Put your Mouth where your Money Is
As the year is coming to a close, the big-name games for this season are starting to pile up at retailers everywhere. Nowadays, games aren’t considered “new” for very long. They are generally marked down within the first few months of their lives, and as the holiday shopping season approaches shelf space is at a even more of a premium than otherwise. So I felt rather good about being able to walk into my local store and pick up two games for what would have been the price of one just two weeks earlier. Saving money is always a good idea in my book, but that’s not really why I’d held off on my purchase of these two titles. The reason was that I was pretty unsure about the quality of both of them. The games in question were Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and if you’d buy either of them on impulse you really have too much money to burn. Or know little about games.
For those less up-to-date with these two titles, let me explain why I was wary of purchasing them. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is yet another installment in a series that lately hasn’t really done very well for itself on stationary consoles, or in 3D for that matter. Indeed, the previous attempts by publisher and IP holder Konami ranged between crapalicious on the lower end, and “meh” on the higher. This new Castlevania was announced a pretty good while back, and was to be developed by little-known Spanish developer Mercurysteam. Initial footage of the game looked good. But somehow, I thought, somebody at Konami would find some way to inject some sort of crap into the game. Because not doing so would hurt their sense of owners’ pride or something.
The other game, Enslaved (I’m tired of writing out its full name already), had me skeptical because it was a Ninja Theory game. Ninja Theory are the people behind Heavenly Sword. ‘Nuff said, as most who’ve played the game would agree. Still, I couldn’t help but think that maybe these people had learned something since that over-hyped first attempt on the PlayStation3, and would now churn out something that had nice production values and didn’t bore me to tears within 20 minutes of play.
Turns out I was pushing my luck hoping to be pleasantly surprised twice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Resurrection of Dracula
I started playing Castlevania: Lords of Shadow expecting two things. First, that it was pretty derivative in all respects, a sort of God-of-Persia some had said. Second, that it was a very lengthy game. This, I thought, could spell disaster. Repetitive action that goes on for too long is a nice way to get me not only bored but outright offended, and put a jeehad on you. Luckily, I soon found that Lords of Shadow was a very, very tight piece of entertainment software. Most importantly, the game is a textbook study in how games should be paced, and how to avoid perceived repetition and player fatigue.
A big part of how Mercurysteam manages to accomplish this is, ironically, by using a lot of repetition, but in a very clever way. Play in Lords of Shadow is generally split up between combat (which in turn is divided between real-time combat and so-called quick-time events), and traversing the environment (usually jumping/ledge-climbing/context-sensitive button-pressing puzzles). The sheer number of different means of interaction with the game world, as well as enemies, is kept rather low. But because of this the developer has been able to focus a lot on the aesthetics, which makes everything feel pretty fresh even though it’s not. To give an example, many enemies share the exact same attacks, which affect the player-character in the exact same way. But because this repetition is employed in wildly varying contexts with very different timings and animations, perceived variety is high. And, of course, quick-time events are a shortcut to this perceived variety and non-repetition; everything is context-sensitive and triggers a different set of animations each time, but all players really do is “press a button when the icon comes up”. I’m not saying either approach is better than having truly unique mechanics in every single context, but it’s a damn sight more practical, and lets developers achieve a much higher level of polish than they would if they were forced to feature-spam. I will always prefer perceived, tight variety and dynamism over lots and lots of shoddy half-baked features.
Another very well-executed part of Lords of Shadow is its aesthetics. Not all of it, mind. The writing is standard-fare, the acting none too inspired, and the music in parts feels ripped straight out of a dozen better soundtracks (which is an insane shame considering Castlevania’s pedigree, just re-arrange the classic tunes you dummies). But the design of the levels in a purely artistic sense is truly phenomenal (the gameplay design is generally pretty good too). Playing a game such as this one in 2010 has to impress anybody with even a shred of knowledge about game development. The biggest shares of today’s enormous budgets are usually devoted to asset creation. And so, the easiest way to save money on development is by introducing lots and lots of repeat use of these assets. Because of this I was taken aback by Lords of Shadow; it’s level of variety and the constant palette changes truly helps minimize fatigue and makes the player wonder what’s around the next corner.
The game really feels like an epic journey through mythical lands; an adventure that nourishes a sense of wonder I don’t often get from games these days. I pretty much raced through the game in a couple of pretty intense sittings, and though I acknowledge its relative length at well over 10 hours of play time, I can’t say it felt like a bad thing. I didn’t want to play anything else, and will probably go back to it again someday.
Enslaved, on the other hand, is not getting another minute of my time.
Enslaved by OCD
I think the best thing I can say about Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, is that it made me appreciate Castlevania more. Ninja Theory got so many things wrong that Mercurysteam didn’t, that one is forced to recognize how hard it is to make these types of games even if there is not a single shred of original thinking in the mix. Enslaved has a more interesting plot than Castlevania does, and more well-realized characters. The dialogue is generally better too. And that’s about all it has going for it, if one is to compare the two games.
Now, I imagine inviting the argument that the two games are two different beasts altogether (though from a distance they seem eerily similar in many ways), and that Enslaved was created with other priorities in mind than was Castlevania. This is all fine and well, except that Enslaved even stumbles quite often in the areas where it would be expected to have the edge. I’ve already mentioned what’s better about this game than the former, but if you’d listen to what Tameem Antoniades and the other Ninja Theorists you’d expect them to be best-in-class when it comes to storytelling and production values. Sadly, this illusion is quickly shattered when the design starts reeking of limited inspiration early, and when dialogues between the main characters are triggered which reference things in the plot that haven’t happened yet. The level design bit is probably the biggest sign of bullshittery though. This is supposed to be a highly story-driven game, yet I’m expected to roam around the levels in a typical platform-esque treasure hunt looking for coloured orbs that give me experience points. There’s nothing wrong with the odd treasure hunt even in story-heavy games. But why am I being told by the in-game dialogue, music and general aesthetic that I need to get a move on, while at the same time being lured down a side-path by these little glowing narrative non-sequiteurs?
Now these are not unique mistakes and Ninja Theory has done no worse than many of the other decent action game developers out there. My biggest issue is that Enslaved is so insanely inconsistent with its own premise, and makes its developers look like arrogant and/or not-quite-competent bullshitters. The last bit is to be expected perhaps; nobody’s going to be completely honest about something they’ve spent several years working very hard on (I’d never assume they didn’t try). But the former two can be done without. Nobody ever hears Nintendo or Blizzard talking about how they’re the best in the industry. They just are.
Next up is the gameplay; broken up in the same way Castlevania is, pretty much, but much more broken than up. Fatigue sets in quickly with this one, largely because of the mechanics being very uninteresting. The combat especially neither looks, feels not plays very good. The upgrade system is pretty nice, though not nearly nice enough to compensate for having to wait for 2-second long animations to finish before being allowed to dodge or block, or having the camera forcibly reset behind the main character when a certain attack (and only that attack, because consistency is for pussies) is used. Again, this is one place where one could say “well, the game focuses more on looking good and feeling hefty than being a hardcore action game for pro players”. Which is fine, except that the animations transition rather crappily (idles at the end of one type of attack don’t blend nicely into the other for example) and don’t have a lot of variation – so whatever wow-factor they may have will wear off quite quickly.
Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that Ninja Theory knows how to do any better than this. They are, after all, super-proud of Enslaved and have told us so since well-before we could play it. Sadly, there’s plenty of games out there that manage good controls and pretty animations and other shinies all at once, and this is something these people should learn pretty quickly as they’ve recently been made the custodians of Devil May Cry. I fear that once that game is released I’ll be sitting there, crying right along with him, as that game is all mechanics, all the time (and to some people still manages to feel “cool”, though it’s the kitschy kind of cool).
Finally, the graphics in Enslaved are a bit of a mess, which is a shame as its budget was probably on par with that of Castlevania. It’s not that the modelling or texturing is bad. Characters, faces and facial animations especially are rather good. But Enslaved has none of the variety of Castlevania, which is only excusable up to a certain point, even if you do factor in the very different narrative and aesthetic premises of the two games. For the first few hours of Enslaved, one is assaulted by so much green it’s like somebody was offered a huge discount on a bulk purchase. On top of this, there’s that grotesque movie-like colour-grading going on that results in a quite vomit-inducing general picture composition. Finally, when they do try to mix things up a bit, it’s by adding purples and dark blues and browns all over the place, making everything just feel thoroughly smudged and very, very unrealistic as well as unappetizing. It’s a sad state of affairs when the most interesting, calm, restful environment in a game is the desert environment where comparatively little is going on visually.
All in all, Enslaved made me want to go back to playing Castlevania, though sadly I have a “condition” that forced me to finish the damned thing. What made me saddest about the whole experience of playing these games back-to-back is the disparity in the amount of pre-release hype surrounding the two, considering their respective qualities. Konami could have easily sold their game much more aggressively than they did, as Lords of Shadow could back its hype up much better than Enslaved can. Perhaps the damage was already done following the numerous mediocre Castlevania titles or something, so maybe people didn’t trust that the game would be good and word-of-mouth never caught on. I don’t know.
I do know that if I had the power to shine as big a spotlight on Castlevania as has been on Enslaved for this past year, I would. Because Lords of Shadow really delivers above and beyond its relatively humble promises and makes me hope that Mercurysteam is allowed to make the next instance in the franchise as well.
Odyssey to the West, however, made me dream of Tameem Antoniades naked with David Cage in a hot-air balloon over a sea of crap. And, as with Quantic Dream’s games, I’m totally considering future purchases – if they even happen – to be from the pre-owned games bin, so as not to cause the slightest blip on their publishers’ sales radar. Voting with our wallets, after all, remains the only way we can really influence developer and publisher behaviours. And if you buy a new copy of a game, especially at full price, you’re giving the impression that you either believe in the hype surrounding the game, or that you believe in the game because of the developer’s past products.
We should all be careful of whom we send that message to.