Red means go
If you’ve been with the Wii since the beginning, you might remember a little foray into the young world of motion controls and pointer-based shooting a few years back called Red Steel. While the game was a fun distraction (especially in terms of the—admittedly somewhat lackluster—split-screen multiplayer), it didn’t receive much critical acclaim, primarily thanks to its less-than-stellar single-player campaign. The controls, while then revolutionary, were also questionable at times, like most Wii launch titles (many of which felt more like works in progress and proofs of concept than actual complete games). But things were early, and so following a respectable response from the market, Ubisoft went back to the drawing board and began working up the blueprints for a sequel.
Enter Red Steel 2. The game now features no multiplayer, but instead focuses entirely on an all-new, vastly improved single-player story mode. Lining the foundation of this overhaul is a completely reworked control scheme constructed around the critical precision of Wii MotionPlus, and the improvement is palpable to say the least. Now we have a product with a respectably lengthy campaign (for an action title) and seriously solid controls that finally provide that sense of immersion Wii gamers have been hunting for in a first-person action title.
Red means go
The presentation is impressive right from the start. We’re introduced to the action by slick FMV which transitions tactfully into an attractive cell-shaded reality. This graphical style, as we’ve argued in the past, is perfectly suited to the Wii, and in Red Steel 2 it provides some seriously stunning environments. Sophisticated Japanese architecture towers around you, permeated by a rich Wild West flavor complete with arid foothills and rolling tumbleweeds. The music is, likewise, a suitable fusion of the two styles.
You play the last of the Kusagari, working to defend your people from the assault and invasion of rival clans like the Jackal, Katakara, and Ninja. The game is set in the remoteness of the Nevada desert, though the synthesis of Japanese culture is almost reminiscent of Trigun. Your sidekick is a brutal synthesis of swordplay and firearms, punctuated by a healthy selection of combo attacks and finishers. As you play, your pseudo-sensei provides you with the necessary training, gradually introducing more and more advanced concepts to prepare you for battles with increasingly challenging (and numerous) opponents. The game begins in his dojo, where you’ll learn the basic ways of your sword and practice techniques on a dummy. Shortly thereafter, you’re thrown right into the action as you take on the first aggressors of the Jackal.
The controls are intuitive, but hardly simplistic (thankfully, as the game is centered on combat). Gunplay is as expected: nearly flawless thanks to the Wii pointer system (an optional auto-aim mechanic provides for quicker dispatching of foes in the midst of frantic head-on combat). Swordplay, on the other hand, is vastly improved via the integration of Wii MotionPlus, which allows you to swipe in literally any direction and expect near-perfect translation of your motions on-screen. It isn’t 1:1 per say, but it’s certainly adequately immersive in the midst of battle. At first you are certainly likely to find it chaotic and unwieldy; but after playing for a while, you’ll warm up to the routine and begin to appreciate the intricacies of the combat, which is actually quite well-executed.
A gun-totin', sword-wieldin' badass you is
Here’s the rundown: the basic concept is that you can choose the direction and intensity of your sword attacks, as well as block by holding A and orienting your sword in the appropriate direction (vertical or horizontal). By stabbing forward or swinging down or horizontally where appropriate, you can also finish your opponents once their health reaches critical levels. Mastery of the flow of combat and the application of these basic techniques is critical, as you’ll spend much of the game taking on multiple aggressors from all directions at once.
Fortunately, you’ve got some other tools at your disposal, as well; namely, special attacks, hidden strikes, and finishers. Special attacks are a small number of techniques to which you’ll be introduced as the story progresses. Some of these begin with a charge of the Katana (holding A and B for around a second until it visibly flashes). Here’s a list of these attacks (some spoilers apply, depending on your perspective):
The Eagle – Charge with A + B and quickly lift your Wii remote to send your enemy flying upward
The Tiger – Hold A and thrust both arms forward to counter enemy attacks and stun them
The Dragon – Charge with A + B, then swing your Wii remote as if throwing a disc to send a wave of energy in the direction you choose
The Bear – Charge with A + B, then thrust downward to shake the ground and knock down multiple foes
The Cobra – Hold B, aim at multiples enemies, then release B to shoot them all in quick succession
These techniques all work well and are extremely useful. However, the combat system goes even deeper than this.
Hidden strikes include a wide array of techniques which mostly involve the sword, but sometimes incorporate the gun as well. There are eight of these in total, and all of them must be purchased via the various shops/dojos scattered throughout the game. There’s no sense in listing them individually, but let’s just say that they provide a satisfying selection of combat variations which can be combined with finishers to really dominate your attackers.
All of this combat is performed with the assistance of the archetypical Zelda “Z-targeting” model, except you don’t even have to hold a button to remain locked on in Red Steel 2 (thanks to the fact that when enemies are present, you have no choice but to battle them; you can’t progress until you kill them). You can tap Z to switch targets, however, which comes in especially handy when an enemy is about to attack you from the rear, at which point you will be briefly notified via a special icon offering to switch your focus to them with a single tap of the button.
Combat comes in waves, with the number of enemies remaining in each wave clearly indicated on-screen. As you successfully dispatch with each group of enemies, you’ll find that your health is automatically and instantly refilled afterwards. This is a nice touch, as it eradicates the task of sitting and waiting for your health bar to creep back up after a nasty attack. In between waves, you’re free to roam around the rich western environments as you please, though an on-screen map, which candidly articulates your next destination, is always available.
The atmosphere and environments are quite cool indeed
War isn’t everything
Outside of combat, pressing A at flashing points around you will initiate an appropriate interaction with your environment: jumping, climbing, pressing buttons, and so forth. You also use A to open doors, strategically placed—a la Metroid Prime—to break up the environments and facilitate ample loading time for the next sprawling arena.
To progress, you’ll have to regularly check the bulletin board at the closest shop/HQ for new objectives. Primary objectives are clearly marked, while optional secondary (side quest) objectives are equally numerous. The game could last you a long as probably ten to twelve hours if you were to take your time with all of the optional content—a fairly respectable length for an action title.
Exploration is enriched by a wide array of destructible elements, all of which spew generous amounts of coins when destroyed. Slightly more involved are the various containers which can be raided to provide additional wealth and ammo refills—chests, safes, and sealed crates, all of which require somewhat more targeted motion-control-based interaction to pilfer. The money you earn can be used to purchase the aforementioned hidden strikes, along with upgrades to your sword, new firearms (four total), Kusagari special attack upgrades, armor, and health and battle enhancements.
Also providing additional incentive to stop and smell the roses are collectible tokens and sheriff stars, the former of which are scattered across the landscape inconspicuously for collection by foot, and the latter of which must be shot with a firearm from a distance (frequently located skyward atop spiraling structures or in discreet nooks and crannies). These also reward you monetarily when collected, though it’s just fun to find them anyway. There are plenty of hidden areas as well which can be jumped/climbed to if you pay attention to what’s around you (read: watch for flashing objects).
It's Wild West meets ancient Japan
The feel of Steel
But what does this all amount to? Well, while the foundational story is a little goofy, when you factor in all of the intangibles –such as the undeniable sense of style that permeates the game’s presentation—it adds up to one heck of a unique and enjoyable Wii gaming experience. To be perfectly frank, this is what the original game should have been three and a half years ago.
Apart from the obvious previously-discussed gameplay enhancements, the attention to presentation here is equally valuable. The action, while satisfyingly brutal, is not so violent as to be tasteless (in other words, it’s safe for a wider audience—Wii-ified, if you will). There is no blood, for instance, but if you’re a gore fiend, don’t let that bother you: you can really feel the impact of your actions on your enemies. Elsewhere, dust blows across the streets and old hinges creak around you as you navigate the authentically western locales. It’s truly a moody, gritty experience, and it’s pulled off inarguably well.
(Some spoilers in this next paragraph)
In one sequence, you’re making your way through a Japanese water garden, complete beautiful stylized surroundings and broken-down supporting structures. Enemies ambush you from the shadows as you work your way around the stunning architecture, seeking to reactivate two water wheels to open a gate ahead. Before you know it, you’re battling enemies in a misty room and then taking on two hammer-swinging brutes back-to-back in the middle of the arena. Finally, the music stops cold, and all you can hear is the whistling of the wind and your own footsteps as you approach the newly-opened passage to see what awaits you.
Yet another cool scenario is the classic train chase, where you’ll find yourself climbing atop and throughout passenger cars in pursuit of an elusive adversary.
It’s just an uncommonly refined Wii experience with a palpable sense of inspiration, and it’s one many Wii owners are sure to appreciate, provided they give it a fair chance.