God Hand is the last game made by Clover Studios, the creators of Viewtiful Joe and Okami. It is an action game in the classical sense, a brawler that hearkens back to when you would feed quarters into arcade machines because there was no other way to continue. Its design aesthetic is stuck in the 90s, the environments are very plain, there are less than ten different enemy types during the entire multi-chaptered adventure, the soundtrack is something out of an old side-scrolling brawler, and the game will punish you with its difficulty. If you give it half a chance, it will brutalize you. It is ugly, juvenile, rude, and so hard as to alienate most of the people who would ever think to pick it up. If you do not understand its system, it will not teach you. If you do not learn, you will not progress. If you aren't skilled, you won't have any fun.
If that turns you off, I think it's fair to say that this game is not for you. You don't need to read the rest of this review; God Hand is not the kind of game you will enjoy.
Everyone who's left? Let's talk about why God Hand was made for people like you and me.
Yep. Just like you and me.
God Hand's aesthetic style is a throwback to the glory days of the sidescrolling brawler – it's simple, generic-looking, and more dependent on style and gameplay than on looking pretty. The character models are actually fairly nice, but every single enemy type is a palette swap of one of a half dozen base models, not counting the bosses. The backgrounds are hilariously disjointed and unmemorable, objects in the environment are your standard crate and barrel affair, and in general the game just isn't very pretty to look at. It is fluid, running at a blistering and consistent framerate, but it's plain to see that the developers chose fluidity over graphical niceness. That's fine for a game like this, but if you want your brawlers to be pretty, you better go somewhere else.
The soundtrack is actually very good, if you don't mind tunes which are not ashamed to be mimicking something from 15 years before the game was released. Many levels have unique music, as do all of the loading screens and minigames, and all of it is catchy and memorable, whether it's the sort of thing you like or not. The game's composer is Masafumi Takada, who some may recognize as the composer for No More Heroes, and his touch is evident in many of the songs. The best thing that can be said for the soundtrack is that it is very effective at what it sets out to do; the mood is made lighter or more serious almost on a whim, and the way that the arrival of a demon is always cued by their particular theme highlights the sort of danger they represent, since there is no other special battle music outside of boss battles. The highlight of the game's score is definitely the credits theme; no other single video game track has so perfectly captured the spirit of a game and put it on display for all to see. I would play the entire game again just to watch the credits roll.
The highlight of the game's presentation, without question, is the voice acting. I don't mean to take away from the soundtrack, which is legitimately good, nor do I mean to say that the voice acting is great, which it most certainly is not. It is, however, the aspect of the game which best fits and exemplifies its tone. It is easy to hear how much fun the actors (some of whom are instantly recognizable, particularly Daran Norris as Belze) had in their roles, going completely overboard every time the script calls for it, which is quite often. The dialogue is melodramatic, intentionally cheesy, sophomoric, and rude – exactly as it should be. It takes highly skilled professionals like those hired for this game to lampoon the acting tropes of video games and anime dubs of the 90s so effectively, and if you're familiar with any of those traditions you're in for a cringe-worthy treat.
Humor is intrinsic to God Hand's presentation. It is at once a tribute to and a mockery of the cultures which spawned and which it aspires to emulate, full of attacks that look like something out of Fist of the North Star and cultural references so obscure that most people won't get them at all. It is a game which is very aware of itself, a game which does not try to make you take it seriously because it is not a serious game. You will do things in this game that are embarrassing, violent, and sometimes weird. It's all fun, though – just not necessarily the kind of fun you would want to have around your family.
Don't let your girlfriend catch you with this one .
There is a story. It is... well, it's a story, if you take “story” to mean “an excuse to punch people in the face”. That's the only function it serves - putting bad guys in front of you so they can take a beating at your discretion. In that sense, it is a good story! In every other sense it is pretty bad. Funny! But bad. You play Gene, who was given the arm of a god by a girl named Olivia, and now you're going to go beat up some demons. That's all there is. So instead of elaborating on what the story does or does not do correctly, I'll get into what the story is there to justify: the punching.
This game is hard, old-school hard, harder than a brick in your mashed potatoes. If you like hard games, step right up. If you don't, it makes no apologies, and the "Easy" mode is no easier than an unskilled player playing on Normal. However, the game is also fair, and will adjust its difficulty dynamically according to your performance in battle. There are four levels of difficulty, beginning at Level 1 and ending with Level Die, the symbol for which is a skull in an electric chair's skullcap. The difficulty is adjusted in that it creeps up toward the next tier every time you taunt your enemy or skillfully dodge an attack, while it is knocked down toward a lower tier every time you are hit. Generally, every player is going to find the level at which they can function and stay there naturally after finding their own equilibrium.
The question of the game's difficulty and how it functions is important, because more than any other game I've ever played, this game thrives on its difficulty, making it integral to the experience. God Hand is designed in such a way that it is more fun when you are more skilled, and a greater understanding of its combat system comes as a result of testing yourself against the game's enemies.
Controls are initially unwieldy but very tight and functional. Movement is handled with the left thumbstick, with the camera situated permanently behind your character, so that he moves and turns kind of like a very fast tank with the ability to do a quick 180 whenever you please. The right thumbstick handles dodging, where pressing down on it will make your character do a back flip, pressing left or right will make him do a boxer's slide to the left or right, and pressing up will make him duck under attacks that aim high. Movement is incredibly important in this game, and while your character's tank-like controls may initially be off-putting, it quickly becomes apparent that the entire game was built around this method of movement and the ability to dodge.
There are a lot of things you will want to dodge.
The combat system at first glance is very simple, but its depth is made more apparent the longer you play. You are initially able to take a set of attacks and link them up into four-string combos pulled off by tapping the primary attack button repeatedly, with a few other buttons being used to map moves which are used outside of your combo. To the uninitiated or the unskilled, the game may come across as a button masher wherein you just set up a combo of your strongest moves and wail on the primary attack button until the other guy falls down, but that's not the case. Different moves in your combo have very different effects and levels of effectiveness, including damage, start-up and cool-down lag, and the amount of time for which an enemy is stunned by the hit. You may find yourself purchasing a wide variety of moves so that your combo can be customized on the fly as different situations merit it. The advantages of these customizations include using faster attacks to hold smaller enemies aloft and immobile, using guard breaks to punch through an enemy's blocking stance, and automatically dodging certain attacks. This is something that's less apparent on lower difficulties because it should be possible to just use your strongest moves, but as the player improves and the game's difficulty begins to skyrocket, a more specialized use of your attacks becomes necessary. That is not to say that you need to fit to a specific moveset for any given situation, of course, because your potential move list is so large that you can adapt to any given situation with an almost endless number of different combinations. Want to go through the entire game using nothing but kicks? You can do that. Want to go through the game alternating between actual boxing moves and pimp slaps? You can do that too.
As I mentioned above, every enemy requires a unique strategy, because even though most enemy types are just palette swaps, they each function very differently from their previous incarnations. Strategy in combat is paramount, and more integral than in any other action game I've played simply because it's so effective; if you are good enough, and know the attack patterns of the enemies well enough, it is possible to go through the entire game without taking a single hit. I don't know if that's ever been done, but I know that it's possible in theory because it's possible to get through every single encounter, including the game's boss fights, without taking a scratch. In fact, high-level play won't make ready sense to observers simply because it is so fast and so violent – not that the game is bloody (because it isn't), but because a very good player is like a raging storm of fists and feet, performing combo strings with such speed and dodging attacks so well that they cannot be replicated by players who are not as skilled.
The only problem with God Hand's gameplay is that it makes no concessions to unskilled players and gives them no options to get through the game while having a satisfying experience. In your repertoire you will have a certain number of super moves which you select from a roulette, all of which have different levels of power, different effects, and different costs to use. In the hands of a skilled player, these super moves are explosive and primarily useful for getting out of a jam or ending fights quickly and hilariously. In the hands of an unskilled player, they are often the only way to get through a battle intact, even at a difficulty of Level 1. The problem is that the only way to rebuild the charges for these special moves is by breaking chests and crates and hoping that the particular items you need are dropped (the items contained in crates and barrels are random, so they will be different in any fight). So for an unskilled player, getting through a boss fight becomes less an exercise of trial and error and more an exercise of running around in circles, throwing barrels at the boss and praying that the right items are dropped. This is not fun. It is torture.
Truth in advertising.
The value of the game is difficult to quantify. The campaign mode can take anywhere between ten and twenty hours to complete depending on your skill level. There are 51 combat missions you can participate in, some of which are only unlocked after you've completed the story mode once. But that's only one half of the story; I mentioned that the game is more fun the better you are at it, and that's true, but the implications of this statement are enormous. The game rewards you with money based on the difficulty you're playing at when you defeat enemies, and a higher difficulty means more money, which allows you to buy better moves and upgrades. The game gives you free moves intermittently, but things get crazy when you can afford your own. By expanding your repertoire, you give yourself more options in any given battle, which increases your ability to function at higher difficulty levels, which lets you expand your options by purchasing more moves, and so on. The best moves, which are only unlocked for purchase once you beat the game once, are so expensive they require a high level of play in order to afford them, and once you obtain them you are able to blast through enemy encounters like... well, like a guy with the arm of a god. They do not make the game easy, but they make you powerful, which allows you to adjust to functioning at higher levels of play more easily.
This economy of difficulty, where your skill at the game is the only accepted coin, is the greatest achievement of God Hand's design. If you are the kind of person who enjoys action games, this game could last you forever. There is almost no limit to how good one may be at this game, and the only point at which you could conceivably say that you are as good as you can be is if you can beat the final mission without taking a hit. I have owned God Hand since a few months after its release and I return to it constantly because it is always possible to improve, always possible to try out new techniques and defeat enemies in new ways. As an action game made for people who love action games, God Hand is essentially perfect.
But it's not perfect, not altogether. Not even close. The game's intent has been honed to a razor's edge, so that those who seek out the experience it provides will get everything they want and so much more... but that comes at a price. To the uninitiated, to the impatient, to the unskilled, this game is going to be terrible or even unplayable. Its greatest fault is that it makes no effort to acclimate people to the system under which it operates, and if you are unable to play in the beginning, if you are unwilling to take the first several beatings that God Hand will level against you, if you are unable or unwilling to learn the ropes of its dodging and its combo system and its rock-hard, consistent gameplay logic, then it has nothing to offer you. Don't even bother.
If you like this kind of game, not just action games but hard action games which focus more on skill than on spectacle, God Hand is fantastic. You will never play a better action game, at least not one that I've experienced as of this writing. However, if spectacle is more intrinsic to your experience than learning a system, if you don't like taking hard games and beating them into the dirt, then this game is going to be among the worst you have ever played. If you're like me, add two points to my final score – presentation doesn't matter to you anyway, and the caveat for gameplay is irrelevant. This could be your favorite brawler of all time. If you're not like me, run from this game's box as soon as you see it. There's nothing for you here but pain.