Thursday, May 27, 2010

Remembering God Hand

God Hand is the last game made by Clover Studios, the creators of Viewtiful Joe and Okami. It is an action game in the classical sense, a brawler that hearkens back to when you would feed quarters into arcade machines because there was no other way to continue. Its design aesthetic is stuck in the 90s, the environments are very plain, there are less than ten different enemy types during the entire multi-chaptered adventure, the soundtrack is something out of an old side-scrolling brawler, and the game will punish you with its difficulty. If you give it half a chance, it will brutalize you. It is ugly, juvenile, rude, and so hard as to alienate most of the people who would ever think to pick it up. If you do not understand its system, it will not teach you. If you do not learn, you will not progress. If you aren't skilled, you won't have any fun.

If that turns you off, I think it's fair to say that this game is not for you. You don't need to read the rest of this review; God Hand is not the kind of game you will enjoy.

Everyone who's left? Let's talk about why God Hand was made for people like you and me. -Introduction to the God Hand review at VGChartz

I was one of those people who, after reading something like that, was still standing there.

Now, there are a lot of times when I try to find a subtext or some other artistic/narrative element to wax eloquently about, or I attempt to talk about how the thing I am discussing is a wonderful satire or uplifts the human spirit. This is not one of those Remembering posts. This is going to be one of those posts where I am talking about the item in question like I am 13. In fact, I am going to be talking about one of the best beat em ups I've ever played.

Because sometimes, you just have to beat up a lot of people and you don't really need to think about the understated charm of a character's growth through a narrative.... you just have to keep hitting people.

You see, God Hand is a game that is very much a throwback to the classic beat em ups of the 1980s and 1990's. My, those were the days.

Even though the designers have moved the action from 2D to 3D, the game still maintains the same general feeling as its predecessors in the genre, and that is a wonderful thing.

The plot isn't particularly complicated. Gene, the protagonist, is given the arm of a god after having his right arm sliced off by hoodlums/demons while saving a girl named Olivia, who was just about to have her own arm forcibly removed by those same miscreants. With that arm, Gene becomes a superpowered badass who at first reluctantly fights the evil that is around him, but whose sense of justice spurs him towards greater and greater acts of heroism.

But really, what I just said isn't very important. Well, the copious application of foot to ass is, but the story isn't grand or inspiring. It is just the thing that holds all the fighting together. And that's all it needs to be.

I have to admit that I didn't like Gene at first. He was sort of a jerk, but I warmed up to him as the game went on. Sometimes he even says exactly what you are thinking. He isn't the best character, the most well drawn, but he gets the job done.

Of course, as I said, the heart of this game is the fighting, and that is where it truly shines.

I respect a game that tells you it is going to kick your ass in its trailer, and then proceeds to kick your ass. It certainly kicked my ass the first time I played it, and continued to do so across eight multi-stage levels.

But it is also fair as advertised.

I remember that in the classic beat em ups, there always seemed to be cheap hits and generally some very frustrating moves on the part of your enemies that you could never avoid. Naturally this was because most of these games were coin-operated affairs, so it was in the company's best interest that your character to die more often.

But in God Hand, it is entirely possible, though very difficult, to get through the entire game without getting hit once. That's why it is fair. It is a game that you must dodge in if you are going to survive, and it really is a game that is predicated on skill rather than just hitting the buttons until everyone is knocked out. If you are good, if you understand how the game works, you can win, and it is designed in such a way that you are expected to get better at playing it as the stages progress.

Put it this way, I finished it last night, and then started playing the first level again, and I was shocked by how much I had improved over the course of the game. I was using the default moveset, and I managed to defeat every enemy in the first few levels without getting hit. Let me tell you, I felt good.

The game also has this seemingly weird level system where the enemies get better the better you fight. If you beat down a lot of enemies without getting hit, well, then they level up until you start getting pummelled. The higher level enemies net you more money at the end of stages, so there is an incentive to try to keep them at that level (aside from not losing health by getting beaten).

I mentioned another aspect to this game in passing above that is also very important, and that is your moveset. You see, while you start the game with a basic set of moves, as you progress through the game, you can buy or find additional moves to customize Gene's fighting style. And I do mean customize. I don't mean you pick a style and fight within it. I mean, you actually pick the individual moves in your combos. In the end, there are over 100 moves to mix and match, so there is a lot of variety, and it supports a lot of different play styles. This also includes special attacks as well... and they really live up to that moniker. One of my favorites was one where you basically conjure a bat made out of pure energy and basically knock whatever enemies that are within swinging range "out of the park"... literally sending enemies flying so fast and so far away from you they twinkle like a star as they pass out of view, like a home run shot in a baseball game.

That being said, you know those moments when you are watching a movie or playing a game when you know, you are in it until the finish. My moment in this game was starting a level and discovering that I would be fighting a Demon Gorilla in a Luchador Mask. I can't make that up. Even if I didn't love the game by that point, I had to finish it just to see what other strange things might pop up.

What you are probably gathering from my description and the photos/video I posted is that this game is weird and funny. If you didn't know it going into it, the very first image you see when the game is loading sort of indicates it.

I posted one of the Japanese ads for the game on my blog last August which also points to it being a funny experience.

If I was going to compare the game to a few things so you have a frame of reference outside of gaming, I would have to say that it is like the Hot Fuzz of beat em ups. It knows the pedigree, it understands the terrority, and then in parodying the genre, it becomes as good if not better than the source material. And the actual fighting sort of reminds me of the movie Kung Fu Hustle too, because it is just so over the top, but badass at the same time.

In short, God Hand is Awesome.

If you are a certain kind of person, it wins you over. Personally, I don't mind hard games if the difficulty is based on skill rather than cheap tactics. And yes, I have to emphasize that again. It is hard, but in the end, rewarding.

The game even spawned a meme based on how people generally get into it, and that doesn't happen every day.

What I've loved over the past couple of years is reading reviews like this one all over the net for the quality of hyperbole, and my favorite is the review of the game in a Kotaku article about the joys of loving stupid games. And it is a stupid game, one filled with misogyny and sophomoric humor, and it is still great despite/because of that.

And keeping with the grand tradition of having at least one really weird line that become almost quotable in and of itself, I am reminded of joke I knew back when I was 13, and a paraphrased version of it seems appropriate, for it sets the tone for the whole conversation. What does God Hand and a Penis have in common? The more you play with them, the harder they get. Bazing!

I even got into the habit while playing it of watching other people playing it too, merely to hear the conversation about it.

But alas it didn't sell well at all, and because of that, designer Shinji Mikami has lamented that he had too much freedom when designing it. It doesn't matter that he really had a blast making it, and that scores of players enjoyed it immensely. That should be enough, but it's not. It just seems like it was released at the wrong time.

In the film industry, having that kind of creative control is usually a good thing. Yes, you occasionally have a flop, but as an artist, you generally have a much more fulfilling experience (and even if it flops, it sometimes becomes a cult hit that makes your name even more prominent). And it is indeed picking up a cult following, which I am happy about.

So God Hand is not a game for everyone, I am willing to admit, but for people who love beat em ups, it is a gem. But it is one of those games that you either end up loving or absolutely hating.

It won't change your world view, it won't fundamentally shift your taste, but if you get what it does and love it because of it, the game will give you a lot of entertainment for the money.


Arjan said...

A long piece to read, but a really good review :)

The 'douche bags' was gold.

MC said...

Just imagine if I still had the stamina to do my own podcasts.