In some alternate universe, Platinum Games' first dalliance with the "Metal Gear" universe would have been released alongside 2008's "Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots," the excesses of the former seemingly a direct response to the excesses of the latter. It would make for an exciting back to back experience, Raiden's hyper-kinetic swordplay of "Revengeance" (seen only fleetingly in "Guns of the Patriots") the focus here in a story concerned with the young and growing up angry (to a certain extent), while Solid Snake's swan song (at the time, at least) was about growing old(er), tinged with melancholy for a stealthy super-spy.
Still, while Kojima Productions has put their stamp of approval on "Metal Gear Rising Revengeance," cyborg assassin Raiden's solo game is its own peculiar thing, a frenetic hack and slash where the "MGS" has long been deliberate; it's a badass rock star treatment of the franchise built almost entirely out of rough edges that--by its conclusion--nonetheless feels like it deserves a followup from the people responsible for "Bayonetta."
Developed on the ideal of making "cutting" the core of the experience, "Revengeance" puts you in the role of a cyborg killer/security professional with an impossibly sharp katana whose driven by lot of pent-up anger, cutting a path through the series-appropriate overblown mix of PMCs and government-sanctioned terror scenarios. The good guys aren't as bad as the bad guys by virtue of their employers and there's an underlying (it's not buried especially deep) message about the soullessness of outsourcing military might and the ease with which we've mechanized and normalized killing. In terms of gameplay, that translates into Raiden using his sci-fi blade to cut down any number of cyborg soldiers and sending Raiden into a sort of overdrive where time slows down, and he's able to further still reduce those cyborg soldiers into bite-sized chunks.
All of that cutting is realized in any number of ways throughout the "Revengeance" campaign and 20 VR missions included on the disc, with a collection of purchasable moves and upgrades to Raiden's primary and second weapons allowing him to cut things up good. His basic controls consist of a vertical and a horizontal attacks mapped to the same light/heavy attack binary fans of character action games have become accustomed to since Kratos went on his first god-killing spree. Plus, he's able to pick up equipment like grenades and rocket launchers, but mapped to the left bumper, they're really more awkward to use than they're worth. The in-game economy of upgrades is generous enough that you might be able to unlock most of Raiden's moves on the first play through, and yet tight enough that you'll still have to work your combos to score enough points to get purchase goodies like new suits.
The centerpiece of Raiden's skill set is Blade Mode: when amped up with enough fuel from dispatching enemies, holding down the trigger slows down time and allows Raiden to precision-cut into nearby enemies, adjusting for both the vertical and horizontal axes using the left and right sticks (by default, the camera is mapped to the left stick, leaving fine blade control on the right, which seems backward and can be adjusted in the Settings). While in Blade Mode, Raiden's visor able to identify enemies' weak points, allowing him to cut away limbs or even cleave their bodies in two and reach in to rip out the very lives of his enemies, fully restoring both his fuel and health.
That last bit is crucial because Raiden will take a lot of hits from enemy fire and attacks in the hands of a novice player (and even afterwards: "Revengeance" can be added to the long list of games in the genre where the most dangerous foe is an uncooperative camera). Platinum Games has made Raiden an agile killer here, but for all his acrobatic swordplay, they've created a game where taking the enemy head-on is the key to winning: Raiden is equipped with a parry that deflects incoming attacks (flick the left stick towards the enemy using the light attack), and allowing a follow-up attack. In theory, it's built on the same combination of visual and sound cues that was so perfectly deployed by Ninja Theory with "Devil May Cry," allowing you just enough time with a flash of red and the lead-up to the enemy animation to respond violently in kind. In practice, Raiden's going to get battered through most of the campaign.
The feeling of being a total killer with Raiden's katana is just as often undercut by a cheap shot from an unblockable attack from off-camera and to the right from a hulking, gorilla-like cyborg. The problem is compounded because "Revengeance" never offers the space to learn how to effectively parry, a short, one or two kill optional tutorial tucked away in the VR missions your only early exposure to the mechanic. Ultimately, I never really felt like I was getting better at "Revengeance," just haltingly surviving encounters with the games grunts and bosses.
Speaking of the bosses, those encounters are all over the place: the trade-off for Platinum Games creating a collection of colorful heavies with a variety of visually interesting attacks is that you can muddle through an encounter with them without ever really developing a strategy to fight them. The fight with Monsoon might be the worst offender, the Desperado Enterprises cyborg flinging his limbs at you in rapid succession, and sure, you might be able to parry a couple of attacks, but the flick+attack mechanic Platinum Games has developed doesn't seem designed with the way human hands operate and the impossibility of timing that particular movement so quickly. That fight and the core mechanics they're built on tread this weird line between feeling brilliant and broken.
But it's when you're rewarded with those moments of grace where Raiden can hack through a massive boss, a handy counter logging the hundreds of pieces they've been cut into, that "Revengeance" reaches almost a state of grace. You're liable to forgive the frustration from a few minutes ago for this brief (albeit fleeting) burst of proficiency. Even after I spent something like 45 minutes hammering away at the final form of the final boss (whose identity is the perfect encapsulation of Platinum's sense of the ridiculous and the sublime), my annoyance at having to figure out just what the damned game expected of me in this last fight melted way when I was able to rip him to pieces with a borrowed blade.
I really want Platinum to get another at-bat with Raiden: it's not like theirs is a game that's all ideas and no execution. It's simply one whose execution breaks down because the developer wanted to cram so many ideas in. I think they've created something special here with "Revengeance," it simply requires the refinement of iteration to make it great.
"Metal Gear Rising Revengeance" is available now on the Xbox 360 and PS3.
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