The I’m Also Surprised Award: Attack on Titan (PS4)
Attack on Titan/Shingeki no Kyojin is not the best anime ever made. It is not the show that “saved anime” and is not some perfect masterpiece that will convert the non-weeb masses and “wash away” the shameful memories of your high school Naruto run phase. It’s riddled with severe pacing issues, naff plot devices, jarring tonal shifts and the plot stops more than a Ford Model-T. It’s not the best show EVAR, it’s not even in the top 20, and if you’re one of those people who try to place it above Bebop or Mushishi or Monster, above YuYu Hakusho or Ruroken or thirty others I can mention, then you are either willfully stupid or have a woefully small reference pool.
…So now that I’ve managed to piss off a sizable chunk of the people possibly reading this, let me clarify that I think that Attack on Titan is still a GOOD anime. As a matter of fact, when it’s blasting on all cylinders (the Trost District battles and the most of the Female Titan arc spring to mind) I’d even say it’s great. But the sheer magnitude of its fandom, not to mention the tendency of said fandom to violently exaggerate the show’s qualities, sours me somewhat on the whole thing. I like the show, but it’s not my favorite. So when I heard that Koei, those masters of Warrior gaming, were making a game, my reaction could be summed up with a casual “Huh. Neat.”
With my ambivalence established, you can probably guess the angle I’m attacking this from. I bought the game expecting I’d get a little fun out of it and instantly forget it ever existed. Instead, I found myself playing a rather well-crafted, creatively structured and generally fun little anime game.
By this point, I think graphical fidelity is to be expected in these kinds of games. After all, if you’re going to aim your product at a rabid fandom, your first step is to make sure the art fits with it, and AoT is no exception. Character models are sharp and detailed, even replicating the unique cross-hatching style so distinct to the show, and the titular titans, easily the strongest aspect of the series as a whole, maintain their wonderfully uncanny appearances, with their staggering gaits and blank, unfocused expressions even as they attempt to eat you alive. Even the environments, while not terribly big on fine detail, manage to be faithful recreations of the plains and cities represented in the anime, and provide plentiful uneven surfaces and rooftops for you to dash around on.
Which segues well into the game’s real selling point: the actual act of fighting these things. Despite Koei’s well-documented forays into gleeful power fantasy, AoT is notable in just how much it DOESN’T make you some world-sundering demigod. One of the key themes of the series is the utter heplessness of even well-trained humans in the face of these regenerating, super strong nightmare beasts and that helplessness is well realized in the game while managing to not rob you of the ability to attack and defend yourself. Your Omnidirectional Mobility Gear (don’t that just ROLL off the tongue?) affords you levels of vertical agility unheard of in games from this company, and most titans can be taken down in a few shots assuming your aim is true. But they will appear in large groups, they will move in weird and unexpected ways and one glancing shot from them will put you in a crisis state, and it’s very easy to get locked in a loop of near-death hobbling while flailing giants bear down upon you from all sides.
It’s in those moments that the game really comes into its own. Desperately shooting from roof to roof, blindly deploying your hooks and hoping that it brings you far enough away to plan your next move. Fumbling for health items and to replace your swords (which will lose sharpness as you fight) and gas (which depletes as you zip around) before they realize where you’ve gone. And that anxiety perfectly gels with the euphoria of finally digging in to one of the beasts, strafing around them and slowly chopping at their limbs, all to take them to the ground and finally dash in and give that fatal slice to the neck and FUCK I NEED A CIGARETTE NOW.
Of course, if the game were always so perfect, it wouldn’t merely be “on the list” like it is, and boy this one has some glitches. As fun as titan slaying is, it is literally all you do, so if that don’t grab ya you’re gonna have a pretty bad time. The loot and EXP system, while functional, is also incredibly obtuse and stingy with rewards and upgrades, making actual character and equipment advancement somehow gormless and unsatisfying. And speaking of the characters, while they do have different abilities that genuinely affect the way you play the game, they are by and large similar in control and general playstyle, so if you’re looking for strong variety in game experience based on playing as your favorite cadet, you may find yourself underwhelmed. Finally, while there is tons of content to the game, including the lengthy story mode and a plethora of additional missions in postgame, they don’t do much to mix shit up and can actually exacerbate the repetition if played for too long. Play this in bursts, kids, or don’t play it at all.
But issues aside…yeah, this one surprised me. It offers a fun and completely unique gameplay experience, managing to be evocative of its source material while doing its own thing as a vidya game. While it won’t convert you to the faithful, assuming you aren’t already one of the fuckers, and really won’t do much for you unless you let it, it’s way better than it had any right to be and stands tall as a singular, anime-rific experience.
Music Choice: The music of Attack on Titan is all about scale. It’s about building a sense of enormity as gigantic and incomprehensible as the very creatures it’s named for, and the game follows suit. Of course the typical Koei guitar chords and general rock sensibility are alive and well, but there’s a grandiosity here that is far more endemic to the property itself. And they don’t get much bigger than the redundantly named Gigantic Titan.
Favorite Handheld Game Award: Kirby: Planet Robobot
This will probably be the shortest of all these entries, even though in a year with a new Pokemon, calling this the best handheld game of the year are strong words indeed. While Pokemon is likely the longer lasting and more fundamentally well-made game, the bottom line is that Robobot is a ludicrously fun, funny, warm and just plain pleasant experience. One that leaves you with a goofy smile on your face and a song in your heart after each level, and one that lends itself so perfectly to a handheld experience that even if it doesn’t reach the sky-high quality of its competitors, there was no more perfectly portable playable in 2016.
I don’t think I need to explain what you do in a Kirby game, odds are if you’re reading this you know fully well what that adorable little tumor’s hook is. So let’s just get to this particular installment’s brass tacks. Like most Kirby games, it retains a manageable level of difficulty throughout, offering a brisk platforming experience while never quite driving you to become a superhuman through dense, ever-escalating challenge. Even if, full disclosure, some of those final boss battles and the arena challenges definitely got my blood pumping. The graphics are the same colorful collection of standard game settings, but all tinted with a slightly dissonant industrial edge (well, dissonant by series standards at least) due to the intervention of the game’s main baddies, the Haltmann Works Company, who are probably the most interesting and developed villains (again, by series standards at least) the games have seen in, well, EVER. The characters who do talk actually show a fair bit of personality, and those who don’t talk engage in that most classic of Nintendo traditions: slapstick and comical pantomiming, to great effect. Visually, the game as a whole is just charming up the wazoo.
The music follows through. Not as many original tracks as one might expect, but even the level remixes add in to Kirby’s uniquely strong “technology taking over” theme. As mentioned above, the environments that were almost exclusively lush green (greens) and fantastically flavored catacombs all now show the encroachment of technology. Trees are knotted with metal plating, desert landscapes show drills and silver buildings, the oceans dotted with platforms and criss-crossing ships of industry. It’s a potent mix of influences, making the game feel distinct from its predecessors in a way that, while not as striking as Epic Yarn or Rainbow Curse (two personal favorites, by the way) is no less effective at setting the mood. And besides, the aforementioned remixes are incredibly catchy and fun, while the new music will bounce around in your head for months. Just like a good Kirby soundtrack should.
But like with every Kirby since the beginning, it’s the fine-tuned gameplay that makes you stick around. While the series has never been known for its deep mechanics or challenging progression, they have always been known for being fun above all else, a design philosophy that lends itself well to the breezier, more evenhanded nature of handheld gaming. A Kirby game is about navigating a bright, well-designed environment, picking up powers and using them purely for the joy of seeing them knock off whatever semi-threat has come against you. And while that side of the equation has been fine-tuned to an absolutely wonderful science by this time, the inclusion of mechs adds an entire new layer of fun.
The reason for the game’s unique moniker, the robot suits that Kirby can jump in allow for not only the fulfillment of a dream you didn’t even know you had, but allows for a shift in gameplay focus that benefits whatever level it’s found in. Enemies become trivial in the extreme except as power-ups for your suit, which copies abilities in the same way as their pilot, and instead missions become more about using each power’s unique applications to find additional bonus areas and items with which to unlock extra stages and the like. They’re a wonderful new addition to the gameplay, and are almost a reward for players and do a fine job of breaking up the standard play style of the series.
There’s a litany of other reasons why this game stands so strong in my mind. The huge amount of unlockables, in the form of decals and additional side content. The shockingly robust selection of extra game modes, ranging from 3-D focused arenas to an entire dungeon crawler-lite sidegame. Or how about extra game modes that change your character, and even the fundamentals of how you play the game itself, all waiting for you upon completion? Kirby: Planet Robobot is a robust, cuddly, endearingly fun and charming game that still has enough weight to keep anyone with a taste for strong platforming action sated for weeks of play, and is arguably the most pure enjoyment I had with a game all year.
Music Choice: As I mentioned in the above paragraphs, the music of Robobot is a mix of glorious remixes and new music, and while the temptation was there to include the likes of Kirby 3-D Rumble and Residence Laboratory (a remix of Sky Tower, the best modern Kirby song bar NONE), and of course the essential Green Greens remix, I felt like I should choose a song unique to the game. And even then, we had Pink Ball, Activate! and Befuddling Skyscraper putting on strong shows, but in the end the honor could only go to the game’s primary boss theme, Vs. The Wicked Company. An actionized mix of the standard Haltmann Works theme, it’s an incredibly strong, sort of epic example of leitmotif that only plays in to this installment’s unique identity, with it’s computerized beats mixed with a very Kirby-esque tempo and arrangement. Definitely a stand out.
So with all that, what game stood above all the others? What single title dominated me mind, body and soul, becoming a phenomenon not just for me, but for several friends as well? What game acted not only as an honorable recipient of a glorious legacy of gaming’s past, but as a sturdy evolution of said legacy into something beautiful? Although it too is a handheld game, its qualities transcend the superlatives that would tie it to a single piece of hardware. So what game could it be, you ask? Well…