By a show of hands, how many of you wouldn’t have nurtured your video game addictions if you hadn’t secretly harboured fantasies of picking up a sword and mowing down orcs? Same here. In spite of my deeply ingrained pacifism, I, too, have always yearned for the opportunity to perpetuate fantasy violence and dashing heroics. I suspect a fair number of people at Nintendo share my anti-monster sentiments as well because, well, you tell me; when a console developer decides to control an entire generation’s worth of games by waggling a stick, what else could they have in mind besides sword fighting? Good thing for us, the Nintendo Wii has infallible technology that in no way lets you control games with all the precision of an epileptic break dancer on an electric fence.
Having a black belt in Haedong Kumdo (Korean Kendo), I wanted to see exactly how well I might hold up in a sword fight. After spending a few years waiting for roving bands of samurai to raid Duluth, I decided I might need to step up my game if I wanted to put myself to the test. Fortunately, Google proved slightly more reliable than 21st-century American ronin, and it led me to Red Steel 2, touted as the best game on the Wii for realistic sword motion control. Not as fortunately, it also rooted itself in flashy combo moves and magic attacks, chucking enemies–who have the physical prowess of a bored teenager on barbituates–at you with the urgency and expediency of a government bureaucracy. But the motion controls…yeah. Wicked responsive. And mostly irrelevant.
Red Steel 2 feels like Bioshock spent too much time watching Akira Kurosawa films and Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. Seemingly aware of the connection between the two genres, the game takes place in a steam-punk-ish version of the Wild West, filled with biker gangs and samurai clans. Our not-so-subtly no-named Man-With-No-Name hero (I’ll call him “Clint” for short) begins the game tied to a motorcycle, trying to go for an inner tube ride. Except without the inner tube. Or the water. After his body becomes frictionally acquainted with the majority of the desert, he manages to break free to seek revenge on the man who used him as a human dust mop. As this Ramen-Noodle Western progresses, we learn that Clint possesses the Kusigari clan’s greatest treasure, the last remaining Sora Katana. Furthermore, the game’s antagonist, Shinjiro, in attempts to capture the secrets to forging these katanas, decided to force the Kusigari clan to talk by murdering them all, except, of course, for the notoriously taciturn Clint, who decides that he may as well double up on his revenge missions and hunt down Shinjiro as well.
Clint begins his mission by entering Caldera, a Rapture-esque town with claustrophobic streets, no residents, houses, or civil amenities of any kind. It does, however, have trash lining the streets, along with enough smashable junk to fill the Sea of Japan. The game functions primarily as a money-collection simulator, faithfully representing the experience of a homeless man rooting through trash. Except in Red Steel 2, every box, barrel, pay phone, crate, table, beer bottle and rocking chair lying about in the streets has about 24 bucks just waiting to pour out at the slightest tap from your sword. Despite the game’s planned battles and a handful of random enemy encounters, I spent most of the game gleefully bullying inanimate objects, threatening them with my sword, shaking them down for their loose change. I did get to spend it here and there, but the game gave me so much of it that I never had to budget, or make a decision between two upgrades on sale. I always seemed to have enough. The game gave me so much money that it became a glaring plot hole, actually. Generally when a community has so much money that they throw it out with the trash, the town won’t have so much a problem with gang warfare as they will with runaway inflation.
Wii motion controls improved significantly on those used in Skyward Sword–a fact made even more impressive by the fact that Red Steel 2 predated the Zelda installment by a year and a half. While the game does have a strong relationship between on-screen action and player motion, saying that it faithfully represents battlefield kendo would, to say the least, misrepresent kendo. It would, to say the most, prepare thousands of players for a short lives as shish kebabs should they ever need to repel an invading shogun. I personally suggest one of two styles for playing the game. First, you can find a two-handed sword to fit the Wii mote into–or as I did, just hold the wii and the nunchuck at about the right distance apart and try not to flap yourself with the cord too often–and wield it as closely as possible to a real katana. The game doesn’t require such wild, flailing motions, but it certainly encourages them, and you might as well have some fun with it. This does, however, invoke one of the biggest annoyances with the Wii controller–the fact that they always seem to combine characters’ view and aiming your weapon with the same motion controls. So when the game recommends a strong wind-up before attacking, I raise the control above my head, then end up slashing menacingly at a distant cloud that could care less about the pissant little cowboy flapping his arms on the ground.
Or you could take the more utilitarian approach to the game, ignore what it tells you to do, and sit sedately on your couch, flicking your wrist gently. Either way won’t make much difference to gameplay, as the enemies shamble about, moving around like trees bending in a strong breeze and attacking you with the same level of confidence I displayed talking to girls my freshman year of high school. You don’t especially need a VATS system to find an opening on these guys.
I should also mention that combat mixes sword play with gun fights, but who cares? Except in one or two instances, you don’t need the gun, and when faced with the prospect of wasting ammo in order to point at the screen and press a button, or to save bullets and swing the controller like an Olympic-class dwarf tosser, I nearly always chose the option that made me feel like a ninja. You also learn combo moves as the game progresses, which tend to power you up until you fall into a range of skill somewhere between Goku and God, and I had to actively force myself to use regular sword strikes so as not to finish battles simply by repeating “The Guillotine,” “The Tiger,” or “The Reaper,” the latter of which tends to immediately murder anything not considered “final” enough a boss. The game’s developers, however, apparently didn’t think they had made it easy enough what with the nuclear-powered sword, enemies doped up on ether, and giving you enough money to make Montgomery Burns to kiss up to you. No, they also insist on putting you through an extensive tutorial for every new skill you learn!
Each time it gives you a skill, the in-game sensei appears. His pedagogical methodology involves playing you a video of a girl white enough that she could pass for Samuel Jackson’s photo negative, who daintily swings her Wii mote until you can reproduce her motions. Then you have to pull off the move, usually twice. Then you’ll have to perform it three times in a row. Then you’ll usually have to do it once more so the game can tell you that you can also use the combo to kill enemies. And you endure these tutorials until the very end of the game.
So I didn’t hate Red Steel 2; in fact, in the right frame of mind I could play it for hours on end. I just don’t think it quite passes for the virtual sword-fighting experience I’ve always waited for. The enemies don’t put up much of a fight, and it couldn’t often keep up with my movements. I’d recommend it as your run-of-the-mill Bioshock-with-a-Sword video game, but I’d still hold out for something a little less gamey and a little more virtual reality-ish. Dear Square Enix: Please remake Bushido Blade for the Wii.