Archives for posts with tag: retrospectives

Dancin' to tha Beat
I don’t remember the first time I saw Jet Set Radio, but I certainly remember my reaction: “Holy crap, that looks cool.”

It was probably a feature in the dearly-departed Dreamcast Magazine, some time after the game’s TGS ’99 reveal, and from the moment I saw it, I knew I had to play Jet Set Radio. From the incredible cel-shaded art-style that exuded that street-punk attitude that serves as its thematic foundation, to the central conceit of the game – namely, tagging graffiti to mark your gang’s territory – to the saturated colours of the Tokyo streets against that trademark Sega blue sky. Everything about this game arrested my attention. I couldn’t wait to play it.

And then, months later, thanks to a demo disc attached to the cover of the aforementioned publication, I got my chance. And I hated it. I couldn’t get my head around the controls for a start, which meant I had trouble getting around the environment, which meant I couldn’t escape the rampaging police, which meant I couldn’t find the time to paint. And on the off-chance that I actually managed to get to a tag site, I couldn’t seem to get to grips with the graffiti mechanics, either. But I had been so looking forward to the game that I decided I had to try it again. And again. And again and again. And all of a sudden, it just clicked. Everything came into sharp focus; I knew what the game expected of me, and I understood how to make it happen. Get some speed behind you, grind that rail, make that jump, ride that wall. The floor is lava.

Smilebit’s 2000 Dreamcast title has since become a cult classic, leading to Sega and BlitWorks releasing an excellent HD version on literally everything back in 2012. Jet Set Radio presents a colourful, stylised representation of Tokyo, including iconic areas like the Shibuya bus terminal, and stars a cast of punky inline skaters out to grab territory for their respective street gangs. How do you go about this? By tagging the crap out of everything you see, of course! You’ll mark your territory on buses, cop cars, advertising hoardings and storefronts as you claim turf from rival gangs the Love Shockers, Noise Tanks and Poison Jam. Naturally, the police, led by the hard-boiled Captain Onishima and backed by the shadowy Rokkaku Group, don’t take kindly to your urban artwork. These crazy keisatsu will do anything, including calling in helicopter gunships, to put an end to your adolescent fun.

Gum taggin'

Right from the off, Jet Set Radio demands that you get good. Just as the controls take a little time to puzzle out, so do the level layouts; very early on, you’ll learn to prioritise the larger, more time-consuming tags before the police escalate their presence, bringing in tear gas troopers, assassins armed with electric whips and black-suited knife-wielding goons, all of whom make it a very bad idea to stand still and tag. You’ll soon realise it’s best to leave the simple, one-hit tags ’til the very end of the level so that you can grind, trick and race past your aggressors, tagging as you go. This means that you’ll ideally spend the first minute or so just skating around, getting the lay of the land and collecting spray paint cans, before launching your carefully-planned graffiti assault on the streets of Tokyo-to.

Let’s look at the funk

The first thing you’ll notice – and indeed, the thing the game is probably still best known for – are those striking, pioneering cel-shaded graphics that make Jet Set Radio look like a Gainax anime come to life. We see the technique a fair bit these days, and 2002’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker arguably brought it to more mainstream attention, but back in 2000 it was absolutely state of the art; really, it had only been seen in the character models of Fear Effect, which came out only months before Jet Set Radio. Chief graphics designer Ryuta Ueda wanted to create a snapshot of what he saw as Tokyo’s youth culture at the time, something that reflected the eclectic, high-energy, vibrantly colourful scene he saw around him.

It’s not just about those beautiful, flat, shaded polygons though. The game is brought to life by all the little incidental details; the fact that Garam’s necklace looks like it just might be Sonic’s skull, Tab poking his tongue out at you every now and then for no good reason, DJ Professor K’s funky hair that pulses in time to the beat, and the fact that nobody ever stands still. Every character is in constant motion – even leaving your skater idle causes them to dance to their own rhythm, like a way cooler version of Spaced‘s Tires. Touches like this create a tangible, kinetic connection between gameplay and presentation, tying them together with the audio in such a way that every element comes together to create a solid, cohesive whole where every little touch just feels right.

These guys mean business

The visual presentation is beautifully mirrored by an eclectic, borderline-manic soundtrack from Hideki Naganuma that remains one of the best in gaming. Representing every facet of Ueda’s vision of late-nineties Tokyo street culture, Naganuma’s work takes in hip hop, funk and even acid jazz, interspersing it with odd looped samples (“Will you stop playing with that radio of yours? I’m trying to get to sleep!”). Meanwhile the varied licensed tracklist mixes in the kooky rock of Guitar Vader, the alternative hip hop of Jurassic 5, and even finds space for a track from fellow Sega veteran Richard Jacques (yes, the man behind the indisputably awesome Sonic R soundtrack contributed to Jet Set Radio).

Understand, understand

While Jet Set Radio didn’t exactly set sales alight, a sequel of sorts was released for the Xbox in 2002. Jet Set Radio Future, as the name suggests, transposed the GGs and their rivals to a near-future vision of Tokyo-to. Characters were redesigned, the plot was shuffled about a bit, and the colour palette was more muted, but the biggest differences were in how the game played. Conventional wisdom holds that you either like one game or the other, and you can’t possibly like both. While this isn’t really true at all, Jet Set Radio Future did do a fair bit to put off fans of the previous game.

Future exists almost as a reimagining of the concept, simplifying some things while expanding others. The most immediate changes are the removal of the time limit in each level and a ‘streamlining’ of the way you execute graffiti; whereas you’d copy analogue stick movements in Jet Set Radio, corresponding to broad strokes of paint, in Future you simply pull the trigger as you race past and it all just happens for you. I absolutely hated these changes at the time. Coming from a challenging game where it’s vital to set your priorities and then create the space needed to get things done in the allotted time, Future just felt like it lacked pace, challenge and focus.

The differences weren’t all for the bad, however, and the removal of these mechanics makes a lot of sense when you look at what Jet Set Radio Future is, rather than what it isn’t. The size, scale and complexity of the environments have been massively enlarged, with multiple large, vertical spaces leading to and from one another; a time limit would have been a real drag in levels this huge, and its absence lends Future a much more exploratory feel than the original. The level design is also pushed to its limits to accommodate this expanded sense of freedom: larger spaces mean far more routes over, under, through and around the game’s crazed urban landscapes. Where Jet Set Radio was a tight, focussed time-attack game as its heart, Future is more like a playground for you to jump, grind, trick and tag through.

Jet Set Radio may have been absent for over a decade now, but its influence can still occasionally be felt. Insomniac’s Ted Price has spoken about how the Sega classic informed Sunset Overdrive‘s traversal system, and that game also has a knack of making you feel like a sucker if you so much as deign to touch the ground. Meanwhile, the recent Splatoon will give gamers of a certain age serious JSR vibes, as, like Sunset Overdrive, the game’s visual presentation clearly owes a debt to Jet Set‘s colourful, anarchic sense of fun. How fitting that a project led by a new generation of talent at Nintendo’s famed EAD division should echo a game that looked to celebrate Tokyo’s youth culture in the final days of the 1990s.

And what of the team that brought JSR into the world? Well, sadly, we all know about Sega’s troubles since going third-party in the aftermath of the Dreamcast’s premature death, an upheaval that led to internal teams being reshuffled, reorganized and renamed, as well as something of a talent exodus. Both Ryuta Ueda and director Masayoshi Kikuchi went on to work on the Ryu Ga Gotoku series (where they even managed to include a short cameo for JSR bad guy Rokkaku Gouji, later joking that this meant the games existed in the same universe). Ueda has since left the company, along with Hideki Naganuma, who recently suggested that Sega has no interest in reviving the series.

Still, with new Sega Games CEO Haruki Satomi recently indicating that Sega want to win back their fanbase, perhaps we will see something done with all those classic IP that are just sitting in a vault somewhere in Tokyo, gathering dust. At the very least, perhaps we can hope for Sega to give us some more of the HD remasters they were offering just a few short years ago, and make Future available for a new audience. Perhaps things are looking up, after all.

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Tales of Xillia Milla and JudeThe Tales of series evolves slowly. If you’ve played one, even one of the earlier 2D titles like Tales of Eternia, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from the latest in the series.

While many will see this as a negative, for fans of the series it’s often quite the opposite; they already know they love the franchise, so they can be confident they’ll enjoy the next one. These games are jRPG comfort food, continuing to give fans a healthy dose of what they crave even when the genre began to shrink in size and importance. Over the last few years, Bandai-Namco have obviously seen a gap in the market to exploit, too: as the fortunes of the Final Fantasy series have dwindled somewhat, the Tales of series seems to have stepped into the breach to take advantage of the situation. It seems the publisher has renewed confidence in the series’ chances of success outside of Japan. Yes, now is a good time to be a Tales of fan.

Leading up to last week’s release of the latest in the series, Tales of Xillia 2, I decided to dive back into 2013’s Tales of Xillia for a second playthrough. Playing it for the first time last August, I absolutely loved the game, greedily devouring every side-quest and sub-event on my way to the final showdown in the Temporal Crossroads. Having almost exhausted the game’s content then, my plan for a replay was to quickly run through the main storyline before Xillia 2 released, but I was surprised to find myself drawn in all over again, gravitating towards much of that optional content against my best laid plans.

Tales of Xillia begins in a world called Rieze Maxia, a place where humans and spirits live in harmony. The humans of Rieze Maxia possess an organ called a ‘mana lobe’ that allows them to wield magic by offering a spirit some of the energy produced by this organ. In turn, the spirit is nourished by this intake of mana, and so the world keeps turning. Despite this, Maxwell, the Lord of Spirits has been sensing the death of many spirits. Fearing that humans have re-discovered spyrix technology, something that had apparently led to disaster in the past, Maxwell takes the form of a young woman named Milla and makes her way to the city of Fennmont. There, she meets Jude Mathis, a young medical student looking for his missing teacher at a secretive research facility. Discovering a conspiracy that could lead to the world’s end, Milla and Jude team up to tackle this threat, recruiting friends and allies along the way.

Tales of Xillia Alvin Xian Du

Xillia is notable for having two central protagonists, each with their own ‘campaign’. You can play through the game as either hand-to-hand brawler Jude or the magic-wielding Milla, and though the game plays out much the same across both, there are points where the characters split up. It’s best to play through as Jude first, as you will miss out on some fairly important plot points that simply go unexplained in Milla’s story, but if you have the time for two playthroughs it’s definitely worth seeing Milla’s side of the tale through. There is one very big point where the party splits, and it’s interesting to see what happens to Milla during her absence.

On the surface, the characters are a grab-bag of anime clichés. There’s the stoic protector, the uncertain but principled teen, the hyperactive sidekick who’s secretly in love with the protagonist, the distinguished older gent with a hidden past, the magical girl and the untrustworthy rogue. They’re all well-drawn though, and fleshed out through fairly extensive character-specific sidequests that shed some light on their pasts and their current motivations, while the game is also rammed full of the series’ trademark skits that further give the party identity. These skits are often a great source of humour, and it’s nice to play a game about a group of people staring down the end of the world that is handled with such an upbeat tone. Shoe-gazing is kept to a minimum, and the interplay between the characters is often played for laughs. It makes the party feel more human.

Tales of Xillia can be seen as both an evolution and a step back from Tales of Vesperia; its battle system is a neat evolution of that game’s Linear Motion Battle system which ups the tempo a fair bit, taking the best elements and streamlining them somewhat (it’s easier to determine an enemy’s resistances and weaknesses, for one) while also adding the excellent Link Arte mechanic. Link Artes allow two party members to group together to perform a stronger special attack by triggering specific artes at certain points and hitting the L2 button when a prompt appears. They also play into the series’ now-familiar Overlimit system: this time, the Overlimit gauge is segmented, and in order to fill it up, you’ll need to perform Link Artes at each threshold. Failure to do so means the gauge’s growth will stall, limiting your battle tactics. If you want to pull out those super-powerful Mystic Artes later in the game, you’re going to have to get used to arte linking.

I mentioned that Xillia can sometimes be perceived as a step back from Vesperia, and it’s generally felt in the environments. Gone is Vesperia‘s lavish world map, to be replaced with small zones populated with enemies to defeat and materials to scavenge. And whilst these areas do make the world itself feel smaller and more confined than Vesperia‘s (seriously, why is every field in Rieze Maxia hemmed in by canyons, anyway?), it is actually a step forward from its needlessly reductive predecessor, Tales of Graces. That game’s ‘fields’ were essentially long corridors with nothing to do but fight enemies on the way to the next cutscene (and everyone hated Final Fantasy XIII for that, right?), and its dungeons were even worse, often consisting of even narrower corridors with 90 degree turns that conspire to make the game-world feel as if it’s made from copy and pasted square tiles. Xillia has a handful of dungeons that feel like this (hello, Helioborg Fortress), but thankfully most of the game’s environments feel much more expansive and hand-crafted than those in Graces.

Tales of Xillia doesn’t quite reach the heights of Vesperia‘s beautiful visuals, either. That’s not to say it’s not a pretty game though; all titles in the Tales of series are very anime-styled but Vesperia, with its flat, almost-cel shaded aesthetic, often looked like an anime itself rather than an anime-inspired video game – it’s just a bit more stylised. Xillia is also a more muted game in terms of its use of colour, giving the world a more subdued feel, with areas like Fennmont, which is supposed to be under a blanket of perpetual night, bathed in deep ochres and dark greens. It still does a decent approximation of video game anime styling, but it’s just not as bold as we’ve been previously treated to. It’s also a bit of a mixed bag in it’s environments, with some areas being drenched in fine detail while others, most notably the field areas, can often look rather bland and drab.

Items and gear have also been streamlined somewhat. Typically in the genre, better items and equipment will become available when you reach a new shop in a new region, but in Xillia, shop inventory is mirrored across the entire world. The caveat here is that you have to level up the shops – through donating either money or the materials you harvest on your travels – and higher levels yield both new equipment and discounts on older gear, providing a system that is much more elegant than Graces‘ painful eleth mixer. It’s a great way to keep you tied into the world through both exploration (by searching out materials) and its development, and your reward for doing so is more powerful weapons, armour, accessories and food items.

Tales of Xillia battle Milla Condemnation

Ah yes, food. Long a component of the Tales of series, the cooking system has also seen a degree of simplification. In fact, it’s been simplified to the point that you don’t even have to cook anymore; you buy ready-made food at one of the aforementioned shops, and then use them to confer buffs upon your party for a set number of battles. So if you’re unprepared for a fight, you can gobble down some potato salad to increase your attack and defense stats, or if you’re really prepared you can eat a spicy chicken roll to earn double the experience from that battle. Again, it’s an elegant simplification that’s far easier to grasp than in previous entries and empowers the player to actually get to grips with the full range of tools at their disposal.

Players will often look down their noses as developers simplify or streamline systems in their games. Often, it’s taken to mean that a product has been ‘dumbed down’ to gain a wider audience. I don’t feel that that’s the case here; jRPGs are well-known for having dozens of arcane systems in place – often to do relatively simple things – and these can sometimes be so bewildering that even genre veterans ignore them. The changes that have been made in Xillia mean that everything the game offers is accessible to the player, enabling them to use all the systems to their advantage while also getting on with the fun stuff – the battling, following the twists and turns of the story, and of course becoming engrossed in the lives of a likeable bunch of characters. I think Tales of Xillia might just be the first jRPG I’ve played where I’ve fully understood how everything works, and I’ve been playing them since Final Fantasy VII and Panzer Dragoon Saga.

As much as I love Tales of Xillia (and I do utterly adore it), it’s not my favourite in the series. I feel like Vesperia was Bandai-Namco giving the series a damn good push before settling into a more focused (read: scaled back) design approach. Graces was a huge step back in many ways, and while Xillia clawed back some of the openness, it still feels like it’s on a smaller scale to 2009’s sprawling, 80-hour epic. But with the series seeing greater fortunes outside of its homeland, it looks like Hideo Baba’s team is willing to push at the boundaries again with the upcoming Tales of Zestiria, and this time they’re really pushing hard. Zestiria will launch next year, and it seems like the developer is looking to the Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles for inspiration, with the game taking place in a huge, truly open world. It promises to be something a bit special, and likely the biggest shake-up the series has seen since it moved to 3D with Tales of Symphonia.

But going back to Xillia for a moment, and if there’s one criticism I can level at the game, it’s that an area called Elympios that opens up towards the end of the adventure is incredibly underused. It’s a massive plot point, but we see so little of this new environment that it’s difficult to get a sense of what it’s like and to begin to truly care about the place and its fate. Tales of Xillia 2 promises to fully address this criticism, showing us more of Elympios and its way of life, while also allowing us to spend more time with a great group of characters. Now that it’s here, I can’t wait to get started.

mgsbanOne of the things that really grabbed my interest this past E3 was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It looked fantastic, with some excellent music that really helped to sell a rather melancholic atmosphere. I never really got into the MGS series; despite owning a console capable of playing every instalment, I’ve only played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, so I hadn’t been caught up in all the preceding Ground Zeroes/Phantom Pain mystery and hype. But the recent controversy over the ‘sexy’/’erotic’ design of MGS5‘s sniper Quiet reminded me that I really quite liked the look of the game’s E3 trailer.

I mentioned above that I’ve only ever played MGS2, and that was around its original release (so we’re talking over a decade ago now). I remember a friend buying Hideo Kojima’s mech combat game Zone of the Enders just for the MGS2 demo that came with it, and we both sat and played through it. As I shot a guard in the backside with a tranq dart before running to hide in a locker, I remember thinking, “This is amazing! This is the future!”

So when it was released, I rushed out and bought a copy, played through it, and though I enjoyed it, I didn’t really understand what was going on. I didn’t get as much from it as I would have had I played Metal Gear Solid first; the titles in this series strike me as being as much movie as they are game, and back in 2002 I only really got the game part.

I’ve had a copy of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection sitting on my shelf for about six months now, so I had been planning on catching up with the series for a while. Indeed, I even started playing the first game on my Vita months back, but got a bit stuck and abandoned it. Having gone a bit mad watching MGS5 trailers over the last few days, I’ve been itching to get into the series. I also came to the realisation that I’m unlikely to ever play the HD Collection on home console as all of my current screen time is going to either Final Fantasy XIV or Tales of Xillia. So I bought a second copy for the Vita (of course, this means I’ll have to keep the 360 copy for Peace Walker).

So this lengthy, possibly unnecessary framing narrative brings us to the topic of today’s piece: Metal Gear Solid. Because it’d be silly to start from the second (well, technically fourth) game, no? So how does a fifteen-year-old title hold up at the dawn of the second round of HD consoles? Surprisingly well, actually. Now, MGS may be a pretty old game at this point, but as this piece attests not everyone has played it. With that said, it goes without saying that there will be spoilers ahead.

Metal Gear Solid begins with our protagonist, codenamed Solid Snake, infiltrating a hostile base from the sea while a voiceover from his commanding officer details his mission: a renegade special forces unit, FOXHOUND, has seized control of a nuclear weapons disposal facility and made demands of the US Government, one of which is the delivery of the remains of legendary soldier Big Boss. If their demands are not met, they have threatened to launch a nuclear weapon. Snake must rescue DARPA chief Donald Anderson and Kenneth Baker, the president of defense subcontractor ArmsTech, who were both on-site at the time of the revolt, as well as stopping FOXHOUND from launching their nuke, and he has less than 24 hours to do it. Of course, things are not as they seem…

In an era where a majority of developers are focusing on creating cinematic experiences, Metal Gear Solid feels remarkably contemporaneous; indeed, it’s surely one of the games that pioneered the push for expansive, cinematic storytelling in games, and the fact that it’s often named as one of the greatest videogames of all time is testament to its influence and legacy. Despite its dated visuals, the level of polish is immediately evident: every cutscene and codec conversation (and there are plenty here) is fully voice acted, and the performances are generally of a pretty high standard. Only Cam Clarke manages to chew the scenery a little as FOXHOUND leader Liquid Snake (though I can forgive the man who voiced both Leonardo and Kaneda). Those same cutscenes are all directed with a filmic flair unexpected of a director making his first 3D game, a flair that betrays Kojima’s youthful desire to be a filmmaker, full of sweeps and pans and without exception beautifully framed.

The game is still (mostly) a joy to play as well, likely owing to the simplicity of the core sneaking action: this is a stealth game, and it is strongly advised that you remain hidden. Using your soliton radar, you can view your immediate surroundings from a top-down perspective, allowing you to see the position of nearby guards and their area of perception, a cone that describes the range and limits of their view. Stay quiet and out of your enemies’ sight and you can often get through an area completely avoiding confrontation. If you’re detected, your radar is jammed, and there’s no way to see where enemies might be coming at you from, save going into a first-person view with a tap of the triangle button which roots you to the spot. It’s a well-balanced system that only tends to frustrate if you’re careless and get spotted with no hiding place nearby.

However, this being a ‘tactical espionage action’ game, you also have a handful of gadgets at your disposal: rations to replenish your health; a range of goggles granting thermal, night vision or standard zooming capabilities; the iconic cardboard box for hiding in plain sight; anti-anxiety drugs to steady your nerves and your aim, and many others. And although direct confrontation is discouraged, Snake collects a selection of high-powered weaponry throughout his adventure on Shadow Moses, including chaff grenades to confuse electronics and even a fly-by-wire missile system.

Many of these items come in very handy during the generally excellent boss battles, and a number of these encounters stand out. First off, there’s the borderline fourth wall-breaking fight with FOXHOUND’s resident psychic Psycho Mantis. It’s a battle that really plays with the conventions of the medium, extending the game into the real world: Psycho Mantis can read your mind, he knows your every move before you’ve even made it, so you need to do something unexpected. But what? Switch to controller 2 of course! Then he won’t be able to read your movements any more! Your commanding officer even tells you as much in a codec conversation. And this after Mantis proves his power by reading what’s on your memory card and making your controller vibrate (two things which I was unable to experience playing on Vita, though Mantis did note that I saved often, calling me a “prudent man”). Such is this encounter’s infamy that I sadly knew all about these things long before playing the game, diminishing their impact somewhat, but it’s hard to look at this battle as anything over than an inspired treatment of a player’s immersion in the game world, even as it forcibly removes them from it.

A few other boss battles stand out for me: a tense, long-range shoot-out with Kurdish sharpshooter Sniper Wolf in a wide open snowfield, the slow, deliberate movement of your scope at odds with the damage dealt by the PSG-1 sniper rifle, demanding accurate tracking and shot placement or leading to curses if your bullet misses its mark; and the handful of battles against Solid Snake’s nemesis and genetic brother Liquid Snake, who is obsessed with exacting revenge on our protagonist for being the ‘better’ clone of Big Boss. We first fight Liquid on a rooftop as he hovers above in a Hind-D helicopter gunship, and here we get to use our homing Stinger missiles to bring him down. Later, we find him piloting the titular Metal Gear REX, and the resulting two-stage battle is another tense affair as Snake tries to maneuver into the hulking, heavily-armed mecha’s blind spot, confuse it’s electronics and fire a Stinger at it’s most vulnerable points. Next comes a very John Woo-style bare-chested punch-out atop the ruined hull of REX, at the climax of which Liquid, defeated, apparently falls to his death. Except of course that he doesn’t…

Metal Gear Solid‘s story also holds up against the flow of time, taking in a heady mix of ruminations on the nature of war and those that wage it, military-industrial espionage and intrigue and legacy through genetics. There are a couple of weak points: the script often taking great pains to explain simple things (I get it Otacon, the PAL key is three keys in one!) while glossing over seemingly-important points with a line or two – I actually went to the Metal Gear Wiki after finishing the game, not to figure out what the hell happened, but to shore up my own understanding of the game and make sure I had everything straight in my mind. I’ll be interested to see how much more sense MGS2 makes after having played its predecessor, but something tells me I’ll be paying the Wiki another visit.

There were a couple of mechanical annoyances playing MGS on the Vita that I feel are worthy of note. Firstly, the game uses the L2/R2 buttons on your controller to bring up item and weapons menus, which you then cycle through with the d-pad. The Vita does not have L2/R2 buttons, so these functions are instead mapped to the rear touchpad, which doesn’t appear to like static inputs; it seems fine tracking your finger’s movement, but probably about five times out of ten, placing my finger in one place led to the menus popping in and out a handful of times before finally settling and allowing me to select the item I wanted. Having this functionality mapped to the rear touchpad is a bit of a pain even when you’re not trying to use it, as it’s easy to trigger a menu when you don’t mean to just by holding the Vita and shifting your fingers, leading you to eventually effect a hideous claw-grip method to keep your digits away from the touchpad until you need it. This will eventually make your hands ache, so remember to take breaks! The face buttons can also be a bit troublesome in one section where you need to do a bit of good old-fashioned button mashing. Perhaps it’s that the buttons are small, but they don’t seem as responsive to mashing as those on a full-blown pad, and sometimes won’t register a press (for the record, my Vita’s buttons are absolutely fine – the machine is still utterly pristine). These issues are with the Vita’s control method for non-native titles rather than the game itself, but they’re worth noting in relation to Metal Gear Solid, as (at least in the case of the menu selection) you’ll be encountering them frequently.

Finishing the game took me just shy of fifteen hours, but I imagine you could probably race through it in half that once you know what you’re doing, and replay value comes in the form of different endings and different items given to you at each ending (either Meryl’s infinite ammo bandana or Otacon’s active camo stealth suit) that you carry into your next playthrough. I absolutely loved my time with MGS (even with a number of frustrating restarts, often on one of those aforementioned boss battles), but I’m not sure I’ll be playing it again. Not any time soon, at least: next up is Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and Raiden.

silent-hill-3_banner41-52843-full
About a month ago, I saw Silent Hill: Revelation, and shortly thereafter wrote of my (massive, crushing) disappointment with the film. As a big fan of the Silent Hill franchise (the first four games at least – I haven’t yet played much of the titles beyond The Room) and speaking from a position of having enjoyed the first film, I was disheartened to find that despite the filmmakers getting many of the details right, the film as a whole was poorly conceived, and often downright cheesy.

Two positives came out of the experience, though; firstly, the end-credits music led to my ‘Musical Mondays’ piece (linked at the bottom of this article), and secondly, it made me want to replay Silent Hill 3, if only to banish the memories of the film from my mind. Armed with the much-maligned Silent Hill HD Collection (PS2 games tend to look pretty damn horrible on an HDTV, even with a component cable), I set to work. It goes without saying that spoilers may follow – I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, but if you’ve never played Silent Hill 3 before (where have you been!?) and are planning to do so, avert your beady eyes.

The first thing that hit me upon loading up the game is the main theme, ‘You’re Not Here’. I mentioned in my piece about the music of Silent Hill that I couldn’t really remember any of the game’s soundtrack, so it was a surprise when this song came storming back into memory upon hearing the first few bars. I’m not sure how I ever forgot it.

The second thing that I picked up on was also to do with audio – the new voice artists. Heather’s voice is vastly different from the original game – she sounds much older, and seems to possess a petulant attitude that the original artist didn’t convey. The original delivery is also more natural – the phone call to her father at the beginning of the game is a good place to see this; the original voiceover sounds like an actual, believable two-sided conversation, whereas the new track sounds more like someone reading lines with little direction – a little flatter in terms of emotion, or perhaps more specifically emotional attachment. You can see the differences in the video below.

Not all changes are bad though – Douglas Cartland’s new VA sounds appropriately grizzled and world-weary, and at first I wondered if it was Richard McGonagle (Uncharted‘s Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan). I have since found out that he is voiced by Kirk Thornton, who also voices Harry in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which I have yet to play. Anime/jRPG regular Yuri Lowenthal is also present in the cast, here voicing Vincent, and Claudia Wolf’s VA does a pretty decent job too.

Considering Heather’s is the voice you’ll hear the most, it’s a bit annoying that her new track isn’t up to the standard of the original release, but the VA does grow into the role more as the game goes on, and it’s not too difficult to ignore after a while. It’s a shame though, that the HD Collection doesn’t allow the choice between both the original and the new casts, as it does for Silent Hill 2.

Getting to the game proper, it’s interesting to note quite how much of a change in pace Silent Hill 3 is from the big budget, set piece-led action games that dominate the current gen. In a climate where the relentless forward momentum of Call of Duty seems to permeate every facet of gaming (even the producers of Final Fantasy XIII admitted to being influenced by the FPS, hence the pace of that game’s battle system and the claustrophobic linearity of much of its world), it’s refreshing to get dropped into an environment where progress requires that you check every corner of every corridor, carefully cross-referencing your in-game view with your map and searching for a door you may have missed. Puzzles are also a feature of gameplay that appears to be missing in many genres these days. On normal puzzle difficulty, they don’t offer a massive challenge, but they are generally logical and need to be thought through, without making you feel too dense or frustrated. One puzzle comes to mind that requires you to use three very disparate items – before you discover the final element, it’s likely that you won’t even realise that the other two pieces need to be used together. As with most things in Silent Hill, exploring your surroundings thoroughly will often see you through.

It’s also refreshing to play a game that holds you in thrall thanks to it’s atmosphere, rather than a succession of flashy set-pieces, and it’s telling that, when you check a door, you find yourself hoping that it won’t open so that you don’t have to deal with whatever might be behind it. Instead, you find yourself hoping for a broken lock so that you can mark it off on your map and move on.

Look at all those lovely blocked doors...

Look at all those lovely blocked doors…

A couple of things struck me upon playing Silent Hill 3 again for the first time in many years. Firstly, enemies are far more abundant than in either of the preceding games in the series. Of course, this being a survival horror title, it’s usually best to run right past the bizarre monsters that inhabit this twisted world, and that’s what I did, wherever possible – this strategy also helps with item management, another big piece of the survival horror pie. Some enemies in this game are more difficult to run past unscathed, however, either due to fast movement speed or a wide reach to their attacks, meaning sometimes it’s best to clear them out, especially if they’re milling about in an area you will have to backtrack through a few times.

This lends the game more of a combat focus than previous games (which is amplified by the inclusion of weapons like the submachine gun), and given the more linear nature of Silent Hill 3, which I’ll touch on later, it makes it a bit harder to find alternate routes to avoid combat in some instances.

I was also surprised by how long the opening of the game is. In my hazy memory, I remembered Heather reaching her apartment to make a grim discovery less than an hour into the game. At the start of the game, Heather wakes from a horrible nightmare to find that she’s somehow nodded off in the middle of a Happy Burger establishment in Central Square Shopping Centre. According to my (clearly unreliable) memory, there was a short section in the otherworld mall before Heather left and reached her apartment, which would then prompt her to visit the eponymous Silent Hill.

Boy did I remember that wrong! There were a number of other environments between Heather and her home, and it was three hours of solid gameplay before I got her there. I’ll admit that the opening few hours did at times drag for me, but it’s entirely possible that it’s because I was expecting to get to Silent Hill earlier and really get stuck in to the story of Heather’s origins. A player coming to this game fresh likely won’t have the same issues and expectations.

I mentioned earlier that Silent Hill 3 is more linear than previous instalments, so I’ll go into a bit more detail on that. In the first two games, you eventually have the entire town of Silent Hill to explore; granted, many places are closed off to you thanks to roads that drop off into a dark abyss, or for the simple fact that not many buildings are open for exploration, but you have a map of the town, and you can run along the vast majority of it, scouring the streets for items or clues, or just generally running away from skinned horrors. When you finally reach the foggy town in Silent Hill 3, you can only go to the your next destination – Brookhaven Hospital. Sure, you can enter the Heaven’s Night bar from Silent Hill 2 along the way and score a few items, but it’s a momentary stop on your short run to the hospital. Should you wish to explore the shrouded streets any further, you’ll come across either a road-block of some kind, or Heather will simply tell you that that’s not the way to go, and turn back.

The more linear nature certainly lends the game a greater sense of focus, though it also feels shorter – my save file came in at around seven hours – but it’s hard not to miss the sense of atmosphere that comes from wandering the streets of the town.  The atmosphere is often saved, however, by some fantastic, almost abstract environments, like the otherworld Brookhaven, where the walls seem to be pulsing and flowing with blood, or sections of the otherworld chapel near the end of the game where the walls appear to be set aflame. It’s these otherworld locations that tend to be at the heart of how the game makes you feel uncomfortable – they’re dripping in the series’ signature blood and rust aesthetic, and the sense of creeping dread they instil, coupled with bizarre, unexplained sights such as Valtiel appearing every now and then, turning mysterious valves, gives Silent Hill 3 a different, though no less unsettling atmosphere than the depression and isolation often felt in Silent Hill 2.

Valtiel, always turning valves...

Valtiel, always turning valves…

So it’s a subtly different game from it’s immediate predecessor, whilst being recognisably of the same series. This is a good thing – Silent Hill 2 is excellent, arguably the best psychological/survival horror game yet made. Re-treading it would only produce a lesser copy. Silent Hill 3 isn’t massively dissimilar in it’s central mechanics, but it walks a different path from the same starting point, and serves as a great follow-up/companion piece to the original entry, and giving those that care to look a greater insight into the world and the dark Order at the heart of all that lurks in Silent Hill. It’s the perfect antidote to those games that whiz by in a flash of explosions and gunfire – something to unsettle you, absorb you, and make you think.

And with the nights closing in and darkness falling like a shroud, now is the perfect time to play it.

A note on the HD Collection: It’s impossible to avoid the negativity surrounding this collection upon release. I can’t speak much for the version of Silent Hill 2 contained herein, as I played just a few short hours of it when it first arrived. My biggest gripe with Silent Hill 3 is Heather’s voice, which I’ve already covered. I did encounter one or two audio bugs where a sound file seemed to abruptly stop, but this happened maybe two or three times across seven hours of play, and they were always small ambient audio samples. There were also a couple of instances of massive slowdown where the game literally ground to a halt and I wondered if it might crash. It never did, and these issues only ever cropped up after defeating a boss, and so never interrupted actual gameplay. Also, the streets of Silent Hill are as lacking in fog effects as Silent Hill 2, but considering those streets take up about five to ten minutes total of your playtime in Silent Hill 3, it’s much less of an issue here.

For the vast majority of my playtime, Silent Hill 3 ran smoothly and looked great, and if you’ve wanted to invest in this collection but were put off by the negativity, I’d say go and grab a copy. As a final note, I played the 360 version, which is supposedly the worse of the two thanks to the PS3 version receiving a second patch that Konami refused to release for Microsoft’s console. If you have a choice, buy a PS3 version, but I don’t think you should be too put off the 360 version if that’s your only choice.

Read my Silent Hill Music Special:
https://pushstartgaming.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/musical-mondays-silent-hill-special/