Friday, June 26, 2009

REVIEW - God Hand

"Don't act like you don't like the Ballbuster."

A doozy as far as first impressions go, the above image of hero Gene kicking a punk in the nuts, accompanied by the ring of a tiny bell, provides a lot of information about God Hand's nature. There's a story, but it doesn't matter. What's important is that you will hurt people, and chances are good it will be hilarious. Beyond that, when you finally get into the actual game, God Hand makes one of - if not the - worst first impressions of any title I've ever played. Really, it starts off by kicking you in the nuts. Over and over.

It's ridiculously hard, and the controls are so tight everything feels off. You can't get into the game's hyper-rhythm. The tank-like movement seems at once constrictive and too precise. The evasions on the right analog stick offer too small a window of escape to be of any use. So, when the first level kicks the Hell out of you, you may believe the whole game is broken. You may, quite reasonably, see no need to continue playing. After all, who okayed this thing for release?

The soundtrack isn't so much exciting as it is goofy, with self-aware, rockabilly surf-kitsch. The enviroments may be incredibly varied, but they're also laughably sub-par, with no attention paid to the details. You're not so much fighting through a dusty desert town as you are a sound stage - a theater prop made to look reasonable for no more than five seconds of close scrutiny. Stand next to a wall and pan the camera, and your view will clip inside the structure. Switch from Gene's standard walk to a run and the animation is identical, just comically sped up three times. And enemies? Don't get me started...

There's a decent variety, sure, but more often than not you'll find yourself fighting the same enemy in three different colors. You'll meet a circus-reject whip-wielding dominatrix in pink, a slightly meaner version in green and a punishing variation dressed in black. It's like playing Double Dragon on your NES back in the day, where a red shaded enemy would suddenly appear and... and it all begins to make sense.

Silly, strangely catchy music, sparse stages with massive shifts in tone and palette, melodramatic yet minimal story presentation, ridiculous boss designs, enemies that drop melee weapons so you can wail on them until the bat shatters - it's not like an old school brawler, it is an old school brawler. This is Streets of Rage reborn. It's Bad Dudes in three dimensions.

And it seems so seriously flawed. But if it really is spoofing and celebrating the classic brawlers of old, does that make all the otherwise unacceptable crap intentional - purposeful - and thereby acceptable? After all, the game's director is Shinji Mikami. This is the guy who helmed the original Resident Evil, Devil May Cry and the legendary Resident Evil 4 - he doesn't do crappy games. I have to think all the stuff we would discount as lazy is, in fact, precisely what he wanted to deliver.

The problem is, almost no one gets the joke. If you're over twenty-five, there's a chance you may catch it, but if you're too young to have owned a NES or Sega Genesis, it's likely you'll only be able to appreciate the game for its humor, infinitely customizable fighting style, and the challenge. And really, the challenge - the gameplay - is what elevates God Hand from a quirky piece of gaming satire to cult classic: a title ignored by the population at large and worshiped by capital-G Gamers in the seedy depths of the internet.

God Hand asks the very best of you, and in return it will never be anything less than fair. The evasion windows are so precise because it wants you to be that precise. It requires more of you than almost any other modern action game would dare to ask. You need to understand the attack patterns of each pink, green and black-clad dominatrix, each mohawked enemy punk, every skinhead, every boss, or you will not survive. In short, it expects you to be old-school.

At first, the game seems impossible. The first level seems impossible, each subsequent level is impossible, and every boss fight is a brick wall of skill you can't imagine overcoming. But God Hand isn't artificially challenging because it's difficult to play (Lair), or because the game plays by a loose set of rules. Each death is the result of a wrong choice on your part - not of a broken game. So, when it calls you on every mistake you make - and kills you for it - you're never frustrated with God Hand. You're frustrated with yourself. You're better than this! And so you try again, and again, and again, and with each attempt you find yourself advancing a little further. You get a little better. You learn, and before long you find you've overcome the unimaginable - and the reward is pure satisfaction.

You stuck with it, and you are good at God Hand. With practice, you find yourself gaming wholly in the moment, frantically giving that black-clad dominatrix the (literal) spanking of a lifetime, bashing punks into the atmosphere with an ethereal bat, and fine-tuning your ideal combo to include moves with names like Pimp Hand. The game's seemingly impassable challenge reveals itself to be the byproduct of the most satisfying brawler... is it okay to say 'ever'? I suppose it is okay for me, individually, to say, if I first consider all the brawler/beat 'em up/action games I've played between now and 1987. So yeah - ever.

And once you're good at God Hand, you'll find your play sessions are skirting ever-closer to gaming nirvana. The stages are so minimal because you're never looking at the bloody walls - you're looking at the rank-and-file, highly detailed peon standing before you, making sure you mop the floor with him before he does it to you. The giddy, overconfident, funny music becomes the perfect accompaniment to your lighthearted quest: to put fist and foot to everyone. And when it all clicks, when you fall into that elusive, thoughtless, zen gamer state where you are playing the hell out of God Hand, God Hand will notice your skill level, and get harder.

It looks ugly, it sounds cheap, and it plays like a childhood dream. So the question is, what do you want in a game?

-ultra-challenging gameplay
-silly in the best ways
-deep and satisfying
-harkens back to the golden age of brawlers
-you can kick enemies in the crotch

-uniquely intimidating
-graphically unpolished

If you're up for the challenge, it is one of - if not the - best brawlers ever made.

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