First Impressions: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

Uh oh. It’s hybrid-spinoff time in the Metal Gear universe. Add one cup Ninja Gaiden, one cup Metal Gear, stir, add loads of Raiden, and you’re left with Metal Gear Rising. And believe it or not, it tastes pretty damn good. Even if there are some empty calories.

Here’s the deal with Rising. If you come in hoping for Ninja Gaiden’s rewarding difficulty and fluid, meticulous combat, you’ll be disappointed. That’s not say the gameplay isn’t fun–I’m having a blast, thanks–but it’s much more button-mashy than what I’ve come to expect from action games. Combat mostly consists of weak and strong sword attacks (the button-mashy parts), but you also have “Blade Mode” which enables you to slow time and slice maniacally at an enemy once you’ve saved up enough “Electrolytes” from battle (bring some Gatorade, kids). Slice up a weakened enemy and you’ll garner his energy core, which will restore your health and set you up for another run through Blade Mode. Blade Mode felt a bit clumsy at first, but soon the gameplay quirk of slicing up enemies and chaining combos uplifted the combat experience above mere hack-n-slash.

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Ripping out enemy cores restores your health and lets you chain Blade Mode combos.

If you’re surrendering gameplay depth, at least you get a solid story in return. Rising’s storyline is intriguing from the moment you press Start and the pacing is downright relentless. Although the cast of villains isn’t as memorable or developed as previous terrorist gangs from the series, Rising carries the authentic feel of a Metal Gear game. Despite being of an entirely different genre, it stays true to the franchise. Codec calls, stealth kills, and cardboard boxes all exist on the intricate level we came to expect in MGS1-3. I’d even go as far as saying that Rising is more of a Metal Gear game than MGS4. Seriously.

As of now I’m roughly seven hours into MGR and loving Hard mode (if you happen to pick this one up, play it on Hard–the game is forgiving with it’s checkpoints). Though I can’t quite recommend it to the Ninja Gaiden crowd, if you’re a Metal Gear buff or a casual action game fan, go out and grab this one.

Top 5 Tuesday: Castlevania games not named “Symphony of the Night”

I’m in a whip-cracking mood today with Halloween on the horizon, so let’s run through my favorite horror-themed franchise: Castlevania. For those of you who’ve never played a Castlevania game (It never ceases to amaze me how many people have overlooked this classic series), know that the games range in play-style from linear action-platforming to Metroid-esque exploration to Ninja Gaiden-style 3D action. Though I prefer the “Metroid-vanias,” I’ll take Castlevania in any form I can get it.

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Symphony of the Night is an masterpiece, and not just because it let you slash at a giant sphere of dead bodies.

To spice up the list, I’m withholding the excellent Symphony of the Night, which is the pinnacle of the series in most fans’ eyes (mine included). If your haven’t played a Vania, start with that one. If you have, look into these five games while the night is still young.

5. Castlevania (NES)

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I pity the fool who doesn’t bring Holy Water to the Grim Reaper fight.

I didn’t play the original Castlevania until it’s Game Boy Advance re-release in 2004, so its #5 ranking has nothing to do with nostalgia. It’s simply a fun, challenging game that has aged better than most games from the late-80s. With just six levels, the original is super-short in terms of actual game length, but its brutal difficulty (and admittedly archaic jumping controls) makes it feel four-times its size.

How hard is it? Well, if you want to have any chance at defeating the later bosses in this game, show up to the fights with a full health bar. Having the right sub-weapon helps, too–just be prepared to lose your ax or holy water whenever you die… which is quite often.

4. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)

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So what if his sword is thrice the size of you? You’ve got a halberd, man.

Dawn of Sorrow is the sequel to the final GBA Castlevania, Aria of Sorrow. Though I loved Aria’s gameplay concept (kill enemies to acquire “souls” that bestow abilities), all the soul-farming lead to unintentional level-grinding and thus a soft challenge. Dawn of Sorrow fixed the problem with a stiff difficulty that complemented the soul system, all while continuing the futuristic Vania tale of its predecessor.

3. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA)

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A giant succubus riding atop a worm-headed skull: the ultimate male fantasy. Sort of.

Circle of the Moon was the first portable Metroid-vania, and thanks to an intense difficulty level, it nearly lived up to it’s PS1 predecessor. The game boasted a card-based power-up system for your whip, but what ultimately defined the game was how it managed to feel like a classic Vania in a Metroid setting. While Symphony introduced swords and button-combo attacks, CotM reached toward its roots and put the whip back in the protagonist’s hands. It also jacked up the challenge with tougher enemies and devastating bosses.

2. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS)

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Lighthouse crab Brachyura is my favorite boss in the series. After he chases you to the top, the only option left is to drop a spiked elevator on him. Epic.

In 2006 Konami changed the Metroid-vania formula by taking us outside the castle in the DS installment Portrait of Ruin (which barely missed cracking this list). Two years later, Order of Ecclesia followed suit by sending us to secluded lighthouses, mist-blanketed forests, and mountain passes.

And that was only the first half of the game.

Dracula’s castle returns in the second half, making the game’s world a blend of new-age locations and the classic labyrinthine castle. Throw in a mysterious new heroine and a modified version of Aria and Dawn’s soul-collection system, and you have the best portable Vania in the palms of your hands.

1. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (PS3)

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Lords of Shadow is home to one of the most brutally gothic intros you’ll ever witness.

Many fans and critics dragged Lords of Shadow through the catacombs, claiming that it lacked a true Castlevania feel. While LoS certainly draws heavy gameplay influences from God of War, Ninja Gaiden, and Shadow of the Colossus, the total package is cloaked in a decidedly Vania atmosphere. Occult powers, vampires, and whippings are abound, and the storytelling has the looming, historical tone that the series has always thrived off.

Bells and whistles aside, Lords of Shadow took #1 thanks to its ridiculously fun and challenging combat. Put the game on Hard Mode, then take the time to experiment with all the whip combos (which include turning your whip into a buzzsaw), sub-weapons, and dodge techniques. You won’t be disappointed. Then brace yourself for Indiana Jones-style whip swinging, snappy quicktime events, and bosses that’ll have you trash talking your TV screen.

And hurry up. The sequel is just a few months away.

Metal Gear Solid 5: Tokyo Game Show takeaways

Just yesterday, I tore apart Metal Gear Solid 4 in my Most Disappointing Games write-up. If there’s one silver lining to disappointment, it’s that the next in line arrives seeming all the more impressive. After watching a 14-minute gameplay video, I can safely announce that “the next in line” (MGS5) has blown through the next-gen gates. Yeah, it’s early, but based on this Tokyo Game Show footage, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain looks to be returning to the series’ stealthy roots (MGS4 was too much of a shooter for me).

I’m not going to bother summarizing the video while it’s posted above, but I will note my takeaways from what I watched:

1) The video doesn’t convey the “open world” that Hideo Kojima has been hyping. While Snake does hijack a Humvee, the mission’s contained area kept it from feeling like Grand Theft Auto. Instead, this particular scenario reminded me of infiltrating Groznyj Grad in MGS3 more than anything. Now, I realize this is just a brief demo, but if we get a handful of “contained area missions” mixed into the large-scale world, I’ll dance in the streets naked. Seriously. I loved what I saw from this demo that much.

2) Snake can now carry and toss incapacitated enemies. A much needed upgrade over dragging bodies into lockers or tall grass. Loved the part when Snake chucked his kidnapee into a guard for a KO.

3) When did Snake bump into Bruce Wayne? His new gadgets enable an Arkham-style detective mode and maps complete with real-time visuals.

4) The visuals are every bit as slick as Snake’s rain-drenched suit. The trampled mud in the intro movie is disgustingly realistic.  With that said, I’m not seeing a major graphical jump from MGS4 to 5.

5) The Matrix-style slow-mo that occurs when Snake gets discovered turns me off. Will it make for some adrenaline-spurting excitement? Sure. But at the same time it loosens the emphasis on stealth. Sneaking around is only intense if you pay a major price for being spotted.

6) Loved the nuances like taking out search light operators and using the lights to spot the mission’s pivotal meeting. Also enjoyed the brief railing shooting segment from aboard the helicopter.

From here on, my major concern is how open-worlded gameplay and Metal Gear will mesh. It still sounds unfeasible to have mass-scale exploration without compromising on the series’ trademark stealth, but I’ll keep my glass half-full until the time comes.