Going back through my years as a gamer, I realize how much things have changed. Not in the industry, but in my own approach to the acquiring of them. Nowadays, like many, I can’t simply go out and buy any game that looks cool. It needs to have good scores, and enthralling gameplay videos, and all that good publicity stuff. Granted, I am not quite a slave to such things; I frequently take chances on lesser known gems and will ignore scores for certain games (*coughDynastyWarriorscough*), but the days where I would prowl the aisles at game stores and simply grab whatever caught my eye are long gone.
Rewind to 2005, when this habit was still very much alive, and was alternately screwing me or paying off gloriously. The time itself bears noting, as 2002-2005 was kind of a golden age for smaller, more oddball games coming to us, both in our country and from foreign shores. Some, like acid-trip classic Katamari Damacy, hooked their claws into gamers of all kens and became a known fixture. And then there are others that didn’t quite make it, like the subject of today’s review, Bujingai: The Forsaken City, an excellent example of the best (interesting gameplay, unique appeal) and worst (immensely flawed mechanics, sad excuse for a plot) of this age of legends.
Wuxia Talking About?
Before I talk about the game itself, a history lesson is in order. Released in 2003 in Japan (and 2004 in America) on the PS2 as videogame company Taito’s 50th anniversary game, Bujingai is an action-platformer inspired by Chinese Wuxia films. For those who don’t know, Wuxia (which translates roughly to “martial arts heroes”) is a broad (and very old) genre of Chinese literature, and over time has spread to film, television, opera, and manhua (Chinese comics). Reading the translation, one might automatically say “Oh, so it’s Kung Fu!”, but although there is definitely immense overlap, you would only be partially right. Unlike typical chop-socky actioners, these works are characterized more by heroic (and not so heroic) characters, dramatic storytelling, much talk about honor and justice, heavy doses of mysticism and martial arts that strain the bonds of credulity or outright break them.
To use an example: Enter The Dragon, with its down to earth fights and very reality-based story (and heavy doses of Bruce Lee), is a Kung Fu flick. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with it’s flying characters, mystical themes, flashy combat and rampant talk about “honor”, is a Wuxia flick. And it is from here that Bujingai draws it’s inspiration. Characters pose and dance around with their swords for no reason, and the storyline, besides some very broad thematic elements, seems to just be there for the characters to fight eachother.
I’m not joking, this is the saddest excuse for a story I’ve ever seen. Here’s your setting: nuclear apocalypse, most dead, demons took over, only ones left are martial artists. Our hero Lau, who apparently spent the past couple hundred years dancing in a comet to train himself, returns to earth to seek revenge for his defeat a long ass time ago by his friend, who is now part demon. Seriously, I almost never have trouble with plots; I can follow anything. But this shit is so threadbare a British orphan should be wearing it.
Here’s roughly half the cutscenes:
Now, you might be saying “Hachi, how can you post half the cutscenes? You’re spoiling!”. And I tell you that this shit would not be any more comprehensible if I posted the entire game. Characters do things for no apparent reason other than “I’m bored”, stages have no rhyme or reason for existing, and the dialogue is absolute nonsense. One could say that a lot of Wuxia is like this, but even by those standards, this is a doozy.
At least it’s all wrapped up in a decently pleasing package. From a technical standpoint, the games visuals are a mixed bag. Characters animate smoothly, and most of them have relatively appealing designs, in that blatant “Asian heroism” way. While character models are okay, environments are drab and generic, with lots of grays and blacks and browns. The game’s art style is pretty standard, barring one glaring exception. Our hero looks like, well…
The main hero was motion captured, voiced by, and modeled after Japanese musician Gackt, who, in addition to having a name that sounds like the noise I make while choking, is just about the prettiest man I have ever seen. The ideal Wuxia hero is beautiful, in a sense, but…holy shit, look at him! He looks like the bastard child of Zeed from Fist of the North Star and David Bowie. That is way too much color for any one man. It’s also jarring because he is so out of place; most of the other characters wear pretty sedate ensembles, some have louder colors, but not like this. And he’s supposed to be an honorable, dignified warrior.
A Man Of Twists and Turns
So this is all fine and dandy, but what about the gameplay? Well, this is where we get Bujingai’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. First, it’s strength: the combat. Combat is a hack and slash affair, with one central “normal” combo you get by pressing the square button over and over. Tapping triangle during a normal combo sets you into special position, from which you can unleash a barage of kicks, or knock an enemy into the air. Just tapping triangle gives you a crowd clearing spin attack. The combos are visually satisfying, and combat is fun in the way a hack and slash should be, but attacks lock you into their animations, meaning that Lau is extremely slow to move back to neutral when you stop a combo mid-way. This is a problem when you are facing groups of opponents who WILL attack you while you recover.
For all the standard hacking and slashing, the combat does have a few tricks, most notably the mechanic known as “clashing”. Let me explain. When an opponent attacks you, it is possible to enter a “clash”. As long as you are facing your opponent, you will parry their attacks with your own fancy spinning and whirling sword defense, and it is very pleasing to look at. However, you can only block as many strikes as you have “defensive points” to spare. Each strike takes a point. So what do you do? Well, you can either break out and dodge by pressing X, or you can counter their combo with one of your own. By pressing the square button during a clash, you can then start to counter your opponent, locking them in a combo of your own and doing more damage since they are off balance.
It’s a lot like fencing, except with bright, colorful bursts with every hit. This is complicated by some enemies, particularly mini-bosses, having a few defensive points of their own, meaning they too have an opportunity to counter you. It becomes sort of a tug-o-war, as each combatant tries to overwhelm the others defense, but it can get tedious since defensive points refill quite quick for enemies. Still, these types of battles can be very exhilerating, and make Bujingai a true joy to look at when someone is fighting.
There is a downside to this mechanic, as when you are locked in to a clash, you can still be hit by enemies not clashing with you. This makes some fights INCREDIBLY frustrating, particularly one at the end of the game where you fight two enemies at once with lots of defensive points. You can also use magic attacks, such as fireballs, cyclones, and one that sends you flying at your opponent sword-first. But besides the cyclone for getting some breathing room from quick opponents, I didn’t use them all that much.
So, when it is working, the combat is fun. It’s everything else that is maddening. First off, Lau controls like his is wading his way through peanut butter, only starting to move about a second after you order him to go. Jumping is also ass, as you go straight up normally, and when you tilt the analog stick forward, he moves a grand three inches in the air in that direction.
And finally, there is the hell of the glide. By jumping and then pressing and holding X, Lau can enter a short flight to bring him forward while looking pretty, and this is how you usually get to walls to climb (more on that in a sec). But there are two problems. One, the glide has an arc, as in you go in a slightly U-shaped arc while you fly. This can result in you going UNDER your target if you don’t time the glide so that you reach it at your peak altitude. The other is that controlling it’s direction is an exercise in frustration. Short of not pressing the stick at all, and letting it go straight, prepare to be doing aerial ballet in a direction totally NOT where your goal is.
And this sucks more because, in order to grab gold coins (the little tokens, 65 in all, that unlock a fairly large suite of extras) you usually have to use these faux “acrobatic” skills. And then there’s the platforming. You notice I called the game a platformer, but it is that in the barest sense. Lau has the ability to run up and along walls by jumping at them and holding the X button, and it is using this and his glide that you are supposed navigate some of the later stages. But the wall run is horrible to steer, if you are going in one direction it is nearly impossible to change it. And what’s more, unlike in Shinobi (PS2), the wall run is limited in time, meaning if you fuck up, you fall and have to start over.
In a move so ill-advised it seems almost laughable, huge swaths of the final stage involve navigating a series of walls and platforms over a bottomless pit that eats a good chunk of your health whenever you fall in. I cannot stress how annoying this is: 2 hours of my 11 hours of play time were spent on this stage. This sloppiness, in terms of movement and platforming, come very close to breaking the game. I eventually adjusted my reaction time to the game, as all great gamers do, but the thing is so messy it seems unreal.
A Cast of Wood
Moving on to the other pieces of the game, the audio is as mixed as the visuals. On one hand, the music is superb, featuring a great mix of traditional instruments and techno-sound. From the flute and synth heavy mix in the first stage-
-to the eerie keening of the snowy mountains-
-all the way to the industrial forboding of the infested burrows-
-the music here is a true highlight, and is, frankly, way better than it should be. As for voice acting, well, you watch the video above and tell me what you think. I think it’s hilariously bad, with characters spouting gibberish they sound like they only just read a few minutes ago. For all my joking, I actually like Gackt alot as a performer, and his deep, masculine (yes, really) voice lends the only bit of credibility to Lau. And yet, as if to stop something like credibility from tainting their character, the creators made Lau mostly mute, only grunting and shouting the name of whatever spell he is using, so Gackt is mostly wasted.
As for the others, main Villain Rei comes from the “constipation” school of emoting, the master is voiced by Roger Jackson, who some may recognize from “Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner” as Colonol Nohman and who is a voice actor I really like, but he is using a voice that sounds way too close to his “Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls” voice for comfort, and if you know that show, it makes all his lines hilarious.
I would mention the girl, but no one cares. Seriously, she has zero development, and seems only to be there to make portals for you. I should note that maybe the Japanese voices fare better, what with big names like Maaya Sakamoto, and the godly Norio Wakamoto playing the master, but I doubt even they could carry this dreck.
But I could stand all that if the game wasn’t so damn frustrating. It’s difficulty comes from shoddy game mechanics and blatant AI cheating, not honest difficulty. The bosses are pathetic exercises in pattern recognition, but normal enemies and minibosses can make you tear your hair out. There are enemies who can jump out of your sight range (oh yeah, the camera is awful too) and attack you from behind so you don’t know what happened. There are enemies who can somehow jump away from you while you are hitting them, and attack you while your slow restart animation plays. And there are the flying enemies who give the camera a seizure and make it impossible to do anything other than flail wildly. Amd see my previous comments on the platforming.
I mentioned the game above, but I would like to point out Shinobi (PS2) again. Shinobi was a game that had three things going for it: Cheesy storytelling, hardcore challenge, and tight controls. Despite lacking overall in quality, and being ball shrivellingly difficult, it got by on heart and precision. And it is here that Bujingai fails; it lacks a soul and it lacks refinement. It’s all flash and noise.
Not Quite Forsaken
There are times when Bujingai is a lot of fun. When I am involved in fast paced combat with a few opponents, moving smoothly between them, or fighting one of the minibosses in an epic clash of visual splendor, it’s really enjoyable. But when I am dropping for the hundredth time from a missed jump, or trying to get this one coin while the controls fight me like some rabies-infected dog, or taking shitloads of damage because an enemy got some cheap shots in while I was busy or couldn’t see, then it’s awful.
And I think that’s a great way to sum it up. Bujingai: The Forsaken City is a mix of the fun and the truly awful, acting as an alegory for that whole time in the gaming world itself. It’s traditional aspects are hit and miss, as are its experimental ones. All in all, I recommend it only for the great music and cheap thrills of its flashy combat (and only if you can find it cheap), but if you are easily annoyed, stay FAR away.
An Icecream Stand in the Seventh Circle of Hell: 6/10