Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot of love for Japanese games: Binary Domain, Dragon’s Dogma, Metal Gear Solid… The problem is, this is usually despite their issues. For example, when I first played Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, I wasn’t impressed. Graphically, it was really rough. I remember walking up to a shipping container and panning the camera, not revealing the expected ridges, but instead the thick black lines that had been drawn onto the thing. Most of the locations were brown and grey and enemies and scenery disappeared immediately once destroyed. It just looked bland when compared to pretty much anything else that came out around the same time.
It wasn’t just aesthetics, though. Being a Metal Gear game, it was pretty cutscene heavy, which wouldn’t be so bad until the game clock reveals you’ve actually only played the damn thing for just under four hours by the end credits. Once you realise it’s a game that’s meant to be played over and over, that’s when its true brilliance is revealed. This is never really apparent, other than the rankings you get at the end of each level, though. There’s no online scoreboards to compare your runs to your friends and the narrative really leads you to feel like it’s a one-shot deal.
Not only does the game make it difficult for the player to understand the point of it, but it also makes understanding fundemental combat techniques needlessly vague. It wasn’t until my second playthrough until I understood how to dodge, or even how parrying worked properly – I just kind of fudged through the game up until this point. How much more fun combat becomes when your only defense isn’t to run in circles. I do wonder how many people had just given up on the game at this point. Even when you do understand the combat, there’s the strange design decisions, like melee combat with helicopters. You’ve got a sword, you can’t fly, and the seconday weapons, like a rocket launcher, are so cumbersome that you need the dexterity of an actual ninja to fire them.
It’s what puts many people off the Souls series. Both Dark Souls games and Demon’s Souls leave the player to figure things out on their own. Which is fine, but players can kill off important NPCs, or miss them entirely, messing up the whole game for them. Dark Souls II even leaves you to find the NPC who you use to level up with and she’s tucked around a corner, gazing out to sea. It’s even more confusing if you played the first Dark Souls, where you leveled up at bonfires. On top of this, the effigies you use to become human – which you need to do to summon other players – need to be used in the menu, not at the bonfire where you get a prompt to burn them. Burning them stops people invading your game, which happens when you’re human, so you’re basically just setting them on fire at this point.
Some people claim to like this ambiguity, but really they probably went off and read a Wiki. Then there’s the lore. I never really cared for the lore in Dark Souls, mainly because I have no idea what it’s about. Again, if you want to dig into it, you need to get reading online theories or watching YouTube videos. I love the Souls games and Revengeance despite their issues, but they could be so much better.
One game that put me off completely was Bayonetta.: the story, characters and world just sucked all of the enjoyment out of the game for me. I don’t want everything to be straight-faced, but Bayonetta is like the after effects of eating the wrong mushroom. It can have the best combat system in the world, but if I find the story and characters unbearable annoying, I can’t play it long enough to see that.
Then there’s the character design. I’m not saying Western character design is much better, but at least the characters look like actual humans and don’t have flowing peroxide hair and a twenty foot sword. Even worse, female representation is often shockingly exploitative, with women used as eye candy – even anime girls who look about 12 years old. Bayonetta even gets naked while she’s fighting. What’s that all about?
Talking about anime characters, I used to love a good JRPG back in a simpler times. What’s ruined them for me is the inclusion of voice acting. I haven’t played a Japanese RPG in the last five years that, at one point, hasn’t made me want to eat my own face out of embarrassment. Seriously, if someone was watching me play it I would want to crawl into my own shoe and die. English dubbing in JRPGs is terrible. I feel like Final Fantasy X’s laughing scene was a worrying omen – things have gotten worse since then. Much worse. People seem to grunt and moan more when doing things in Japanese games, too. Why? Stop groaning. Seriously. Stop.
Of course, Western games have their own set of problems. One day we’ll get a perfect marriage of the two distinct styles of game development, but until then I’ll play the next best thing: Ninja Theory’s DmC.