Wednesday, November 14, 2012
From Software is the kind of company that doesn't necessarily have a style, but rather, a wide range of styles. One minute, they can make an RPG; the next, they can make a mecha game; and later on, they'll even make card games with swords. This is From Software after a horror game binge - Kuon, a game that has a great atmosphere but some serious flaws. You could probably use that as an accurate descriptor for a lot of survival horror games, but Kuon is a rather interesting case. That's mainly because it goes way overboard with what survival horror games fuck up, almost to the point of parody, and it shows people everything wrong with those games and then some. This is especially disheartening to somebody who lives in the PAL region – we just came from Resident Evil 4 about a year prior to this game's release, and where Resident Evil 4 has some semblance of horror, Kuon twists it and kills your entire family with it.
Kuon takes place in Japan during the Heian period (794-1185), which could be a rather interesting feature as not a whole lot of the games, if any, took place here. It was a rather important time for Japanese culture, especially since the first ever novel was written during this period. So what do they do with this? Well, initially like Resident Evil 2, it starts with you playing as one character and then playing as another, with their campaigns taking place at the same time as the other's. In this case, you play as Utsuki, who is looking for her father, the elder priest Doman. He was investigating a manor full of demons and... never came back, meaning that Utsuki and her older sister, Kureha, have to find him. The other character you play as is Sakuya, a disciple of Doman. Her job is to cleanse the manor of all the demons. Throughout both campaigns, you'll learn more about the demons and why they are in this manor, and in traditional survival horror fashion, it's convoluted. The fear of not knowing is ever so present as even though you'll learn more about your surroundings, it never sits quite right, meaning that you're learning about concepts and not entire story threads. While that's typically a bad thing, it works in a horror setting because the feat of not knowing is the greatest of all. Just when you think you're done, BAM, there's a third campaign that'll tie most of it together in a way that has everything making sense. Sadly, if we're being technical about it all, it's a decidedly average story. It relies on being disturbing as not much else is really all that interesting. The characters and the writing didn't do much outside of existing for the sake of an increasingly disturbing and convoluted story. Really. I just stayed for how much more disturbing it can get and I know you will too.
I hope you like tank controls, because Kuon uses them. I also hope you like pre-rendered camera angles, because Kuon loves to use them. I really hope you like the combination of tank controls and pre-rendered camera angles... that way, you might actually enjoy yourself. Now, you can also run, but it isn't advised... like, at all. Your light source won't show shit, bumping into objects (which is fairly easy given that we're using tank controls) may cause a ghost to appear, and if you bump into a Tempest, you'll get fucked up as your health will drain during those moments. Oh, and running will eventually land you into a state of vertigo, which will make you move like shit. So yeah, get used to doing a lot of walking, because that's all you can do without risking being on the receiving end of an anal raping, prison style.
Typically, survival horror games present you with a level that needs to be explored, and a bunch of keys that need to be found. Kuon does this and it's probably the most competent thing it does. Doesn't mean it's good because watching shit petrify sounds more enthralling than this, plus there's the whole “no running in the halls” thing going on, but at least the design of the mansion itself works. There's still the matter of finding sets of items in order to open up doors and solve puzzles, though these kimonos seem to have bottomless pockets as you can carry shitloads of items with you. Navigating is straightforward enough, at least. That much, I can positively say about it.
Kuon suffers from the same thing a lot of games of its ilk do - clunky combat. Both of our girls have access to a two-hit combo attack with their knives or fans, but it feels like they attack a tad too slowly and their second attack tends to miss. That, and combat really boils down to "I hit you, you hit me and the winner goes on their merry way". There isn't a whole lot to it that's engaging or exciting... or even scary, unless demons jumping up to dry hump your face is your idea of scary. You'll also have access to spell cards that you'll find throughout the game. These range from fire and ice attacks to summoning creatures to do your bidding, and although they're a bit slower to fire off, they're a lot more powerful than your knife attacks. The idea is that certain spells work best on certain demons, but experimentation isn't actively encouraged. The cards aren't infinite, and there aren't a lot to be found, so like any survival horror game, conservation is the name of the game. Save the big stuff for more urgent moments, like bosses or stronger demons. It doesn't save the combat from being clunky though. Ooh, and before I forget... you can't avoid combat. No fancy maneuvers around the enemies are available – they block your way and you have to fight them. Yeah, wasn't survival horror about surviving, not just fighting? Guess not!
It's a total shame, because Kuon has some spectacular graphics and excellent sound design. It certainly shows that it takes place in the Heian period as the manor and the clothes worn by our human characters certainly look like they're from that era. Not only that, but the demons look either somewhat derranged or pretty damn crazy. They're the kind of thing you'd want to fight in a survival horror game, especially nowadays in a market full of zombies. The atmosphere is not only authentic, but also intense. There are some dull grays and browns... on top of vibrant shades of blood red. It's like “damn, this manor got trashed something fierce”, and all it does is entice you into exploring more of it, which is exactly what a good survival horror game does. For an added bonus, the cutscenes look great. The animations are fluid and the amount of detail put into everything is damn fine by PS2 standards. An interesting detail is that there aren't many facial animations, which looks baffling until you start thinking “at least it doesn't look like some Jet Li shitfest when I switch to the English soundtrack”.
Speaking of which, the sound design is just as sweet. There isn't much music, but what little there is, is actually enough to give you the chills. That, or get you pumped up for a shitty boss fight, it just depends on what you're doing. Other than that, you'll be hearing footsteps and sudden loud noises, resulting in the calm before jump scares. But then there are some ominous noises in the distance, and it becomes a matter of whether something jumps out a little while later... or a lot later. It's not the best in the world, but it's the perfect shiner for Akira Yamaoka's soundboard. The voice acting, regardless of language, is pretty good, though the Japanese voice acting is superior. I don't know, it just sounds much more authentic, given the period and whatnot. The English voice acting is just if you don't want to read subtitles, and all you're missing is the authenticity... which is actually this game's second biggest strength... wow...
Really, my problem with Kuon is its interpration of survival. In Resident Evil, for instance, you're surviving against the odds. You have one bullet left, no herbs or first aid sprays and a bunch of zombies to take down. Do you use your pitiful knife to slowly take them down or try to outmaneuver them? That's the kind of situation any good survival horror game puts you in. Kuon, on the other hand, takes that situation and covers the floor with glass while you're tied to a device that's ready to rip out your spine at any moment. That's not survival horror; it's more like “fuck you and then some”. The big middle finger to survival horror. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to play a game that doesn't make me feel like the controller is covered with acid and spikes with the TV blaring out subliminal messages telling me to convert the heathens.