Thursday, September 10, 2009

PS2 look: Nanobreaker

While some gamers may complain about the over-abundance of shooters available on consoles today I'm starting to wonder why nobody said anything about all of the 3D Action games put out during the last console generation. I guess I don't particularly mind since for the most part I find them enjoyable and each title has their nuances and slight differences that separate them from everything else in the genre. Needless to say despite the lack of positive reviews I picked up Konami's Nanobreaker and gave it a go.

As the story goes an island colony was built to house people who had undergone a number of nanomachine treatments. Apparently somebody forgot to do their firmware updates or were browsing porn sites without antivirus protection and the main computer went berserk. Somehow this causes the entire island population to mutate into these giant freaks. The army doesn't stand a chance against them so the corrupt government sends in a cyborg with a dark past to make things right. Our hero Jake must kill a lot of stuff, do some frequent platforming, deal with his rival, and protect a scientist. There's a map in this game but it's not good for much outside of finding the next destination as this game is very linear.

Like most 3D Action Heroes Jake is capable of jumping, running, and dodge-rolling. Eventually he gets the abilities to double-jump and glide though this just means more platforming. His jumps are very stiff and he can only change direction in mid-air off of his double-jump. While Jake has a fairly lengthy health meter he has few ways to restore it aside from the rare drop and bathing in his enemy's blood. This is rather annoying as entering a boss fight with little health is never enjoyable.

Our cyborg friend arrives at the island with a plasma sword as his sole weapon. This impressive blade is notable for its combo abilities. Through different combinations of square, triangle, and the R1 button his sword can perform a variety of attacks that causes the blade to change shape. By performing a lot of combos and spilling a lot of blood Jake's limiter will turn off. What this means is that his attacks will do more damage and some of his combo finishers gain additional properties. For example in one combo he swings a scythe to finish it. With his limiter on he has a chance at slicing one enemy in half with the finish. Without the limit not only is the slice guaranteed but nearby enemies caught in the attack will get destroyed as well. The sword also has access to a grab move to snatch enemies from far away. With proper timing a snatch can be followed with a critical swing to instantly destroy most enemies. This doesn't work on every enemy yet it's required for some bosses. As a supplement to the sword the player can access a number of booster abilities over the course of the game. Early on he can only boost his snatch/critical swing but as he progresses he can gain new boosts that up his defense for a limited time and access to special weapons. Booster abilities require power to run and that power is usually gotten off of the blood of his foes.

All this talk about blood is getting annoying right? Well that's just because Nanobreaker is a very bloody game. The game's scoring system actually revolves around how many gallons of blood you're able to spill from the mutants. This is also tied to restoring health and boost since for every 2,000 gallons of blood the player gets a partial restoration of one or the other. To add to this for every 10,000 gallons of the blood the player will recieve an increase in their total health or boost. In a pure visceral sense it's always a thrill to slash monsters until they explode into fountains of blood that paints the walls red(or any other color you decide on in the options). Getting more blood off of enemies is as simple as doing a lot of combos.

The enemies are fodder for the most part. While they have a range of attacks most of the time they seem more apt to group together so that the plasma blade can go through more of them at a time. The game mixes it up decently enough by throwing in larger foes that can't be snatched, tough guys that can really wear the player down, and little guys that are hard to hit. Knowing when to switch from horizontal swings to vertical swings is important since depending on the enemy the right swing can do more damage. Various appendages can also be sliced off which is handy as it can limit the attack abilities of some foes. 

The bosses come in many shapes and sizes and quite a few of them have some sort of gimmick the player will have to figure out if they're going to succeed. Usually this gimmick involves the snatch but sometimes certain spots or objects will have to be destroyed before the weak point is revealed. There are also fights with more human-like bosses though these guys have exceptionally weak A.I. and can be beaten simply by baiting them to perform attacks that leave them open to countering. A lot of these guys can hit really hard though and without a method of healing during boss battles it only takes a handful of mistakes to get a game over.

To put it bluntly this game has too much platforming. After awhile it does get old watching enemies explode but surely the level designers could have done better than throw in a bunch of platforms to jump off of and onto. The controls aren't exactly suitable for platforming either since without any ability to move while in mid-air there's no wiggle-room for error. At first these areas are mercifully short but in the last fifth of the game that's pretty much all the player will do. Thankfully these final areas are broken up by mutant encounters. Then again at least there aren't a bunch of lame puzzles. Now that's something I'd love to see less of in 3D action games.

In another case of me putting it bluntly the camera in this game stinks. During gameplay a map is shown on the upper corner that also serves as a radar for keeping track of enemies. It's useful sure but I think it put there intentionally to sort of make up for the camera. While the camera can be re-centered with the R3 button it doesn't do much good for when the player loses track of enemies or bosses.

The snatch is also very annoying to use effectively. It locks on to a enemy you're facing. If you're facing more than one well tough luck. Over the years I've played enough games with shoddy 3D mechanics that dealing with this has become second nature(sort of like playing those awful 3D Sonic The Hedgehog games) but if I was anyone else I would hate this move. It's especially bad cause in two areas the scientist needs to be protected from constantly spawning enemies. She's running around getting slapped to death and sometimes when I try to snatch a foe off her I snatch her instead. Best part is I can do the critical attack on her..ugh. 

Nanobreaker also suffers from a lack of good checkpoint and savepoint placing. At first it isn't so bad but at times if the player dies -- which 99% of the time it'll be a boss fight -- they'll end up a ways back and have to fight through a bunch of foes to reach the boss again. Annoyingly whatever blood bonuses they acquired during this time will be lost as well. I understand that due to the way health works the game doesn't want the player to be stuck in a situation where they're at the boss with little health but throw in some sort of "retry boss" option or leave health items near where the boss is encountered. Actually the game does this a few times which makes it all the more infuriating because they know to put it there but for whatever reason they just don't care. The lack of savepoints is inexcusable simply because that last fifth of the game I mentioned earlier has none. There's not even a savepoint before the final boss. For crying out loud it was bad enough I had to retry this guy four times but between him and the entire rest of that last fifth of the game I was up until 5:30 am last night.

The mechanics in this game are slightly off as well. What I mean specifically is when enemies attack the player. Usually this is fair and handled well but for some attacks it feels like even it the attack looks like it doesn't quite hit it'll still damage the player. It's usually nothing serious as it mainly applies to regular enemies(which aren't much of a threat). To add to this smaller enemies seem to be a little more difficult to hit than they should be. But I guess that's due to them requiring vertical strikes to deal with at times. The game makes it all too clear whether or not attacks will connect.

I should also point out that this game feels entirely too similar to Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness. As you're already aware these are 3D Castlevania titles also available on the PS2. All three games feature a lot of combination moves done through the usage of square & triangle, silver-haired protagonists, poor jumping controls, and so on. If you've already played either of the other two games I can't say there's a whole lot you'll be missing out on if you skipped this game. I guess the blood is nice but some exploration or maybe some more abilities or enemy varieties would have been been good. Nanobreaker is probably the best of the three in terms of game design but some people might get more value out of the other two since they feature rare drops, lots of things to level-up, and Curse of Darkness also has that very clever stealing subsystem. You could just avoid all three games entirely though and probably be better off for it. 

Regardless Nanobreaker accomplished enough for me to spend the 6 to 8 hours needed to complete it. There's a score-attack mode, a harder difficulty, and even a couple playable characters to mess around with if I choose to go back. The time I spent on this game would have been better off elsewhere but somehow Nanobreaker proves compelling enough to get me to put up with all of its faults. It's gotta be all the blood. Actually I probably just have very low standards. If they replaced Jake with some cyborg woman in a really tiny outfit I'd probably still be playing this game.

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