Published on March 20th, 2013 | by Christian0
MGS Rising Revengeance – The Joy of Zandatsu
I‘ve been playing a ton of games lately, games I hope to be writing a bit about over the next couple of weeks, but the one that has got me most excited right now is Metal Gear Solid Rising: Revengeance. Yes, I know, just about the stupidest title ever. Everything about this game seems kind of dumb if you just give it a cursory glance. On the surface it seems to be just a highly stylized version of the usual over the top male power fantasy. Sort of your God of War via Japan thanks to the fine developers at Platinum Games. However, you would be totally wrong to think this! God of War has been reduced to an exercise in violent drudgery. Revengeance is an eclectic celebration of stylish action, which while gruesome at times, has a mechanical elegance that justifies the bloody display. This allows it to deftly sidestep the trap that many lesser games fall into. One where excessive violence is used to prop up tired game design.
This problem is especially common in first-person shooters. I hate to pick on the genre, especially because it has taken so much flak from the mainstream media and the gun lobby here in the USA, but really it’s the worst. For years we’ve been served games where the mechanical loop consists of going to iron sights and then shooting the enemy in the head a few times until he dies. Rinse and repeat for nearly every enemy in the game, maybe do a few vehicle or turret sections, and bing-bang-boom you’ve played nearly every game in the genre. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. Halo’s combat puzzles are a nice twist, and Bioshock’s RPG-lite elements and strong story helped to differentiate it from the pack. Still, for every game that innovates just a little there are dozens where the innovation is a more complex melee kill animation, never mind that it still just takes a single button press to accomplish the action. If you need a visual aid to help you get grossed out by the state of the genre, check out this video of Killzone 4 on Jimmy Fallon. Keep in mind that this video is the poster-child for what the next generation has in store for us. Bummer, right?
The third-person shooter genre is no better. I thought Gears of War was pretty clever when it came out, and apparently everyone else did too because we’ve had 6 years of sticking to cover, popping up to take a few shots when the enemy stops shooting, and of course when they get close there’s got a single button murder animation! At least it made sense in that game; Marcus Fenix had a chainsaw bayonet to grind with an army of Locust that were pouring out from gaping holes in the earth. It gets worse on account of the insane narrative dissonance encountered when examining games like Uncharted and the new Tomb Raider. Nathan Drake and Lara Croft are supposedly archaeologists of some kind, but when the time comes they seem to have no qualms about murdering scores of bad-guys and then going on about their lives like it’s business as usual. I’m pretty sure Lara fought a T-Rex in the first game, so if this is what advancing the genre looks like, color me disappointed.
So enough about all these terrible shooters I hate. I’m ready to get back to talking about a game I don’t hate. Revengeance solves the problem of boring violence by making its most gruesome element the most innovative. That’s right, I’m talking about blade mode, otherwise known as zandatsu (斬奪), cut and take. In many third-person character action games, it’s common to dispatch foes by first softening them up with regular strikes and then hitting a button to start a quick time event which again usually consists of single button presses that will complete the kill animation. Rising shifts the paradigm by adding both skill, reward, and variability to this process.
Whenever Raiden’s sword is charged, which happens gradually as he lands basic attacks, he can enter blade mode for a limited time. Blade mode slows time down and allows him to slash in any direction across an enemy. Against most normal enemies, this insta-kills them if they’re cut in half or decapitated, or maybe sliced into a few dozen tiny pieces which is totally a thing that happens with enough slashes. The trick is to hit their cyborg repair-gel organ (stay with me here), cutting it out of them by slashing across a small target box that appears, and then hitting a button to grab and crush it. Doing this restores Raiden’s health and also replenishes his sword’s energy. It’s harder than it sounds, and you’ll need to get really good at this technique if you want to do well in this game. Power fantasy it may be, but it’s one that will punish you relentlessly on the harder difficulty levels.
Zandatsu is a feed-forward mechanism that rewards proper play with the requisite tools (health and energy) to continue playing properly, and it’s also crazy fun. Larger enemies are immune to instant death via blade mode attacks, but their limbs and other appendages, as is the case for many non-humanoid cyborgs, can still be cut for damage and sometimes to limit their possible attacks. Did I mention that all the enemies in Rising are cyborgs? Well they are – murdering psychotic cyborgs. Also, Raiden isn’t some schmuck who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, he’s a professional mercenary in a future where private military corporations act with impunity. There’s no pretense to realism here, and largely because of that there’s no reason to feel gross about what’s going on.
Rising is the sort of game that doesn’t bother explaining why all these cyborgs are fighting with swords when they could just be shooting each other. I eventually figured out that its because Raiden automatically deflects all incoming bullets so long as he is doing his “ninja run.” I couldn’t make this stuff up. It is as over the top as it gets, and has a sense of humor too. Playing chapter 2 I found myself chuckling aloud on the couch as a remote controlled robot went to insert a USB cable into a console, failed to get it in, flipped it around and did it right on the second try. There are little touches of comedy like that all throughout the game, and they provide a nice break from the action.
Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but there’s enough terrible shit going on in the world, so I don’t need my video games trying too hard to imitate reality. Revengeance manages to avoid doing this pretty well, and is a better game for it. I’d rather more games take the hint and just be content being fantasy, at the very least so that the next time video game violence comes up in the media, finger-pointing reactionaries have a few less targets for their gross misinformation campaigns.