A farewell to arms

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PlayStation 3)

OldboyMuch of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has an air of finality about it, as far as I’m concerned. Not only because it marks the chronological endpoint of Snake’s story, but also because it turned out to be the last MGS game I ever played. On a technical and gameplay level, it’s functional: nothing spectacular, but also nothing abysmally wrong (apart from long loading times), and if combat is what interests you, then you probably won’t find much to complain about here. The graphics still look good today, the soundtrack is decent, and there are some interesting narrative choices. But I’ve also never really felt the urge to pick up another MGS game after this one, nor the urge to actually replay it, which may sound surprising, considering the hyperbolic praise this game received upon release. Maybe I just got tired of the nonsense, which stopped being epic and just became nonsense. Maybe because all they can do now is prequels, unless they want to continue with Raiden. Maybe because I don’t actually like what they’ve decided to do with Raiden’s story in Metal Gear Rising. Maybe because I hit my cutscene saturation point. Maybe because the game finally went overboard from “puerile” to “offensive” in some of its characterisations. Or maybe all of this at once.

KnockoutLet’s start with some positives though. Combat now takes place with an over-the-shoulder camera, which you can actually switch sides for an easier time looking around corners, as well as switching to first-person mode. Camouflage makes a return from MGS3, as Snake wears an enhanced bodysuit with camouflage properties, which he can further supplement with face camo after a specific boss fight. He’s also equipped with a “Solid Eye”, which looks like an eyepatch (to further enhance the similarities with Big Boss) and functions as binoculars or night-vision goggles, as well as informing Snake of things like what weapons the soldiers use or footprints that wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, and providing a mini-map. As MGS4 was one of the first games developed for the PlayStation 3, the rumble feature was only implemented late into the game’s development cycle, meaning that it uses a system called the Threat Ring, which appears around Snake himself and becomes visibly distorted when an enemy is detected nearby, indicating which direction they’re coming from.

Butt zap!Two other additions are the Psyche Gauge and the Metal Gear Mk. II.  The former indicates Snake’s stress level, which affects things like aim or the likelihood of passing out after being wounded, and serves to humanise him a bit and make him more relatable. He can stress out from stuff like extreme temperatures or bad smells, while having a smoke, eating something or looking at a naughty magazine will help him relax. The Metal Gear Mk. II is a small robot on wheels designed by Otacon to serve as a mini-reconnaissance unit. It functions as a mobile codec to communicate with other characters, can scout for Snake, but also deliver electric shocks to enemies to temporarily stun them. All in all, the fact that I can’t really remember much about the combat is probably a positive point, since it means that it flowed seamlessly enough for me not to notice it.

If only saluting would end this gameThe problem is that the game often prevents you from actually playing. The series’ trademark cutscene bloat reached an all-time high in this particular opus. In fact, I have the sneaking suspicion that Hideo Kojima’s career has been one long, arduous battle against his hardwired desire to make films rather than games. By all accounts, he has managed to get it under control for MGS5, but this is probably as a direct result of what happened with MGS4. As of 2015 (I don’t know if this is still true today, but it very well might be), it held Guinness World Records for the longest single cutscene (27 mins) and longest cutscene sequence (71 mins…) in a videogame, the former being included within the latter as part of the game’s ending. Someone did some number crunching on this and came up with a staggering 44% cutscene-to-gameplay proportion. By comparison, MGS2, in second place, had a 41% ratio, but its longest cutscene was only 20 mins long.  

Could've saved you a lot of troubleCombine this with what is possibly the most convoluted and poorly-written storyline in the series and, by the end of it, I was basically in a cutscene-induced stupor. There are just too many twists-that-aren’t-really-twists, red herrings and overly-convenient (or nonsensical) explanations, and once the game is done, and you think back on what’s happened, you may well be forgiven for wondering whether all of that was really necessary. The key facts, though, are that it’s 2014 and that “war…has changed”, as Snake’s voiceover takes pains to remind you over and over again in the intro sequence. The world economy is now somehow fully dependent on war, resulting in a constant global conflict where private military companies fight each other for…reasons. As a result of the events of MGS2, Liquid Snake’s consciousness has taken over Revolver Ocelot’s body (well…it’s complicated) and basically established a single mega-mercenary company, fuelling the chaos. Colonel Campbell has asked Solid Snake to off him, and that’s where the game begins.

For old times' sakeSnake has been ageing rapidly, due to being a clone, and is now an old man, which makes for an interesting take on the traditional hero persona. Instead of your usual battle-hardened muscle-head, you have to deal with an elderly, disillusioned, often bitter man whose only real prospect in life is impending decrepitude and death. This only has minimal impact on the gameplay, as Snake’s bodysuit also compensates for his physical deterioration (he still gets back pains though), but it does impact the storyline, especially when he inevitably bumps into Meryl again (and I still can’t quite believe that they decided to end her character arc as they did). EVA also resurfaces, and it’s disconcerting to see her son looking the same age as her. Although I have to take exception to the fact that, at 78, she’s still rockin’ that damn cleavage…Was there really no way to tastefully depict a woman of her age? Also, her introduction, verbatim: “Call me Mama…*dramatic pause* Big Mama”. I’m sorry, I just can’t. Yes, the MGS series is notorious for mixing up the serious and the silly, but this is an example where it doesn’t work. 

Dat smirkAnyway, Snake now lives with Otacon (platonically, although, by the end of the game, you gotta start wondering, because poor Hal’s disastrous track record with women unfortunately holds), and they have essentially adopted Olga Gurlukovich’s daughter, Sunny, whom Raiden managed to rescue from the Patriots with EVA’s help. However, he was later captured by them and, in a rather shocking development, turned into a cyborg. The only remaining organic part of him is his spine and head, minus the lower jaw (and yet, he’s somehow still sexy). His relationship with Rose has also broken down, and all of this basically turned him into a brooding badass–so much so that he fights an entire battle with his sword held between his teeth at one point, due to being unable to use his hands–, much to the surprise of those who complained about his whining in MGS2. His feud with Vamp is also alive and well (and practically drowning in innuendo), and results in two eye-catching duels. All in all, he was probably my favourite part of the game, and I appreciated the way his story ended. And then MGR happened. But I digress.

IncandescentAn MGS game wouldn’t be complete without a Foxhound-like villain squad, and, sure enough, there is one here, called the Beauty and the Beast unit, pushing the similarities to imitating the original Foxhound codenames mixed with emotion-based epithets, à la MGS3’s Cobra Unit, which doesn’t bode well for their originality. There’s a Laughing Octopus, a Raging Raven, a Crying Wolf and a Screaming Mantis. However, I have a real problem with their portrayal. You see, they’re all female and based on fashion models. Now, in itself, an all-female villain squad might’ve been a welcome novelty, and I can’t deny that they’re all beautiful, especially Raging Raven, who is nuclear levels of hot. But any characterisation they get comes after they’re dead, which never gives them the chance to establish themselves as anything but pretty faces. On top of that, they all suffer from extreme PTSD, to the extent that they can’t function normally when outside their robotic armour. Cue them writhing around in agony in skintight, glistening wet (for some reason) bodysuits when Snake inevitably destroys said armour, while the camera frantically shows off butts, boobs and cameltoes, like it’s being handled by an overeager horny teenager. Apparently, the original idea was for them to be naked during these sequences, but it proved unworkable due to rating reasons. But if Snake doesn’t damage them for a long enough time after they’re out of their armour, they’ll be transported to a white room where he can take pictures of them while they strike sexy poses. I mean, yes, MGS is known for its fanservice, but, in previous games, this was limited to psychologically functional ladies showing off cleavage or underwear (and balanced by the presence of shirtless gentlemen). This feels uncomfortably like exploitation, and the fact that the trend continued in MGS5 with Quiet is not a good sign at all. Raiden was completely naked in MGS2, you say? Yes, but the camera wasn’t staring up his bum as he was having a full-on nervous breakdown while crying, moaning and panting suggestively. And while he admittedly also has PTSD, it was never portrayed as anywhere near that level of debilitating.

I'm bustin' outta hereTo sum things up, my main feeling throughout this game was just that it had to end. And once it did, I felt that there was sufficient closure for all involved–for better or for worse–, so the decision to continue the franchise could only appear misguided to me, and nothing I have seen, heard or read about the topic has suggested otherwise. If you’re a full-fledged MGS fan, chances are you’ll disagree, and perhaps you think that MGS5 and/or MGR were brilliant. I, however, remain of the opinion that MGS3 was the best in the series and that it all should just have ended with MGS4. It’s been fun, guys. Wish you’d managed to not slip up until the end.

Pokédemon

The culprit: Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (PlayStation 2)

Enter the heroMy feelings about Curse of Darkness are a rather mixed bag. Its predecessor had it easier. As the first Castlevania game chronologically and a valiant attempt to reinvent the series in 3D after the lacklustre efforts on the Nintendo 64, Lament of Innocence could get away with being formulaic in a series that pretty much epitomises the word. Curse of Darkness doesn’t have that luxury: it’s third in line chronologically, and the 3D novelty doesn’t work anymore. And while it does try to mix things up a little and ends up being more than a little quirky, the effort feels distinctly half-baked. As if the developers were mostly going through the motions, rather than genuinely trying to produce something new and interesting. But then, ‘new and interesting’ tends to be too much to expect from most long-running game series.

Curse of Darkness is set three years after Dracula’s Curse on the NES, in which Dracula–formerly Mathias Cronqvist, as people who have played LoI will know–was defeated by Trevor Belmont, a descendant of Mathias’ friend, Leon Belmont. However, before he died, Dracula cursed the land, resulting in a recrudescence of monsters and general proclivity for conflict among the people.

Dramatic posingThe first thing worth noting is that the main protagonist is not a Belmont, although this has happened before (e.g. Alucard, Soma Cruz) and will happen again in later games. Trevor does make an appearance, but he’s not the main focus. Thus, the player is put in control of Hector, a former Devil Forgemaster of Dracula’s. During the events of Dracula’s Curse, Hector was sent to confront Trevor, but used the opportunity to escape, as he couldn’t tolerate Dracula’s evil any longer. Dracula was defeated, and Hector tried to live a quiet life. However, another Devil Forgemaster, called Isaac (who clearly thinks he’s too sexy for his shirt), was jealous of Hector’s status as Dracula’s favourite and wanted revenge for his betrayal. He kept tabs on him and orchestrated a plot that got Hector’s wife executed for witchcraft in order to draw him out. Isaac’s other goal is to resurrect Dracula, which is why Trevor eventually gets involved as well.

Yes, reallyThe more atypical characteristic of the game is the environment. The main focus of most Castlevania games is the actual Castlevania, i.e. Dracula’s Castle, which tends to be the setting for most, if not all, of the story. Here, Castlevania doesn’t even exist for most of the game. Thus, Hector spends most of his time in the Wallachian (N.B. a region in Romania) countryside, traversing forests, mountains, temples and even a town (although it’s deserted). Before you get all enthusiastic, though, the difference isn’t really blatant. The colour palette is generally a variation on ‘drab’, and the level designers don’t seem to have mastered much beyond corridors. Thankfully, transportation is somewhat facilitated by Memorial Tickets, which will take Hector to the last Save Room he used (marked in red on maps), or handy teleporter…chairs. Actually, saving is also achieved via chairs. In fact, chairs are a recurring joke theme in this game. Each area in the game features several seating items (often in hidden locations) that Hector can plonk his rear on, which are then collected in a completely surreal secret room.

"Ziggy played guitar"Another prominent difference lies in combat, which is one of the main points of interest in the game. As he is not a Belmont, Hector doesn’t have access to their trademark whip weapon. He is, however, a Forgemaster, meaning that he can use a whole plethora of other stuff, including swords, spears, axes, knuckles, and some joke weapons such as a nail bat, a frying pan or even an electric guitar (and yes, he actually plays it to attack…). Every weapon has its own set of attack combos. Hector’s equipment also includes the more traditional helmets, armour and accessories. Most of this can be crafted from items, which can be dropped or stolen (once Hector learns the skill) from enemies.

"Bring meee tooo life"Weapons are not Hector’s main speciality, however. As a Devil Forgemaster, he has, first and foremost, the ability to create Innocent Devils (IDs). If you’re wondering about the name, the explanation is that, while they are dark beings, they have no inherent moral compass and simply serve their creator with utmost loyalty. Certain areas in the game contain forges: small rooms where Hector can unlock a new type of ID, which he can then name and summon to accompany him. Familiars have been used in other games in the series, but this is their most involved and detailed iteration. There are six types of IDs: fairies, melee, birds, mages, actual devils and, making a comeback from LoI, pumpkins. They all boost Hector’s stats in some way, and every type has a speciality. Fairies can heal and open locks; melee-types can smash walls and floors; birds can carry Hector over chasms; mages can stop time and burn vines; devils can hide Hector underground (to pass under obstructions); and pumpkins, while worthless in combat, give him the heftiest stat boosts.

Unleash the dragonIDs fight alongside Hector, and you can either control them manually or let the A.I. handle it. Some can even chain attacks with Hector when an onscreen prompt appears. IDs level up from combat, just as Hector does, gradually learning new abilities and extending their Heart Meter. This not only serves as their HP, but also depletes a little whenever they use a special move, thus making them the equivalent of sub-weapons in other Castlevanias. Hearts can be found by smashing candles, dropped by enemies or regained by performing a Perfect Guard (i.e. guarding right before the enemy attacks), once Hector learns the ability.

How to grow your pumpkinWhen first unlocked, each ID appears in a default form, and each type has several different evolution paths to choose from, except the devil-type, which only has one, and the pumpkin, whose evolutions are purely cosmetic. When Hector fights alongside an ID, enemies drop different coloured Evolution Crystals, depending on the weapon Hector kills them with. Once you pick up a certain item, you’ll be able to consult each ID’s evolution Fuzzballchart in the menu, showing how many crystals are needed for each form, and what that form’s stats are. Some are more useful than others, and some look decidedly goofy, considering the general atmosphere of the game. E.g. all of the pumpkins; the Proboscis Fairy, with its fake nose and moustache; or the adorably cuddly Iytei (probably a misspelling of “yeti”), which even features in a boss battle, as Isaac has one too.

BenignIDs will also sometimes drop Devil Shards, which allow Hector to create another ID of the same type, but with improved stats. These increase with every generation, so it might make sense to go through several iterations before settling on your favourite. Early on in the game, Hector will encounter Julia, a witch who has escaped persecution by living in isolation in the mountains and looks uncannily like his deceased wife. I’m sure you can guess where this is headed. What I’m not sure of is why in the world the “she looks like my dead wife” trope is considered as a good basis for a budding relationship. Anyway, Julia offers to help Hector defeat Isaac: he can buy items in her shop, but she will also store his surplus IDs for him, and he can swap them at will by visiting the shop using Magical Tickets (another Castlevania staple). This makes it possible to have several evolutions of one ID type available, which can be a definite plus (e.g. with Fairies).

"Fly me to the moon"Other elements in the game are more typical. There’s an optional dungeon, accessible with a bird-type ID, called the Tower of Evermore, which consists of a series of 50 identical, enemy-filled rooms (wahey), and an optional superboss, accessible with a devil-type ID. Once you finish your first playthrough, there’s a Boss Rush mode and a Crazy mode, to increase the difficulty. You can also replay the game with Trevor, who can use whips and sub-weapons (instead of IDs), and collect stat bonuses instead of EXP, but can’t access Julia’s shop or store consumables. And last but not least, Michiru Yamane’s and Yuka Watanabe’s soundtrack is still one of the game’s main attractions, even though I found it to be somewhat less memorable than in LoI. The highlights are the darkly blazing “Abandoned Castle – The Curse of Darkness”; the groovy “Balhjet Mountains”; the ominously lilting “Garibaldi Courtyard”, complete with tolling bells; or the surprising “Mortvia Fountain”, with its salsa-like rhythms.

Cannot...unsee...To sum things up, this is a rather uneven effort. It’s fun enough while you’re plugging away at it, but rather forgettable when all is said and done. None of the characters manage to rise above the generic, the dialogue and plot are as exciting as stale bread, Isaac should REALLY put some clothes on, the Saint-Germain character feels out-of-place, the attempts at humour are rather jarring, and the level design is, to put it bluntly, boring. On the other hand, the music is great, and raising Innocent Devils is quite entertaining, adding a distinct “gotta catch ‘em all” vibe to it all. Then again, this is supposed to be Castlevania, not Pokémon.

Snakes for breakfast, frogs for lunch

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Ahh, my favourite MGS game. Which may be odd, since it features several noteworthy differences from the rest of the series: a) it’s mostly set outdoors in a jungle, b) it doesn’t involve Metal Gear as a final opponent, and c) it includes some gameplay elements that are either new or haven’t been reused since. Heck, it doesn’t even feature Solid Snake.

"Badass" is his middle nameLet me qualify that last statement: it doesn’t feature Solid Snake in name only. The protagonist is Naked Snake (…no comment), who will later become known as Big Boss, arch-nemesis and biological ‘father’ of Solid (and Liquid and Solidus). If you’ve played the first two games, you’ll know that they’re not so much his children as his clones, so essentially, you’re controlling a character who looks and sounds exactly like Solid Snake, and behaves pretty much like him too. And everyone calls him Snake anyway.

The main opponent is not Metal Gear simply because it hadn’t been invented at the time. Its predecessor is involved, though, bearing the much more pedestrian name of The woman in chargeShagohod (literally “which moves by walking” in Russian). The game is set in Cold War USSR and involves Snake’s former mentor–known as The Boss–defecting to the Soviets, while he has to prevent a nuclear incident from escalating into outright war and rescue a Soviet scientist who had defected to the US but was subsequently used as a bargaining chip to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. This setting serves to increase the series’ similarity to a Bond film. This is further enhanced by the inclusion of a hammy, Bondesque theme song with hilariously preposterous lyrics like “someday you go through the rain, and someday you dine on a tree frog”.

This brings us to the main gameplay mechanic and the reason behind the game’s title. Since Snake gets dumped in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back and his gun, he has to rely on the local flora and fauna to survive. In addition to his Life Gourmet menumeter, he has a Stamina meter, which gradually depletes and affects his aim accuracy, among other things. The only way to recover Stamina is to find some grub. However, to complicate matters, not all foodstuffs have the same nutritional value. Some are downright poisonous (this, however, can be used against enemies), some Snake just doesn’t like the taste of and therefore won’t recover much Stamina from (but he can get used to the taste over time and even grow to like it), and some require skill to catch (cf. Gavials or the elusive LegendaryTsuchinoko). Other foodstuffs, like the False Mango, have medicinal properties, and the Russian Glow Cap mushroom can even recharge batteries…which makes you wonder whether those nukes in the Shagohod aren’t leaking or something. One thing to take into consideration, however, is the fact that, although Snake can catch up to three live animals, he has no way of actually preserving food, meaning that it will spoil after a while (signalled by flies appearing on its menu icon). Specifically, as the game has an internal clock, if you quit and come back to that save later, you’ll be guaranteed to find every non-industrial food item spoiled. And while I must applaud the game’s realism, it can become aggravating to constantly renew your food supplies.

Instant diagnosisI mentioned medicinal properties, and this is another feature specific to the game: Snake can get seriously wounded (eg. break a bone) or poisoned, which will affect his Life meter until treated. Each type of injury requires a specific treatment routine (eg. disinfecting or suturing). Again, bonus points for realism, but it does mean that you have to keep an eye on your medical supplies.

UnsuspectingOther than this, the controls are very similar to previous games, so you won’t have any difficulties if you’re a veteran of the series. One difference is the absence of a radar, due to the fact that the game is set in the ‘60s. Instead, you can use a motion detector system, which basically performs the same function. However, the stealth element has received a significant upgrade with the addition of camouflage. Snake can change his outfit and even his face paint to blend in with his surroundings. These are indicated atBricked the top right of the screen, alongside a camouflage percentage. Obviously, the higher the better, and crouching or lying down will increase the percentage further. You can find new outfits and face paints as you progress, and picking the right one in any given situation is a definite tactical plus. Although you do have to wonder where exactly he stows all those outfits (in particular, the crocodile cap…).

Femme fataleAs far as characters are concerned, the game fares a lot better than its immediate predecessor. For starters, you’ve got EVA, who acts as a competent sidekick for Snake, even though her status as the game’s official ‘femme fatale’ wouldn’t have been diminished if she’d zipped up her overalls at least a little bit more. The villain department can also stand proud. The Boss is a strong, charismatic presence throughout the game, miles ahead of anything Solidus Snake could ever hope to achieve. Unfortunately, the game ends up contriving a completely ludicrous reason (that is NOT how a caeserean works) for her to flash some cleavage as well during Snake’s inevitable confrontation with her. It’s a dent to her credibility, but as it occurs through no actual fault of her character, I just try to ignore it.

Moreover, not only does a young Revolver Ocelot make an appearance (although he’s rather annoying this time around), but the familiar group of sub-bosses is more memorable than the MGS2 ones. The Boss used to be part of a Soviet special forces squad, the Cobra Unit. Each member of the unit is named after a specific emotion which they associate with combat (eg. The Fury or The Pain) and has a characteristic way of fighting to go with it. Special mention Pretty sly for an old guygoes to The End, the extremely old sniper, whose boss battle involves Snake trying to sneak up on him over three separate areas. This is rendered more difficult by the fact that he’s an expert at camouflage, can recover stamina from sunlight, relocates every time Snake shoots him and has a parrot which acts as a spotter. However, the game’s internal clock can be used to humorous advantage here. If you save during the battle and come back to the game after a week, The End will have died of old age.

Each MGS game has its own theme: the first one revolved around genetics, the second around memetic engineering. Snake Eater deals with moral and cultural relativism. This is exemplified by the various defections throughout the game and drives home (with a baseball bat) the fact that different sides of a conflict result from different cultural backgrounds and circumstances, and that those circumstances can change. This is particularly relevant for Naked Snake himself, since he will be considered as a villain in later games. I found this to be a more compelling thematic than the two preceding ones, even though it’s unavoidably treated with the same overdramatic flair as anything in MGS. And, of course, silly humour still abounds. For instance, the Target practicecollectibles in this game no longer include the usual dog tags, but instead…toy frogs, named Kerotans, scattered in semi-hidden locations throughout the game. Shooting all of them (and there’s a handful of infuriatingly difficult ones towards the end) will grant you the Kerotan codename at the end of the game, as well as the Stealth camo (which makes Snake invisible) for subsequent replays.

I must, however, mention something which I found particularly grating. The game does a surprisingly good job with its Russian. Most of the place names are believable, and they’re even transcribed correctly on the loading screens 99% of the time. Even most of the character names are realistic. But then…the game throws the ludicrous “Adamska” at you during the final cutscene. And they were so close to getting it right…Oh, and one more thing: this game features the most incomprehensible caesarean ever. You’ll see what I mean.

No parleyBe that as it may, I must still commend Snake Eater. It delivers everything which makes MGS fun and does so in spades. It’s possible that the stronger Bond parallels made me enjoy it more, but whatever the reason, I had a blast playing this. Especially due to the fact that I’d seen the infamous “Crab Battle” video prior to starting.

In fact, if at all possible, try to get your hands on Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, a remake released two years after the original and also the version included in the HD Collection. Not only does the game now include a free third person camera (invaluable), but also extra camo items. Additionally, a separate disc titled Persistence features various extras, such as a Boss Duel Mode, a Secret Theatre featuring Computers galorehumorous cutscenes, a silly minigame called Snake vs Monkey, but, more importantly, the first two games in the saga, Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, which were previously all but unavailable outside Japan. Honestly, they’re old games, and not really much to write home about, but if you’re interested in the origins of MGS, then this is for you. The disc also features Metal Gear Online, a multiplayer mode which has since become obsolete, so it can safely be disregarded. Finally, the European edition of Subsistence (and the limited US edition) includes a third disc titled Existence, which basically strings together all the game’s cutscenes, condensing it into something like a film format. For people who want an even more cinematic experience.

Goth and cheese

The culprit: Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PlayStation 2)

I’d never played a Castlevania game before, but I’d heard plenty about them, so I thought I’d see for myself what the fuss was about. Lament of Innocence being chronologically the first episode in the series, that’s where I decided to start. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it (mostly) chronicles a century-spanning feud between one family, the Belmonts, and none other than Dracula (it even integrates Bram Stoker’s novel into its chronology). The gist, then, is killing vampires. With whips. Go figure.

Full-on gothConsidering the subject matter, you may expect cheesiness. And you’d be right. As is fitting when dealing with vampires (*throws bricks at Twilight*), the games are steeped in gothic and baroque imagery, albeit with an anime twist. Expect looming castles filled with ominous statuary; rainy nights over dark forests; pale, virginal maidens who get abducted; demonic creatures and fiendish traps; hammy dialogue; long-limbed, sharp-featured virtuous heroes, and a (thankfully) non-sparkling Dracula waiting for them at the end. Although you have to wonder at the efficiency of it all…I mean, if Dracula keeps coming back, maybe they should take a hint and start using stakes instead of whips? Just saying.

Indy called, he wants his whip backBe that as it may, since Lament of Innocence deals with the origins of Dracula, he’s not actually the game’s main antagonist. That title goes to another vampire, rather ludicrously named Walter. Don’t know about you, but that says ‘dignified English butler’ rather than ‘bloodthirsty fiend’ to me. Anyway, the game takes place in 1094, and the hero is Leon Belmont, a blonde nobleman in a distinctly non-XIth century outfit, whose bride gets kidnapped by Jeeves. Obviously, he rushes to the rescue with help from an alchemist named Rinaldo who lives in a cabin near the vampire’s castle (read: he will be Leon’s go-to supplier throughout the game). It seems that Alfred gets a kick out of kidnapping brides and defeating the suitors who come to rescue them, and Rinaldo’s not exactly down with that.

Is that tomato juice?Leon is fairly reactive and easy to control, and the game guides you through a tutorial sequence at the beginning to get acquainted with his moves. He can run, jump, double-jump (i.e. gain an extra boost in midair) and latch onto things with the magical whip given to him by Rinaldo. The whip is also his main weapon, and he can upgrade it by facing three optional bosses. There are several combos he can perform with it, all of which are automatically learned and helpfully listed in the menu. He also has access to several sub-weapons, such as an axe or a vial of holy water, of which he can equip one at a time (you do have opportunities to swap them, however). Sub-weapons can be used to perform special attacks, but consume energy, measured in hearts. These are sometimes dropped by enemies, but can also be found by breaking Holy protection, bitchez!candle-stands. Sub-weapons can be further powered up by coloured orbs obtained after defeating the main storyline bosses, which lends a lot of variety to combat. Things tend to get a bit hairy when enemies attack in large groups, however, which isn’t helped by the fact that opening the menu in combat doesn’t pause the action and renders Leon unable to attack.

In terms of defence, Leon has a magical gauntlet, which can be used for guarding against attacks. Furthermore, if guarding against a special attack or performing a perfect guard (guarding at the last possible moment before an attack hits), Leon will recover MP. Unfortunately, this is the only way to do so, which can sometimes be aggravating. MP are used to power relics: various offensive or defensive magical objects (such as the Invincible Jar or the Crystal Skull) of which Leon can also only equip one at a time. A suit of armour and two accessories complete his outfit.

Apart from the engaging combat system, the game also does a good job in the setting department. Nestor’s castle is enormous. I mean, it’s the size of a town. The entrance lobby is a hub area, from which Leon can access various wings of the building. There Do vampires go to church?are seven in total, each with its own general thematic, atmosphere and overdramatically pompous name. For example, the House of Sacred Remains looks like a sprawling cathedral, the Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab is a fiery forge, and the Ghostly Theatre looks like you’ve stumbled backstage at the opera, while the Garden Forgotten by Time is an overgrown ruin and the Dark Palace of Waterfalls is just a poetic name for the sewers. These five areas are available from the beginning, and clearing each one will earn Leon one of the aforementioned coloured orbs, which will light up a corresponding globe in the lobby. Once all have been lit, he will gain access to the Pagoda of the Misty Moon, He could use a makeoverwhich looks nothing like a pagoda, but leads up to the final confrontation with Jenkins. The seventh area is the Prison of Eternal Torture, containing a very difficult optional boss, if you’re eager for a challenge and an extra coloured orb. Although it’s definitely not for the squeamish. There’s just one problem: the only indication as to the order in which to explore these areas is a hint on where to go first, but after that, you’re on your own. Which means that you could pick wisely…or wander into the Dark Palace of Waterfalls and tear your hair out. It doesn’t help that each area features a locked door which usually leads to a nifty item, but requires a key found in a different part of the castle. That means backtracking through respawning enemies, which can get distinctly tedious, due to the sheer size of the areas and the developers’ inordinate love for all things corridor-y. That being said, there are some ways to ease the pain. First of all, save points (situated in small rooms marked in red on the map) will always replenish Leon’s HP. Secondly, Magical Tickets will whisk him off to Rinaldo’s shop from anywhere within the castle, while Memorial Tickets will take him back to the latest save point he used. Thirdly, he can use coloured Marker Stones to signal points of interest on the map.

Floor websThe one indisputably successful aspect of this game is the music. Michiru Yamane’s score is simply fantastic, featuring beautiful, haunting melodies, such as the theme of the House of Sacred Remains (my personal favourite), with its slow buildup, the measured lilt of the Garden Forgotten by Time or the dramatic flair of the Ghostly Theatre. Even the more surprisingly rhythmical Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab works well with its environment. This is a great bonus for the game’s atmosphere, almost counterbalancing all the backtracking, and possibly what I enjoyed the most about it.

Girdle of smokeThe game also makes an effort in the replayability sector. Once Leon is done showing Poole who’s boss–notably lambasting him with a ham of epic proportions (“I’ll defeat you AND the night!”)–you have several new options. You can play in Crazy mode, which will significantly raise the difficulty level. You can also play the Boss Rush mode, which strings all the game’s bosses together back-to-back, provided you’ve beaten them in the course of the storyline (this includes all optional bosses). You can start a new game with all of Leon’s skills learned, or, more interestingly, with a different protagonist. The first one available is Joachim, a vampire whom you may remember as a boss. He has a longstanding feud with Winston, and the story changes accordingly. There are a few crucial differences between him an Leon, namely that he uses magical swords which circle Blade barrieraround him instead of a whip and can’t block enemy attacks. The lack of a whip also means that he can’t perform acrobatics, but the game accommodates him by introducing moving blocks instead. Joachim also can’t equip or carry any items (Rinaldo won’t deal with him, and anything he finds is consumed immediately), although he can collect stat upgrades. All in all, it makes the game distinctly more challenging, especially if you decide to take on the optional bosses.

Trick or treat?Once you’ve cleared the game with Joachim, you’ll unlock another protagonist: Pumpkin, an…adorable little munchkin with a pumpkin for a head and giant sweets for hands. He has puny HP and MP, and his only sub-weapon is *gasp* a pumpkin, but boy, does he pack a wallop. Especially since he starts with the strongest whip in the game. In all other respects, he handles exactly as Leon did, which, amusingly, makes him the most powerful character of the three. As an added bonus, leave him idle for a while, and he’ll start humming Joachim’s theme tune.

My name is WALTER, dammit!All in all, this is a decent bit of entertainment. The storyline is nothing to write home about, the characters are cardboard cutouts, the voice acting is mediocre at best, the dialogue is cheesy as all hell, and Wilkins is a terrible name for a vampire. On the other hand, the combat system is entertaining, and while exploration does get repetitive, the lavish, gloomy gothic castle and its various musical pleasures do have definite style. I’ve noticed that Castlevania fans tend to snub this particular entry in the series, but while it’s far from being a masterpiece, it’s not a complete disaster either, as some may lead you to believe.

Mind-boggling doesn’t even begin to describe it

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, as part of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection)

Every series has its black sheep: the game that either fell short of the established quality mark, or tried to do something different, but didn’t quite succeed. In the Metal Gear Solid series, the title of black sheep usually goes to the second opus, Sons of Liberty. And I would tend to agree. Compared to its predecessor, things just don’t quite He'll defend his modesty with his lifegel together. Even in the fanservice department. Considering the game is designed for an overwhelmingly male audience and is part of a series now famous for its mild naughtiness, there’s really not a lot of it. No Meryls or Sniper Wolves here, gentlemen. You have manly Olga and her armpits (way to give Russian women a bad rap, thanks!), just-as-manly Fortune, who looks like she just came out of a Pro Wrestling ring, Emma (Otacon’s half-sister), straight from ‘nerdy-14-year-old-stalker’ land and Rose, who’s in a whole league of her own, and not in a good way. On top of that, there’s a rather lengthy section involving Raiden (a.k.a. Jack) running around buck naked. It’s a refreshing change of pace from scantily clad ladies, but I’m curious: which part of the player base was this aimed at?

The storyline is intentionally designed as a sort of rehash of the first game, which distinctly impairs its impact. But the reason it provides for said rehash opens a whole other can of worms. Kojima’s (N.B. Hideo Kojima, the mastermind behind the series) intention may have been to deliver a deep philosophical message about the increasingly virtual nature of our society, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one going “what…the…hell…” during that–oh…1hr long?–final cutscene. And yes, the cinematic overload the series is now notorious for is beginning to be apparent here. It’s still the same kind of epic nonsense as in the first game, but it somehow got turned up to 11 (cue obscure film reference). Especially the ‘radio breakdown’ episode. And naming the various rooms of the final area of the game after the stages of the digestive tract (culminating in “Arsenal: Rectum”) might have been a liiiittle bit too much. The aim was to give the player the sense of having been swallowed by a malevolent entity. Well, it certainly worked! It also seems like there was a lot more American patriotism going on this time around, which, I must say, feels very strange in a Japanese game.

The game is split into two uneven parts featuring two different protagonists. I didn’t mind it, but it certainly caused an uproar when the game came out. Snake, who is the face of the MGS series, now has to share the bill with a newcomer called Raiden. A younger, more impulsive, more emotional, more talkative, blonder and ninja’er newcomer. It’s like a clash of the stereotypes: the rough, grizzled Action Man vs the acrobatic, pretty (but so very pretty…) anime hero. In fact, he’s so pretty that one male character mistakes him for a woman, despite the fact that he’s wearing a skin-tight bodysuit, then proceeds to grope him (…). To make matters worse, Raiden starts his section of the game being briefly codenamed Snake, just to cement that “hey guys, I’m crashing this party!” feeling. Certainly not the best way to win support. But you know what? Despite having been warned multiple times about him…I actually liked him. Shocking, I know. He was a nice change of pace from Snake’s “I don’t have time for this crap” attitude, especially since the structure of the game allowed for a direct comparison between the two. I’ve heard him described as whiny. Well, I’d certainly whine for a lot less. Yes, Snake also has his share of baggage and bears it quietly, but I don’t mind that Raiden is more open about his issues. Not that “open” is quite the proper term. I’m pretty sure he would’ve dwelt on them a lot less if not for his girlfriend, Rose.

Oh. Dear. God. Rose. “Jack, what day is it tomorrow?” “Jack, you seem upset.” “Jack, you’re in the middle of a dangerous mission, you could die at any moment, and I shouldn’t bother you, but…do you really care about me? Do you? Do you really? Because I don’t think you do. In fact, I think that you’re scared, and you don’t let me in, and your room is empty, and I bet you enjoyed rescuing Emma, you pervert, and…” *gets shot* I have rarely encountered a character that annoyed me to this extent. Raiden deserves a damn medal simply for putting up with her. And before you ask, yes, “Jack and Rose” was intentional.

Moving right on, due to the game’s insistence on rehashing its predecessor, much of the villain cast feels like a pale ersatz. There’s a Grey Fox stand-in and the Foxhound-wannabe Dead Cell. It’s a little difficult to take someone seriously when they’re riding around on rollerskates in a bombsuit while drinking wine from a straw (heresy!). That’s Fatman, and although the battle against him definitely qualifies as annoying, he’s no Vulcan Raven. Secondly, where Sniper Wolf scored a winning combination of cleavage, stealth and shadiness, Fortune wears a swimsuit (this isn’t a JRPG!), and flaunts those glistening man-thighs and that enormous railgun. Not to mention that her My, what long teeth you haveunique…condition all but nullifies the point of her boss battle. The only one that manages to equal his predecessor is Vamp, who, despite sharing Fortune’s condition, is just as disturbing as Psycho Mantis (if not more, due to the lack of fourth-wall-breaking tendencies) and certainly just as nefarious. To top it all off, you have Solidus Snake, who gives off a distinct Doc Ock vibe, but is otherwise a sorry excuse for a villain.

This isn’t to say that the entire cast is bad. Other than Snake, Otacon also makes a comeback, providing some thoroughly random hilarity in the first part of the game by trying to imitate Mei Ling and a rather heartbreaking episode in the second one. All of that, thankfully, sans pant-wetting. In the villain department, fan-favourite Revolver Ocelot also reappears, albeit with a somewhat disturbing twist.

It's ok, there's no one thereTo round things off, a few words about combat. It’s almost identical to The Twin Snakes, but for some reason, I had a lot less trouble with the controls this time around. Maybe because the PS2 controller is more ergonomic. Or maybe I simply got used to them. In any case, for anybody who’s only played the original Metal Gear Solid, it’s a significant improvement. You still get a codename based on your performance upon completing the game, alongside a pin code made up entirely of letters. This was originally intended to be entered on a special website to get the statistical breakdown for your playthrough. However, it’s no longer available, due to the age of the game. I must also say that collecting dog tags is now noticeably more difficult. There are quite a few tricky ones, even on Normal mode, and one memorably hair-tearing instance at the end of the first part of the game, where there’s a whole military meeting going on. The final series of battles is also particularly nasty this time around. Having to fight through roomfuls of guards before finally facing the big bad has a tendency to deplete rations. This resulted in my restarting several times to get the hang of the Metal Gear RAYs (yes, that’s a plural). Not to mention the ensuing smackdown against Solidus. There are a lot of things he is not, but “goddamn annoying” certainly applies as much to him as it did to Liquid, if not more. Let me also say just how much I hate the HF Blade, which is mandatory for that battle. Who thought that controlling a katana with a joystick was a good idea? Doesn’t help that you obtain it right before the final series of battles, meaning that you don’t have time to properly get used to it, short of running around slicing at thin air.

He'll never see this one comingTo make a long story short, this is still MGS alright, even if not in top shape, so if you enjoyed the first game, you might as well keep going. It only gets better, and if you want to understand what’s going on in MGS4, playing this one is pretty much a requirement. Not a bad game by any means, but certainly not the best the series has to offer.

That's debatableSons of Liberty was remade as Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance two years after its initial release, but apart from some minor graphic upgrades and a lot of optional stuff, such as Virtual Training combat simulations, a skateboarding mini-game (of all things) or the Snake Tales–which essentially gave people who really hated Raiden the ability to replay some of his sequences as Snake–the core game is the same as the original. In other words, if you already have the original, no point in shelling out more money. This version is also the one included in the recently-released Metal Gear Solid HD Collection.

Epic nonsense

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (GameCube)

Considering the almost legendary status of the Metal Gear series, finally getting my hands on The Twin Snakes was quite a momentous experience. As this was only the second real action game I’d ever played back then, I was a bit apprehensive as to how I would fare. In hindsight, I can say that most of my fears were confirmed, but they were also, to a great extent, compensated.

I picked The Twin Snakes, which is a remake developed for the Gamecube, over the original PS version of the game after having been told that the controls would be more user-friendly. Maybe my understanding of the term is flawed, or maybe I’m just not enough of an action buff, but, personally, that’s not the first epithet that comes to my mind. It took me about five resets to get through the first area of the game, simply because of the clunkiness of the controls.

First of all, the governing idea behind the gameplay is stealth: you’re in control of one guy versus an entire base of baddies, so the idea is to either create diversions to avoid combat completely, or to knock people out with a tranq gun and stow them into storage lockers, rather than spray everything with bullets. And to try to hide if you are spotted. However, there are several impediments to this. The onscreen radar is tiny, and in situations where there’s a walkway guarded by a surveillance camera overhead, for example, it’s practically impossible to make out the camera’s field of vision from below. Which, of course, makes avoiding it particularly problematic. Another hindrance is the almost preternatural hearing prowess of the enemy soldiers, especially when coupled with metallic floors and the wonderful precision of the Gamecube joystick.

Hands where I can see 'em!Secondly, maybe it’s just me, but I had a hard time getting used to some of the button combinations. I almost had to take notes when I first tried to hold an enemy up. It doesn’t help that, being a completionist, I simply had to go dog tag hunting; for those who aren’t familiar with the game, it involves shaking down or killing certain specific enemies to acquire their dog tags (simply for collecting purposes). Another manoeuvre I was never able to master is the ‘jump-out shot’. Finally, clunky controls also contributed to making the fights with Vulcan Raven and Liquid Snake particularly painful. The latter’s highly infuriating fisticuff technique (“I’m gonna hit you…NOT!”) certainly didn’t help. Also worth noting is the fact that the game rewards you with a codename upon completion, based on various statistics (time to complete, enemies killed, rations used, times saved, etc.). So you’re having a bit of trouble, like I did, you could end up with something silly like Elephant or Hippopotamus. On the other hand, if you absolutely rock the game’s socks, you could end up  codenamed Big Boss.

Be that as it may, gameplay difficulties are largely compensated by the storyline and characters, and the entire presentation of the game, which feels like an interactive action blockbuster, something the MGS series is now famous for. The single defining characteristic of The Twin Snakes is its ability to be deadly serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And that is actually a quality. Without going into too much detail (to avoid spoiling the fun…and also because it tends to get rather intricate), it involves a special agent of the US military, codenamed Solid Snake (yeah, I know…), who is dispatched to single-handedly stop a terrorist operation by a special forces unit gone rogue. Combine this with extremely hammy voice acting (looking at you, Liquid…and Snake too), overdramatisation and (sometimes odd) humour, and you have a load of epic nonsense. ‘Epic’ being the operative term.

Examples abound. Take Snake himself, for example. Yes, he’s a badass who can take out an entire military facility and a nuke-laden super-tank all on his own; something which, by the way, he has already done twice beforehand, in the two Metal Gear games, developed for the obscure MSX2 system (and thus, largely inaccessible outside of Japan). But then, despite these past heroics and his battle-hardened veteran status, he comes up with the following gems:

Campbell: “Destroy Metal Gear!”
Snake: “Metal Gear?”

Anderson: “There’s a PAL code.”
Snake: “PAL code?”

Otacon: “You can call me Otacon.”
Snake: “Otacon?”

And so on. That nanomachine injection he received before the mission–which, among other things, was supposed to improve his mental abilities–may have had reverse effects. Maybe he weathered one too many explosions. Or maybe he should get his ears checked. On a different note, I was surprised at his readiness to hit on just about anything with a pair of boobs. Before playing the game, I figured he’d be more of the “outta my way, woman” kind, not the “hey babe, how you doin’?” one, and certainly not the “getcha hands offa my ladeh!” one. I didn’t expect him to become such a sucker for Meryl. And I certainly didn’t expect the astounding display of terminal cheesiness that was the ‘proper’ ending of the game (“the caribou are beautiful in the spring, Meryl”). That was in a league of its own.

Two other beautiful examples of epic nonsense can be found in the fights against Revolver Ocelot (seriously, what the hell is up with the code names?!) and Psycho Mantis (I rest my case). The first one, a cowboy-styled maniac gun virtuoso who has just tortured a poor guy within an inch of his life and rigged him with explosives, introduces himself by going: “Revolver…*twirls his gun*…*twirls it some more*…*flips it over his shoulder and around his back*…*twirls it for another minute or so*…Ocelot”. Talk about delayed exposition.

The other, a creepy, unnaturally pale, emaciated, mind-reading, telekinetic freak, completely shatters the disturbing aura that’s been building up around him by going “you seem to like The Legend of Zelda” (the game checks the other saves on your memory card to do that), breaking the fourth wall and smattering the entire fight with references to the game’s developers, such as the infamous Hideo Blackout.

Some more examples include Meryl’s 180° turn from “I wanna be a soldier! And I’m not interested in men!” to “War is bad! Snake, I wub u!” within about 30 minutes (if that), or the over-the-top theatricality of the second confrontation with Sniper Wolf, complete with mournfully howling lupines. There are also multiple allegiance-reversals throughout the game, poor Otacon’s embarrassing introduction, Johnny Sasaki’s no less embarrassing but less pity-inducing one, the ‘ghost’ pictures (an Easter egg which features allegedly scary pictures of people in bad gory makeup), and the buildup to the final boss fight, which reaches interstellar proportions by the time it rolls around (*cue Jack Black voice* “It was destinyyyyy!”).

Finally, the game raises some questions that may never have an answer. For instance, why is Sniper Wolf the only member of Foxhound with an accent, when the three other members are all Russian? Also, why does she look like a natural blonde with pale skin and blue eyes when she’s supposedly a Kurd? And what the hell is “shalashaska” (Revolver Ocelot’s other nickname)? Because that’s certainly not in any Russian I know. Finally, how is hiding under a carboard box an effective means of camouflage?

Have gun, will not use itRegardless of what may appear as criticism, I’d say that playing The Twin Snakes was something of an equivalent to watching one of those old James Bond films, complete with Russian or British villains (both, in this case) and a tried-and-true plot involving a nuclear menace: so much to make fun of, but so thoroughly entertaining at the same time. The graphics are a bit dated by modern-day standards, but that was certainly the last thing I cared about while playing. So if you like spy flicks, enjoy a good laugh and can get a handle on the controls, chances are you’ll get your money’s worth with this bad boy.