Developer: Clover Studio
Release Date: October 10, 2006
When it was recently announced that Clover Studio would be shut down next March, the internet gaming community lamented the loss of one of its favorite independent developers. Despite the half-dozen Viewtiful Joe titles it cranked out over the last couple of years, Clover Studio was best known for a single title: Okami, which hit stores just six weeks ago in the States. Though I regret the passing of the studio that crafted such a fantastic epic, at least I can take solace in the fact that its final game will be revered for ages, remembered as one of the best titles of the generation.
Well, not quite. See, Okami was not Clover Studio's final game. Just two days before the announcement of dissolution, God Hand was released in America, marking what will likely be the last release from the studio. God Hand is the complete antithesis of Okami; while Okami was modern, well-crafted, and visually stunning, God Hand feels stuck in the past and is sloppily executed in almost every way. Though it succeeds as a humorous diversion, the messy presentation and poor game design create an experience you will remember for some time – but for all the wrong reasons.
God Hand paints itself as a revival of the beat-'em-up genre best represented by Final Fight and Streets of Rage 15 years ago. The Bouncer and Urban Reign both made this attempt in recent years with middling results, and God Hand is no different. Is it that the genre just doesn't translate well to a 3D control scheme, or do we just expect more from our games in 2006? In this case, it's both; God Hand plays like a game designed for a controller with a single analog stick (i.e., the PlayStation Portable).
We have seen a heap of PlayStation 2 games suffer on the PSP, but this is the rare occasion in which a PS2 game feels like it was designed for an inferior system. God Hand uses a scheme resembling that of the early Resident Evil titles, in which the left analog stick controls both movement and the camera. This makes for a rather cumbersome experience, as you will often have to come to a complete stop to look around, which isn't terribly helpful when you are surrounded by enemies. The right analog stick is used for evasion techniques, which, while helpful, seem less important than the ability to freely look around while moving.
God Hand is a button masher by trade, using three customizable buttons to unleash attacks of varying intensity and ridiculousness. Players can choose a number of attacks to assign to the Square button, which is the designated "combo" button. Tapping that will unleash your combo attacks, while the Triangle and X buttons are used primarily for kicks or other more elaborate moves. The Circle button is not ignored, though you are usually prompted to make use of it. It can be used to stomp on a fallen enemy, pick up dropped items and power-ups, and even spank female baddies (more on this later).
The difference between God Hand and more typical brawlers is the tension gauge, which can be employed in two ways. If the gauge is partially filled, and you have a roulette orb on-hand, you can unleash one of many roulette techniques, which bear names like "God Stomp," "La Bomba," and "Ball Buster," which is exactly what you would expect it to be (and has no effect on women). If the gauge is entirely full and has a yellow glow, you can unleash the Godhand, which allows you to deal rapid-fire blows while remaining invincible. It may be tempting to use this as soon as you get it, but I highly recommend holding onto it for use against a boss or demon.
Punching and kicking ad nauseam does get old quickly, even with the ability to purchase new moves and techniques from the in-game store. That's just the nature of the genre; it is not meant to be an epic experience, though God Hand does have a strong amount of content. Eight stages are included, each with five to nine sub-levels through which to navigate. Each stage takes roughly an hour to complete, depending on how many times you have to play through a level. Aside from spending your earnings in the store (in which you can buy power-ups and techniques), you can also gamble your credits away in the casino, which features blackjack, video poker, and slot machines. A battle arena is included for an additional challenge, should you be in the market for even more brawling beyond the main adventure.
God Hand is more than tough – it is absurdly difficult. Regardless of the difficulty level you choose, expect to throw a controller or scream out expletives. I did both regularly and now have a dent in my wall. Thankfully, my Logitech wireless pad is alive and well. Occasionally, the game will display "Level Up," which I always took as a good thing. Another recent Capcom release, Dead Rising, rewarded me when I went up a level. God Hand is not necessarily rewarding you for doing well, that is, unless you are a masochist. The increasing level is not your own, but the level of difficulty, meaning this difficult game becomes even harder when you do well. God Hand makes every attempt to impede your interest and desire to play, which results in the aforementioned wall-bashing.
Though the oft-infuriating gameplay seriously damages the enjoyability of God Hand, the title is not entirely without merit. The nonsensical storyline about Gene and his possessed arm is thankfully packed with bizarre characters and unexpected pop-culture references, creating a narrative that is often hilarious and occasionally offensive. The best singular word to describe it would be "absurd." An early scene finds Gene looking at a bus arriving at an empty bench. When the bus pulls away, a large gorilla with a mask and a championship belt is sitting on the bench, reading the "Daily Godhand," a newspaper with your picture on the cover.
Naturally, you fight the "gorilla," and he expectedly has a large zipper on his back. Odd events like this are commonplace in God Hand, as are pint-sized Power Ranger knock-offs with playing card suits affixed to their chests. To top it off, one of them yells, "You can find me in da club," referencing the 2003 hit "In Da Club" from 50 Cent. Gene responds by calling them the name of a feminine hygiene product that ends with "bag." The first end-stage boss fight of the game pits you against a large man nicknamed "Elvis," and wouldn't you know it, the backing music for the fight is the most obvious Elvis Presley knock-off imaginable, complete with vocal stutters ripped straight from "The King."
The game dips into all sorts of pop-culture influences for its humor, and rewards the player who pays attention and catches the references. Sadly, it also seems to reward the player who enjoys unsavory comments and cheap insults. God Hand has no issue perpetuating stereotypes, with several characters being over-the-top caricatures. I doubt that the developers meant any harm, but the game has absolutely no sense of political correctness. In the world of God Hand, flamboyant black men are to be beaten, and women are the only enemies who can be spanked on the behind. These instances are few and far between, but they are certainly enough to make some cringe.
God Hand features some of the least impressive visuals of any game on the system, which is a shame considering how stunning Okami was. Imagine the flat, bland world of Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, but with worse texturing and repetitive character design. The most obvious problem concerns the "invisible" walls; walk up to nearly any wall, and it will disappear, allowing you to see beyond it. Ignore the apologists; I've trolled the message boards and seen more than a few people claim it as a "tactical advantage." Ditch the window dressing and just admit that it's bad programming. Aside from the amusing Elvis-inspired boss-battling music, much of the music draws influence from the "surf rock" genre, though I did note some minimalist jazz at times.
God Hand feels more like a vanity project than a full-fledged game. Perhaps the heads of Clover Studio had wanted to make a silly, old-school brawler for a few years and finally had the clout to pull it off after the success of Okami. Unfortunately, everything about the game feels old: the gameplay, graphics, control scheme and sometimes insensitive humor. It's a tough combination to swallow, and the maddening difficulty doesn't improve the situation one bit. Even the best game studios misfire every once in a while, but it is a shame that God Hand will likely be the last shot fired from Clover Studio.
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