Thursday, March 26, 2015
Hotline Miami returns! The sequel to the infamously hyper-violent psycho simulator was released this month and I was very excited to get my hands on it. I consider the original a classic—it was a splash of freshness and originality, featuring intense gameplay mixed with really unique, entrancing music. Yet when I heard Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number was announced, a thought crossed my mind (as I'm sure it has for many others)—did this game need a sequel? I still went in excited to see which tunes Dennaton Games meticulously picked this time around, but I was mostly curious as to how Hotline Miami 2 would differentiate itself from its predecessor.
The basic gameplay remains primarily the same, but has been tweaked in a couple ways to change how you play it. The two most important alterations are the lack of masks and the more expansive room layout. The plastic animal heads only appear in around half the missions, and even then you only have a handful to choose from as opposed to the overwhelming options present in the first game. There's a couple of notable abilities, like the hard-to-master roll and Ash & Alex's gimmick, but you'll largely have to solve each stage relying on your raw skill over your initial load-out.
The increase in room size for each level is more of a "make or break" aspect. There's fewer interlocking rooms but longer hallways; armed enemies are quick to react from a distance so there will be multiple occasions where you'll suffer a shotgun blast from offscreen despite the constant use of the shift key. On top of that, there's a higher enemy density which can make clearing floors a pain if you miscount which men are still patrolling. Gunshots no longer alert the entire floor so you'll be relying on them far more than the first game, and camping around doorways to kill everyone you've aggro'd is usually the optimal way to make it through the latter stages.
The results of these changes are mixed. Some people think they raise the skill bar and force you to play with extreme precision if you're aiming for an S rank, but for me it makes the journey through the game more grating. It's certainly harder than the first, but the lack of challenge was never a problem for the first title. In some ways it feels like it's designed for the "Fans" of the original, but for those that want to dip their toes back into the Miami's blood-soaked neon-beyond, it will be an arduous task that can be more frustrating than fun (like with the boat stage or Hawaii missions).
While I usually reserve a section of these entries for a synopsis on the story if I deem it applicable, I'm not sure if I have much to say for Wrong Number. I've looked at some summaries on forums and while the interweaving paths of the characters and their meta-commentary is interesting, I also felt like much was lost when the designers aimed to establish a grounded narrative. I know that 50 Blessings was present in the secret ending to Biker's path, but the initial draw of "do you enjoy hurting other people?" wasn't whether it was related to PTSD or the desire for anti-Russian retribution—it served as a glimpse into humanity's most violent desires. It was the appeal of popping pills and killing a group of people that may or may not be related to any kind of syndicate, the gnawing feeling of your own insanity close behind as the corpses of your victims began to appear in local convenience stores.
Ultimately it's up to the author to decide which direction to take their work. Some will enjoy piecing together the shuffled series of events or arguing whether Richard embodies Jacket, but I still contest that the magic becomes drained the closer the plot gets to reality. Plus the purposeful obfuscation of the timeline strangles the pacing of the game, with the climax happening midway through and a lot of "filler" occurring when the player takes control of Richter and the Son afterwards. The last level was spectacularly inventive, but beyond that the latter half of the game felt like it took a little too long to tell its garbled plot.
It can be argued that Hotline Miami 2 does enough mechanically to distinguish itself from the first game, but given how distinctive the original was, Wrong Number isn't nearly as impactful. The music is fantastic but isn't as novel, and the absurdly violent gameplay isn't quite as shocking as the first time you smashed someone's head open with a bat. Wrong Number is enjoyable in its own right if you're looking for a little more thrill and danger (or are mad enough to manually unravel the story), but the original remains a much more enticing package in comparison. Plus getting killed by enemies offscreen tends to sour the experience.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
The 2002 remake of Resident Evil (often abbreviated to REmake) captures the essence of the survival horror genre. "Survival horror" was initially defined back in 1996 when the first Resident Evil was released, but REmake takes its concept and sharpens it into a deadly point. The amount of work the designers put into reshaping the original blueprint is stellar, adding a bevy of new ideas to make the game feel entirely new. And on top of that, Resident Evil remains legitimately frightening despite its charming b-movie quality.
When I first got REmake back in 2002, I was too cowardly to properly play through it. Every time I began the game on Normal I would stop some shortly after getting the Armor Key, overly concerned for my munitions and fearful of what traps lie ahead. Eventually I wound up starting a game on Easy with Chris to "scout" ahead... and beat it on that save file. So last month with all the excitement surrounding the release on Steam, I decided to play through the Gamecube version again with Jill on Normal this time, fully ready to tackle the challenge that haunted me as a teen.
It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. The beginning is the most tense section of the game, as you're low on ammo and have no way of dispatching zombies quickly (and even when you finally get the shotgun, ammo is sparse early on). I was intensely frugal during the first two hours of the game on this go-around, saving only after I had made good progress and dispatching zombies next to one another so both bodies burn with a single gasoline use. Right about the time that I got to the residence on the outside of the woods did I realize that I was pretty well stocked, and the rest of the game became a lackadaisical breeze. By the end I was sitting pretty with eight first aid sprays and around thirty shotgun shells, Tyrant being the only BOW that posed a threat. Despite all of this, I continued to feel trepidation every time I turned the Gamecube on to play.
What makes Resident Evil horrifying isn't just its eerie atmosphere or the misshapen monstrosities—the fear stirs within the gameplay. By limiting ammo, health, and the ability to save, enemies become terrifying due to the impact they can make on your munitions. Jump-scares aren't just frightening because of their unpronounced immediacy but that it also means you might be wasting precious ammo or health if you panic. Every bite you take is an herb lost, and every fleet-footed abomination with claws can send you pretty far back if you haven't saved in a while. That's not to say that games without manual saving and equipment-juggling aren't scary—Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is plenty unnerving—but REmake's terror is punctuated by how uncompromising the gameplay appears to be.
The tank controls are a point of contention that I think work really well in Resident Evil's structure. The more versatility you have in movement the less intimidating monsters become, unless you also give the enemies an increase in speed or quantity (e.g. Dead Space and Dead Rising). The tank controls aren't meant to be fluid nor lucid; it feels clumsy in order to put you on the same playing field as the shambling zombies, and emphasizes just how powerful the more nimble monsters—Cerberuses, Crimson Heads, and Hunters—can be. It's difficult to get away from enemies when you're being attacked because it's supposed to be, and whether or not you think that stunting the player with awkward controls is a good design is up to you. I don't think it's nearly as clumsy as some people make it out to be, though I admit the tight hallways can make it difficult to skirt around zombies.
While I mostly laud the mechanics, there's plenty of praise that can be heaped onto the game's presentation. I played REmake on a CRT TV so the visual clarity was a bit muddled, but the game still looks fantastic thanks to the pre-rendered backgrounds; I actually think playing it at such a low resolution helped since the character models blend in seamlessly with the backdrops. I was especially impressed with some of the camera angles in the game, giving it a "cinematic" feel without taking agency away from the player (like the tilted frame looking down towards the mask area or the uncomfortable close-ups of the player when they step through a door). One of my favorite tricks is when the camera shifts to a hallway scene where the light flickers from the windows suspiciously, filling the player with inevitable dread. The score works wonders too, becoming downright horrifying during some moments (like the first time you step into Umbrella's laboratory).
Thirteen years later and Resident Evil still remains as ingeniously spooky as it was when it first came out. It may seem contradictory how I praised the game on its survival quirk yet had absolutely no problem with it by the second act, but a large part of this was due to my previous experience conjoined with how immensely cautious I was the entire time. The beginning of the game was still tense for me despite knowing the layout and booby traps barring my path, and the Umbrella laboratory remained one of the creepiest settings in the game even though I was over-armed for it. A special shoutout to Lisa Trevor for being even worse than I remember—realizing I was trapped with her in the mines was nerve-wracking, with the camera angles working in part to obscure her location. I had a blast with REmake and it makes me curious to see if Resident Evil 2 holds up just as well.
Images obtained from: thisisxbox.com, vg247.com, gamefreaks.co, galleryhip.com
Friday, March 6, 2015
Ikaruga is a fantastic game—it introduced an engaging polarity system that's easy to understand but brutal to master, especially in the heat of combat. It's short, massively repayable, highly difficult, and really creative with its level design. So in that sense it's easy to see why many revere and love Treasure's immaculate STG, though oddly, scant few have tried to replicate it. Housemarque's is one such (bold) developer; they aimed to marry Ikaruga's polarity mechanic with a side scrolling design philosophy in Xbox 360's Outland, putting the player on the ground with a sword rather than in the air with a gun. While the idea may seem positively engrossing (a Metroidvania platformer with a polarity mechanic!), it feels more like a basic platformer that will require a bit more patience than you'd expect.
First and foremost, the visuals for the game are great—the blues and reds stick out against the dark foreground, despite how much miscellaneous detail may cover the screen at times. The background art isn't something you'll find yourself fawning over, but it does a fantastic job at providing enough detail and variation so that you never feel like assets are obviously repeating. This can be especially tricky to pull off for a game that adopts a silhouette aesthetic—as foreground detail becomes essentially nonexistent—but it's also a wise choice for a game in which bullets need to be clearly and distinctively marked.
Unfortunately Outland takes far too long to finally get into full swing. I finally found a comfortable amount of challenge by the time I entered into the City area, but by then there wasn't that much of the game left. When you only have one polarity early in the game, you'll spend a lot of time just waiting for bullets and platforms to change color, which is my main disappointment—the game emphasizes shifting colors at designated times, rather than deftly dancing between the two and dodging particles. There are instances where you'll have to be quick on your feet, but those times are pretty rare, and since the game doesn't really offer multiple options towards overcoming its challenges, the level design is really all it has.
Beyond that I only have a few other minor gripes with the game: the absence of healing at checkpoints, the inability to view other maps from the menu, and the lack of rebindable controls (so switching colors could be RT instead of RB). Bosses are especially a mixed bag, leaning more towards frustration than fun. One problem is that the encounters last too long, often having a lengthy preamble before you can fight them proper. The Winged Serpent boss is the most offensive example of this, requiring a exhaustive running sequence just to get to a battle that becomes too cluttered and hectic for its own good. I do admire a lot of the heart poured into the craft of the game, even if it doesn't seem like I'm showing it... I suppose I was just underwhelmed with the direction Housemarque took in the end.
Perhaps I was at fault for wanting more precision and dexterity out of a game sharing its core mechanic with Ikaruga; Outland is strangely more about waiting than dodging, but seeing as its a downloadable title made by a very flexible studio, I think it remains a respectable title. The polish here certainly indicates that a lot of care went into it, and despite my gripes, it's an enjoyable platformer on a console mired in bad ones. I do wish more games would try to fiddle around with the polarity mechanic, but I'm also thankful for what's been attempted thus far.
Images obtained from: otakubutgangsta.com, housemarque.com