Games You Should Play Before You Die: Volume 1: God Hand
By Milan Reno
The genre of martial arts films is something which both baffles and enthralls me. No other genre in fiction gives fewer fucks about ‘suspension of disbelief’ and yet so unfailingly imposes it upon the viewer. It’s the perfect media to hide a weak story, so long as the actors’ performance is up to par. In contrast, this genre can never, ever get away with poor technical work and/or poor direction. Absurdly enough the martial arts genre can lend itself to ‘family-friendly’ entertainment, a presentation that could brutally clash with the demanding nature of its creation. Case in point, there’s a lot of bleeding behind the shine on sweet Mr. Jackie Chan’s smile.
All in all, it’s a genre that runs on contradictions, and the West sucks at it – all coming down to how physical action is handled in American film making. What may have once been innovative camera techniques have castrated the performers’ work; off the top of my head, I can think of ‘shaky cam’, ‘wire-fu’, and 'close shots' that section every punch and kick into two takes, one to imply the actor is meaning to attack, and another showing the fist or foot (kind of) making impact against the adversary’s mug, but we rarely ever see the full motion and impact. It’s a damn shame considering the likes of Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves, two of the best physical actors this side of the globe.
I guess time constraints and safety play a huge factor into why we don’t really get good American-made old-school martial arts films (barring perhaps Westhavenbrook Productions). However, this compromise for the sake of safety and insurance premiums means the West doesn’t get to truly partake of a scene adopted so lovingly by all cultures all over the world. Call it appropriation, if you will, but the world would definitely be the poorer without this jewel from Malawi (https://bit.ly/2IqA3og). And Netflix’s Daredevil was as good as Iron Fist was not. So, how about it? Can we ever get a cool, proper martial arts flick from Hollywood or America at large?
Well, I don’t know if it will ever actually happen, but Clover Studio has given us something to make up for that longing with their final game, God Hand.
Far removed from the dour, even pretentious style of The Matrix, this game embraces the martial arts dynamic and immerses it into a delicious Mad Max/Western pastiche, getting as a result one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had both as a gamer and martial arts movies’ connoisseur.
Following the first humble minutes of backstory, the game wastes little time to place you in the role of Gene the game's hero, a brash Malcolm Reynolds-esque, cowboy-sans-a-hat, archetype. With games in Clover’s resume such as Viewtiful Joe and Ōkami (and then MadWorld and Bayonetta under the PlatinumGames banner), visual presentation and gameplay are both well above average. Sensibility and responsiveness are key, not only for the sake of satisfying gameplay, but also for an acute bonding between player and character. Gene’s punches and kicks brandish full momentum and impact. Therefore, the dropping of mooks left and right never loses its charm. You feel it consistently.
But of course, in these games, being vastly outnumbered is expected and hardly even an obstacle. To feel victorious, you need more of a challenge, which is where God Hand’s unique difficulty system kicks in to keep things fresh. The game actively responds to your performance. If you handle yourself well when fighting, the difficulty will gradually climb to meet your play style. But if that proves too hard and you start losing footing, the game will pick up on that and thus lower the difficulty as you go. Therefore, while challenging, God Hand is always fair and in fact, pushes you to get better. Your moves arsenal is diverse and fully customisable, so you’ll also get limitless room to test out those dream combos on competent opponents.
And speaking of opponents, they’re assholes. They'll mock and taunt you, and probably would say very rude things about your mum if they were coded that way. And that’s a good thing. Nothing quite encourages the desire to dragon kick someone’s ass into the Milky Way than having some Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure baddie-looking dude literally point at you and laugh. However, when we talk about the bosses proper, the feeling changes altogether. And here is where God Hand exhibits another of its graces: characters.
The story itself is an uncomplicated mix of Judeo-Christian and Hindu motifs of the blood and fire kind. Yet its real value is providing a stage for the heroes (Gene, and mocking partner-in-justice Olivia) to interact with the villains, of which I especially praise Elvis, a strong, fat-ass Mexican demon with a humorously frugal demeanor towards cigars. Elvis shows admirable spirit despite being a baddie. Lust for power is, as usual, a villain’s ultimate generic goal, but there’s so much more to these characters that every cut-scene will at least have you chuckling, if not sometimes outright cackling. And whenever there’s emotional tension, it all feels strangely real, in spite of its overall silliness. Again, kudos for Elvis on that regard.
The one thing I can’t praise entirely is the game’s length: It’s too god-damned short. The replay value is not there in the possibility of facing new enemies or getting new moves (or in my ex’s fantasy of collecting the game’s poisonous Chihuahuas) – it’s just a matter of wanting to experience the whole thing again, which I have, unrepentently, many many times. If you like the challenge of these Souls games I myself have been unfailingly seduced by lately, you’ll also appreciate the ‘git gud’ mechanics.
It’s unlikely that this game will get a remake anytime soon, considering how despicably under the radar it went in its time, but it’s still available as a PS2 Classic in the PSN Store. If you like fun and happiness, you should consider downloading it. If you’ve felt a bit thirsty for a good martial arts narrative and delivery from the West, you owe it to yourself to try this game: it’s both a love letter to the Three Dragons era of martial arts films and that peculiar gritty western style that speaks sunsets-and-scowls. Much like the best martial arts movies, this game doesn’t take itself seriously. At all. What does take seriously is sheer enjoyment.