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.

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Top 5 Tuesday: PS3 Exclusives

It’s not time to embalm the PS3, but let’s face it: we’re three days away from PS3 passing the torch to a new generation of console gaming. But no need for tears and tissues: PS3 ain’t going anywhere, and there are still some rockin’ games in its future (Lords of Shadow 2, anyone?). So rather than celebrating the end, I’m celebrating the era and checking the rearview mirror for my five favorite games that were exclusive to PS3.

This is an awkward list because a lot of my favorite PS3 games are multi-platform. Arkham City and Fallou 3 would probably top a non-exclusive list… Just goes to show how picking the right console these days is more about the console itself than exclusive games.

5. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)

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Derailed train? Or largest ladder in the history of gaming? You decide.

You could make an argument about the various game franchises that defined PS1 and PS2, and your answers would boil down to Final Fantasy or Resident Evil for PS1 and either Grand Theft Auto or Metal Gear for Sony’s sequel system. But nothing defined PS3 like the Uncharted series, which initially seemed to come out of nowhere. The first game in the series was fun but raw, then Among Thieves took everything top shelf with a movie-like presentation, immersive action and climbing, and a witty cast of characters.

Uncharted for me has always felt like Resident Evil 4 on three cups of coffee. The third person shooting happens faster, and all the jumping and rolling picks up the pace. It also helps that the storytelling moves at a frantic pace and the game doesn’t get bogged down in weapon assembly/customization like a lot of shooters do these days.

Favorite moment: The snowy train ride, particularly the part where you have to shoot out the logs from beneath a burly, invulnerable soldier. That eureka moment when you realize you can shoot the strap is gold.

4. Tales of Graces f (2012)

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Graces is at its best when you’re slaying beasts. Now if only you could slay half the main cast…

Cliched storylines and cheesy characters are forgivable when you have one of the best JRPG battle systems at your disposal. Graces did the unthinkable and one-upped Symphonia’s masterful combat by incorporating a snappy block-and-dodge system and combo chains for extra strategy. Graces’ combat is so exhilarating that I’m not going to write two exhaustive paragraphs criticizing the obnoxiously obnoxious female cast or the overbeaten theme of friendship.

I swear. Watch. I’m moving on to #3…

3. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011)

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Things get shifty early on in Uncharted 3. Then it explodes off into gunplay and outrageous climbing puzzles.

Take Uncharted 2, improve the bland melee combat, provide another gripping storyline, juice up the multiplayer, and you have Drake’s Deception. Though the level design and plot get utterly ridiculous at times, it’s the most fun game in the series. The postmodern intro with Nate and Sully faking their deaths outside a bar remains one of my favorite intro scenes in recent memory. From there Naughty Dog lumped on 12 more hours of action and enough Nate/Sully banter to keep me grinning for days.

2. Ninja Gaiden Sigma (2007)

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Sure, it looks like Ryu’s kicking ass, but there are about two dozen Game Overs waiting to happen.

I’m cheating a little. Ninja Gaiden appeared twice on the original Xbox, but last I checked Sigma is a PS3 exclusive. Don’t like having a remake of a remake on this list? Fine, scroll back up to the top and ask for a refund.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma earns a high ranking for its poetic combat feel and brutal difficulty. Whereas Devil May Cry feels too clunky and God of War feels too chaotic, Ninja Gaiden nails combat with a blend of offense and defense that requires timing, memorization, and strategy. Oddly enough, I love playing defense in Ninja Gaiden almost as much as slicing and dicing. Hold down L1 and move the control stick to roll away from danger and set up anything from a flying decapitation to a wall jump combo. Relentless fun.

1. Valkyria Chronicles (2008)

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Though you can slip around a tank in most Strategy RPGs, VC will make you pay in it’s real-time segments.

I can’t name a more original JRPG from the past generation. Valkyria Chronicles somehow combines real-time strategy with turn-based strategy and manages to execute compelling, challenging gameplay with only four different character classes. The fusion of simplicity and complexity proves mindblowing, and the storyline contains one of the most genuinely gutwrenching moments of any RPG I’ve played. Oh, and the characters are likable–from the main cast all the way down to the army recruits who are loaded with as much personality as ammo.

If you own a PS3 and haven’t touched this one yet, do so. It’s like $15 on Amazon.

Upcoming Ninja Gaiden spinoff looks slick, sounds ultra-cheesy

If you haven’t had your fill of ninjas, cyborgs, or zombies, then Keiji Inafune’s upcoming action title Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z should be written on your wishlist in blood. Gameplay videos depict over-the-top Ninja Gaiden action set in a comic-book world. Team Ninja is even involved with the project and Ryu Hayabusa of Ninja Gaiden fame will be the game’s primary villain.

The catch? You’ll have to stomach some dreadfully immature humor along the way. Watch the trailer on mute if you want to be impressed.

From what I’ve seen the gameplay looks like Ninja Gaiden on uppers: anti-hero Yaiba slashes hoards of zombies in half with one whirlwind slice, then streaks ahead to slice off legs and impale survivors from the scalp on down. Blood splatters, gushes, and erupts everywhere as Yaiba grabs, slashes, and dismembers everything in his path.

It remains to be seen just how challenging the game will be, and I feel the difficulty level will make or break this one. Yaiba looks like an unstoppable force in the videos, and his zombie foes hobble-wobble around like you’d expect. Whether Yaiba: NGZ proves worthy of bearing the Ninja Gaiden name depends entirely on how these enemies can adapt to Yaiba’s carnage. Since Team Ninja and Mega Man’s producer are involved with this one, there’s hope that this doesn’t turn into a button-masher or mindless hack-n-slash.

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.