Metal Gear Rising is a Metal Gear game indeed, if one ignores the core mechanics of the franchise. Like any Metal Gear, it can easily be completed in under four hours once the player has grown intimate with it, and as a Metal Gear game, it presents fart jokes and girlie posters sitting, without irony, next to conversations about the nature of free will and wartime philosophy.
At any time you can turn on your radio and engage in half-hour conversations with the folks back at base (Phil La Marr!) that never seem to repeat - an extraneous cherry on top that no other franchise really offers. For a game that's aping the Devil May Cry / God of War school of Big Action in terms of structure and spectacle, it sticks surprisingly close to all those little Metal Gear extras (fonts, sound effects, Easter eggs, the inclusion and nature of its New Game Plus) - but all those little touches are also what makes Metal Gear Rising feel familiar and yes, comforting to a fan of the core series.
But Metal Gear is a stealth series. Always has been. Not only that, it's a very Japanese stealth series, if one is prepared to attribute design tropes to geography. The games have classically considered the wealth and function of their mechanics before their ease of use - and at times, have offered up intentionally-perplexing control schemes so only the most dedicated fans could master them.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the gameplay reminds one - a bit - of God Hand.
It's very strange, and frustratingly analog, at first. The line between success and failure is measured in nanometers, here, as Raiden's only defense against the game's aggressive and very lethal enemies is a parry system that feels foreign and arbitrary - so unlike any other brawler - that will either make or break your enjoyment of the game. There's nothing natural about it, at first. Nothing comfortable. Nothing enjoyable. At first, as you keep trying to parry and getting a face full of high-frequency blades for your trouble.
It's so weird that it wasn't until the last quarter of my first playthrough that it clicked, for me - and if you check out some of the game's lower review scores, you'll discover it doesn't click for everyone. Rising's parry mechanics are so alien, they may completely deny a player access to the very unique pleasure the title offers - but it's a risk I encourage you to take.
Because if - when - it clicks..? Oh my God. This game's fun factor is huge.
With investment on the part of the player, Rising's combat is ultra-fast and satisfying to the degree of a finely-tuned arcade fighter, providing the same kind of gorgeous ability to read into every animation and every attack - and your own failures. Its moveset is brief, its rules firm - so while you have (relatively) few tools at your disposal, they are all considered, and in service to its remarkably simple but deeply satisfying mechanics.
It's a successful brawler that feels totally different. The attack button, you see, is square. (Triangle is heavy attack, but let's not complicate matters.)
To parry, you press towards the attacking enemy with the analog stick, and press square.
Let me say that again - block and attack are the same Goddamned button. Which seems insane.
It took hours to become comfortable with this, but once one is comfortable, it provides access to the kind of sword fights usually reserved for movie theaters and Samurai Champloo. The secret, it turns out, is to always be attacking - so at any time you can jam on the analog stick and throw up your parry. You tear into your enemies mercilessly, hacking and slashing away - perhaps, daringly, opening up into a heavy attack combo and pounding their defense. Your enemy's weapon flashes red - they're about to attack.
You don't stop attacking, though. You flash and crash your blade into them, splinters of blue and red splattering across the screen until their weapon swings down, and you snap the analog stick towards them.
Raiden brings his weapon up, and
'ching', their weapon clangs off yours. Guard too soon, and you'll merely block the attack. Guard with perfect timing - one should note that "perfect" is a generous window, here - and after the block Raiden will sweep his weapon under and up, shattering their guard and leaving them open to a killing blow.
It's a nice system. The longer you keep attacking without guarding, the more damage you'll do to your foes and the higher chance you'll have of nailing your timing. The rub, of course, is if you guard too late,
the enemies will take merciless advantage of the mistake, and cheerfully pound you into the ground.
So play Rising viciously, but thoughtfully. Play it with limitless aggression and considered defense.
So be on your guard, but go nuts. Throw every heavy, hammering hit you've got at them, smashing away at their armor (accompanied by a wonderful sound effect and blue glitter), only snapping the analog stick up a second-and-a-half after their weapon had flashed red - a half-moment before the strike. 'Ching!' bark your swords as they parry, and 'smash!' with another heavy attack.
Blue glitter flies and the beast's left arm glows blue. You don't even aim the blow. You just tap R1 to bring up Blade Mode, tap square and your sword sinnnngs as it zips through the arm of a robotic assault gorilla, and the monster staggers backwards, one limb lighter.
But don't forget to play viciously. Stay on him. Don't give him an inch - 'cause he won't do you the same favor - and be prepared for enemies attacking from all angles. Mashing buttons will get you killed, here - to the same degree that guarding without intention will leave you wide open.
It's a uniquely beautiful combat system, visually and mechanically.
And the system - while so simple, so clean - is supple, to the point that the player can end up pulling off some badass Daigo shit.
Rising's boss fights are delightful affairs, reflecting creativity and style of Metal Gear and (Rising developer) Platinum Games' canny use of their system's mechanics. Each boss feels special, though I'll admit I have a very soft spot for the classic at-the-side-of-the-road, in-the-country, at-sunset samurai duel between Raiden and Sam.
I get that the game's ultimate boss fight is meant to be an absolutely insane affair, but to me it's the Sam fight that epitomizes the beauty, grace and furious aggression of Rising's combat system.
Now, all that being said...
...lovely environments like that pictured above are few and far between, in Rising. While the character models and their animations are top-of-the-line, the world you dash through feels far less stylish and interesting, to the point that it often feels like an afterthought. For the most part, the best way to describe it - as Raiden cuts his way through nondescript facilities and nondescript streets - is "cheap-looking."
For the set pieces they pull out the stops, but for 90% of the game, the backgrounds are a let-down. Perhaps Platinum was shooting for the God Hand effect - where the insanely fast, gorgeous combat in the foreground (so sharp and rich in effects) makes one forget about the bland, boxy environments - but it's definitely a step down from what one expects of a Metal Gear game.
The other presentation foible is a common one - and perhaps even a bonus, depending on if and how you love a Metal Gear title. Its narrative is pure Metal Gear for weal or woe - incredibly melodramatic, thick with techno-jargon, bad jokes and weird science - and anyone who was hoping Raiden had somehow matured beyond the self-doubting worrywart of Metal Gear Solid 2 will leave disappointed. Here, he's as emotional, neurotic and whiny as ever - but that's not Rising's biggest problem.
The game's camera - which functions perfectly in open areas - becomes a far greater threat to your survivability than the enemies in enclosed spaces, or even if you end up getting worked into the wall of an arena-sized room. The lock-on will lose its grip and the camera will skip about wildly, devastating your ability to effectively detect and react to attacks. It can destroy the combat.
Thankfully, the issue doesn't rear its head often enough to serve as a deal-breaker - but it's the lone black mark against Rising's unique, refined and very accomplished melee combat - which is nothing short of a treat, even if the sub-weapons are all useless when compared to your standard blade.
One could expound on the game's cool Zandatsu mechanics (Raiden is essentially a cyborg vampire ninja who must use time dilation to slash his enemies in very precise places to extract their auto-repair units to heal himself), or one could go on about Rising's rather remarkable degree of replayability via all its collectibles...
|The Zandatsu system isn't perfect, but it works fine. I prefer the button controls to analog, I must admit.|
...but here's the short version: Rising is worthy to bear the Metal Gear name in structure, form and spirit.
Twenty-six years ago, Konami offered up a game that was totally unlike anything else in the market with Metal Gear for the MSX2, and while Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance may take cues from other action franchises - a weird rock soundtrack, screen-filling boss encounters and a too-easy "normal" difficulty - it too feels as distinct as the franchise that spawned it.
Rising isn't for everyone, there's no doubt - but for folks who can dig what it's layin' down, there is value here that has no peer, simply due to the rarity of originality in triple-A games. Its combat system may not be as deep as Bayonetta or as broad and accessible as DmC, but its profoundly unique mechanics - as slickly, consciously designed as they are, and the gorgeous sense of power and intention they impart - set it apart from other brawlers and establish it as its very own, very special experience.