For a time, Raiden was the punch line of the most renowned practical joke in gaming. His debut as the surprise protagonist of Sons of Liberty was only forgiven seven years later by his sensational role in Guns of the Patriots. Along similar lines, when Kojima Productions failed to transition Metal Gear Rising's impressive tech demo into a full-fledged game, PlatinumGames stepped in to rebuild and rename the project as Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Stylized action games Bayonetta and Vanquish formalized Platinum as masters of their craft, but matching their tight design sensibilities to Metal Gear's trademark nuance presented a provocative leap into the unknown. Satisfying both Platinum faithful and Metal Gear elite is no easy task.
If Bayonetta's combat was centered on finesse and evasion, Revengeance's is all about offense and engagement. It speaks volumes that Raiden's primary method of defense, parrying, is executed by pushing light attack plus the analog stick toward an enemy's attack. If your timing is off Raiden will suffer a moderately safe block animation, but if it's perfect Raiden will parry the attack and sometimes return fire with his high-frequency blade (read: sword). The crutch of escape is rarely an option because Revengeance doesn't want you to run; it wants you to get better by getting up close and personal with every adversary.
Close encounters are preferred because they enable Revengeance's signature mechanic; cutting the opposition to pieces. Raiden's direct offense is limited to various chains of light and heavy attacks assigned to two respective buttons. This builds Raiden's fuel cell meter, which can be burned by going into Blade Mode. Through Blade Mode the player can slow time and rotate a transparent plane that represents where Raiden's sword will cut. In Blade Mode standard attack buttons are repurposed for pure horizontal and vertical cuts, but the trickier manual option is more satisfying and effective.
Inside Blade Mode the player can either watch the bad guys fall to pieces or opt for a more focused challenge. Pummeling away at an enemy weakens limbs and makes vital appendages ripe for immediate amputation. It also exposes a designated weak point, and if Raiden hits that specific point in Blade Mode he can perform a Zandatsu, ripping out an energy core, of his aggressor. Exposing and successfully performing a Zandatsu not only restores both the fuel and life meter, but treats the player a precious second of giddy delight when Raiden rips out the cyborg's blue, glowing spine and crushes it with his bare hands. When it’s over every meter is restored, but you're still hungry.
Slicing and dicing is a neat party trick, but it's not all for show. Weaken a cyborg's legs, chop them off, and watch him crawl around and open fire. If Raiden's surrounded by gekkos he can mitigate the threat by disabling one in a similar manner. Upgrades and collectables play a part too, with certain assigned soldiers boasting special left arms ripe for the taking. Even specific cutting, like decapitation or systematic removal of limbs, generates more of Revengeance’s' skill upgrade currency. I suppose if you haven't seen Revengeance in action this can all sound like ultraviolent fuel for sociopathic maniacs. Make no mistake, it's incredibly graphic and gruesome, but it's simultaneously so over the top and outrageous that a desire for input perfection and a flawless performance takes priority from agency over implicit violence.
The cutting mechanic is all the more impressive because could have been so clumsy. In less disciplined hands it could feel aimless and hollow, like a cherry on top of an invisible sundae. Platinum has worked their mechanic down to a science, insuring the proper degree of control and palpable desperation to nail the right spot before fuel runs empty. Less attentive players might opt for the horizontal and vertical auto-swipes employed with the standard attack buttons, but manually lining up your shots and orchestrating a succession of untouched cyborg genocide produces some of Revengeance's defining moments. S-ranking a section of a level can be a maddening pursuit of perfection, but it's attractive because it always feels within reason.
Revengeance chooses a simple and easy way to educate the player. Raiden's move set relies more on timing and reaction than memorization and complexity, which nicely compliments Revengeance's penchant for constant engagement. Feedback comes to the player in the form of blue weak points on limbs or armor and cinematic obligations designed to encourage Blade Mode, all of which feels appropriately responsive thanks to the game's blazing speed. A move list is included in the pause menu, but Revengeance makes a much better case for learning-by-doing, and repeating where appropriate. In my case that meant I rarely defeated a boss on the first round, though you can bet I earned my A or S rank by the time it was over.
The speed at which Revengeance moves is essential to support its mission. Platinum has stated the importance of sixty-frames-per second refresh rate, a fluidity of fidelity that, as time has gone on, is less visible in the console space. Make no mistake, Revengeance is one of the fastest moving and fastest playing action games released on our aging consoles, rarely dropping a frame even when the action got hot and heavy. It comes at the cost of visual complexity, a screen shot of Revengeance might look crude and vacant compared to its peers, but when it's in motion the game is truly a sight to behold.
It's not just the frame-rate; everything in Revengeance just flat-out moves. Raiden's ninja run, engaged to speed him up and effortlessly deflect small arms fire, is right on the edge of losing control. The animations that link his transition from enemy to enemy are completely natural looking and stylish as hell. Properly parrying repeated attacks in succession has to be executed with remarkable precision, and when learned can empower the player into feeling like he or she is Daigo in that famous Street Fighter III video of him parrying every move Justin Wong made. Seriously, after I parried every successive attack in the fight with Monsoon I felt like grand champion of Earth and nothing could take me down.
For all Revengeance's strengths, some aspects combat and movement fall a bit short of expectations. The chief problem is getting stun-locked, which issues prompts for the most irritating command ever; waggling the thumb stick. The obvious solution is to, as the kids say, suck less and not get stun-locked, but the learning process, each and every time requiring me to take my right hand off the face buttons and jam my palm back and forth over the stick for optimal waggling speed, served little purpose other than to remove me from the experience. Additionally some of Revengeance's more epic moments are reserved to sequences of button mashing or quick-time events, though these instances feel more like climactic reward after a rigorous battle than a solution to an unsolvable problem.
Revengeance's worst offenses are committed by its camera. I don't think there has been character action game with a decent camera, and Revengeance isn't one to change the status-quo. Level geometry can obscure crucial the action at critical times, including instances where Raiden enters Blade Mode and has to make a precision cut to an area you won't be able to see. It's also problematic in Revengeance’s few pure-ninja run sequences where it's impossible to tell what Raiden is supposed to be dodging. At the end of my game the camera was only responsible for maybe five or six instances of rage inducing mania, but each and every one stung like hell.
Progression in Revengeance moves almost as fast as its frame rate. Though Raiden starts with only his sword, new weapons are introduced as bosses fall. A crowd control staff, a range-friendly sai, and a bruiser busting double-sword are earned and attached to the heavy attack button. Along with Raiden's sword, each weapon has their own ability-enhancing upgrade path, though personally I found the staff my go-to means of cyborg dispersal. Battle points are earned through attentive cutting and a host of other bonuses, and are used to fuel Raiden's upgrade path. Raiden's fuel cell, life capacity, and suite upgrades along with improved combat skills are also open to expansive upgrades. Skills that benefit evasion are also available, but I found Raiden's double button dodge move cumbersome and ineffective, especially in light of parrying (and I suspect this observation will soon prove hilariously short sighted once the game is in the hands of more skilled players). Over the course of Revengeance I earned enough BP to earn almost every upgrade I wanted, though I was well short of the required points necessary to power-up the wigs, weapons, and other bonus items I started unlocking after my normal difficulty run.
Revengeance isn't a game you play once. Play time is measured exclusively in tangible gameplay (meaning it doesn't account for cut-scenes, codec sequences, or failed gameplay segments) and on normal I landed at just under six hours. Gate to gate I probably clocked over ten, but immediately after the credits rolled I bumped the difficulty up and jumped back in. Higher difficulties don't just bolster enemy health, but like Bayonetta conceive entirely new abilities and load-outs for your opposition, adjusting the game appropriately for players seeking a greater challenge. My powered-up Raiden flush with BP goodies still rolled over enemies on hard, but on very hard my confidence was shoved down my throat after about ten seconds. I don't even want to think about the highest difficulty.
All of that being said, folks who one-and-done games probably won't make the most of their $60. Revengeance is comparatively short, but it's a game that begs perfection from the player at every moment. Each level is divided into chapters, and Raiden's performance in combo chains, damage taken, Zandatsu executed, and other bonuses from deliberate dismemberment. Whatever your difficulty level you find appropriate, Revengeance is prepared to get the most out of your time.
Let's not forget, Revengeance is a Metal Gear game and comes with certain rights and affinities afforded exclusively to fans of Hideo Kojima's labyrinthine saga. The narrative picks up four years after Guns of the Patriots, with Raiden under employment of a private military company, Maverick. Rogue PMC Desperado initiates a global catastrophe and it's equal parts business and personal for Raiden to take Desperado and its members down. The story is told in frequent cut scenes equal parts action and conversation, though the intense focus on bombastic action sequences keeps it entertaining.
Codec conversations, probably 80% of which are optional, are there fill in the gaps. Maverick's crew of Boris, Doktor, Kevin, and Courtney aren't as interesting and identifiable as the ghosts of Metal Gear Solid's past, but their dialogue was localized and voiced well enough to keep me checking back with them in moments of respite. Your crew is available for standard operations like boss hints and saving progress, but they're also a bunch of chatty Kathy's with an impressive amount of topics to riff on.
What the abundance of dialogue didn't do was lean heavily on direct references for cheap thrills. Beloved names are dropped and familiar situations are referenced, but usually just in passing and not at the cost of telling a new story. Instead, Revengeance extrapolates Metal Gear Solid's overt themes, like when it references real world people in order to make an abstract point. A mid-game sequence relating Richard Dawkens and his pioneering concept of memes to the exchange of ideas in the war economy is an amusing example of this. Revengeance's relative brevity keeps your crew from being interesting beyond a surface level, but given the style of game we're dealing with it's closer to Kill Bill than it is American Ninja.
It also wouldn't be a Metal Gear game without a notorious assemblage of villains to challenge Raiden at the end of a level. Members of Desperado function as Revengeance’s requisite goon squad, and while they don't manage the dastardly heights of games' past, they're packed with just as much (if not more) nuance. The uncomfortable and pervasive smile of Sundowner and the calm indifference of Jetstream Sam added subtly to their menacing image, though Monsoon and Mistral felt more like blank slates. The talking robotic wolf, aptly named Wolf, simultaneously dispenses and embraces most every Metal Gear cliché with alarming coherence. At one point Raiden actually says, "...here I am again surrounded by death and arguing philosophy with terrorists." It's cheeky, but Wolf, along with a boy Raiden befriends named George, demonstrate the humorous level of self-awareness so pervasive in Metal Gear games, but for once we’re sure it’s being done intentionally.
I'm not sure how much of Revengeance's narrative new players will be able to appreciate (or tolerate). It's not that it won't make sense, Revengeance does a good enough job explain Raiden's "Jack the Ripper" dark side without the connective tissue of Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots, but to the uninitiated Revengeance's storytelling methods and ideas might feel out of date, needlessly complex, or too hard to swallow. Whereas Metal Gear Solid veterans might find codec conversations, soliloquizing villains, brain cold storage, and absurd future military tech intriguing, new players might see pointless bombast and odd characters with vague intentions.
Metal Gear's influence isn't limited to narrative inflections. When it chooses to be, Revengeance is also an effective stealth game. Given Revengeance's penchant for engagement and offense that seems relatively hard to believe, but sure enough, at least one entire level can be played with Raiden going completely unnoticed. Sneaking behind an enemy, no matter what type, prompts an instant-kill stealth attack. Likewise, there's always an enemy radar and advanced AR-overlay for seeing through walls. There are even cardboard boxes to sneak around in, security cameras to evade, disposable rocket launchers, holographic girls to distract enemies, and stun grenades to lock enemies out of contention. These artifacts of Metal Gear Solid feel surface level, and while they're a completely valid way to enjoy Revengeance's gifts, they weren't an option I would have chosen voluntarily. If it weren't for writing this review I probably wouldn't have obliged any of them because I was constantly hungry for more combat.
VR Missions, Metal Gear Solid's stapled challenge rooms, also make an appearance. Twenty can be located and unlocked by finding select laptops in the campaign, and after the end of two runs I had opened all but three. Some of these are short and sweet, like ninja run challenges that task him with getting to the end of a map as fast as possible. Other focus on proficiency in grenades, missile launchers, and other side weapons. The meat of these, of course, are the pure-combat challenges - all of which strip away your custom, powered-up Raiden in favor of a default build. Rewards are in the form of BP and bonus items (I unlocked a completely new suit, for instance) for that save file’s Raiden. It's kind of weird that leaderboards aren't available when there's such an emphasis on completion time, but other than that there's little to complain about.
Revengeance's art direction and general composition feels more utilitarian than overtly detailed and expansive. Certain areas like a tiny amusement park, a historical-Japan vignette, and the sunset vista where Raiden battles Sam feel special and demonstrate Platinum's ability to craft a detailed, colorful environment. More often than not, though, the city streets and concrete jungles of Abkhazia, Denver, and Pakistan feel like designed levels with minor set dressing rather than polished arenas. This isn't a complaint, with the time Platinum was given they obviously played the correct hand, it's just this some players might be used to having their cake and eating it too.
Minor interface issues can sometimes get in the way. Forcing a checkpoint restart after buying/adding new skills is understandable given how Revengeance's scoring system works, but it feels disjointed. Likewise, burying the move list in a non-descript menu option, and mysteries blank spots on a level's scorecard (ProTip: those are side missions you missed) could have benefited from added clarity.
After Anarchy Reigns’ excellent soundtrack I assumed an eclectic mix for Revengeance was ready to follow suit. Instead what’s presented runs the gamut from appropriate to embarrassing. The thrashing, guitar-heavy instrumental sequences are great (the tune that kicks in when the Metal Gear Ray pops out is utterly perfect), but almost every time vocals chimed in I felt like I could be listening to an excerpt from Power Rangers. It's completely subjective, but for me Revengeance's music was a wash.
In less capable hands Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance might have been a one note-tune absent of compulsory depth. Under the direction of PlatinumGames it feels closer to a sirenic orchestra. The cutting mechanic is smartly embraced as Revengeance's signature rather than its limitation, a crescendo earned by appreciating the profundity of its stylish combat. This is actually expected of Platinum, but the real surprise is their respect and dedication Metal Gear’s established doctrine. By any definition, Revengeance is beautiful symmetry.