away. Eventually he'll start blocking, at which point you want to quickly use your special guard break attack (keep up the regular attacks for too long while an enemy is blocking, and he'll make you stagger and kick your ass), keep punching until he's dizzy, and then mash whatever button starts flashing on the screen as fast as you can to initiate a long series of punches, kicks, stomps or spanks (for the female enemies -- kinky!) dealing tons of damage.
It sounds simple, and it is when you're only fighting one enemy. Usually, however, you're fighting at least three, and it's this that makes the dodging system far more than just a replacement for blocking: in order to evade all attacks and manipulate a crowd of enemies into a situation allowing you to engage one of them uninterrupted, you need to constantly make quick, precise movements -- in other words, you have to side-step and back-flip like a madman. The environment also factors in: often, boxes and explosive barrels that can be thrown at enemies from afar are lying around, and positioning yourself in a corner or at a wall can be a good way to stop enemies from surrounding you. Boxes, by the way, contain healing fruits, money (necessary to purchase stronger attacks in a shop you get to access between stages) and cards. Cards decorated with bikini girls fill your tension gauge (which, when full, lets you unleash the divine power residing in Gene's right arm: this temporarily makes you invincible, and dramatically increases your speed and damage output -- the gauge, by the way, doesn't have to be filled via bikini girl cards; attacking enemies fills it, too, albeit far more slowly), while cards with skulls give you roulette orbs. At any point in combat, provided you have enough roulette orbs, you can temporarily slow down time to pick a powerful attack from a roulette wheel, which Gene will then perform.
So that's the combat system: frantic and fun, requiring fast reflexes and lots of on-the-fly strategizing. And the difficulty curve? The difficulty curve is absolutely spot-on, thanks to Clover's masterstroke: the dynamic difficulty system. In the lower left corner of the screen, there is a gauge. This gauge goes up when you deal damage to enemies, and down when enemies deal damage to you. There are four difficulty levels (1, 2, 3 and Die -- the last one being a pun, as the Japanese word for "four" is pronounced exactly the same way as the word for "death"), and every time the gauge completely fills or empties, it goes up or down a level. It's a simple system that's been around in arcade shoot 'em ups for a while (it's there known as "rank"), but God Hand is the first 3D beat 'em up to use it, and it's absolutely ingenious; the way enemy speed, strength and aggression constantly adapts to your ability ensures that the game stays challenging -- and, as a result, engaging and satisfying -- from the very beginning to the very end. It's kind of like a good martial arts teacher in the way it constantly spurs you to do better: whenever you do well enough to start feeling cocky, it raises the difficulty and puts you in your place, and whenever you get your ass kicked for a prolonged period of time, it lowers it and lets you relax for a short while before increasing it again.
As for the aesthetics: the graphics are, as I've mentioned, not especially good. Gene is detailed and well-animated, but all the enemy models are plain, and there is a roughness and a featurelessness to the environments usually only seen in pre-alpha code. The sound, on the other hand, is genuinely brilliant. The background music is goofy, but has groove, and does a great job of getting your adrenaline pumping when it needs to; the invisible audience that cheers and boos depending on how you're doing adds tons of character to the game; and the ridiculous voice acting complements the intentionally cheesy writing very well indeed. The game's famous humour warrants mention, too: it's absolutely fantastic, and incorporates great references to everything from movies and video games to boxers and obscene sexual acts.
And that's God Hand. Clover's funniest game; their most challenging game; their most mechanically sophisticated game; their best game -- but also their most misunderstood, because of its rough graphics and its relatively long learning curve. Don't let the nay-sayers and the fans who praise only the humour fool you. The game is wonderful, and if there is so much as a molecule in your body that appreciates 3D beat 'em ups, you absolutely need to play it.