Heavy Rain fails as a piece of "interactive drama"

Early in Heavy Rain, I joked that its 87 Metacritic score was doing more to damage my perceptions of mainstream video game criticism than any ethical controversy could. That was admittedly hyperbole, but having finished the game — which I believe to be an utter, laughable failure in both game design and storytelling — I'm genuinely baffled that it was met with such breathless praise. IGN's Chris Roper wrote "[the story of] Heavy Rain is easily amongst the best that's ever been put onto a disc. Were this filmed as a Hollywood picture, it would perfectly fit the body of work of someone like Martin Scorsese or David Fincher." GameSpot's Lark Anderson called the game a "powerful interactive drama […] an intensely absorbing experience that meticulously conveys the tension, urgency, surprise, and tragedy that its characters feel." 1UP's David Ellis declared it "one of the most emotional experiences [he'd] ever had playing a videogame." The A.V. Club's David Wolinsky produced a review so comical in its hyperbole that I feel the need to reproduce its first paragraph in full:

As gaming has matured, countless arguments have broken out over whether the medium can ever transcend itself and become art. Many people will point to Heavy Rain as tipping the scales, but that’s pointless. It’s doing something far more important, by being the first game to live up to the Mature rating.

I don't highlight these reviews just to mock, but also to establish that I'm not criticizing a straw man here — Heavy Rain was a bona fide critical darling.

Heavy Rain clearly wants to be judged on its cinematic and literary merits. David Cage famously doesn't consider his games to be games at all — a particularly insufferable PS3 Trophy description reads "Thank you for supporting Interactive Drama." In that spirit, I'll indulge Cage, set aside my numerous complaints with Heavy Rain's gameplay, and look at how it succeeds as a piece of fiction. Here's some choice examples of Heavy Rain's "powerful interactive drama":

  • Ethan (the main character)'s younger son finds his pet parrot dead, and says "I'd give anything if he could come back to life." Ethan replies: "there are some things which just have to happen even if you don't want them to." What could this possibly be foreshadowing?
  • Ethan's older son, who is supposed to be 10 years old, wanders away in a mall twice over the course of a minute. Ethan stumbles through the suddenly-ridiculously-crowded mall, repeating the same 3 awkwardly-performed "Jason!" yells ad nauseam. The son inexplicably walks out of the mall and stumbles across the street. Ethan dives in front of a slowly-moving car to shield his son. The son dies, and Ethan ends up in a coma for 6 months(!?).
  • As part of the ridiculous series of arbitrary trials Ethan is put through in order to save his son, he at one point arrives at a power plant that is mysteriously fully operational. He crawls through 30+ metres of Metal Gear Solid-style tunnels that are uniformly (and quite implausibly) covered in broken glass. He arrives at a room full of electrical cables strung around a grid of equipment, which sets off a series of godawful QTE sequences in which you're expected to hold down 5 buttons at once to squeeze through them. The idea that the killer is secretly operating a supposedly-abandoned power substation is never acknowledged again, and is entirely inconsistent with the character of the killer.
  • Jayden — a Fox Mulder look-alike who dons Men In Black-looking VR glasses in order to investigate crimes in a Minority Report interface — has an extended fight sequence with "Mad Jack." Mad Jack — who it's worth noting is the game's only black character — owns a junkyard, opens by calling Jayden a "cracker", proclaims that he hates the police, and maniacally cackles as he attempts to kill Jayden with a crowbar. He eventually knocks Jayden out, then inexplicably straps him into the driver's seat of a car, which he attempts (unsuccessfully, of course) to lift into a car crusher. This all could have been avoided if he's just dumped Jayden's unconscious body into the human-remains-filled acid bath Jayden stumbled across just minutes earlier. The scene comes out of nowhere, and has practically no bearing on the story.
  • Madison (the game's heroine) — wanders around her apartment in her underwear, undresses, and takes a painstakingly-modelled shower. Masked intruders appear, setting off one of the at least 4 scenes in the game in which another character tries to kill her amidst pretty deliberate sexual overtones. The scene turns out to be a dream, and has absolutely no plot significance except to establish that she's an insomniac — a fact that she repeats multiple times to a complete stranger she undresses and lovingly tends wounds for in her very next scene. I don't have a moral problem with any of this, but there's a pretty conspicuous fetishistic quality to her character that is really at odds with the game's self-serious tone.

Yes, I'm cherry-picking, but Heavy Rain is such a bountiful treasure trove of amateurish nonsense that I don't think I'm giving it all that bad of a shake here. Nearly every scene is undercut by moments in which characters say or do farcically goofy things.

The story is full of gaping plot holes. Ethan periodically blacks out and wakes up with an origami figure in his hand — a phenomenon that is never addressed at all despite the fact that the story revolves around an "Origami Killer" and the kidnapping of his child during one of his blackouts. Madison is at one point told the name of the killer, reacts in shock, and immediately beelines for his apartment despite the fact that she's never met him. The identity of the killer is apparently deduced because he's wearing a gold watch, which in the alternate universe of Heavy Rain are only attainable as police department promotion gifts. While it's not technically a plot hole, the eventual motive of the killer is so laughably stupid that I assumed the extremely obvious hints the game was ramming down my throat had to be red herrings. The script is a mess, even by the low standards of video game writing.

Perhaps even more crucially, Heavy Rain's voice acting is all over the place. The child actors in particular are so comically terrible that I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming they were reading their lines phonetically. There's a few redeeming performances — particularly that of the actor for private detective Scott Shelby, who is tellingly one the small handful of native English speakers in the cast (and even more tellingly begins phoning in his lines when his character suddenly falls apart in the service of Heavy Rain's ridiculous plot twist). I understand that Quantic Dream is a French developer, but they sold me an English-language game set in an American city full of people seemingly unequipped to deliver their lines in a halfway-convincing manner. Early in the game, when the story revolves entirely around the game's worst-performed characters, I was seriously considering switching the language to French and enabling subtitles.

I'm making such a point of criticizing Heavy Rain's poor writing and acting because it's a game that, on its own terms, lives and dies by its quality as a piece of cinema. Quantic Dream clearly invested heavily in some nearly-unparalleled character rendering technology, then used it to meticulously reproduce flat, unconvincing performances of a badly-written script. Unlike most other games, which can and do make up for their cinematic weaknesses with strong mechanics, Heavy Rain has no such escape valve. To be clear, however, Heavy Rain does not play well in almost any respect — it's a jumbled mess of awkward tank controls, confusing camera transitions, interminable QTE sequences, nauseating screen tearing, and unclear objectives. This is a game that derives most of its challenge from making you hold down awkward combinations of buttons and/or making you contend with awkward motion controls. I'm fairly sure I got a bad ending because I failed a series of bullshit motion-controlled quick time events.

With the exception of its admittedly-impressive facial modelling, nifty hair-rendering technology, strong lighting, and sometimes-striking cutscene cinematography, Heavy Rain fails at nearly everything it sets out to do. It's utterly baffling to me that just 3 of Metacritic's 107 indexed reviews gave Heavy Rain a less-than-average review, while a full 73 of of them rated it 90% or above. Is this just another case of critics falling so head-over-heels in love with the idea of a game that they failed to critically evaluate what it actually achieved, or am I truly this out-of-step with popular opinion? Either way, it's going to be hard for me to get Heavy Rain's fawning reception out of my head come the next "cinematic" video game du jour.

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It's 2014, and I just finished Final Fantasy VII for the first time

Final Fantasy VII's a weird game to write about. It's a 17-year-old game whose reputation looms large over the genre, and in many ways a generation of gamers. To some, it's an unassailable masterpiece, and a formative childhood experience akin to my memories of playing Ocarina of Time as a 10-year-old; to others, it's the beginning of the all-consuming, belt-buckle-filled Nomurapocalypse that turned the franchise away from their formative childhood experiences with FFIV and FFVI. Ordinarily I'd try to avoid stereotyping the "sides" of an issue, but FFVII is one of those games that seems to inspire hyperbolic opinions. As someone who didn't play a mainline Final Fantasy game until the beginning of 2013 — and as someone who knew very little about FFVII aside from the infamous spoiler — I'd like to think I was better equipped than many to come at FFVII without too much baggage, for better and for worse. I ended up enjoying FFVII more than expected, and quite a bit more than FFVI, which I played the first half of prior to beginning FFVII. I continue to not particularly like the ATB battle system, and the shoddy localization is pretty unforgivable, but Final Fantasy VII's ambition and heart shines through remarkably well 17 years later.

The most prominent characteristic of FFVII — both at the time of its release and now — is its use of pre-rendered art assets. The game very rarely comes up in a modern context without a caveat about how badly its graphics would stand up today. In some ways, those people aren't wrong — the sprite art of games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger has aged better in the sense that one could release a game that looked like them today and get away with it — but I also got over the way FFVII looked in a couple of hours, and ended up finding it quite a bit more visually interesting than FFVI. The sheer quantity and density of the art makes for a very lived-in-feeling world. In contrast to the fairly cookie-cutter towns of FFVI, FFVII's towns are full of life and detail. The grainy, artifact-filled CG can be hokey and inconsistent, but it's not horrendous, and is in some cases used to pretty good effect in backgrounds and scene transitions. If you're skeptical, poke around this footage of Mt. Nibel, watch this scene of Bugenhagen explaining the Lifestream, or skip around the sequence in which Cloud and Tifa explore the Lifestream (to be clear, that last one has PC-resolution character models). If you're willing and able to look past the technical constraints of the time, Final Fantasy VII is still a pretty good-looking and visually-interesting game.

Note the multiple typos. I swear the choice of image was coincidental.

The gameplay of FFVII was serviceable, but fairly uninspiring. As I said at the start, I'm not a fan of the ATB system, but FFVII did feel to me like a step up from FFVI. The Limit Break system can lead to some really intense sequences during boss battles, particularly since the biggest boss attacks naturally lead to multiple limit breaks. Being able to jump to the front of the queue with a big attack or clutch heal gave battles a dynamism I generally thought FFVI's lacked. I also think Materia is a much more sane character customization system than Espers. Espers locked me into decisions I didn't always feel like I had the knowledge or inclination to fully grasp, while Materia was non-binding. The Materia system also sidestepped the FFVI problem of having every character burdened with an unmanageably-long list of spells.

At the risk of making a reference that isn't likely to help my case, Materia reminded me of FFXIII's Paradigm system — both rewarded creativity and developing your own approach to battles without feeling too overbearing. I was talking with an FFVII-loving friend yesterday, and it hadn't ever occurred to them to spec a party member as a tank by using a combination of the Cover, Long Range, Counter, and HP Plus Materias. By the end of the game, I had Cid taking every hit for half damage and countering for like 1000 damage, and Yuffie wrecking bosses with 4000-damage Ultima hits while avoiding most of the magic damage that came her way. It felt fucking cool and personalized in a way that I never really got out of FFVI.

It's also very much worth noting that FFVII is a somewhat easier game than FFVI, and that's in my opinion to its credit. Hitting the Floating Continent and finding myself presumably underlevelled killed my momentum in VI, and I never had a moment like that in FFVII. The bosses for the most part presented a solid-but-manageable challenge without any grinding whatsoever on my part. If I'd been seeking out more optional content and not levelling my party equally the game may have been trivially easy, but relative to my playstyle, FFVII's bosses presented a fairly satisfying challenge. Random battles tended to be nothing, but that's a fairly endemic problem with RPGs in general.

I'm having a hard time figuring out what to make of FFVII's story. I think it's fundamentally well-conceived, but some combination of the writing and localization left me pretty confused about some fairly integral story beats and character motivations. It wasn't until I completed the game and did some independent research that I really understood what the deal was with Cloud and Zack. I stumbled across a flashback in the basement of the Shinra Mansion in which Zack was escaping from a holding chamber with Cloud before getting gunned down by soldiers, and I wasn't entirely clear on when this was supposed to have happened and what it was supposed to imply. Was that right before Tifa found Cloud at the train station with no memories? Was the voice in Cloud's mind Sephiroth? I understood enough about what was going on with Cloud to understand the broad strokes of his story, but to this date I couldn't really articulate some pretty important parts of it, and I'm hesitant to research too much until I've watched Advent Children and played/watched Crisis Core.

Similarly, I lost aspects of the overarching plot as the story came to a head. I've only just now realized that there were multiple Weapons (those huge bipedal leviathans), and that they were trying to destroy Midgar in an effort to return energy to the Lifestream in order to stop Meteor. I had a vague sense that the Weapons had something to do with Sephiroth, but as it turns out they were acting in opposition to him. The details of what Holy was, how Aerith casted it, and how it interacted with the Lifestream during the final cinematic were mostly lost on me. I still don't really know what Jenova was. It's likely that some of this confusion was my fault, but considering how shoddy so much of the writing was (to the point where I was regularly spotting straight-up typos and glaring grammatical mistakes), I'm not going to assume full responsibility.

To yet again bang the FFXIII drum, for all of the shit that game's lore gets, I had a way easier time following its plot than I had following VII's. You're telling me "fal'Cie" and "l'Cie" were too much to handle, but VII's "Weapon", "Meteor", "Holy", "Lifestream", "Mako", "Cetra", "Ancients", "Jenova", "Planet" and other assorted mumbo-jumbo and contrivances were totally fine? "Well, your favourite thing is stupid too!" isn't a great defence, but I do think it's worth considering how coherent earlier Final Fantasy stories really were if you're going to argue that the newer entries have gotten too far up their asses.

I found that VII's characters succeeded far more than its overarching plot. The game's smaller core cast allowed the characters breathing room to have their moments, and those moments were generally pretty effective. Cloud ended up being less of a sourpuss amnesiac than I was led to believe; Tifa was a fast favourite, particularly after her and Cloud's scene in the Lifestream; Barrett, setting aside some cringe-worthy black stereotypes (he literally says "yeah boyee" at one point), ended up being a good strongman character with some unexpected emotional depth; Aerith was endearing, but often seemed to endear herself in pretty uncreative and stereotypical ways; Cid's essentially the Han Solo of FFVII, and he pulls it off quite nicely. I unfortunately picked up Yuffie and Vincent close to the end because I didn't realize they were optional characters — I used Yuffie a bunch, played through her optional quest, and came to really like her; I didn't end up using Vincent at all. For as much attention as Aerith gets in discussions about FFVII, I found Tifa and her relationship with Cloud to be a far more interesting one. Cloud's personal character arc, which I think is the most enduring aspect of FFVII, very much revolves around Tifa's; Aerith (understandably) spends most of the game as a static martyr.

Lastly, I can't write about Final Fantasy VII without mentioning the music. I have a lot affinity for FFVI's soundtrack — particularly Terra's theme — but I think FFVII's is a step above. The game boots straight into a goosebump-inducing classic, and carries that momentum straight into the still-awesome opening sequence. The battle theme is solid, and holds up throughout the game. Aerith's theme (and in particular the Midgar Slums church arrangement of it) is one of the most effective examples of character building through music I can recall. To a lesser degree, this Midgar Slums theme helped define the atmosphere of the area and the plight of its people. Words Drowned by Fireworks is so good it managed to make me feel for Cait Sith when he offered to sacrifice himself at the Temple of the Ancients right after he fucked over the party then blackmailed them into letting him join them. Tifa's theme is sweet and melancholic without feeling too saccharine. Cid's theme might be my favourite in the game, and is one of the best "let's fucking finish this!" themes I've heard. It leads nicely into Judgment Day, a similarly-great final dungeon theme

Also, I've got a big soft spot for the the Costa del Sol theme and surf rock Chocobo theme arrangement. Oh, and Yuffie's theme! I can't not mention the hype boss themes! (If I don't stop now, I'm going to end up describing every track.)

So that's Final Fantasy VII, and one more gaming blind spot covered. Next Square (Enix) stop: Final Fantasy X!

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Kill la Kill or: how I learned to stop worrying and love anime

With the exception of Nintendo games, I didn't grow up with overtly Japanese media. I was certainly aware of it — and growing up one of the most Chinese cities in North America helped in that regard — but with the exception of a few games like Pokemon, Tales of Symphonia, and Viewtiful Joe, I didn't see it as relevant to me. I didn't play JRPGs, and I didn't so much as watch Dragon Ball Z.

As such, I passively accepted the idea of "anime" as a pejorative. I wasn't consciously perpetuating the stereotype, but I was very likely to hear the word "anime" in the context of a punchline and I'm sure that rubbed off.

At a time in which the "gaming community" is more concerned than ever with diversity and tolerance, anime and/or JRPGs fans are one of the few remaining groups one can pretty safely throw under the bus while still getting high-fives all around:

That last tweet really gets to the heart of the issue: a sense that anime fans are gross, sexually-perverted weirdos. This stereotype — like most stereotypes — comes from somewhere, but whereas most stereotypes are seen as the unfairly broad brushes they obviously are, "anime" is a widely-accepted word with which to dismiss a piece of media, its creators, and its fans.

To the degree that my tastes were influenced by these popular straw men, I resent that I spent the first 22 or so years of my life not giving most Japanese media a fair shake. My tastes have changed a lot since giving JRPGs, anime, and manga a fair shot, and I'm happier for it.

This brings me to Kill la Kill:

Kill la Kill

Kill la Kill is the story of a girl and her sentient school uniform fighting the fascist school council government of an artificial mountain city in future Tokyo Bay in order to avenge her father's death. I could elaborate about the surprisingly coherent plot and likeable characters, but this show moves so quickly and unexpectedly that almost any further explanation risks spoiling it. I will at least mention that this show has one of the most menacing and downright subversive secondary antagonists I can remember. If the show wasn't already great, this one character might have been able to carry it themselves.

I'm not sure I'd have been able to deal with Kill la Kill even a couple of years ago. It hasn't been that long since I was wringing my hands about the costume designs in Final Fantasy XIII, and I find it viscerally uncomfortable to go back and read myself trying to wrap my head around characters wearing short skirts. If that post wasn't so embarrassing in hindsight, I'd laugh about how quaint it feels in light of my unequivocal love of a show that — to pull no punches — has a close-up of a 17-year-old girl's labia in its intro:

Kill la Kill's sexuality is so overt that it arguably transcends fanservice and justifies itself as an inextricable part of what the show is. Without spoiling too much, this is a show in which revealing battle armour is scientifically justified and body shame is directly and meaningfully addressed. All of the main characters — female and male — end up spending a great deal of their time fully or nearly nude. A major male character spends half of his time on-screen posing ostentatiously as his clothing slides off his body and pink lights shoot out of his nipples and groin, and the leading antagonist cements her malicious nature in an unsettling scene in which she gropes her daughter. I'm not going to pretend that some of the sexuality isn't on some level pandering, but it's so over-the-top and indiscriminate that I tend to see it as more of a stylistic and humorous choice than one primarily intended to titillate. To put it another way: I think it would be a worse show without the sexuality; at the very least, something else would need to take its place.

It took me a few episodes to get on board the show's inherent flamboyance — and that's to some extent a result of the first few episodes leaning a bit harder into the bashful upskirt school of fanservice — but I got over my self-consciousness and realized the show was deliberately using (and mocking) that trope as a stepping stone to far-more-uninhibited ridiculousness.

And man does Kill la Kill know how to escalate. The third episode features a climactic-seeming fight in which the two main characters are hitting each other with such intensity that the cavernous walls behind them are blown apart by the shockwave, and most of the remaining twenty-one episodes substantially raise the stakes from there. No single step feels forced, but by the time the show is over the scope of the conflict has escalated to a degree that makes the beginning of the series seem positively quaint. Don't get me wrong: this is a pretty goofy and self-aware show, but it doesn't fall into the trap of escalating for cheap comedic effect without the substance to back it up.

Kill la Kill also oozes style. Every scene — hell, practically every shot — is lovingly crafted to look and sound as awesome as possible. I'm a particular fan of the character designs and voice performances, which are on point across the board. The director and artists have a sizable bag of tricks, and they know when (and how often) to break them out for maximum effect: 3D zooms, 4:3, split-screen staredowns, on-screen (and sometimes in-environment) text, static pans, disproportionate looming, rotoscoping, and other assorted techniques form an unconventional visual patchwork that manages to feel congruous. I'm not usually one to physically react to stuff, but I found myself with a dumb slack-jawed grin at least a couple of times per episode. This show might have the highest "fuck yeah!"-per-minute ratio of anything I've watched in my life.

Those aforementioned "fuck yeah" moments are punctuated with some badass musical themes. You always know some weighty shit is going down when Satsuki's theme kicks in; Ryuko's triumphant anthem almost always marks the climax of the episode. Later themes (BEWARE SPOILERS: [1], [2], [3]) are appropriately epic and/or sinister. Hiroyuki Sawano also composed Attack on Titan's awesome soundtrack, and I've just realized that he's also working on Xenoblade X(!).

I can't recall a show I've loved as consistently as Kill la Kill. It's obviously something I enjoy for very different reasons than other favourites like The Wire, The West Wing, or House of Cards, but I think I'd much sooner rewatch Kill la Kill than The Wire, and that's got to count for something. I suspect there are a lot of potential Kill la Kill fans held back by a misguided sense that they're somehow above watching anime, let alone a semi-fanservicey anime like this. I've been there, and while I absolutely empathize with the discomfort, I'm glad I crossed that arbitrary line.

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Killer is Dead: Suda51 delivers

Killer is Dead is some of the most fun I’ve had this year. It’s a flawed and uneven experience, but when it was firing on all cylinders, it was putting a smile on my face with amazing regularity. I’ve always wanted to like Suda51 games, but this is the first one that I’ve really enjoyed as a complete package. It’s got the style, ambition, and idiosyncrasy of Killer7, but with with a substantially more enjoyable game design; it’s got the structure and charming insanity of No More Heroes, but with much better character action mechanics, less filler, and a more refined style.

You play as Mondo, an assassin with a robot arm who works for a government-subsidized execution firm (according to Suda51, Mondo lost his arm because he used the arm to kill Osama Bin Laden and was infected by Bin Laden’s malice). The game doesn’t seem too concerned with explaining its lore — it’s content with matter-of-factly establishing that this is a near-future world with cybernetic enhancements, moon tourism, and supernatural lunar powers. It’s a lot like Cowboy Bebop in this sense — the setup is interesting in its own right, but it’s never the focus; it’s a means to an end, and the end is a bunch of badass nonsense. Killer is Dead is also a lot like Cowboy Bebop in cast and structure: a quirky cast of characters (who are remarkably analogous, now that I think about it) taking on contracts that sometimes tie into a serious overarching narrative, but more often just serve as a justification for a neat episode. Mondo’s suave nonchalance in the face of utter nonsense is great, and his complete lack of higher purpose besides chasing beautiful women is oddly refreshing. The supporting characters, despite their pretty thin development, were surprisingly likeable. It's also worth noting that the XSEED localization is top-notch — I felt zero urge to switch to the included Japanese voice track.

I’m hesitant to spoil too much, but I’ll explain one mission in the interest of piquing some interest. Your aloof boss Bryan calls you up and explains that the Russian government has hired the team to stop an out-of-control train from hurtling through Moscow. When you show up, Vivienne, your fellow executioner, remarks something along the lines of “oh, I know why you took this mission,” at which point Bryan declares that he and Mondo will handle the train because steam engines are man’s work, and all men have a “passion” for steam engines. This borderline-fetishistic point is belaboured way more than anything else in the game, and that’s pretty great given how little time the game puts into explaining the baffling overarching narrative. It turns out that your target is a Thomas the Tank Engine-esque demon train that's taking out its resentment for being abandoned in a train yard. At one point, Bryan shows up out of nowhere with a giant briefcase-transported turret with Panzer Dragoon-style lock-on lasers, which you use to essentially shoot down another train. Bryan then unaccountably appears ahead of the train, trying to flip a switch to divert it away from Moscow. He gets hit by a giant snowball, his cybernetic parts are scattered all of the train, and he’s presumed to be dead. Mondo gets to the train engine, and apologetically explains to the train that while he has a burning "romance" for steam engines, he’s contractually obligated to kill it. He defeats it, then slices it in half. Cut to the office, in which Bryan is totally fine and spent all of the payment on replacing his broken cybernetic parts with gold-plated versions. Everyone rolls their eyes; end scene.

The infamous “gigolo” dating missions are such a small part of the game, and so comically exaggerated, that it’s genuinely baffling to me that they were the subject of so much scorn. Essentially, you’re controlling Mondo’s vision, and need to zoom in on your date’s chest and legs while they’re not watching in order to fill up your “guts” meter (measured in fluid ounces), at which point you present them with ridiculous gifts and eventually set off a BioWare-esque (that is to say, PG-13 tame and awkward) sex scene. During these gameplay sections, the tone is very clearly tongue-in-cheek: good play is rewarded with ethereal moans, bubbly sound effects, and a voice exclaiming “magnifico!”. It’s also worth nothing that, in his own particular way, Mondo is consistently respectful and deferential toward women — they’re actually pretty much the only thing he treats with any consequence. I think Killer is Dead would have been better off without the gigolo missions — and we now know that they were artificially sexed up at the request of Japanese publisher Kadokawa Shoten — but I also think they were reasonably amusing and inoffensive for the 15 minutes I spent on them. While I’m not going to say that the gigolo missions are unworthy of any discomfort, I’m having a hard time figuring out what about them justified the disgust and condemnation that pervaded the North American media’s response to the game.

While Killer is Dead is by no means a deep character action game, I found it to be surprisingly (by No More Heroes standards) well-crafted and rewarding once I figured out what it was all about. Mashing the attack button will get you pretty far, especially in the early going, but the game’s really about stringing together ridiculous hit combos, using your special moves and mobility to full effect, and looking like a total badass in the process. Every time you execute a perfectly-timed dodge, the game kicks into slow motion, drops its colour palette to black, white, and red, and prompts you to unload on the enemy while stylized blood flies everywhere. This happens constantly, and it never stops being awesome. It’s also a great way to build up your combo, which beefs up your attacks, allows you to perform valuable finishing moves, and further rockets your combo up. At any time, you can hit the right trigger to stop the action and spectacularly kill any non-armoured enemy for a bit of blood (your special power meter) — something I found myself forgetting about it because it was so absurdly powerful. Once I got the hang of dodges and fully upgraded the katana (which is described as removing your katana’s limiter!), I was routinely stringing together 100-hit combos and having a fucking blast doing it.

This game also has some of the most game-changing upgrades I can recall in recent memory. I’m talking about a guard counter follow-up that smashes enemies into the ground so hard they bounce up into the air to be juggled. I’m talking about a gunfire dodge follow-up that instantly headshots the enemy that fired at you, complete with a gratuitous bullet camera. I’m talking a dodge upgrade that lets you dash halfway across an area with zero cooldown if you time it right. I’m talking about a charging guard break punch that lays out every enemy in front of you. Unlike a lot of modern games, pretty much all of Killer is Dead’s primary upgrades are extremely potent and immediately noticeable.

In fairness, there’s some glaring faults. The camera is generally fine, but it requires some hand-holding, and has a tendency to get weird when you’re up against a wall. The flashy visuals can make it somewhat difficult to keep track of what’s going on — when you’re surrounded by enemies, the lack of clarity and forgiving dodge and block windows can make it feel like defensive moves are happening (or not happening) at random. Ranged enemies will often be shooting at you from off-screen, and while there are useful audio cues for these attacks, getting stunned from off-screen is no fun. I found certain enemy and boss attack patterns really difficult to figure out, and found myself getting hit by stuff I couldn’t figure out how to dodge with any reliability. In some cases — and unfortunately the first two levels are probably the worst offenders — there’s not a great sense of where you’re supposed to be going, and you’re left wandering samey corridors until you hit a new encounter. The side missions — which to the game’s credit are entirely optional — range from forgettable to frustrating. There’s an early dream sequence mission in which you’re stuck slow-walking, and slow-walking is always a bummer.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a Suda51 game has style, but man does this game have style. It has a high-contrast, pseudo-cel-shaded look that’s punctuated by a striking filter that appears to make certain levels of black loop back into a dark indigo hue. Killer is Dead uses the Unreal Engine, but you’d never know it except for the requisite hiccups, occasional texture pop-in, and egregious and borderline-nauseating screen tearing in certain levels. While some of the individual parts can be a little rough-around-the-edges, there’s a pervasive attention to detail and palpable authorship that makes the jumble of ideas feel like a cohesive whole. The cutscenes are full of striking shots, awesome moments, and a kind of ridiculous nonsense that doesn’t feel like it’s being used as a crutch.

Akira Yamaoka (of Silent Hill fame) contributes a soundtrack that isn’t particularly memorable, but is evocative and complementary. The title theme is appropriately ethereal and sinister; and the debriefing, loading, and menu themes are unique and catchy. There’s some great background music, and some pumping boss themes. This isn’t the kind of game in which I stopped to note how awesome a given track was, but I also never felt like something was too overbearing or noticeably out-of-place. For such an oddball and particular game, that’s pretty commendable.

If you have a passing interest in what Suda51 is serving up and are willing to deal with some idiosyncrasies, I wholeheartedly recommend you look past the critical hand-wringing and check out Killer is Dead. As someone who couldn’t force himself to like Killer7 and was fairly underwhelmed by No More Heroes, Killer is Dead was the Suda51 game that finally hit the spot.

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I (digitally) imported Hatsune Miku: Project Diva 2nd

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f (the Vita edition of the 2013 PS3 release) is my current favourite game of 2014. I tried the demo on a whim and was immediately hooked; I went on to put upwards of 25 hours into it, and still come back to it regularly despite earning every gameplay trophy. I’m not going to go into too much detail about my love for Project Diva f except to say that it’s got a mix of solid gameplay, rewarding difficulty, eclectic music, and unabashed Japanese absurdity that really spoke to me.

Since getting into Project Diva f and realizing I’d have to wait a while for Project Diva F 2nd and Persona 4: Dancing All Night, I’d been considering delving back into the three Japan-only PSP releases that preceded it. Last week, I finally bit the bullet: I set up a Japanese PSN account, commandeered my pack-in 4GB Vita memory card, and ordered a ¥5,000 PSN card from Japan Codes. Using a Japanese PSN account on a Vita is a bit of a hassle — you have to swap memory cards and reset the system to factory settings each time you change accounts — but it’s hard to hold that against Sony when it’s such an obscure and legally-questionable thing to do. I figure it’s probably a five-minute process, though I have yet to swap back to my Canadian account.

I had originally planned on starting from the beginning with Project Diva, but decided to skip to Project Diva 2nd when I learned that the ability to use the d-pad and face buttons interchangeably wasn’t added until the sequel. I’d grown very used to alternating inputs — that is, entering [X, X, X, X, O, O, O, O] as [X, ▼, X, ▼, O, ▶, O, ▶] — and it was going to be a very difficult habit to break. Project Diva also seems to be somewhat notorious for its dicey framerate, and considering how questionable 2nd’s framerate can be, it must be pretty ridiculous. Dreamy Theater 2ndProject Diva 2nd’s PS3 remaster, which costs ¥4,000 and bafflingly requires the PSP game to play — includes all of the songs from the first game, so if I really want to go back to them, I’ve got that option open to me.

Project Diva 2nd is full of Japanese text, but it’s also a rhythm game, so it’s pretty self-explanatory. Most of the the menu items and song titles are written in katakana or English, so it’s reasonably easy to navigate with a katakana chart and a bit of patience. I’m using this game as an opportunity to learn katakana in earnest, and I’ve already picked up enough to recognize a few words without cheating. I figured out that that メルト (me-ru-to) was “melt” on my own, and while that’s not a particularly amazing achievement, it felt pretty good for a few days of practice.

Project Diva 2nd vis-à-vis Project Diva f

Project Diva 2nd isn’t as good as Project Diva f, and in a lot of ways, playing it has increased my appreciation for Project Diva f. I’ve been having a pretty good time with it, but the song selection isn’t as good, the charts aren’t as well-designed, the difficulty ceiling is pretty low, and the framerate is sometimes rough enough to impact gameplay. Project Diva f only has a few songs I don’t care for, while Project Diva 2nd has a fair number that aren’t appealing to me. I don’t hate any of them, but I’ll probably end up avoiding a bunch, which wasn’t my experience with Project Diva f.

This is one of the loading screens. I don't understand either, but I do always smile when it comes up.

I do very much appreciate the lack of star notes in Project Diva 2nd. In Project Diva f, you hit star-shaped notes by swiping your finger on the screen (or tilting the right stick on the PS3 version) — a gameplay mechanic that I learned to deal with, but never really enjoyed. When they’re coming at you slowly, they’re trivial because of their extremely forgiving hit zones; when they’re coming at you in quick succession, they’re seemingly impossible to keep up with without scribbling indiscriminately. The PSP games have nothing of the sort, and I think they’re better for it.

Project Diva 2nd is an easier game than Project Diva f. For the most part, I’ve found that the extreme (hardest) difficulty is the only one that’s putting up a real challenge. In Project Diva 2nd, I’ve found myself getting high ranks in hard mode on my first try, and passing songs on extreme on my first try; in Project Diva f, most of the extreme charts are out of reach, or at best barely achievable.

Graphics and performance

While Project Diva 2nd apparently performs much better than Project Diva, the framerate can still be kind of rough. This is the kind of game in which the performance very much depends on where the camera is pointing, and that inconsistency might actually be more annoying than predictable choppiness. My sense is that the core hit detection runs independently of the graphics rendering, so it’s never game-breaking if you’re taking your cues from the audio, but I would have felt a lot better about it if the interface also ran independently of the background graphics (FFVII-style).

To its credit, Project Diva 2nd looks great for a PSP game — this is the first PSP game I’ve played, and it far exceeded my expectations for the platform. The videos generally aren’t as ambitious as those in Project Diva f, but that’s to be expected given the hardware limitations and lower budget. The Vita emulation also seems flawless, and if there’s any input lag going on, it’s trivial enough that I quickly acclimatized to it. I was a little worried about timing issues, and I’m glad it didn’t turn out to be a problem.

Song selections

I’ve got my issues with Project Diva 2nd’s song selection as a whole, but there’s some really good tracks in here. Here’s five that stand out. Apologies for the quality of some of them — it’s really hard to find good-quality captures of this game on YouTube:

Kokoro (Heart) / ココロ

This is probably my favourite song in the game. It starts slow, but once it kicks into gear (I cued up the video), it’s super catchy and a bunch of fun to play.

PoPiPo (Vegetable Juice) / ぽっぴっぽー

Beware: the audio in this video has some moderate clipping issues.

Be sure to stick around for the second verse, in which Hatsune Miku makes a charmingly Engrish case for vegetarianism. Despite it’s absurdity, this song is actually quite fun to play, and managed to stick itself in my head for half a day.

Moon

Some nice rhythmic synthpop. The video is stylish and more ambitious than a lot of the stuff in Project Diva 2nd, though it’s also a great example of how wider shots tend to sink the framerate.

Innocence

This one’s just plain fun to play. The electropop songs tend to be my favourites, as they’ve got strong beats and predictable note patterns. Also, check out that sweet Space Channel 5: Part 2 costume!

Gigantic Girl / 巨大少女

This is one of the better songs in the game, but even if it wasn’t, I pretty much had to include it for the amazing video. It’s also worth noting how easy it is — it’s an extreme chart that would have been on the lower end of the hard difficulty in Project Diva f.

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Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate: Hunting diary #1

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate has been calling my name for months. I’ve come close to booting it up on a number of occasions, but the associated learning curve and time commitment always stopped me from pulling the trigger. After an ill-fated attempt at getting into Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (I'm sorry, Dragon's Dogma fans/zealots!), I figured “hey, I liked Dragon’s Dogma’s monster hunting, why not cut out the middle man and try some Monster Hunting?”

MH3U makes a questionable first impression: a character creation screen featuring some of the ugliest faces this side of the Nintendo 64. I picked what seemed to be the only female face that didn’t look deformed, and was fairly unceremoniously dropped into Moga Village, where I was asked to go on some pretty mundane MMO-style “kill X mobs” or “collect Y items” quests. These early quests are pretty unsatisfying and not at all representative of what Monster Hunter is all about, and it’s a bummer that the game starts off on such a mundane note.

Weapon selection

On the other hand, the early rote missions were a good opportunity to mess with the game’s 12 weapon types. As far as I can tell, it’s strongly recommended to focus on one or two weapons, so I spent a few hours experimenting and narrowing things down.

The Switch Axe was a quick favourite. Its two modes give it a great sense of versatility — Axe Mode has great reach, higher mobility, and a powerful “hack n’ slash” infinite combo; Sword mode does more damage and has a ludicrous burst attack, but severely limits movement speed. Unlike most (all?) of the other weapons — which seem to encourage you to play a very specific pattern and role — the Switch Axe feels like it's suited to a wide variety of situations and playstyles. Unlike, say, the Hammer, there’s also a lot of mechanical variety to the Switch Axe — it has quite a few unique combos and options, including the ability to combo between the two modes. It also looks pretty cool, and gives me a way to cut off monster tails for vital crafting materials.

On the other end of the complexity spectrum, I ended up liking the Hammer a bunch — so much so that I’m leaning toward it as a main weapon. I almost didn’t bother giving it a shot because I figured it would be slow and cumbersome, but it turned out to be one of the most mobile melee weapons in the game. Its bread-and-butter is a charged slam attack, but unlike the Great Sword, charging doesn’t force you commit — there’s a half-second animation to begin the charge, but once it’s started, you’re free to move around and line up your attack for as long as the stamina bar allows. When the opportunity presents itself, it feels great to get out the full stationary 3-attack golf-swing combo, but it’s far more common for me to start a charge at medium range, unleash it on a monster’s head, then immediately cancel into a dodge roll. Even its sheathe animation is quick, which in my experience makes a huge difference when it comes to getting in a quick weapon sharpening or potion use. I love the mobility and hit-and-run style of the hammer, and no other weapon has felt quite as satisfying to hit with.

Picking a couple of main weapons allowed me to get a less interesting aspect of the game out of the way early: weapon upgrade planning. I was advised to decide on weapon upgrade targets as soon as possible, and as much as I resent games that ask you to make important decisions before you’re equipped to understand them, I hunkered down, hit up Google, and did my homework. Because Monster Hunter’s weapons are almost all upgrades to previous weapons, it seems to be important to plan out an upgrade path early on. For example, I’ve chosen to work toward Onslaught — not the best hammer in the game, but the best hammer I like the look of. In order to craft this thing, I need to follow a very specific 9-part upgrade path — something I’d never intuitively figure out without the use of admittedly-nifty sites like Kiranico. Games don’t necessarily have to communicate every piece of information in-game, but in the case of MH3U, not having an informed plan could result in a dead-end weapon and a bunch of time and resources down the drain. As good as Kiranico is, it shouldn’t be (effectively) necessary to use a wiki to play a video game. Wiki consultation has turned me off of MMOs and more complex single-player RPGs, and as much as I’m still into MH3U, it’s not helping here either.

Monster Hunting

Homework aside, I feel like I’m starting to really get Monster Hunter. The early fights against Great Jaggi and Arzuros got me into the swing of things, but Qurupeco was the first fight that really felt like a major accomplishment. Qurupeco is this pelican/bat-looking monster with the ability to mimic the calls of other monsters to call in backup. It can bang together its wings to create fiery explosions, and fly away at will when it feels threatened. Fighting it felt like a real test of patience, endurance, judgement, and pattern recognition. There’s just so much to keep track of — keeping Qurupeco paintballed to track its location, maintaining weapon sharpness to keep attacks hitting hard, eating food to maintain stamina, drinking potions to maintain health, drinking Cool Water to prevent health drain in sandy areas, and keeping Sonic Bombs close at hand to interrupt its ally summons. Forgetting even one of these things (while also avoiding Qurupeco and friends' attacks) can be fairly devastating, and letting a bunch of them pile up can result in an dangerous backlog of tasks you don’t necessarily have enough openings to catch up. At one point, I let a Paintball wear off and allowed Qurupeco to get away and restore its health as I desperately searched the area; at another, I blindly chased Qurupeco into a new area without taking the time to sharpen my weapon and lost a huge chunk of health trying to sharpen it while getting interrupted by Jaggis and set ablaze by Qurupeco. Stunning Qurupeco with a fully-charmed hammer blast and finishing him with a golf-swing combo was satisfying in a way that brought to mind marathon JRPG bosses.

Speaking of JRPGs — and to make a likely-unprecedented comparison — MH3U’s battle pacing has somewhat reminded me of Final Fantasy XIII’s boss battles. Both have a deliberate rhythm to them, and both require the player to juggle and prioritize a series of constantly-shifting variables under duress. To some extent, that’s how a most well-designed video games work, but aspects of MH3U and FFXIII exercise the same gaming muscles in a way that really resonates with me. FFXIII had me thinking “can I get away with another couple of cycles of stagger build-up; or should I take this post-attack lull to heal, build up some stagger maintenance, or renew my buffs and debuffs?”, and I’ve found that MH3U’s combat — at least in early-game solo play — boils down to a similar-feeling mix of risk-reward trade-offs, resource management, and informed judgement calls.

Reputation

Monster Hunter: the Dark Souls of games that Japanese middle-schoolers play

In certain circles, Monster Hunter has gained a Dark Souls-esque reputation for impenetrability that I don’t think is justified. It’s more complex and less tutorialized than most modern games, but I’ve yet to hit any mechanic that required more than a quick Google search to understand.

The much-vaunted animation priority isn’t anything crazy — it’s simply a mechanical constraint serving a particular style of deliberate gameplay. The feel of the character movement and weapon swings takes some getting used to just like any well-designed, particular-feeling game takes some getting used to. Monster Hunter's animations are certainly more restrictive and punishing than most modern games, but I’m kind of baffled that this pretty basic risk-reward mechanic is treated as a huge, game-defining trait — if Monster Hunter is an “animation priority” game, is Super Mario Bros. a “momentum priority” game?

Monster Hunter has taken some getting used to, but only because I’ve never played anything quite like it and thus lacked the heuristics to immediately understand some of the more usual concepts, and because it’s taken some time for me to internalize the game’s timings and pacing. This game is widely played by children and casual gamers in Japan — it’s not some crazy thing that requires herculean open-mindedness or diligence to understand and appreciate.

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Casualties of gaming: Catherine, Etrian Odyssey IV, Mutant Blobs Attack, Muramasa Rebirth, Radiant Historia

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying some games I’ve suspected wouldn’t be up my alley, and I’ve been getting more comfortable with the idea of dropping games that aren’t grabbing me. I’ve been hesitant to write about said games and risk coming off as dismissive or overly hostile, but I’ve been wanting to get my thoughts on a few of them off my chest. Keep in mind that I didn’t hate any of these games so much as I just didn’t like them; for the most part, I understand why they're liked. I can only speak for myself, and I know better than anyone how compromised and arbitrary my opinions can be.

I gave Catherine a shot a few weeks ago, and while I really liked the setting, style, music, art direction and ambition, I just wasn’t enjoying the puzzle gameplay at all. I would have liked to have seen the game through, but I didn’t want to suffer through a bunch of unappealing gameplay to do so. I can’t deny, however, that it has one of the best title screens in gaming.

With Persona Q on the way, I decided to give Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan a shot. I spent four or five hours playing it — enough time to get a pretty good idea of what it’s all about — and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t for me. I’m increasingly finding that I need a pretty strong narrative, cast, and game world to keep me going through a marathon JRPG, and EO IV doesn’t even attempt to offer that. To my knowledge, if I wanted to diverge from my initial party at all, I’d have to grind up a new character from scratch, or at least from some fairly rigid level baselines; the game has an autopilot mechanic that, as far as I can tell, is only there to facilitate grinding. The dungeons don’t have much personality, and there’s no narrative carrot to keep me going. I understand that the party-building and dungeon exploration are the primary appeal, and I’m glad people who are into that have a series catering to that itch, but it’s not an itch I’ve ever had. Depending on the degree to which Persona Q is an EO game (by many accounts, quite a bit), I’ll probably pass on it as well.

I played a healthy chunk of Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, but it never really clicked with me. The game felt a lot like Sound Shapes, but without the benefit of an interesting presentation hook to make up for the unsatisfying (to me) platforming. The art style and sense of humour were pretty actively unappealing — I can think of very little that makes my eyes roll as readily as pandering internet memes on billboards. I didn’t hate the game, but I also didn’t want to continue playing it.

I picked up Muramasa Rebirth on sale a while back, and finally decided to give it a shot. It looks fantastic and sounds great, but the repetitive combat and exploration wasn’t doing it for me. The combat system seemed like it could be neat, but it felt way too fast and chaotic. Any battle with more than a couple of enemies seemed to devolve into button mashing, finger crossing, and careful potion activation. The bosses were far more interesting, but also few and far between. While the background art is amazing, I found there was very little sense of place to the areas — it felt like I was warping through a bunch of copy-and-pasted backgrounds rather than exploring a tangible environment. The story seemed to have some interesting elements, but I didn’t find myself caring a whole lot about the characters. For a game with such a beautiful painterly look, it felt oddly soulless. Reading that it was a fairly long game that you essentially have to play through twice was enough to stop me in my tracks.

Speaking of games you (sort of) have to play through twice, I finally gave up on Radiant Historia after about 18 hours of increasing boredom. I really, really wanted to like Radiant Historia. It makes a great first impression with a promising battle system, political intrigue, likeable main character, solid art direction, and great Yoko Shimomura music, but it gets bogged down with tedium, filler, and by-the-books design.

I’d heard a lot of good things about the battle system — which has you pushing enemies around a grid-based field and swapping turns with allies or enemies to set up combos — but I found it slow, tedious, repetitive, and devoid of meaningful tactical decision-making. In pretty much every case, I’d start by using Stocke and Marco to put together a stack of three enemies, hit them with a spell from Raynie, then clean up accordingly on the next round. I never found any good reason to change tactics, and it didn’t help that the secondary characters — because they’re in your party less often — were consistently underleveled compared to the main team. There usually seemed to be a single clearly-optimal set of commands for a given fight, and because of this combat began to feel like glorified data entry. This might have been tolerable if said data entry was relatively quick and mindless, but even the most trivial encounters demanded quite a bit of time and attention.

The time travel mechanic and split timeline is cool in theory, but in practice seemed to be an excuse to have you run through the same bland, hard-to-navigate environments (the Sand Fortress being the most glaring example) over and over again. This game is begging for a map system, especially since the top screen is conspicuously underused outside of battle. Because of the design of the parallel timelines, I was often grossly overleveled when I was “catching up” in the other version of history. My initial enthusiasm for the great soundtrack (the Alistel theme, battle theme, and boss theme are particularly memorable) slowly faded as I realized there’s really not much to it — the same handful of tracks are run into the ground. This game’s official soundtrack contains 25 tracks, and it doesn't seem like much was left out; Xenoblade Chronicles’ contains 91. That’s obviously not an entirely fair comparison, but I think it’s telling.

Radiant Historia is an initially-endearing game with an admirable sense of ambition, but it didn’t follow through on its promise enough to keep me going. I was struggling to convince myself to keep playing well short of the halfway mark, and I figured that was a good sign the game wasn’t worth spending another 20 hours on.

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Space Channel 5: Part 2: Super successful rescue!

I’ve always been a little dubious of Sega’s Dreamcast games (and yes, I realize that's one of the worst phrases with which to begin a blog post on an enthusiast video game site). Crazy Taxi — even at the time of its fairly contemporaneous GameCube rerelease — never did much of anything for me. The Sonic Adventure games, which in fairness I only ever borrowed, always felt pretty awkward and gimmicky to me. Phantasy Star Online seemed like it was significantly buoyed by its novelty. I tried the Vita port of Jet Set Radio last year and found it frustrating and unsatisfying to play. There’s a mythos associated with that period of Sega’s history that’s never squared with my experience, and that left me naturally skeptical of games like Space Channel 5. That’s not meant as an indictment of Dreamcast-era Sega so much as an explication of where I’m personally coming from.

Given the circumstances, here’s the surprising thing: I really like Space Channel 5: Part 2. Setting aside the fact that it was simultaneously released on the PS2 and was only ever released in the west (by a third party, no less) on that platform, it’s by far my favourite Dreamcast game. I’ve never played anything quite like it; it does what it sets out to do exceptionally well, and with a great sense of style and enthusiasm.

Space Channel 5: Part 2 is a pretty simple game, and it does a really good job of easing you into the rhythm. In terms of raw gameplay, it’s essentially an elaborate and more rhythmic version version of Simon: the game demonstrates a sequence of actions to the player, and the player repeats them on the beat. These include the obvious up, down, left, and right; but also “chu” (X) and “hey” (O). During some stages, you’re hitting down on the d-pad to replicate an instrumental rhythm. Unlike Simon, however, this is much more of a rhythm game than a memory game: most of the time, the rhythms are fairly short, or come tied to obvious visual cues to jog the player’s memory. Most of the challenge comes from keeping the beat and mustering the dexterity required to replicate the faster and trickier sequences. When the game strays too far into memorization — especially in a couple of frustrating sequences in stage 4 — it suffers for it, especially since these are outliers in an otherwise-well-tuned difficulty curve. The game is maybe an hour in length, but it’s a nimble and diverse experience with a lot of replay value.

Space Channel 5: Part 2’s rhythm mechanics are sound, but its presentation is what really makes it special. While Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s United Game Artists division at Sega is famous for Rez, its first project was the original Space Channel 5, and its last was Space Channel 5: Part 2. Mizuguchi references Space Channel 5 as a product of the same “synestesia” ethos as his later work on Rez, Lumines, and Child of Eden, and it shows. The gameplay, visuals, music, and sound effects come together to form an experience that’s much more than the sum of its parts. This cohesion and immersiveness is less immediately obvious in Space Channel 5 since it’s a much less self-serious and artsy-seeming experience than Mizuguchi’s other work — it’s harder to imagine him referencing the game in his work at the Keio University School of Media Design — but it’s absolutely there.

There’s no getting around it: Space Channel 5: Part 2 is a ridiculous game. Purge, an 18-year-old sociopath, kidnaps Space President Peace and demands a 6.6 trillion space dollar random. It turns out this is an elaborate distraction — his actual plan to take control of the media’s broadcasting satellites and forge them into a “Ballistic Groove Gun” he’ll use to force the entire world to dance against its will. In order to prevent this, Ulala and friends save dancing citizens (and sometimes animals) to form dance posses they lead into climactic dance battles.

This weirdness feels completely genuine, and nothing like the pandering, self-aware, “I bet this will go viral” affectedness that characterizes so much of modern video game humour. Ulala takes everything in enthusiastic stride, and the game never pauses to say “hey, look how dumb this is.” Whether you’re having a guitar duel with your Channel 42 rival in front of synchronized swimmers, getting dropped into an out-of-nowhere waltz battle with a robot pooped out of a giant tentacle monster, or leading a posse of tripping-out cheerleaders to rescue Space Michael Jackson, everything feels oddly appropriate in context.

Everything comes together into a chorus climax that must seem ridiculous out-of-context, but genuinely felt like a natural and fitting conclusion to the game’s musical-like narrative arc:

One last thing: the localization is surprisingly good. Don’t get me wrong, there’s rough edges in here: it’s clear that the the actors weren’t always aware of the context in which their lines were being uttered, and it leads to some awkward scenes. Lines like “it’s robots!” and Michael Jackson’s phoned-in deliveries are questionable or great depending on where you’re coming from. There are a couple of sequences in which “left” and “right” sound nearly or literally identical, which for all I know could be a bug in the PS3 remaster. There are also some occasional awkward pauses or overlaps where the English lines are a bit out of sync with the choreography.

Gripes aside, Space Channel 5: Part 2’s localization was pulled off pretty well by the standards of the time. The English acting is largely pretty good, and the rewritten songs are great considering the challenge of retaining the rhythm and timing of a very different language. I played a few stages in Japanese, and while the original is predictably a lot more polished and cohesive, I think the English performances for Ulala and Fuse (the faceless Space Channel 5 director) in particular have a lot more character to my English-speaking ears. Based on a quick scan of the credits, it’s not clear to me who was responsible for the translation and recording — Space Channel 5 Special Edition was published by Agetec, but given the timing and presence of English-speakers in UGA, I have to wonder if Sega localized the game but changed their minds and farmed out the publishing risk.

P.S. Speaking of credits, Space Channel 5: Part 2’s credits theme is super charming:

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Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence: Frustrating fun

I played Metal Gear Solid 2 last year, and my feelings on Metal Gear Solid 3 are pretty similar, for better and for worse. I think it’s a superior — or at least more endearing — game in a lot of ways, but it’s also pretty rough from a gameplay perspective. I wouldn’t have enjoyed this game without the Hideo Kojima factor, but man do I really love the Hideo Kojima factor.

I played the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (PS3) edition of the game, which is based on the Subsistence update. I’m not very clear on what this version changed, but I do know it added a proper third-person camera, and I can’t imagine playing the game without it. It’s dramatically more playable (and perhaps too easy as a result) when you can actually see what’s ahead of you without constantly swapping into first-person mode. I didn’t have a huge problem with the overhead camera in the first two Metal Gear Solid games because the Soliton Radar offered you a large degree of situational awareness. Spending half of your time in a game staring at a minimap was its own kind of problem, but it did at least feel fair. Removing the radar while retaining a camera angle that restricts your forward visibility to a few metres just doesn’t make sense.

That’s not to say the camera is perfect. Because of its fixed-camera-angle roots, Subsistence still isn’t a proper third-person shooter in the contemporary sense. Regardless of the camera’s direction, first-person mode still points the camera where Snake is looking. This mismatch between how the game works and how I expect a third-person game to work led to a lot of really awkward situations in which I would attempt to shoot an enemy I was looking directly at only to end up aiming 90 degrees away. While either stick can be used for first-person aiming, the SSA revolver (which at one point is your only weapon) performs a superfluous spinning animation when you move the right stick, which ruined an otherwise-dramatic sequence for me. When you’re crawling through grass, the camera insists on going into first-person mode, and while I get why that’s the case, it was never what I wanted.

The camera compounds some already-awkward combat mechanics to make any moderately demanding sequence way more frustrating than it needs to be. The controls feel overloaded — buttons are mapped to too many actions, and some of the maneuvers (like sidling and leaning) are super awkward and unintuitive to pull off under duress. I largely enjoyed sneaking around and taking out guards on my terms, but any sequence in which I was forced to fight enemies in direct combat would inevitably devolve into a fumbling, frustrating clusterfuck. I’d be trying to maneuver the ponderous first-person camera toward enemies I had been looking directly at, holding down the shoot button while trying to get Snake pointed at enemies, accidentally entering crawl mode, and generally not having a whole lot of fun. The boss battles (particularly the Boss battle) are more ambitious than they were fun. The camouflage, food, and medicine mechanics are tedious distractions. I like to think that I’m pretty good at calibrating my expectations for older games, but in the case of Metal Gear Solid 3, I’m not convinced the mechanics were substantially more acceptable in 2004. This game is a contemporary of Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War — there’s no excuse for how lame the action sequences are. I didn’t hate playing Metal Gear Solid 3, but I certainly didn’t enjoy the gameplay in and of itself.

Gameplay complaints aside, I think Metal Gear Solid 3 has a lot going for it. The production values are superb, and assuming the HD remake didn’t fundamentally overhaul very much, it holds up remarkably well today. The art direction, and even the technical implementation, can more-or-less stand up to games released a decade later, and in a lot of ways still exceeds them. The smooth framerate, which as I understand it is a massive step up from the often-chuggy PS2 original, helps a lot in that respect. As with the previous games, the sound design is amazing — this series has some of the best noises in the game, and the mix comes together in a really cohesive way. The score is great and appropriately evocative of the setting, though in a more cinematic way that doesn’t hold up as much for independent listening. There’s some great adaptive sneaking music, which sort of comes across here but isn’t very well-represented in the official soundtrack. There’s also some memorable boss themes (The Fury, Volgin, Shagohod), and, of course, the Snake Eater theme, which is in varying forms used to great effect at several points in the game:

In general, I think Snake Eater has a certain artistic flair to it that was lacking in Sons of Liberty, and its (relative) grounding in geography and history makes it a lot more memorable.

I was trying to explain to someone why I enjoy the narrative so much, and I realized it’s hard to justify in words. The story is kind of a mess, and only really makes sense if you suspend all disbelief and just let it wash over you on its own terms. If you want Metal Gear Solid to be serious, logical, or even reasonably coherent, you’re going to be disappointed, because that’s not what it is (nor, speaking as someone who played the original Metal Gear Solid pretty recently, has it ever been). If you go in expecting it to be ridiculous, cheeky, self-referential, and utterly uninhibited, you’ll find one of the most downright fun video game stories out there.

Why is everything Ocelot does (and every gesture he makes) utterly baffling until the revelation that he was secretly triple-crossing everyone on behalf of the CIA? Metal Gear! Why is building a giant walking tank in 1964 the only way to get an ICBM from Russia to the United States? Metal Gear! Why does Eva leave her jumpsuit unzipped to her pelvis at all times? Metal Gear! Who the hell are the Cobras, why do they have supernatural powers, and why does nobody seem to acknowledge this? Metal Gear! Why is the entire final sequence predicated on the idea that the idea that Ocelot’s added weight is enough to prevent a ground effect vehicle from flying? Metal Gear!

I don’t mean any of this in a condescending or ironic “it’s so bad it’s good!” way. I was on board with every ridiculous action scene, every overwritten line, every obvious pop culture reference, every ogling camera angle, every melodramatic monologue, every “what the fuck?” moment, and every Hideo Kojima indulgence. There’s an earnestness to practically every aspect of the Metal Gear Solid games that I find uniquely endearing.

Despite all of my problems with Metal Gear Solid 3, I gladly blew through it over the course of a few days in a very uncharacteristic way, and can’t wait to dive into Metal Gear Solid 4.

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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: Idiosyncratic, flawed, yet endearing

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one of those games that seems to succeed despite itself. The game has pretty glaring camera and technical issues; and there’s not a whole lot to the gameplay. Despite its issues, I enjoyed it a fair bit.

Enslaved, gameplay-wise, is pretty standard melee-based action-adventure fare. The combat system is fairly lightweight, but in a way I appreciated because it rewarded situational awareness over reflexes and combo memorization. When it’s working (and I’ll return to that disclaimer soon), it’s all about managing and reacting to enemy positions and states. You’ve got a weak fast attack, a powerful slow attack, a sweep that spreads and momentarily stuns enemies, and a vital shield-breaking attack that you’re often trying to get yourself into a position to use without being interrupted. You’ve also got shield-breaking and damage-dealing ranged attacks, though I never got the hang of reliably lining up shots in the heat of battle and ended up only shooting ranged enemies. You’ve also got an evade roll and a counter attack, both of which are pretty much optional and serve as personal style choices more than anything.

It’s not a deep system, but it’s one that I ended up appreciating far more than I expected to. There’s a deliberate-feeling economy to Enslaved’s mechanics: each of the moves has a very clear purpose, and each of the half-dozen or so enemy types is immediately recognizable. Enemies telegraph their attacks, and they move slow enough that positioning actually feels important. It’s not a demanding game in any sense, but I found it quite satisfying.

Now for the disclaimer: the camera is a mess. All of the nice stuff I wrote only applies when you know what the hell is going on around you, and that’s far too often not the case. Even at the best of times, the camera is far too close, and as a result you often don't know what's happening behind you. When the game decides to mess with the camera for visual effect, it has an annoying tendency to end up pointing in a comically useless direction, and fighting it only seems to make it worse. The all-important shield-breaking attack pulls the camera in even further, making it even more difficult to know what’s coming as you’re stuck in a vulnerable charging animation. A lot of the combat revolves around getting enemies separated and taking them out before the pack catches up to you, but this usually leaves you with the rest of the pack behind the camera, and often midway through an attack animation. I ended up spending a lot of time blocking against enemies that were completely out of view while I waited for the camera to pan around. This isn’t a small issue — if it wasn’t for the game’s pretty forgiving difficulty level, the camera might have been a deal-breaker for me.

Not pictured are the two enemies lining up their attacks under the cover of a camera flourish.

Enslaved is also pretty weak from a technical standpoint, at least on the PS3. It’s got some pretty wild Unreal Engine texture-pop in, and although I understand where it comes from, I can’t help but wonder why Unreal games don’t just take an extra second to load instead of making you watch the sausage get made. The framerate can be horrendous at times — including some pretty demanding combat and action sequences — and its instability inevitably leads to noticeable screen tearing. On a couple of occasions, I had to reset the game because a bunch of sound effects weren’t playing. There’s an already-lame sequence in which you’re shooting a turret on the back of a moving vehicle and the camera is vibrating as if it’s being dragged behind the action on a dirt road. The pre-rendered cutscenes (which use the same assets) end up being pretty jarring because they actually run smoothly. I think I tend to be pretty tolerant of technical problems in games, but in this case I felt the need to mention them because they so substantially impact the quality of the experience.

Given how much is wrong with Enslaved, the fact that I still enjoyed it should speak volumes about how much I enjoyed its narrative and presentation. In a lot of ways, Enslaved reminded me of Beyond Good & Evil — both are idiosyncratic in ways that resist comparison, and both build endearing characters that succeed despite some questionable narrative context. (Also, I’d be remiss not to mention Pey’j and Pigsy in the same sentence.) Lindsey Shaw and in particular Andy Serkis put in great performances, and they’re rendered to great effect in-game. The facial animation tech is more than eye candy — it gives the performances a naturalness and subtlety voice acting alone wouldn’t achieve. The titular enslavement — which has player character Monkey in a death pact with co-star Trip — is an interesting concept, and it’s explored fairly well by video game standards. Both characters’ backstories and motivations are left fairly vague, and while the trajectory of their relationship is fairly predictable, it’s portrayed pretty effectively and believably. There’s a point in the story at which a character seems to bounce back from a fairly horrible trauma too quickly, but that’s a tough thing to handle well in the context of a short action game. Like The Last of Us, this isn’t a story about a journey — it’s a story about what a journey reveals about two characters. In this sense, the third character Pigsy feels extraneous — he grew on me, but he’s not the subject of the story and didn’t add much to it.

While I would have preferred it look a bit worse and run better, Enslaved is at least a very pretty game. There are some really great-looking and expansive environments, and Ninja Theory’s post-apocalypse is much more colourful, inventive, and varied than I expected it to be. The initial trip through New York, the mountain village, and the final set piece particularly stand out. While the environments don’t look as good as something like Uncharted 2 from a technical perspective, I think the overall effect is a lot more interesting aesthetically. Unfortunately, while Monkey’s animations look great, Trip and Pigsy can move in some disappointingly video gamey ways outside of the motion-captured cutscenes.

Enslaved — despite its aforementioned issues, as well as a twist ending that has little relation to the the rest of the game’s events — was an enjoyable experience. It’s a well-written, well-acted, and well-presented story, and the gameplay that ties it together is enjoyable and well-paced enough to justify itself. I’ve been bouncing through a series of video game disappointments as of late, and Enslaved was a breath of fresh air.

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