But of course, my brother couldn’t leave well enough alone. After the fun we had with 4, he decided to pick up DW5. Fair enough…except the game was starting to lose its luster, and its flaws more apparent than last time. Brain-dead AI, way-too-simple combat, and allied units that would make YOU fail a mission just because they can’t be arsed to practice a bit of self-control. But I still played it…and the same applied when he picked up a cheap copy of DW5: Empires. The sheen had really started wearing thin by then -- though interestingly, I would be the one playing it more, since I tried to take over China in the campaign. Of course, in the interstice between games my brother nabbed the Japanese-substitute Samurai Warriors 2. And after that, DW6 (a game which, as I recall, boasted that its new mechanics were the ability to swim and climb ladders). And after that, DW7. And that’s ignoring the anime tie-ins like DW: Gundam and Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage...though as noted, One Piece: Pirate Warriors is the best of the bunch. And THAT’S ignoring the fact that we both played the hell out of the GameCube title Mystic Heroes, which (by virtue of being by the same company) might as well have been Dynasty Warriors, But with Magic and Big-Headed Children.
In recent years he’s gotten better about buying so haphazardly, but I can still see flashes of his fanaticism every now and then. Case in point: when he started recommending a purchase of Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes on the grounds that it was “Like Dynasty Warriors, but better”, I wanted to start clobbering him with the PS3. And maybe a sledgehammer for good measure. But I decided to give it a chance. It couldn’t have been that bad -- and of course, it was made by Capcom, the once-kingly purveyors of stylish crazy action. It certainly helped that he had to order the game online because nobody from GameStop had even heard of Sengoku Basara.
“Like Dynasty Warriors, but better.” That’s actually a very apt description.
That said, Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes is -- in my humble opinion -- infinitely superior.
With the exception of the anime tie-ins, I have a hard time remembering anyone outside of a core few characters in the DW games. Yeah, I know there’s Cao Cao, and Guan Yu, and Zhuge Liang, Xiahou Dun, and Lu Bu of course, but you’d think that after playing through the Romance of the Three Kingdoms so many times I’d have a better recollection of them. Conversely, I remember everyone in SB -- my personal favorites being Ieyasu, Kanbei, Yukimura and Motochika. While there are fewer playable characters in SB, they’re compensated by the fact that each character plays differently from one another. Yes, the ultimate goal is to mash square and then occasionally tap circle, but they have unique mechanics that set them apart -- as well as enough style to make an army of fashionistas weak in the knees.
Let’s take Kanbei as an example.
He’s the requisite slow-but-strong character. While DW would be content with leaving it at that (while adding several clones), Kanbei’s got more than enough style and depth to compensate. For one thing, he’ll smash you with a ball and chain. He’s amazing at crowd control, pounding on his steel ball and throwing a tantrum, or swinging it around like a club. Or he’ll just spin around and around, and get dizzy if you hold the button for too long. His special in-game mechanic is to cancel his slow attacks by evading, which can get him out of trouble or make new combos possible. But what makes him memorable to me is one of his Super Arts: he’ll slam the ground with his ball, creating a tornado. If there’s an enemy close to him, however, he’ll grapple him and give him a mean suplex. And then he’ll finish off with a devastating Spinning Pile Driver, and THEN create an enemy-sucking tornado. Zangief would be proud.
SB is pretty much DW on all the drugs known to man. When you take a base, it’s followed up with a nuclear explosion. Enemy soldiers will sing serenades while standing guard in snowy fortresses. Enemy aces will summon tigers as part of their leader’s strategy. You’ll fight feudal-Japanese drill machines built by pirates who chant things like “Chi is for chiseled -- just like our jaw lines and abs!” And that’s ignoring other gameplay particulars like Yukimura’s infinite combo-making dash cancels, horseback races, and everything related to the 12-foot cyborg Tadakatsu.
It would be way too easy for me to say “all the characters are badass” and leave it at that. It’s certainly applicable, and no amount of Cao Cao action is enough to make me put DW’s cast above SB’s. But if you’ll allow me to make a point (after some thousand words spent meandering, as I often do), I want to say this: what makes a Sengoku Basara character badass -- or ANY character in ANY medium -- isn’t necessarily what they can do, but why they do it.
You might think that I’m crazy, trying to suggest that it isn’t the fact that a samurai swinging six swords at once worthy of praise, but the meaning behind it. After all, I’d be lying if I didn’t think that SB was an inherently stupid series. I haven’t played all the games, but I’ve seen ninety percent of the accompanying anime (both seasons) and played more than my fair share of Samurai Heroes. So while it’s cool to see Shingen Takeda ride two horses up a castle wall -- while standing atop them, no less -- it’s also completely ridiculous, and wouldn’t work if not for the franchise’s over-the-top style. And the less said about the meme-tastic Engrish employed, the better off we’ll all be.
But if there’s one thing that makes SB have any sense of depth, it’s the theme of loyalty that pervades so many elements of the franchise. You’d expect no less from a game that revolves around samurai warriors, but SB isn’t afraid to make that its lynchpin. Loyalty affects virtually every character in one way or another, regardless of their rank or ability. Here’s an example: in Samurai Heroes, the two leads (besides mainstays Masamune and Yukimura) are the punch-happy Ieyasu and the high-speed Mitsunari. Ieyasu is ostensibly the good guy -- ostensibly, because even though he’s working to unite Japan once and for all, in order to move toward that goal he had to kill Hideyoshi, his master of sorts.
That doesn’t go over too well with Mitsunari, who utterly idolized Hideyoshi; he swears revenge on Ieyasu, and his cool demeanor cracks all too often when the late Hideyoshi is slighted, or anyone makes a reference to the treacherous Ieyasu. (Incidentally, Mitsunari’s gameplay reflects this as well. One of his Super Arts has him going into a berserk stance; the more you attack without getting hit, the more dangerous he becomes). On one hand, Mitsunari’s less-than-ideal behavior shows how dangerous it is to have your loyalty control every aspect of yourself. On the other hand, the game treats Ieyasu -- despite his nobility -- as someone who has committed, and continuously commits, crimes for the sake of peace. Underneath proclamations of putting ya guns on, there’s a bit of a moral gray area to the story thanks to the war climate; regardless of which side you fight on, staying true to your friends and comrades is the best way to find solace on the battlefield.
Am I reading a bit too far into it? Probably. Trusting Capcom to write a story is like trusting Blanka to teach a course on astrophysics -- you won’t learn much, but damned if it’s not a hilarious train wreck. Still, SB -- if accidentally -- manages to convey some interesting themes. The games touch on them, of course, but it’s the accompanying anime that goes to town with them. What could easily pass as bromance (and make no mistake, there’s a shitload of bromance) takes on a different quality when you think of it as undying loyalty, and helps define the characters well beyond their skill sets. Shingen and Yukimura have a father/son relationship. The latter is exceedingly devoted, and as an up-and-comer wants nothing more than to prove himself to his lord -- to fight in his name and help bring Japan under his rule. Shingen, as a warlord, commands the loyalty (and therefore respect) of his men, and with that respect comes adoration from even the bitterest of rivals. In a world where unifying Japan is the top goal, a strong image and a willing paradigm can do just as much as military strength alone.
Conversely, Masamune is a warlord in his own right. He’s young, reckless, wild, and passionate -- and even though he’s not exactly a tactical genius, he’s still earned the respect of his delinquent-styled troops. That respect drives him, and demands that he elevate his people to a higher plateau. He’s also got his right hand man, Kojuro -- older, measured, and calm -- who is apparently good enough and smart enough to usurp power from Masamune and go for unification on his own. But he doesn’t. He believes in Masamune, and lends his sword to the One-Eyed Dragon’s campaign. Why? Loyalty. Even when the boss screws up or is about to drive his troops off a cliff, Kojuro’s quick to correct him…and then, fight alongside him once more. I find it hilarious that even though Kojuro has a relatively sedate fighting style (in the sense that he uses one sword in a franchise with dual-wielded spears, rocket-powered anchors, and lightning chainsaws) he’s still one of the most lethal characters around.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Voltech, we’re eighteen hundred words into this thing, and you haven’t made much of a point besides defending samurai bromance. Why should I care?”
Simple. It’s because the title of this post was very nearly “What Makes a Character Badass?”
Let’s be real here. Many, many, many video games thrive on making players feel like badasses. In order to do that, they’ll often give you a character that’ll make you whoop and holler by virtue of their spectacular actions. Kratos, Marcus Fenix, Gordon Freeman; Lightning, Travis Touchdown, Snake; you can hardly turn around without finding a game where somebody survives an explosion at point-blank range. How effective any of these characters (or any character period) are at being badass is up for debate, but I have my own preferences. In my opinion, in order for a character to be badass, you have to be able to sympathize with their plight. I want to know what makes them tick. I want to know why they fight. I want to know who or what is important to them. It doesn’t matter how many flip-de-loops a hero does, or how much a hero goes boosh-boosh-boosh against aliens and/or Russians; spectacle is nothing without substance. It’s those elements that make a character more than a collection of pixels; it’s what makes them human.
And speaking of human, let me give a rather obscure example.
In Uncharted 3, it’s established rather handily that Drake and Sully are bros. Pals. Buddies. They joke together, explore together, solve puzzles together, and shoot people that likely have hungry families waiting at home for them together. You know they’ll do anything for each other…and that idea is put to the test when Sully falls into enemy hands. Drake goes on the move to save him, but things go awry; what should have been a pleasant plane ride turns into Drake taking an unexpected detour. He gets to relive the opening of Aladdin -- minus the camel and the song and the credits, but with three times more sand, heat, and lethality.
What becomes of Drake? Well of course, he survives. But what transpires is actually one of what I think is one of the more interesting moments in the game: Drake walks through the desert alone, without supplies, for days and nights and days and nights. He stumbles about. He gets sandy. You can practically feel his body wasting away. He even starts hallucinating. But what makes the sequence so powerful isn’t necessarily the fact that Drake wanders through a desert and survives; it’s that Drake wanders through a desert and survives because all he’s thinking about is saving Sully. It’s not Drake’s superhuman endurance and luck that makes him badass; it’s his horrific determination and willpower. The why of the deed surpasses the what. Of course, it probably would have had more of an impact if Drake hadn’t engaged in a gunfight, acting as if he’d just gone for a stroll instead of wandering through a desert for days…but hey, it’s the thought that counts.
And now for the obligatory premature commentary on Tomb Raider. Given…recent events…a lot of people have put Lara Croft’s upcoming adventure under the magnifying glass. For any number of reasons, people have come to think of Lara as a badass -- and with this new origin story, gamers are expecting her to either end the reboot as a badass, or become a badass well before the game’s final hours. Suspect methods and PR (and my own sinking gut feeling) aside, I think there’s actually a good chance that Crystal Dynamics can breathe new life into Miss Croft. I just hope that the team remembers that, while it’s well and good to very nearly MURDER the iconic character on her first outing, I’m interested in seeing the why more than the what. Again, I have reason to believe they can pull it off (I want to see/hear more about the other characters and their relation to Lara)…but given games’ propensity to fail at writing far simpler stories, it can go either way.
Games are evolving -- into what, it’s hard to say, but they’re evolving regardless. If they’re going to evolve into something memorable, then we need something memorable to latch onto. Spectacle and set-pieces can help, but for a lot of people that’s not enough anymore. If games and their developers want to make badasses, that’s fine. But understanding all the particulars is vital. Otherwise...
I’ve said about twenty six hundred words too many on this subject, so I’ll do something different. I’ll leave you with this clip from boxing anime Hajime no Ippo. Admittedly, I don’t know the series too well outside of a couple of clips and details, but that clip alone is enough to make me understand why the series has lived on for more than ten years. The passion. The drive. The heart. All that and more, in a single clip; even if the punches themselves are awe-inspiring, seeing that spirit in action is what demands respect. Seeing that courage before the match -- and the joy afterward -- is what’s important.
Let’s all take a lesson from Sengoku Basara. Let us all put our guns on. For glory.