Thursday, March 05, 2009

God Hand

In God Hand you punch people so hard your fist comes out of the game and onto the cover art.The gulf between wanting to like something and actually liking it can be so large.

In God Hand you punch people so hard they fly over the horizon. In God Hand you punch people so hard that they fly into buildings and then the buildings fall down. In God Hand you punch people so hard that their soul comes loose from their body and then you have to punch that as well.

Also, sometimes you kick things hard, too.

This is a winning formula. This is something you can write on a white board and underline a few times and then sit back to watch the money roll in. If I were to write a book on designing "fun", this would be the first chapter, the case study, and most of the conclusion. I would write, "And in conclusion, in God Hand you punch people so hard that your fist breaks the sound barrier, and then the person you have punched flies off into the distance, also breaking the sound barrier."

So what really baffles me is why God Hand isn't fun.

Disclaimer: I didn't finish God Hand. I didn't come close. I just wasn't enjoying it, so I haven't seen the whole game. It's hard to imagine a second act, though, that would redeem the five hours or so I spent with it.

God Hand is a PlayStation 2 title by (now-defunct) Clover Studios, the same clever fellows who made the amazing Okami. Where Okami was the transcendent poster-child of the "games made art" movement, God Hand is something born wholly crafted from the mind of an illiterate 14-year old. It is crass, it is gratuitous, and it is crude in every sense of the word. In God Hand some of the villains are gay men and you punch them so hard you make them straight.

God Hand is clearly influenced by Capcom's action franchise Devil May Cry. There's a deliberate emphasis of style over substance. The plot is incoherent, the dialogue and voice acting are horrible, and your combat moves bear little to no relationship to the laws of physics. However, where Devil May Cry boasted smooth controls, deep tactical combat, strong level design and above-average graphics, God Hand instead opts for hand-twisting button maps and repetitive brawling in a series of unattractive linear corridors.

Unattractive may be an understatement. God Hand looks God Awful. One could be generous and say that level and enemy designs are "inspired by" such brawling classics as Golden Axe and Streets of Rage, and it's true that there is more than a little deliberate homage here, but the reality is that both Golden Axe and Streets of Rage had significantly more art in a single screen that God Hand can muster over the course of a level. Everything's done in pallets of dull brown. Enemy designs are so generic that even the villains of a Dynasty Warriors game could put them to shame. Ground surfaces are a flat brown while skyboxes are a flat blue. Every wall is set at right angles to another wall and the camera is not afraid of clipping right through surfaces to show you that they have no depth or substance.

The gameplay is standard brawler fare. You punch, and you kick. There are some 100+ punches and kicks available, and you can ultimately map up to 11 of them to your controls at one time, so there's some tactics involved in picking your repertoire. Most enemies are largely similar though, so once you've got a set-up you won't need to change it much. You run around a 3D level, and enemies mosey up you singly or in groups, so as to allow you to punch and kick them.

Every few punches or kicks, enemies will block. When they block, you'll need to back off, as hitting them while they're guarding allows them to do a dangerous counter-attack. So you'll get used to the pattern of punch-punch-punch, wait, punch-punch-punch, wait. Later on you get special "guard-break" moves which simplify the process. You yourself are unable to block, although you can dodge. Blocking was presumably inserted to pace combat and stop players from self-combusting from the sheer awesomeness of non-stop punching.

Defeated enemies sometimes drop money; money can be used to buy new punches. In God Hand you punch people so hard that they turn into currency.

Also, you have a rage meter, which when full allows you to turn invincible and unleash the titular God Hand for 10 seconds or so, and "roulette slots", each of which will let you pull off one of your particularly awesome super-punches. Using a super-punch empties a slot, which you have to refill by finding a magic card dropped by a defeated enemy.

God Hand is really hard, even on the easiest difficulty. Not consistently hard - you'll go from an enemy that just stands there as you punch him straight to a hell-demon that moves faster than you can see. Not interestingly hard - enemies you can't see because of the horrible camera will cheerfully punch you in the back of the head and follow up with a combo that kills you before you can recover. Just hard. Stupidly hard. Death usually means a trip back to the start of the level and up to twenty minutes of play erased. In God Hand people punch you so hard you travel back in time.

I've mentioned how the voice acting is horrible, but it's really just fitting into the overall audio standard. Pretty much every in-game sound effect is some variant of explosion, which at first glance seems to possess a certain kind of awesome but in practice really doesn't. There appears to be only one piece of background music, a kind of surfing-guitar reminiscent of Hawaii Five-O that loops endlessly. Enemies yell "Come on!" at you a lot, and "Oof!" when you hit them, and that's about it.

Actually the whole game feels more like a prototype than a finished game. There's the bare bones of a gaming experience, and a whole mess of awesome punches, but everything else feels like placeholders rather than final product. I can see that Clover were trying something worth trying, a kind of re-invention of the brawler as a genre, but that intention is in no way manifest in what they actually released.

There is a certain class of people who will love God Hand, and these people are not to be ridiculed. There is a genius located deep in the core of this unlovely software, a genius that knows that it is absolutely impossible to ever punch a videogame villain too hard. But those who can look past the eye-gougingly horrible aesthetics and the nun-punchingly torturous gameplay to find that genius will be few and far between, and for the rest of us it's worth mentioning that this game came out late in the PlayStation 2's lifespan, almost no-one bought it, and it's practically impossible to find a copy.


Joe Osborn said...

And those who can get past it are, indeed, worthy of acclaim. I can never get over and its review of God Hand.

Greg Tannahill said...

It as Action Button's grovelling at the feet of this game that prompted me to go back and play it. And I can see WHY someone might love it, I just don't see how that can be an intimate personal love that involves actually playing the game as opposed to a distant platonic respect.

Joe Osborn said...

I guess it takes a special kind of player, right? The kind of player that describes Mario Kart Wii as "a grinning corpse" and NEO Contra as "a full day's meal in a six ounce steak."

What I like best about that site is their fairly consistent voice. Even though the reviews themselves are written by different people and vary somewhat in quality, the voice, at least for me, never quite crosses into self-parody.

Anyhow, I share your concerns about God Hand. I always feel a little ashamed that I never finished this seeming in-joke of a game, liking as I do some of its constituent elements but being unable or unwilling to devote the time to grok its intricacies.

This may have been the game that taught me that I probably can't -- and probably don't even want to -- call myself a "hardcore" gamer anymore.

On the upside, the most common song in the soundtrack is some hot surf rock that almost sounds like the Surf Coasters.

Greg Tannahill said...

I think it's dangerous to assume that just because you're unable to fully grapple with every aspect of the game in the way that the designers intended, that there's therefore some mysterious level of quality hovering just out of your reach. It may just be crap design.

Actually, having re-read ActionButton's review, they're saying almost exactly the same things as me, but buried under a layer of inherently entertaining hyperbole.

I was never a hardcore gamer, and I understood that from the day I first encountered David Sirlin's site. The mere act of playing a lot of games and knowing a lot about games does not even begin to elevate you to the truly hardcore.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I think hardcore-ness is relative. Some people would consider sitting down and playing the same game for 4 hours straight to be hardcore.

Greg Tannahill said...

It's certainly relative. Gaming for four hours straight being hardcore is a bit rich coming from anyone who gets more than five hours interrupted sleep in a night; those hardcore sleepers really piss me off, with their impenetrable sleep jargon and their elitist exclusion of the casual sleeping demographic.