Vanquish – Critical Miss #17

Voom, Voom, Shoot, Shoot

I missed out on the scourge of cover based shooters in the 2010’s. My only real experience with the genre was a little bit of Gears of War with an ex in college, which I found pretty dull, and half of the first Uncharted game that came free with my PS4, which was fine but the combat seemed to rely too much on memorizing enemy spawns. To be honest, none of the games ever looked that interesting to me. That was until I saw Vanquish. Released in 2010, the game was directed by Shinji Mikami and developed by Platinum Games, a combination that seems made to appeal to myself specifically. The thing that truly caught my eye when I first saw it was the gameplay: the speed, movement, and hyperactive nature no cover based shooter has shown before or since.

The reason for this fast paced gameplay is because the main character, Sam, is equipped with a DARPA design power suit that lets him slide around with rocket jets. This allows the player to skid across the combat arena at obscene speeds to change cover and maneuver around enemies. The suit also allows Sam to activate a bullet time mechanic. This happens either by aiming down a gun’s sights while dodging or when critically low on health, which is useful because, like most things in the game, damage racks up fast and death comes quickly if not played carefully. 

The rocket boots and slo mo mechanic leads to one of the two things that Vanquish is built around: speed and movement. Speed is an obvious key aspect to a game with rocket boots as a main mechanic. However, the importance of speed is also emphasized in Vanquish because most enemies stay at the same speed. Very few enemies move particularly quick, prefer to sit behind cover and hardly ever rush you down, and because of this Sam’s speed gives him a direct advantage. The high speed of the rocket slide gives him the ability to change positions faster than the enemies can react and the low speed of the bullet time let’s him hold enemies in place to load bullets in them.

Movement is the other major aspect that the game excels in, but it’s not just Sam’s own movement abilities where this is shown. The best levels in the game are where parts of the level themselves are moving. There’s a level where the enemies are on conveyor belts slowing going down the middle of the room; another where Sam and the marines travelling by a freight transporter on rails and the enemies are attacking from another transport as the rails move them up above and to either side of the player. This allows the enemies to reposition without having to leave cover, making them harder to hit and much more interesting to fight.

I haven’t talked much about the story of Vanquish yet and that’s because there really isn’t much to say. The game starts with Russia invading a US space station and using a giant microwave beam to wreak havoc on San Francisco. Sam is sent into the station along with some marines launching an attack to stop them. Both Sam and the leader of the marines, Burns, have Shinji Mikami’s trademark over the top machismo to them, but it’s played too straight to be as deliciously ridiculous as Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil 4. Overall, I was left underwhelmed by the story. I was expecting absurd set pieces and tongue in cheek irony from Mikami and Platinum Games, but only found a bare bones story with little to keep me engaged.

This is why I started to resent the game slightly anytime it slowed to crawl to dumb exposition. The cut scenes were fun enough to watch, but it seemed like every new mission started with Sam walking through an empty room at a glacial pace while talking to his mission control Metal Gear Solid style. I was having fun with the gameplay and these moments makes the game feel extremely stilted. 

The stilted feeling bleeds into gameplay too because the game starts to feel repetitive by the end. With a lack of enemy designs and repeating bosses, the combat moments blur together, giving a feeling of déjà vu as you wonder ‘Haven’t I done this before?’ What would have helped was using more of a variety of weapons, but I didn’t see a use for the more unique weapons like the disc launcher, LFE gun, or laser cannon. This might be because I never bothered to use them enough to upgrade them, but I was having fun enough with just an assault rifle, boosted machine gun, and sniper rifle, occasionally a rocket launcher for a tough enemy. 

This isn’t to say Vanquish is not fun because it definitely is. Boosting around the battlefield with rocket boots, shooting up enemies and slowing time for better shots is a blast. A lackluster story and some pacing issues are not enough to take away from the solid core gameplay loop in the center of the game. The game is short, but it is the perfect length for a game of its type, spending just enough time to explore its unique mechanics and ending before the repetition got too tedious. Vanquish gets a recommendation from me, especially if you can find a cheap copy, which should be hard due to the game not selling well at release and falling into cult favorite stardom. Which is pretty perfect for a game as unique and fun, but also flawed as Vanquish.

Devil May Cry & Devil May Cry 3 – Critical Miss #16

Dude Bro Bayonetta 3

When Devil May Cry launched early in the Playstation 2’s life in 2001, it spear-headed a new genre of game often referred to as character action or spectacle fighter games. This genre would be popular throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s with the God of War series, the reboot of Ninja Gaiden, and Bayonetta. Actually, both the original Devil May Cry and Bayonetta were directed by Hideki Kamiya, now with Platinum Games. Devil May Cry gained major critical acclaim when released, with journalists and fans alike praising it’s combat, sense of style and atmosphere, and the character of Dante. I skipped Devil May Cry 2 because is is widely considered by fans to be the worst game in the series. Luckily, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening improves not only on 2, but the original Devil May Cry, and is my preferred game of the two.

A spectacle fighter lives or dies on it’s combat and the fighting mechanics in the Devil May Cry is really solid. Balancing melee and ranged attacks in a battle is fluid and invigorating. The stylish system, a combo rating  from D to S rank in the original and D to SSS rank in 3, rewards players with more red orbs to buy upgrades and items the better they play. But the combat in the original Devil May Cry gets repetitive quickly. One button is used for melee attacks and one for ranged, with combos changing depending on where you pause in a series of button presses. While it’s fun to cut through a group of enemies and keep the stylish gauge high by pelting baddies with bullets between combos, the simple controls of the original ends up relying too much on button mashing.

Devil May Cry 3 introduces different styles of combat that players can choose and swap at golden statues. There are styles like Swordmaster, which offers more moves to perform with melee weapons, Doppelganger, which lets players summon a mirror double of Dante, and my personal favorite, Trickster, which gives you a dash ability. The simple addition of the different styles makes combat feel so much more open for experimentation and personal. Players can find their own preferred playstyle and cater to it or even switch it up if they get bored. The combo meter is also much easier to read in Dante’s Awakening. All they added was a little line under the style gauge to show when it is filling up or draining, but it makes a world of difference. Now players can see what contributes to getting a good rank (constant damage to enemies, using a variety of attacks, etc.) and work with it to get better ranks.

But better combat isn’t the only reason I prefer Dante’s Awakening to the first Devil May Cry. The truth is I found the first game to be very tedious, with combat, with level design, and with enemies. The moment I realized I had enough of Devil May Cry was the third time I had to fight the armored goo boss. That was my experience with the bosses in the first game. There are about four bosses that you fight two to three times each. Dante’s Awakening has about three times the bosses and, besides Vergil and a short boss rush mission near the end of the game, there are no repeats. Nothing saps my excitement for a game quite like a lack of enemy variety. Neither of the games have the best variety in terms of basic mobs (the enemies you fight on the first level will be in the last level to mow down), but Dante’s Awakening gets the edge over the original by having slightly more variety and not repeating bosses.

Of course, one doesn’t stop playing a game because the bosses aren’t great. I don’t stop playing games for one glaring issue unless I haven’t been fully enjoying the rest of it and there are other reasons I found Devil May Cry tedious. The biggest reason is actually the level design. Throughout the first game, you explore a single castle, backtracking constantly through the same rooms and hallways, only interrupted with platforming sections made extremely frustrating with the fixed camera. The atmosphere on display in the game is rich and imposing, but it lacks variety or new, interesting set pieces to keep the player moving forward to see what’s next and ends up feeling as repetitive as the combat. Traveling through the same rooms is still common in Dante’s Awakening, but it’s improved by having a larger tower to explore, more variety in the rooms in regards to layouts and looks, and by changing the rooms up slightly halfway through the game when parts of the tower are destroyed. 

It’s not surprising that Devil May Cry spawned out of a failed prototype of Resident Evil 4 when you look at the Gothic art direction, fixed camera design, and the characters of Leon Kennedy and Dante. They are very similar, both cocksured and dripping with B-movie bravado, but Dante would only surpass Leon in utter cocky dudebro-ness in Devil May Cry 3. The story of the first game is rather plain, someone is trying to open a get to the demon world, go stop them. And, honestly, the story of the third game is no different, but it gains much more enjoyment by cranking the ridiculousness and self awareness to outrageous degrees. While the first games cut scenes are fairly campy, there aren’t any moments that stick out in my head. Dante’s Awakening is full of memorable story moments like Dante riding a motorcycle up the wall of the tower then using said motorcycle to fight off enemies midair and him saving Lady from falling only to be shot in the head. If Devil May Cry had as ridiculous and enjoyable cutscenes as the third games, I would have kept playing just to see what happens next.

That’s the real difference between the two games. While Dante’s Awakening is filled with interesting ideas and story moments, the original Devil May Cry feels like it only had enough ideas for a game half its length so the developers just doubled everything. Neither games are bad, but the third game is infinitely more fun, interesting, and better aged than its predecessor. If you are interested in the series, or action games in general, I highly suggest giving Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening a try. It’s on the right side of the PS2’s lifespan where games were starting to form designs more familiar with games today. Unfortunately, the original Devil May Cry is on the more archaic side of history.

Astral Chain & the Legions

I got Astral Chain for my birthday from a couple of friends. It was a great gift because it was something I fully intended to get myself, but they came in and saved me $60. Every since playing Bayonetta 2, I’ve loved Platinum Games and the reviews I saw for the game were glowing so I knew it would be quality. When I picked up the game, going in as blind as I could, I found an over the top, outrageous plot, deep and fluid combat mechanics, and a perfect dodge mechanic (which I’m on the record of being a sucker for), all things that Platinum excels at. From the trailers I saw, I was iffy on the monsters all the characters were throwing around, but they become the most interesting and unique thing about the game.

The central mechanic of Astral Chain are the Legions, armored beasts used for combat and puzzle solving. They are attached to the player character by a chain and are invisible to the general public, as are the Chimeras you battle. You’ll start with just one Legion, but since your character is anime special (this is: special in a way that is never explained and is just meant to be accepted) you’ll acquire more Legions as the game goes on. Each of these Legions have special abilities. Some help in combat, like a shield or powerful range attack, and others are utilized for police work, like tracking scents and lifting heavy objects.

A lot of games with different gameplay styles like Astral Chain’s combat and police work would have them separated, with different mechanics for each playstyle, and those systems would only affect each other tangentially. Platinum Games, however, did something very smart by having the Legions work as the main mechanic for both types of gameplay. It makes the gameplay feel connected, each style feel equally important, and the whole game overall feels very consistent, even when switching between combat and puzzle solving.

The thing about Astral Chain that impresses me the most is how fleshed out and fully realized the Legions are in terms of gameplay mechanics. The developers explored every possible use a giant, invisible creature attached by chain would be in combat and investigation work. This creates a fighting system that is deep and encourages experimentation while also having side quests and police cases that feel varied and fresh.

For example, in combat you can go in by yourself and never summon your Legion at all. However, the fights will be brutal and long (not to mention less fun) so you are encouraged to summon your Legions to help fight. When summoned, the Legions can act independently and attack the nearest enemy, or you can command them to focus down a specific foe. You can perform powerful co-op attacks with your legion after performing a 3-hit combo, after performing a perfect dodge, or have your Legion save you from being knocked to the ground after being hit by a nasty attack. The chain comes into play as you can pull yourself to your Legion with a press of a button, enabling you to cover large amounts of ground quickly. You can even wrap the chain around enemies to stun them for a few free attacks or trip the enemies who perform a charge attack. Along with each of the five Legions special abilities, the combat system is vast and very fun.

The combat can feel overwhelming at times, I feel it’s slightly over-designed, but the coolest thing about Astral Chain is that a lot of the same mechanics that are used in combat are also utilized in the exploration and investigation gameplay. Using your chain to pull yourself across gaps is used both on the Ark and in the Astral Plane, many police cases involve you constraining fleeing criminals by wrapping them up with your chain, and the Legions’ special abilities are all used in some way or another. Examples of this would be riding the Beast Legion to traverse areas faster, using the Shield Legion to pass spewing fires or poison gas, or hitting switches by aiming with the Arrow Legion.

Despite all the abilities and mechanics that are used in both combat and the investigation gameplay, there are still mechanics that are only used in the latter. I’ve mentioned before that the Beast Legion can track scents and this becomes a go to ability to track down both criminals and lost civilians alike. The Sword Legion can remove red shifting, a disease that slowly turns humans into Chimera-like monsters, and the Shield Legion can break open barriers to access chests and new areas. The Legions are also invisible to the general public, so moving them to a suspicious person and using them to eavesdrop is a great, organic mechanic that stems from the rules of the Legions and the context of being a police officer.

The best moment of the game, for me, comes in one of the last few chapters. Before heading out for the final raid against the big bad, you can walk the city streets one last time. If you do so, you can take on a quest from a mother to watch her daughter while she is away. To help keep the girl entertained, your friend tells her that the player character is magical and the little girl tells them to prove it. Following your friend’s lead, you summon your Legion near a stack of boxes to blow them apart, take a neon sign and hurl  down a busy street, and use the Arm Legions ability to hover off the ground. This moment is just brilliant. It uses all the small mechanics you’ve learned throughout the game in a completely new way. When I first picked up Astral Chain and started to learn each new Legion ability and mechanic tied to them, I knew I would be fighting giant and impressively design enemies. It’s a Platinum game; that’s what they do. But I would never have expected to be using those same learned skills to convince a child my character was a magical being. 

That is what’s truly special about the game, the central mechanic of the Legions is varied, yet well realized enough that it can still throw new things at you even at the end of the game and have they fit perfectly. Most games either lose steam halfway through after all the mechanics have been introduced or feel disjointed as they continually introduce new gameplay styles all the way up to the end. Astral Chain stays fast ahead of the curve by exploring a strong central mechanic and how it could be used for both of its gameplay styles. It truly is like two beings working as one.