I was admittedly a little uncomfortable with Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance at first. Being an action game enthusiast, I chose to start the game on Hard (the highest initially-unlocked difficulty), hoping to be torn apart by aggressive enemies in a matter of seconds.
Instead, all of my enemies felt like damage sponges. Mostly inactive, but taking a lot of hits to kill. My sword felt like a wet noodle, with incredibly long combos (mostly made up of the easily mashable light attack) doing little damage.
The enemies put up little resistance, so I’d just wail away on them until they broke down, then use that time to activate Blade Mode with the left trigger (which will cut through some enemies in a single hit), line my slice up as required, cut through, and rip out their cyborg spinal cord/energy thing that completely healed Raiden and refueled his energy gauge, allowing for more Blade Mode usage. Thinking that perhaps the lack of reward for combos came from a lack of abilities, I spent all of by BP (Battle Points, used to buy upgrades) on new skills. Even so, nothing I purchased quite satisfied me, and neither did the use of blade mode on a sparking, collapsing enemy.
I was trying to play the game like Devil May Cry (my personal favorite series of action games), but no matter how flamboyantly I played, no matter how lengthy my combos got, I never felt like I was being properly rewarded. Sure, things were flashy, but fights took forever and I never managed to finish my missions with S ranks. After a couple stages, I stopped seeing any benefit to diversified combos. Since your combo rank at the end of a mission was based on the number of hits you put into a combo alone, I felt as though I could mash X and be just as effective. At that point, I thought combat didn’t have much to offer me. This didn’t get me great mission ranks, but it got me through… and I was saddened by that.
At that point, I was having the more fun with the non-combat, more "cinematic" parts of the game than I was with the gameplay. While Raiden has been ludicrously powerful since Metal Gear Solid 4, the Winds of Destruction, four cyborgs with bizarre weapons (extending Sai! Polearms made of arms!) act as worthy rivals. It doesn’t hurt that they mock Raiden’s sociopathic bloodlust in the name of justice every time they get a chance. I loved the way they were introduced, and even when I wasn’t enjoying the game’s combat, I thought that the fights with them were some of the most interesting (and in one case prettiest) things I’d ever seen in an action game.
Between the bosses, the plot centered around VR training and child soldiers, and Codec conversations that ranged from completely silly to oddly specific about certain weapons. To its credit, Metal Gear Rising nailed the Metal Gear vibe for me. It has that weird surrealism where you’re listening to someone talking about their tragic upbringing at one moment and notice a soldier playing with a cat off to the side the next. There were even some interesting character beats for Raiden as he came to grips with his repressed "Jack the Ripper" persona. Sure, the action is a bit more over-the-top than your average Metal Gear Solid, but it felt like they mixed a bit of ‘90s anime into all of the ‘80s action movies that went into MGS, and that’s a combination that I couldn’t help but love.
However, even though I loved the way the story was developing, I couldn’t help but wonder: "Is this all there is? Just some Metal Gear trappings wrapped around a dull action game? If the combat is so weak, why wasn’t this just the Rising I wanted between MGS2 and MGS4?" Needless to say, I was disappointed.
Then I learned how to play the game.
Sometime around chapter 3, not wanting to keep slogging through campaign with my current method of combat, I decided to play the couple of VR Missions that I’d unlocked (out a grand total of 20, which you unlock by finding laptops scattered around each level). The first one I played was a stealth mission, but I already had a basic idea of how to deal with that. However, I didn’t realize at first that your rank at the end of the mission was based on how quickly you finished it, so I played that a few times and managed to swing a silver medal.
Then, I chose the other VR Mission I had unlocked. This was a combat mission.
After the map loaded, six enemies stood ahead of me. Four were grouped together with blades, and two were on either side with rocket launchers. My upgrades were gone. Everyone attacked at once. I was juggled by rockets, then hit with a blade. I died almost immediately.
Whereas some might find such a crushing defeat disheartening, in my case, brutality forced me change my playstyle. Like Raiden, my combat style was forged in violence. Instead, I quickly learned that Ninja Run was a valuable asset when being fired upon. Aside from automatically blocking bullets, it’s a good way to get ahead of rockets. You can also cut through most homing missiles pretty easily if you use light slashes while running.
Parries are absolutely vital. While the early enemies in hard mode didn’t attack often enough for me to even consider parrying, a proper parry can stun multiple enemies, not just the one you parried. A stunned enemy can be set up for a finishing move, which will allow you an easy Zandatsu (spine-ripping-out move). Set things up properly and you can perform the finishing move OVER the other stunned enemies, which will allow you to pull off a chain-Zandatsu. Considering the clock keeps running at normal speed when you’re in Blade Mode or in the middle of a Zandatsu, you start appreciating the time you save when Raiden removes each spine one by one, snapping from glowing core to glowing core, before crushing them all simultaneously. It feels good that a single parry can turn the tide of an entire battle in a few grisly seconds, especially when you and your enemy trade parries until you win.
Now, bear in mind, the first six guys weren’t the only enemies in this mission. They were followed by a couple waves of various cyborgs, Gekkos, and flamethrower-equipped water-strider-esque robots. I had to nail my parries perfectly, or else I’d be stalled just long enough for a rocket to hit me. I had to use Zandatsu at the right time to keep restoring my health in the midst of all the chaos. I had to learn the right moments to use Blade Mode (for instance, removing an enemy’s exposed arm mid-attack after I’d previously broken off the armor to counter his unblockable attack) to dispatch my foes as quickly as possible. I even found a use for heavy attacks beyond flashiness, since certain combos ending in heavy attacks will cause the world to slow down, encouraging you to engage Blade Mode, which can be a godsend on a busy, rocket-launcher-filled battlefield. Sometimes I couldn’t justify fancy combos at risk of death, but other times the right attacks would set up good Zandatsu opportunities.
While I only completed this mission with a bronze medal (after multiple attempts in which I started to get annoyed at the VR Missions’ rather lengthy initiation sequence), Playing this VR mission over and over was a wakeup call. Enemies weren’t supposed to be beaten about the head until they sparked up, they were meant for me to cut through like butter. The reason combo length was valued over combo variety was to incentivize staying on the offensive and avoiding pain more than anything. However, patience would reward me with parry opportunities, allowing me to cut through my foes faster than I would if I just ran around like a maniac. I had to find a balance of aggression and defense to survive and get the ranks I so desired.
As I returned to story mode, I still fought against some less aggressive enemies, but this time I started tearing through them instead of trying overlong combos on them. Each encounter was much quicker with my new mindset. Going through the game at a decent clip gradually rolled out more and more difficult enemies for me to fight, and by the end of the game, the enemy layouts became a decent challenge. Enemies would attack aggressively, forcing me to block or parry attacks one after another and look for a rare opening before I could start going Jack the Ripper on people. This was no Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but something entirely new instead. Only when I understood that did I start having fun and playing effectively.
When that mindset fell into place, my ranks began going up. I’d get As and Ss on missions instead of Bs. I began having a better balance between my time and my combo score, I started realizing the best uses for certain attacks, and I started playing specifically for rank. I’d run into a group of enemies, trip them up, setting up multiple Zandatsus, launch another enemy for an air-combo, bring them down to the ground then hop between two enemies to build up a decent-length combo, before killing one, and parrying the last enemy to chop him into pieces (each limb would provide a bit of rank-increasing BP… a system I’ve still not completely elucidated yet) before finally taking his delicious spine. My play was less combo-heavy, sure, but much faster and more brutal. There was an elegance to quick and efficient play that supplanted my desire to play it in a combo-heavy way.
Even though I started to see the joy in the combat after being faced with an appropriate challenge, there were still some things about Rising that I had some issues with.
For instance, I appreciate stealth as an option, but certain segments practically demand it. If you choose to fight, you will be punished for it. If you make a mistake while trying to be stealthy, you’ll be punished for it. The likelihood of escape after being seen is low, so expect punishment. I personally found those punishments rather miserable, especially at a certain point that requires you to basically flip three switches in a cramped office. The camera got caught on things, I’d attempt to use a dodge slash and get caught up in doorways, and the game’s lock on didn’t do much to help matters. I restarted this segment multiple times and attempted to use my cardboard box and distracting 3D Picture Frames (the new evolution of MGS’s magazines), but eventually I just got annoyed and slaughtered everyone in my path. At one point, one of the side characters made fun of how Raiden’s stealthy background didn’t exactly fit his new Cyborg Ninja style, and honestly I would have preferred if Platinum had removed the (essentially) mandatory stealth segments altogether.
Speaking of things thrown in for the sake of variety, every so often (frequently in the midst of combat), you’ll have to stop what you’re doing to go through a "move quickly while avoiding the instant-death objects" segment. While these are interesting cinematically, I found that I died more frequently in these segments than I did in combat… I appreciate their use (an attempt to bridge the gap between cutscene and gameplay), and the similar use of the QTEs in the game, but every so often I found them jarring. Particularly in the aforementioned final act.
Still, I’d hate to end this playtest on a sour note, because despite my issues with Metal Gear Rising, the majority of the time I was having a blast. So I’ll leave off talking about the music. Listening to samples online and the music in the demo had me dreading the soundtrack, it’s used in a really clever way. It’s arranged dynamically. As you hit certain parts of a boss fight, the songs’ lyrics will kick in and the music will swell, and all of a sudden everything is incredible. If the game didn’t have the soundtrack, I don’t think the bosses would be nearly as spectacular. If there’s one thing that all stylish action games take from this game, I hope that it’s this.
Food for Thought:
1. As much as I enjoy the game’s unlockable weapons, I’d enjoy them more with real-time weapon switching. I feel like that option may have been left out because it would make Raiden too powerful… But I can only dream of some the combos.
2. If you use the unlockable Mariachi costume with a cardboard box, Raiden’s mariachi hat will stay on the outside of the box. Enemies don’t seem to notice this though.