As Japan tries to tune its output towards Western tastes, many traditionalists, like ourselves, are worrying that the classic style of Japanese gameplay is prone to change. We've enough Western developed third- and first-person shooters to play — the last thing we need is for the Japanese to try their hand at a game of colour-by-numbers.
But if all of Japan's attempts at appealing to the growing Western audience end up like Vanquish, we might find it within ourselves to adapt to the change. Mechanically Vanquish feels both Western and Japanese — on the surface it's a third-person shooter with snappy player control, a cover system and a punchy weapons arsenal, but beneath it's a traditional animé through and through. The bonkers, almost sarcastic, plot and zany cinematography capture the essence of Japanese game design, and while the mechanics submit to Western trends they are accomplished in a way that reeks personality.
Coming out of Platinum Games — famous for releases such as Bayonetta and Madworld — Vanquish has its own twist on the Western third-person shooter. Its USP revolves around speed; Vanquish is one of the quickest games released this year (including those games which are designed to go fast, such as F1 2010). It's clearly been inspired by classic coin-op shmups: enemies are prone to unleashing infinite numbers of bullets and missiles, and it's alarming that the game manages to keep up as the screen is frequently littered with explosions and crossfire.
Vanquish is a single player experience designed to be replayed. Much criticism has been lofted at the game's four hour campaign (it took us six, for reference), but this is very much an arcade experience that shouldn't be measured by content. Vanquish's emphasis on scores, timing and leaderboards cement its experience as one which is designed to be replayed and mastered.
Vanquish lives and dies by its mechanics. The game, which puts you in control of a rocket-suited space marine, gives you access to a number of key gameplay twists. While the core gameplay does cover shooting fine, Vanquish is all about speed — and this is accentuated by the game's rocket-suit. The suit allows Sam to skid and slide around the environment at alarming speeds, making it possible to dash in and around the large battlefields Vanquish structures its core gunfights within. The ARS suit (which we're certain is a pun) also allows Sam to slow down time. This can be done at two pivotal moments in gameplay: when evading, or when low on health. Of course, bullet-time wouldn't be much fun if you could do it all the time; the ARS suit has a cool-down timer that's fundamental to the gameplay. By staying aware of it, Sam can chain ARS abilities and become practically invincible — but as the game is practically always hectic it becomes difficult to manage the component. The mechanics are introduced at the beginning of the game and barely change throughout, but it never loses its wow factor. Vanquish's bullet-time is extraordinarily pretty, and the advantages it offers make its management a brilliant learning curve. By the end of your first playthrough you'll just be feeling comfortable with the mechanics, and that's where Vanquish easily lends itself to multiple replays.
Vanquish plays like a Dreamcast game. There's something about the chunky physics, fast-paced gameplay and arcade direction that oozes late '90s SEGA. In many ways it's a brilliant throwback, and it's a hint at where SEGA might be if the Dreamcast was still around. Vanquish feels grounded and retro, but it also plays like you'd expect a game in 2010 too. The controls and general feel are brilliantly modern, and we wouldn't be surprised if some of the third-person genre big-boys didn't nab an idea or two from the title. Who said Japanese game development was dead?
Vanquish's bonkers nature (and brilliance) are accentuated by the game's fantastic ending credits. We won't spoil the surprise, but it's a real treat. The plot, which is little more than context for the game's settings, almost feels like sarcasm and an observation of American game culture. Big, bulky space marines dominate the cast, but in a way only Japan can, it's also dramatic and decidedly camp. The cinematography really gives the game its Japanese flavour, with huge set piece fights punctuated by slow motion cutscenes and plenty of acrobatics. It's hard not to smile because Vanquish is so cool. That's in the traditional sense of the word — who doesn't get tired of watching explosions and bullet-time?
We remember playing Vanquish's demo (which is sliced out of the game's first level), seeing the gigantic boss from its conclusion and thinking, "Blimey, they put the best part in the demo then?" Nuh-uh; Vanquish's boss fights get bigger and bigger. One boss is so big you don't actually fight it directly, but instead go inside it. It's insane. It's nonsense. But it's exciting, fun and cool.
Vanquish's soundtrack is split in two: on one side there is the traditional, emotional, string-led score, and the other is a typhoon of arpeggiated synths and EQ filters. The divide works well as it gives Vanquish some variety, and it's brilliantly scored so the right kind of tunes are playing at the right moment. Vanquish's sound effects should also be recognised, the gunfire effects are particularly satisfying, giving the weapons a punchy weight.
There aren't many weapons to get to grips with in Vanquish's arsenal. You're able to carry three different guns at any one point, and you'll quickly stick to the three you enjoy for the entirety of the campaign. We opted for the standard assault rifle, machine gun and rocket launcher — but there are shotguns, disc launchers, snipers and laser guns also available. The problem is, the latter weapons aren't particularly good and — aside from a particularly brilliant stealth mission involving the sniper — there's really no incentive to ever use them. Weapons can be upgraded by collecting pick-ups, but this doesn't really have much of an impact on the way they operate. A Ratchet & Clank-style upgrade system could have really elevated the whole package.
There are a couple of bosses in Vanquish who are able to kill Sam with one-hit kills. As in any game, they are particularly frustrating. Vanquish makes a point of letting you know when a particularly devastating attack is coming, but given the game's pace, it can be difficult to stay tuned in. Of our 53 deaths during the campaign of Vanquish, we'd say 20 or so came from one-hit kills. It's never fun, and it's no different here.
Vanquish is one of the purest gameplay experiences this year; it lives and dies by its mechanics. Thankfully Shinji Mikami's third-person shooter is bigger, better and more badass than most — if not all — of its contemporaries.