a review of God Hand
a videogame developed by Clover (RIP)
and published by Capcom
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation network
text by Christian McCrea
The litmus test is this: are you the type of person that played Gears of War and thought, “Yes: this is the future I was promised by my gaming forebears”? If so, then go right ahead and do whatever it is you do in your sad, blinkered, little worlds. It’s clear Tim Rogers liked it because he has a giant television, so he’s excused. The rest of you, those of you who thought Gears‘ “There’s the grub! Push him back into his hole!” was a tad creepy, from a “Forced Entry III: Boys Behind Bars” perspective, may want your camp heroics a little more with it, as it were. Before the dissolution of the promising Clover Studio, it was widely thought that God Hand could become the new Devil May Cry. If you looked at the electric fora, you would find people frothing at the chance to play an old-school beat-em-up. God Hand promised a return to the epoch of pain, where trigger-happy players had to scale mountains of difficulty to assert themselves over an unforgiving and cruel system. Combine that with a self-aware action hero and a gang of ready-to-beat mohawked punks, and you had what seemed a perfect formula. So who shit the blanket on this one?
The sad truth is that nobody really got the joke. I don’t much give a damn as to the industrial side of games, because, frankly, the veil between being one of those people hitting refresh on a gaming forum three times a minute is thin. Given that, I don’t really understand how an outfit could turn out something so self-assured and potent and get the arse. Even as a branding exercise, Clover was surely worth spending a few. The menace and swagger with which both this and Okami take over your senses is pretty bewildering. In an era of cotton-wrapped, market-tested rubbish like Kingdom Hearts 2 and Gears of War (sorry, Tim), that one outfit decided to take daddy’s money, go out in the middle of the street and punch a nun – merely to prove their manhood – just leaves me in awe.
That’s all an aside. Nobody cares about who makes games. They’re all pigs. They earn the human card by escaping the pen and producing something startling. If you begin to rattle the numbers around briefly and come to grips with the difference between total gaming-time with actual positive life experience you can build something out of – even if it’s some dumb socialising with a fellow electric chap or lady – you’ll get The Fear. The Fear creeps in whenever you realise that something beautiful could have happened, it didn’t, but you’ll go through ten, maybe twenty or more, hours just to see it through.
So it is with God Hand, which opens with a soft parody of Fist of the North Star and a good, solid forty-five minutes of pure pain. No introduction, no real tutorial outside a rudimentary set of “dodging will save your life” pop ups. You are in a fight, son, with the machine you bought with your hard-earned, videostore nightshift sweat (Do they even have videostores anymore?). You are thrown into an impossible situation; a bare understanding of a baroque control system, a stream of poorly drawn enemies, the need to devastate virtual men, and camp music. I must have shown the first level to every gamer within local reach; not one could pass it without multiple deaths.
Consider this; while my friends are obviously a bit soft, we still have opposable thumbs. This thing – this piece of software – could quite possibly be capable of hate, or something like it. A digital form of contempt for the input mechanism it recognises as a user on the end of a Dualshock. The bastard PS2 dangles the control at you like a bucket into an oubliette as it tucks its little emotion engine between its legs. You are essentially doomed. Essentially.
You don’t ‘slowly get it’ or ‘learn the system’. You get it beat into you like Kumon mathematics. Your body – God help me for visualising it – is trained to accept that in a game wrapped around the idea of style, what you actually need is a razor-sharp reflex mechanism with very few choices in order to progress. Where Ninja Gaiden (***) will shave you in the morning and give you a piece of honey toast before taking you out in the garden for a spot of ginseng tea, just to warm you up, God Hand wakes you up with a kick in the tit. He pays the doctor’s bills. He’ll break what he wants.
The situations are not even dumb game scenarios; they are like bad hallucinegenic daydreams of a game. Everybody is openly gay, everybody is screaming, boxes explode, giant fruit replenish health. Remember; Gears of War‘s bloody circle is ‘mature’ and an ‘evolved mechanic,’ while fruit and a health bar are ‘outdated’. This is what it’s come to; the videogame medium’s penis envy of other media has finally made it insane. Now, it’s freaking out and telling people a growing red circle in the middle of the screen is somehow different than a simple health bar differential. Remember when a thousand journalists giggled and whooped at the GDC news that Halo 2 would have dual-wielding? This – and that – is what God Hand is up against. That sort of person. This sort of world. Where Oblivion is a ‘rich open world’ (it isn’t), where Viva Pinata is ‘fresh and innovative’ (it isn’t) and every bit of marketing double-speak passes for some semblance of a movement forward. You may remember this classic from the release of the Tribal Game Boy Advance SP: “We feel we have created a product in the Tribal Edition that reflects the sentiments of today’s youth – rebellion, attractiveness and spirituality. The new console allows gamers to express these emotions in a fun and interactive way, enabling them to communicate their individuality.”
This is the corporate culture that infects games; people who believe ‘rebellion, attractiveness and spirituality’ are sentiments that will go on to make decisions which subtly alter the lives of young people.
God Hand is not an alternative to this; don’t get me wrong. It’s Capcom’s money. But something honest can happen in the midst of something as vast as a corporation, sometimes. By freak accident, the machine makes a noise that sounds like a song. And when you’ve set your punch system up for the 50th time in as many minutes, that’s what you feel. That something harsh but fair has happened. A sluice for the control of pleasure in your brain is broken. The game pushes and pushes and hurts and kills and maims – and at one point, it just melts away, completely folds in an instant and you never look back. It doesn’t balance the game this way; it’s just what occurs to you. In Soviet Russia, game plays you.
If there’s a problem with God Hand, it’s that the ultra-cheap production values aren’t fully followed through. Some elemental decisions seem to fray at the edges, amongst them the totally bizarre camera/movement quirks – as if Clover could not decide what to do with this mechanic or that. You can see it; bits fall away at the edges like a sentence drifting away. “Hey, you know what I’d like to – ahhh, damnit.”
Yet nothing pulls you away from the central conceit. It’s one thing done forcibly, powerfully, incredibly right. It offers an alternative where only certain things matter. Where you know you’re in front of a painting looking for the strokes and streaks. Where the only way forward in life is through the fighting mechanic it has taught you to fear. God Hand is a tilt to an essentially dead people; a game built from the ground up to reward a pre-existing obsession with punching men in the bells. It will not be anyone’s first computer game.