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Alternate Title(s): Red Ninja: Kekka no Mai (Red Ninja: Blood River Dance) (Japan)
Developer: Tranji Studios
Publisher: Vivendi Universal Games (Japan and N.A.), Sierra (Europe)
Platforms: Playstation 2, Xbox
Release Dates: March 3rd, 2005 (Japan; PS2 only), March 29th 2005 (N.A.; Xbox), March 30th, 2005 (N.A., PS2), April 1st, 2005 (Europe; PS2 and Xbox)
Cover art for Red Ninja: End of Honor.
What Is This Game?
Red Ninja: End of Honor is a stealth-action ninja game set in 16th century Japan. Red Ninja’s gameplay is somewhat of a hybrid between stealth action gameplay, similar to the Tenchu series, and platforming action reminiscent of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and its successors. The game emphasizes stealth-killing and acrobatics, but the real stars are its beautiful heroine, Kurenai, and her unconventional wire-weapon, the Tetsugen. The story begins as Kurenai’s father, working under Lord Takeda, rival of Nobunaga Oda, gains an advantage for Takeda during the war-torn era through the creation and use of the chain gun; a weapon vastly superior to the swords and arrows of their enemies. However, a dispute about the shameful lack of honor of the powerful weapon leaves them torn over whether to use it and, in the midst of everything, the Black Lizard Clan attacks, stealing the weapon and its blueprints, and in the process, murdering Kurenai’s father, creator of the weapon. Kurenai is hung from a tree by the Tetsugen and left for dead. However, she survives, and is rescued and taken in by a ninja clan serving Takeda, where her new sensei, Chiyome, and fellow ninja, Akemi, become like mother and sister to her. From this point, the game follows Kurenai’s life as a ninja and her quest for vengeance against the Black Lizard Clan, as she carries out missions for Lord Takeda and his son, and adopts the Tetsugen as her weapon of choice, using it to brutally dispatch her enemies as an increasingly tragic and twisted story unfolds around her.
Red Ninja's heroine, Kurenai, presenting her signature weapon, the Tetsugen.
Red Ninja gained at least a bit of infamy prior to its release, mostly due to its two major selling points: its unique and brutally violent weapon, the Tetsugen, and its sexy-but-deadly heroine, Kurenai. Both had an instantly appealing and attention-grabbing quality about them, and while these selling points, admittedly, ran close to the old “selling sex and violence” routine, Kurenai herself and her weapon were also both unique and interesting enough that it put them a bit above the run-of-the-mill sex and violence approach. It was clear that some thought and creativity had gone into both Kurenai herself’s look and personality, and her interesting choice of weapon.
As a fan of stealth-action titles, I had been keeping an eye on Red Ninja since the first images and trailers started popping up in late 2003/early 2004. The game, admittedly, did not have the polished look about it, even in these early glimpses, of a high-profile title, but as a fan of Tenchu and similar stealth action titles, I was interested, both by its similarities to such titles, and its unique look and gameplay elements. I liked the style, I loved the potential for insanely over-the-top violence which its incredibly original weapon offered, and Kurenai herself was sexy, but also stood out as stylish, unique and cool. If nothing else, the game was at least worth keeping an eye on for these appealing and unique qualities, and for my personal love of the stealth-action genre.
Kurenai, with the Tetsugen's mechanisms exposed, and her ninja companion, Akemi (bottom). The unique weapon and likeable cast are two of Red Ninja's strongest points.
When the game released to mixed/negative reviews, I was a bit disheartened, but still just as intrigued; I found myself re-watching the launch trailer, and debating with myself if I should take a chance and pick Red Ninja up. Of course, being who I am, I eventually decided to go with my gut and pick the game up about a month after release.
I had no regrets; going in with knowledge of its flaws, I found myself highly enjoying Red Ninja. While the controls and camera, its main points of (justified) criticism, were twitchy and often frustrating, once I got the hang of them, I was able to move past them to what was a fun and engaging experience. With a unique blend of stealth action and platforming gameplay, a wonderfully brutal weapon at the center of it, a visually appealing, but also very likeable and strong, heroine, and a surprisingly intriguing and well-told story, Red Ninja is, in fact, an interesting and memorable game for those who can overcome its camera and control-related issues.
History, Release and Reception:
Red Ninja was first officially announced in September 2003 at the Tokyo Game Show. First impressions by most major websites and publications likened Red Ninja to the Tenchu series. Meanwhile, both the developers and publishers, as well as the press, made special note of the game’s unique razor-wire weapon, the Tetsugen, and the various gameplay aspects tied to it both in and outside combat, as well as Red Ninja’s heroine, Kurenai, whom the developers were clearly pushing as an iconic lead character, and an object of sex appeal to draw the eyes of curious gamers. In addition, the game’s story and writing prowess were a key point of focus, with special mention going to Tranji and Vivendi’s hiring of Japanese film writer/director Shinsuke Sato, to write Red Ninja’s script and lend a “cinematic” quality to the game.
Tranji itself was a new studio and first-time developer; a studio formed from Japanese developers “Opus” and “New Corporation” with Red Ninja being both the studio’s first (and what would prove to be, only) project, and primary reason for formation. Information is incredibly scarce on the studio, but it appeared they were formed with the help of Vivendi Universal, and the intention of creating Red Ninja.
Tranji and Vivendi’s decision to emphasize the uniquely violent appeal of the Tetsugen and Kurenai’s sex appeal seemed to pay off a bit, as they managed to draw a decent amount of positive press and attention for their instantly striking, unique and attention-grabbing appeal, and kept the game relatively within the spotlight, at least for a somewhat lower-profile release. Kurenai herself, debatably, became more popular than the game itself, and even today, with Red Ninja all but forgotten, she still manages to pop up and receive the odd mention from time-to-time; if nothing else, Kurenai herself enjoyed a decent amount of attention, popularity and respect for a character from an otherwise overlooked and unpopular game.
Kurenai's unique razor-wire weapon, the Tetsugen, was a key point of interest emphasized by the creators.
Around the time leading up to Red Ninja’s release, in fact, Tranji/Vivendi’s push for Kurenai’s popularity and iconic status was relatively strong; aside from a good amount of positive attention from gaming publications and websites, the character also saw a fair amount of attention elsewhere, putting her, and, as a result, Red Ninja, somewhat into the public eye. In Japan, a maid café called the “Café and Kitchen Cos-Cha” in Tokyo’s Akihabara district went full-on Red Ninja-themed leading up to the game’s release; with waitresses cosplaying Kurenai, and special Red Ninja-themed menus and decorations. Meanwhile, in North America, Playboy Magazine was planning the first of its now-annual “Women of Video Games” features for October of 2004, and Red Ninja’s Kurenai made a somewhat minor, but publicly-announced, appearance in the issue, alongside women from higher-profile releases like Bloodrayne and Leisure Suit Larry; albeit remaining mostly-clothed in the feature. Right around the time of the game’s release, as well, Vivendi began touring a Nissan 240SX with Red Ninja art on the hood, calling it the “Tetsugen S14” and sending it to major car shows and tuner events to promote the game.
Kurenai's sex appeal was also a main focus in previews and promotional art such as this. She even made a small appearance in Playboy's Women of Video Games feature.
Press was relatively positive on the game until its actual release; upon which it met with poor to mediocre reviews from almost all major websites and publications. Japan’s Famitsu magazine were some of the kinder critics of the game; with three out of four editors awarding it a 7 out of 10, and the other giving it a 6 out of 10. Elsewhere, the game didn’t fare as well critically; IGN gave it a 4.0 out of 10, calling it a “comedy of errors, without the humor,” and even the generally forgiving Play Magazine was dissatisfied, citing the control and camera issues as a major problem.
While the game earned a few fans along the way from more forgiving gamers and fans of stealth-action, it sold poorly, and quickly fell off the map after the negative reception. Red Ninja would prove to be Tranji Studio’s last game, as well, and the developer was never heard from again following the title’s poor reception. Red Ninja was quickly forgotten, but as mentioned, its main character, Kurenai, has managed to live on and maintain a sort of cult popularity of her own, mentioned from time to time, even by those unfamiliar with the game in which she starred; amongst other examples, UGO Networks listed Kurenai in 2011 as one of their “25 Hot Ninja Girls,” and just recently, in 2012, men’s magazine FHM listed her among their nine “Sexiest Ninja Babes in Games.” While Red Ninja itself may have been quickly forgotten, it could be said that, in a way, Tranji and Vivendi succeeded, on some level, with their marketing of the game; while the game itself has been, by and large, forgotten, their heavily-marketed heroine, and her iconic image and sex appeal which played such a large role as a selling point, still live on to some extent, despite the game’s obscurity.
There are a lot of things that made me love Red Ninja, but unfortunately, for many, its most glaring flaws detracted from the game too heavily. Red Ninja’s undoing was largely due to it twitchy camera and controls, and the subsequent gameplay issues these problems give rise to. While I was able to tame the camera and manage the controls after some getting used to, there is no denying that they are heavily flawed, and the game’s biggest detractors.
Red Ninja’s camera is possibly its greatest issue, even above the controls; since some of the problems with the controls can be attributed to the camera misbehaving and generally being hard to manage. The game takes place from a standard third-person perspective, and has a fully rotatable 3D camera. This is all well and good, of course, but controlling the camera and getting it to stay in the right place can be a real problem for a number of reasons.
For one, the camera controls are pretty twitchy in general; Red Ninja implements a standard dual-analog stick control scheme for movement and camera control, where the left stick moves the character, and the right stick is used to rotate the camera. However, fine-tuning or simply adjusting the camera with the right stick can be pretty tough at times because of its high sensitivity; one needs to be easy on the stick, because the camera whips around fast. In a stealth game like this, good control of the camera can be crucial for assessing a situation and finding out the best route to get around or assassinate enemies; and it can be an even bigger problem in platforming sequences, of which Red Ninja has many, where a wrong step or misjudged jump can lead to frustration or death. The sensitive right-stick camera controls can be dealt with after a bit of getting used to, but there are problems beyond that with Red Ninja’s camera that make matters worse.
A big problem with the camera is how easily it gets hung up on, stuck behind, or squished in front of walls, structures and objects in some spots. It becomes especially problematic when in confined areas, but even in bigger, more open areas, with a few objects or buildings scattered about, Red Ninja’s camera still finds itself challenged by objects in the vicinity.
Beyond that, the camera just tends to act up and do strange things at times. Sometimes when moving around or jumping, in certain areas, it stubbornly tries to stick to a strange position or simply freaks out and gets twitchy while trying to stay on Kurenai. Despite the player having full 3D control of the camera, when it gets into a phase like this, it can be very troublesome to deal with and will sometimes all but refuse to behave. Likewise, it enters preset angles at certain times and places and when it does, they often are not helpful, and the transition to them can be unexpected and disorienting. To top it off, when rotating the camera while moving, the camera simply does not want to stay in front of Kurenai if you move it there, and will try to reposition itself behind her if you try to keep it in front of her while moving.
Thankfully, Red Ninja’s camera can be reset to its default position, directly behind Kurenai, with the push of a shoulder button, so if it gets too crazy, the push of a shoulder button can usually remedy the situation, at least until you start moving again. There is also a first person view which can be used for looking around and aiming, so at times when the camera is being especially stubborn, there are still options to correct or at least remedy the problems. Still, they are not an excuse for or solution to the camera problems overall.
Red Ninja's stubborn camera can sometimes make things difficult, especially in acrobatic or platforming sequences.
Moving away from the camera, the controls are Red Ninja’s other big issue. The layout of them on the controller is perfectly fine, but, similarly to, and partially as a result of, the camera, the controls can be very sensitive, twitchy and imprecise.
In particular, the left stick used to move Kurenai is too sensitive and twitchy; similarly to the camera, but, to be clear, not just as a result of it. Kurenai’s movement speed has a large range to it from fast to slow, and without being steady and sensitive on the stick, you’ll seed Kurenai running at a quickly increasing speed. This range of speed is due to, and necessary for, performing the games acrobatic moves, such as wall running, but can simultaneously being problematic in both stealth and platforming sequences when subtlety and precision are required.
Kurenai is an especially speedy character, although sometimes the twitchy controls make her a bit tough to control.
Speaking of wall running, the other major issue with the controls is in performing the game’s special, acrobatic moves and, as a result, navigating some of the more complex platforming sequences. Kurenai can perform a number of special or acrobatic moves, including swinging or hanging from the Tetsugen’s wire, running across water, and wall running. Of greatest note out of these is the wall-running, which is tough and inaccurate to control. Unlike in a game like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which allows specific start and end points for wall running and handles it as an extension of the character’s actual running, Red Ninja’s wall running is fully-controllable by the player, requires the player to speed up and then hit a runnable wall at high speeds; at this point, you continue controlling Kurenai, except sideways, while controls remain the same, and controlling her during a wall run quickly is instantly jarring and quickly becomes confusing. Likewise, controlling platforming sequences in general can, as previously mentioned, be tough and imprecise due to the stubborn camera and twitchy controls. When the acrobatics and platforming are working well, they are actually very exciting and rewarding, but when they are compromised by the camera and controls, they can be extremely frustrating, as well.
Acrobatic maneuvers like wall-running can be very fun when you get them working, but the controls can make some difficult to pull off.
Once, or if, one takes the time to get the hang of Red Ninja’s camera and controls and overcome or look past their issues, it’s easy to find a game that is otherwise very fun, engaging and memorable, with some great ideas and elements. Beyond controls and camera, there are a few minor issues, but they are forgivable and not detrimental to the overall experience in most cases.
Among them are the relatively infrequent checkpoints during stages; Red Ninja’s stages are massive and very long, and are more akin to “sections” or chapters of the overall game than single stages. That said, checkpoints are rare during them, and this may be frustrating to some. I, personally, didn’t mind this on most occasions; I’m not one to complain about a lack of frequent checkpoints, usually, because I often feel that too many detract from the challenge in many games. However, the scarcity of checkpoints did prove frustrating to me on occasion due to some irritating deaths during platforming sequences because of the aforementioned camera and control issues.
Another point of criticism could be the enemy A.I., which is admittedly not the best; even on the hardest difficulty, normal enemies aren’t especially bright. However, they aren’t so foolish that it impacts the experience to much of any degree, and their oblivious nature at times and lack of combat prowess could be attributed to the Tenchu-like stealth gameplay, which tends to require this from the enemy A.I. for the game to work as a whole. Overall, I didn’t find the enemy A.I. to be much of a problem, and it generally functioned as does the A.I. in most similar stealth titles; if occasionally a bit less intelligent.
One more very minor complaint some may have is the lack of a stage select and some missable upgrades and items found in boxes in each stage. This is hardly a big deal, but could be potentially frustrating, especially since a number of these upgrades are important, helpful and fun.
Besides that, the only other noteworthy issue is the lack of replayability. While the main game is of decent length (around 10-12 hours on my first playthrough), there are literally no extras to speak of. Besides playing through on a harder difficulty or trying to better your performance, there are no extras, unlockables or incentives to play through the game a second time. Not an issue with the game itself, per say, but still an issue, as extras and unlockables in a title like this are an important key to the game’s longevity.
Why it’s Worth a Second Look:
Outside of its frustrating camera and control problems, Red Ninja has a lot of things I loved about it, which made it a game that still stands out as memorable and unique to me, despite its problems, and which make it worth checking out and investing the time and effort into playing through.
First and foremost, for those who acclimate themselves to the camera and control issues, the game is actually a lot of fun to play. There are plenty of interesting and unique gameplay elements, and there is a lot of variety and different facets to the gameplay.
Red Ninja features many familiar stealth gameplay mechanics, but also has a surprising amount of variety in its gameplay, and its own unique feel.
Red Ninja is primarily a stealth action title in the vein of the Tenchu series, and fans of these titles will feel right at home creeping around the game’s massive stages, stalking guards who patrol the area in different patterns, and finding the best, and most brutal and creative, ways to execute them without being spotted. It’s just as satisfying as ever, and features a number of interesting and fun mechanics that add to it. One particularly fun and noteworthy stealth mechanic is Kurenai’s ability to “seduce” guards; essentially an ability that lets you peek out from around a corner and draw an enemy over, as Kurenai motions seductively for him and asks for help in a suggestive voice. It’s silly, and is somewhat of a crapshoot, since sometimes enemies don’t fall for it, but it’s one of a number of the ways that Red Ninja mixes up its stealth gameplay. It’s most noteworthy and enjoyable features, however, revolve around the insane violence and acrobatics, largely made possible by Kurenai’s weapon, the Tetsugen.
Kurenai can lure enemies to her via seduction........
....and quickly dispose of them when they get close.
As mentioned before, the Tetsugen is a razor-wire weapon functioning on a mechanism hidden inside Kurenai’s sleeve. The wire has a good amount of length to it and functions based on a “tension meter” which, well, shows the tension on the wire; generally, the higher the tension, the more damaging and brutal the results when you clothesline an enemy with it, or pull on it when it’s wrapped around or attached to them. The Tetsugen can be wrapped around and slung over different objects and structures, or latched on and wrapped around different body parts of your enemies, which makes for plenty of variety both on combat and in stealth. The Tetsugen is capable of all manner of violence; for example, the player can throw it an enemy from above them, then drop off the opposite side with the Tetsugen attached to their foe, and watch as it drags the enemy up, with the tension increasing, leaving them hanging in the air to die. Or, you could, perhaps, sneak up on an enemy, throw the Tetsugen towards their feet, binding them, then jump back and pull the wire, tearing the enemy’s feet off, and leaving him to drag himself along the ground.
The Tetsugen can be used as a creative and deadly tool of stealth.
The weapon also serves to make combat enjoyable and somewhat strategic if you are spotted; groups of enemies can be dealt with at the same time with the Tetsugen, and it makes for some spectacularly over-the-top showcases of violence when you pull things off right in combat. The Tetsugen can be wrapped around any and all structures and attached to an enemy while being used to attack others with the tensed wire. For example, if there were a group of three enemies, you might throw the end of the Tetsugen at one enemy, binding his feet with it, then run around a tree to create tension, and quickly speed past the other two enemies with the tensed wire, cleaving one in half, then jumping, wire still in tow, and decapitating the next, before finally releasing the wire, ripping the original enemy’s feet off. While using the weapon and managing its tension meter definitely takes some getting used to, the ludicrously over-the-top violence and range of possibilities make it worth getting the hang of, and an immensely satisfying and original weapon to use.
The Tetsugen can also make for incredibly chaotic and brutal combat.
The Tetsugen, likewise, has a number of functions and attachments which can be implemented both in and outside of combat for different effects. In the game’s acrobatic aspects and sequences, the Tetsugen works as a kind of sleeker and agile rope; seeing various creative uses similar to the trusty whip of Indiana Jones. Whether you’re swinging across chasms or hanging and lowering yourself down a pit or rising up one to sneak up behind and enemy, the Tetsugen sees plenty of creative usage.
In addition to standard items like throwing knives, bamboo darts and the like, the Tetsugen has a number of attachments and upgrades, as does Kurenai herself. The Tetsugen gains both a hook for latching onto things (for acrobatic use) and a billy-club-like attachment, allowing you to swing the wire around, pummeling enemies with the blunt end of the attachment. Similarly, Kurenai gains a number of interesting abilities throughout; including upgrades which allow her to run on water and jump higher and longer.
There are a few attachments for the Tetsugen, including a billy-club-like one which lets Kurenai pummel enemies surrounding her.
While Kurenai also has a small hand-held blade that can be used both for melee combat and stealth purposes, which is arguably easier to use and perfectly effective, the sheer chaos and creativity of the Tetsugen make it the absolute highlight of her arsenal, and worth using even in situations when it may not be necessary, just because of how fun and satisfying a weapon it is to wield.
On the subject, Red Ninja’s combat (again, once you overcome the twitchy camera and movement controls), is effective and enjoyable, and features more depth than the average stealth game. While this does, in a way, work against the game in that it somewhat discourages stealth, it is still fun and effective, and helps towards the multifaceted feel of the game. A simple lock-on system (usable both in combat and stealth), makes focusing on enemies and switching between them simple and effective, and blocking and attacking works well. Likewise, you’re even given the ability to slow down time for a few seconds when a meter fills up, allowing for more precision and finesse. The speed of Kurenai’s movement lends a fast-pace and feeling of excitement to the game overall, even in the slower stealth scenes, and it also livens up combat when spotted, as Kurenai quickly zips around her enemies, running and jumping past and through them.
Combat is fast-paced and enjoyable, thanks to Kurenai's acrobatic move set and quickness.
This sense of speed is, in fact, something I found very unique and exciting about Red Ninja, and something which sets its gameplay apart in some ways from other stealth titles, giving the game a unique and exciting feel of its own. While Red Ninja does emphasize many of the stealth gameplay aspects familiar to the genre; creeping along walls, hiding bodies, and sneaking around above enemies while observing patrol routes and layouts for the right time to strike; what is unique is the faster pace of the game created by Kurenai’s speed. While simply running up at any enemy will usually result in getting spot, Kurenai is far quicker and more agile in all her actions than the average stealth game protagonist. She makes her way through environments quickly and with acrobatic finesse, and sneaking up on enemies has a faster and more visceral feel because of it. Even traditional stealth kills with Kurenai’s small blade have a quick and intense pace to them; add to that the ability to snag enemies from a distance on the fly with the Tetsugen and quickly dispatch them, and Red Ninja manages to keep up a uniquely fast pace for a stealth action title.
Kurenai's speed lends an exciting pace to the game.
Kurenai’s acrobatics likewise play a role in keeping up her speed, and moves like wall-running, wall-jumping, backflipping, rolling and even, eventually, running on water, keep things fast, exciting and appropriately over-the-top; even if some acrobatics and platforming can be tough to perform at times. While Prince of Persia-esque platforming and acrobatic sequences can be tough at times due to the dodgy controls and camera, they also add to the game’s variety and break things up, and, when things work well, swinging, wall-running and jumping around are very exciting and satisfying.
Red Ninja’s environments and stages, namely the sheer size and length of them, was also surprising and welcome. I was a bit disheartened when I first learned that Red Ninja was just 6 “stages” long; however, that number is quite deceptive. Stages are less like brief missions or levels, and more akin to chapters; some lasting almost a couple of hours. Likewise, I like Red Ninja’s environments; I enjoyed the visual style of them, as well as the variety of areas in a stage; one stage may lead you through multiple large, connected environments, and it lends a sense of scale to the game’s world.
Prince of Persia-like acrobatics play a key role in platforming sections.
I also found Red Ninja’s boss battles to be tough, creative and tense affairs, with far more interesting and cinematic appeal than the “beat the crap out of him until he’s dead” bosses found in the Tenchu series, and would liken them to the unique and creative boss battles found in the Metal Gear Solid series. While some have criticized the sometimes unclear objectives of them, I never personally found this to be much of an issue, and found that each boss fight was unique and interesting to figure out. In particular, without spoiling much, a climatic boss battle reminiscent of the Vulcan Raven fight from Metal Gear Solid, and a battle atop a mountain during a thunderstorm, requiring you to destroy a series of electric “generators,” are two exciting moments that still stand out amongst the many boss battles I have fought.
Outside of its gameplay, special note should be made of the tale Red Ninja tells; its story surprised me, both in its quality and some of its twists. I was not expecting a particularly in-depth or well-written tale out of Red Ninja, and so it is surprising, then, that its story and characters became one of my primary reasons for playing, and wanting to complete, the game. As mentioned earlier, Japanese film writer/director Shinsuke Sato was brought on board to write the story for Red Ninja; and it shows. Red Ninja’s focus on its characters and story was both unexpected and extremely welcome, and served as a driving force for my desire to see the game through to its end. The general premise of a vengeful young person traumatized by the death of a loved one is, of course, nothing particularly new, but as with any good story, it’s not as much the premise that matters, but what is done with it; and the story Red Ninja slowly reveals is surprisingly dark, interesting and well-told.
Red Ninja's story is surprisingly dramatic and well-told.
Conveyed mostly through in-game cutscenes (with a couple of prerendered ones at the beginning and end of the game), the writing, direction and flow of the cutscenes have a strongly cinematic feel to them, which goes a long way in adding weight to the story and characters, and creating a more immersive tale. The cutscenes, and story itself, felt reminiscent to me of classic Japanese cinema set in Feudal Japan, and the voice actors are fitting and do a good job. In addition, characters, especially in their faces and expressions, are surprisingly expressive. I found myself genuinely caring about what was going to happen, and while I won’t spoil it, there are a number of unexpected twists as well as a surprising amount of character drama and development, and it all builds to satisfying and emotional climax. I enjoyed the dark themes and moral ambiguities presented, especially after a few twists around the half way mark of the game, and thought the climax it built to was both emotionally powerful and morally thought-provoking, and the sequence after the final boss, and final scenes, are memorable moments which still stand out to me. The story and cutscenes handle themselves in an effectively somber and serious tone, and the result is a story with a surprising amount of weight, and characters that are genuinely likeable and easy to care about.
Cutscenes are well-written and directed, and have a strongly cinematic feel to them.
The cast is surprisingly varied and likeable and Kurenai herself is a well-developed character with a likeable personality, who revealed herself to be more than just the pretty face (among other features) used to drive the game’s marketing. Kurenai is a strong and deadly woman, while still managing to come across as a sympathetic character who, buried under her anger, sadness and lust for revenge, is a good person underneath it all. Seeing her struggle with her multi-faceted relationships to the rest of the cast feels genuine, and her character truly develops throughout the story. For all the physical/sexual aspects of her emphasized by the developers and publishers, beyond the revealing outfit lies a strong, likeable character.
Characters are interesting and likeable.
The voice acting is also well-done for most characters, and the music, while most of it doesn’t particularly stand out, suits the game well, sets the tone properly, and does have a few stand-out tracks. On the aural side of things, Red Ninja works well and sounds pretty good, even if it isn’t particularly outstanding.
Graphically, Red Ninja isn’t a technical marvel, but still looks nice despite its technical shortcomings, and does well with what it has. With good-looking character models for main characters, subtly expressive and emotional facial animations during cutscenes, an attractive color scheme, and a distinctive style to its world, characters and cutscenes, which lies somewhere between cartoon/anime and realism, the look and style and little details of Red Ninja make it a handsome game despite its technical shortcomings. The textures can be muddy and bland at times, the polygon count isn’t particularly high on environments and enemy soldiers, and some in door environments lack detail. However, the overall style, in addition to the nice main character models, expressive faces, lively color scheme, and smooth animations and framerate, make up for some of the technical low points of the game, graphically. Indeed, main characters and environments have some great artistic design to them; I especially like the painting-like colors and look about many environments. Overall, the game has a nice, distinct style to its environments and characters, Kurenai is a distinct, attractive and well-animated character, and the game on the whole looks good and stylish, even if it isn’t a technical marvel.
Character's faces in cutscenes are expressive and well-animated.
Red Ninja is a game with a few serious flaws which, sadly, do hurt the game as a whole to a certain extent. For some, they will make it frustrating, or even a chore to play. Wrestling with its stubborn camera and getting used to the overly-sensitive movement controls may prove too much for a good number of people, and do take an unfortunate toll on what is an otherwise enjoyable game. However, especially for fans of stealth action games, Red Ninja is still a title very much worth a look for its many positive qualities beyond the camera and control issues. The camera and control problems can be overcome with some practice and patience, and once you do overcome them, you will find a lot to love, and a game with a lot of personality. Red Ninja has a surprisingly engaging and well-told story, a likeable, (would-be) iconic main character, a wonderfully unique and incredibly brutal weapon, and a nice mixture of acrobatic platforming elements and stealth action. The gameplay has a fast, visceral feel unique to the stealth action genre, and Kurenai’s quick, acrobatic moves combine well with the ludicrously violent and creative Tetsugen, making it an absolute blast to battle and assassinate your enemies. Add to this a pleasant visual style, nice character designs, and engaging cutscenes, and you have a game with a lot of good things to offer behind its initially all-too-noticeable blemishes. Red Ninja may have its share of issues, but lying beyond them is a fun, interesting and memorable experience, well worth looking past its flaws to discover.
Red Ninja has some issues, but beyond them are a fun game, an interesting story, and a strong heroine.
Who Should Play It?
Any fan of stealth-action games, and gamers with a love for insane weaponry and over-the-top violence. Those with an interest in dark stories involving feudal Japan, ninja, or just revenge and betrayal. Or anybody who’s seen Kurenai’s image around, and is interested in learning who she actually is and what her game was actually like; both the character and the game she stars in have more to them than meets the eye.
Status: Development stalled or cancelled (developer filed for bankruptcy)/Searching for Publisher
Title image for Eternal Light.
What Is This Game?
Eternal Light is a medieval hack n’ slash/adventure game by little-know Spanish developer, Revisitronic. The game takes place in a dark medieval fantasy setting, and stars three scantily-clad female warriors, tasked with destroying “The Beast” and his army of demonic minions. The game looks to employ old-school hack n’ slash adventure gameplay, with some dungeon-crawling aspects. The developers have placed an emphasis on the game’s co-op aspects, and say that it will offer co-op for up to three players. The game is currently without a publisher and, with Revisitronic having reportedly filed for bankruptcy last year, possibly without a developer, as well.
Eternal Light is all about medieval babes slaying ugly demons.
Eternal Light was announced way back in August 2007, and since then, details on it have trickled out here and there, but have been rather sparse. Originally, the game went by a different title: Witches. Under development by the little-know Spanish developer, Revistronic, not very much was know about what this game actually was; what was apparent from the few screenshots were the game’s dark medieval setting, and that it seemed to emphasize the sex appeal of its female protagonists.
Eternal Light was originally known as "Witches" when it first appeared in 2007.
Revistronic was a relatively obscure developer, themselves: details on the developer are rare, and their previous releases few and far between; including an all-but-forgotten 1996 PC adventure title, “Three Skulls of the Toltecs” and a couple of equally overlooked 2003 PC releases: Rocko’s Quest, and Wanted: A Wild Western Adventure.
Revisitronic had released a few titles in the past, but none met with much popularity or success.
Revisitronic was quiet about Witches until late February/early March 2008, when a teaser site for the game showed up, and they finally opened up about it to the press, releasing more screenshots, a teaser trailer, and some specifics and details on the game itself. “Witches” was to be a third-person hack n’ slash adventure game, with an emphasis on co-op, deep combat systems, and (seeing through all the fancy wording used to describe it) sexy medieval women kicking ass. Revisitronic seemed confident about the game, and that its premise would be both appealing and successful.
Revisitronic finally released details about "Witches" around Feburary/March of 2008, but the game dropped off the map quickly afterwards.
The press was relatively positive about the game, but once again, Witches dropped off the map. It finally resurfaced in October of 2010, when Revisitronic released a few videos of it on their website and Youtube page, including gameplay footage and a more formal trailer, under what was apparently the game’s new title: Eternal Light. However, the game must have been forgotten at this point by the mainstream gaming press; while the videos turned up in October 2010, they didn’t make their way to most mainstream gaming news sites until February or March of 2011; if at all. In fact, GameFAQs still has yet to update their listing of Eternal Light with its new name; on their website, it's still listed as “Witches” as I write this.
Sadly, this marked the last word thus far about Eternal Light, and things are looking less-than-hopeful for the title. Revisitronic saw one more release in 2010: a WiiWare title, Fennimore Fillmore: The Westerner; a remake of their previously mentioned 2003 PC title, Wanted: A Wild Western Adventure, but things went downhill for the developer from there, it seems. Information on Eternal Light, and Revisitronic, is sparse at best, and no official word on the title has come out since early 2011. However, Revisitronic’s official website is currently down, and word is that they filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
With this in mind, and no further word about Eternal Light since, the game’s fate seems to be in limbo at best. It’s a shame that Eternal Light may never see that light of day, too, because, while the game was probably destined for some level of obscurity regardless, what little previews, screenshots, videos and information were shown by the developers hinted at a game that may not have been revolutionary, but probably would have been a lot of fun.
What’s It All About?
Eternal Light, as mentioned, was/is to be a third-person hack n’ slash adventure, with what appears to be some dungeon crawling aspects. Taking place in a dark medieval fantasy setting, the game was to star three female protagonists by the names of Tempest, Shadow and Fire. With the option of three-player co-op gameplay, the players are tasked with slaughtering the satanic minions of “The Beast,” and ultimately bringing an end to his reign of terror over the land.
Eternal Light promises cooperative demon-slaying for up to three players.
There’s no avoiding that much of the appeal emphasized by the developers was what many would consider superficial or even exploitative; the main points emphasized were pretty much sex appeal and violent combat, and the game can't be discussed without bringing these up.
The main draw of Eternal Light appeared to be its three half-naked female protagonists, and its previews and almost humorously over-sexualized trailer made no bones about it. This was a game about three medieval babes massacring the hordes of darkness, and looking good doing it. Tempest, Shadow and Fire are all clad in what looks like armored lingerie, while holding big, badass weapons, casting deadly spells, and maybe taking themselves a little too seriously for how they’re dressed. That said, the ladies of Eternal Light still had an appropriately tough and no-nonsense look about them, and I dug their character designs in a way. Their faces aren’t overly pretty or feminine, and, regardless of what state of undress they’re in, they look like cynical, battle-hardened women up for a good round of demon-slaying. Half-dressed? Sure, but they still have some personality and toughness about them, too, and they’re scantily-clad choice of armor suits the game’s over-the-top, if superficial, appeal.
Previews and trailers have placed an emphasis on sex appeal.
Violence was the other half of the equation, and the developers made it clear that the combat was to be barbaric, brutal and similarly over-the-top to game’s sex appeal. With an emphasis on its “dark fantasy setting” and the ability to dismember your enemies and, apparently, even beat them to death with their own limbs, the violence was clearly targeting an M-rating, with the goal of being gory and visceral. The gritty, barbaric vibe of the game had an appealing look about it as well, and what few monster and environmental designs have been revealed are reminiscent of something akin to Conan, or the PC/PS2 hack n’ slash adventure, Rune: Viking Warlord.
For some, Eternal Light’s exploitative, blatantly violent and sexual approach was, understandably, a turn-off; with many games progressively moving towards a mature, artistic mindset this generation, some would wonder if we really need a game so shamelessly targeting sex appeal and violence as it selling points. It’s debatable, however, I found myself appreciating the blatant, unpretentious and uncaringly shameless approach to sex appeal and violence which the game and its developers were seeming to take. While the game didn’t look like it was going to win any awards for class, it also wasn’t claiming to shoot for them, and the developers seemed to take a sort of pride in Eternal Light’s shameless emphasis on dark, medieval sex and violence. While some would criticize the game and its developers for their shameless approach, I somewhat appreciated it. The trailers, screenshots and general look and description of the game had a certain ridiculous, exploitative, semi-obnoxious charm in their shamelessness; like some so-bad-its-good B-movie. At least they knew what they were trying to make: a game about medieval babes and demon-slaying violence. You couldn’t criticize them for marketing it deceptively, that’s for sure, and what’s wrong with some mindless, over-the-top fun every once in a while?
Eternal Light promised a dark setting and violent combat.
How Will It Play?
Putting the possible controversy over sex and violence aside, there were actually a number of aspects about this title that not only made it eye-catching and appealing at first glance, but also could make for a genuinely enjoyable game. First and foremost, at the center of the gameplay was the combat, which the developers promised to be intense, varied and interesting. If early previews are to be believed, Eternal Light was to features battles ranging from small-scale encounters with a few enemies, to huge, epic-scale battles featuring over one-hundred enemies at a time. In addition to this, Revistronic promised “a spectacular system of tactical combat” which, if their promises came full-circle, was to feature not only the ability to use any object in the environment as a weapon, but also to dismember you enemies and pick up their own limbs to use as weapons against them and their brethren. I was immediately reminded, again, of the cult hack n’ slash adventure “Rune: Viking Warlord,” which allowed similar use of environmental objects and body parts as weapons; which, personally, caught my attention, being a fan of that particular title and its gritty, over-the-top combat. Outside the ability to use all sorts of objects and body parts as weapons, the combat sounded like standard old-school hack n’ slash gameplay, combining physical combo attacks with magical powers; not that that is a bad thing, mind you. I, personally, love a good, old-fashioned, ultra-violent hack n’ slash romp, and Eternal Light sounded as if it was poised to offer just that.
Brutal combat, including the ability to dismember opponents and use their limbs as weapons, is a point of focus in Eternal Light.
Eternal Light had some other interesting features the developers mentioned in the limited previews and press releases seen of it. Stages were said to contain enslaved prisoners for the players to find and rescue. This is all relatively standard fare, however, the interesting bit mentioned (though never much elaborated on) was the ability to add these prisoners to your party and, apparently, have them fight alongside you throughout the game. Details about this party system haven’t been expanded upon, but it was mentioned that your “leadership” skills would play a part in this; allowing you to save these comrades and gain their trust, or sacrifice them in battle. With the lack of elaboration on this, it could really just be a fancy way of saying “if you don’t protect your party members, they’ll get killed,” but the prospect of this idea is something that could potentially add an interesting element to gameplay.
Although only a few have been revealed, enemy designs look promisingly twisted and nasty.
Also promised were “fully interactive environments.” Once again, many games promise this and the exact meaning of it varies from case to case and can mean a lot of things. However, interactive environments in a hack n’ slash adventure can only serve to make combat more interesting. It was already detailed that environmental objects could be used as weapons, but if taken full advantage of, interactive environments can add a lot of potential and variety to combat; perhaps with breakable walls or structures, for example. Again, what these “fully interactive environments” would entail remains to be seen, but its holds potential to add even more variety and chaos to battle; and some mention of climbing and scaling things was made, so perhaps some acrobatics with come into play. All a welcome addition in any game of this type.
Environments look interesting, with a decidedly dark and gritty medieval style.
Outside combat, Revisitronic also stated that the game’s campaign would be about 12 hours long, and contain multiple endings based on the actions of the characters. Once again, with the lack of details on this, it’s hard to comment on it, but multiple endings based on player’s actions and decisions is an element not seen in most hack n’ slash titles, and would be a welcome and interesting addition that could add another level to the game beyond just brutal combat and sexy outfits.
Judging by the limited details released, it sounds as if some climbing and acrobatics could play a part.
Worth mentioning as well, is that Eternal Light featured at least two confirmed modes; titled Requiem and Arena. While, once again, the lack of details on the game make it hard to comment on them, it was mentioned that they would contain “four levels and 80 scenarios.” The length, size and nature of these levels and scenarios are completely unspecified, however, so it’s really anybody’s guess about them. Still, an Arena mode sounds like a nice addition; taking on challenges in a game like Eternal Light is a fun and natural addition and has an addictive quality, adding replay value to the game outside of its campaign. And while online was never officially confirmed, it can probably be assumed that a game heavily emphasizing three-player co-op would allow for said co-op to be played online.
Although online wasn't officially confirmed, the game's heavy focus on co-op play would seem to make online a given, especially judging by the lack of split-screen in screenshots.
Eternal Light seems like a potentially interesting hack n’ slash adventure, however, its troubled history and lack of attention, unfortunately, do not bode well for it. With Revisitronic’s fate looking less than promising, and no word on it being picked up by a publisher, there’s a very good chance that Eternal Light may never see the light of day, and simply fade into obscurity without ever being released. It’s always a bit sad to see this happen, and while I doubt Eternal Light would meet with huge success or have much impact on the gaming scene, it still looked like a charmingly over-the-top, ultra-violent hack n’ slash romp, with a certain likability to its shameless, over-sexed attitude. While most might call it superficial and exploitative, and many more will probably never even know it existed, I’ll be sad to see it fade away if it never resurfaces. Eternal Light probably isn’t going to break any new ground if it ever comes out, but it does look like an enjoyable “B-game” that is charming in its semi-obnoxious sex-and-violence appeal. Hopefully we’ll hear more from Revisitronic at some point in the future, or the game will get picked up by another publisher or developer. It might look low-budget, shameless and silly, but it also could be a lot of fun.
Eternal Light's fate may be in limbo at the moment, but if it ever sees a release, it could prove to be a fun and interesting title.
Who Should Keep An Eye On It?
Fans of late-90’s/early 2000’s hack n’ slash action titles. Gamers with a thing for dark fantasy, ultra-violence, or ass-kicking babes. Or, of course, any gamers with an interest in the obscure; this title is about as obscure as they come.
Greetings, followers, newcomers and, in general, readers of Games Obscura. Games Obscura has only been around for a few weeks, but I find myself dedicated to this blog, and have already been thinking of ways to make Games Obscura better. In particular, additions to this blog that will add variety, and keeps things fresh and exciting, while still remaining proudly dedicated to its focus on the obscure, forgotten, strange and underappreciated side of gaming. On that note, Games Obscura will be remaining strongly focused on my “Second Look At” articles for particular games, but there are also a couple of new sections and varieties of articles I will be working on, which I feel will spice up this blog and add variety, and be of great interest to readers of my blog and fellow lovers of the “obscure” side of gaming…..
In particular, there are two new “sections” or varieties of articles I will be writing, in addition to my “Second Look At” articles. The first of these new additions is something I’ll be calling “Consoles Obscura.” Essentially, second looks at particular consoles from the past which, for one reason or another, were unsuccessful, forgotten, or otherwise unappreciated. In these articles, I’ll take a look back at the history of a particular “obscure” game console, the console itself and the company behind it, its library of games, the reasons why it fell into obscurity, and what about it still makes it interesting/what games on it make it worth a second look.
Many consoles have shot for greatness, but fallen into obscurity. Pictured (left to right): Sega Genesis w/32X and Sega CD, TurboDuo, and the Neo Geo.
The second section I’ll be adding is “Future Obscura;” articles focused on in-depth previews and examinations of games that are upcoming, not-yet-released, or caught in limbo. These games aren’t receiving the attention of big-name releases for one reason or another, are odd or different, or perhaps are even having trouble getting out the gate, but are titles which fans of the obscure may find interesting to learn about. As such, these articles will shed some light on future obscure titles, and examine what they are, what’s interesting about them and why they are worth keeping an eye on.
Some upcoming games seem destined for obscurity, or may even be caught in limbo due to development troubles or lack of a publisher. Pictured: Eternal Light, aka "Witches."
So, curious and adventurous gamers, keep an eye out for future entries in Games Obscura! My “Second Look At” articles, to be clear, will remain the bulk of this blog. But I feel that these new varieties of articles will excite and inform fans of the obscure, add variety and excitement to this blog, and work well towards the focus and goal of Games Obscura. As always, if there is a console or game in either of these sections that you feel deserves attention, feel free to make requests or recommendations via PMs, email, or the comments section. Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out, I’ll be updating soon!
*edit/update: I've decided to change the name of my preview articles from "Future Obscura" to "A Look Forward At." It seemed to fit better alongside my "Second Look At" articles. "Consoles Obscura" will still keep its name.*
Release dates: December 16th, 1999 (Japan), June 29th, 2000 (N.A.), September 29th, 2000 (Europe)
Cover art for Koudelka.
What Is This Game?
Koudelka is the original Playstation game which served as the predecessor to the cult Playstation 2 RPG series, “Shadow Hearts.” Koudelka created the universe in which the Shadow Hearts series takes place, and serves as the first entry, both in release and chronology, in what became the Shadow Hearts series. Koudelka plays quite differently than the Shadow Hearts series, however; the game can best be described as a hybrid of survival horror and turn-based RPG gameplay.
The story is set in the year 1898, and occurs mostly in and around the mysterious Nemeton Monastery in Wales. Koudelka, a young gypsy woman, arrives at the monastery after a series of supernatural visions, and soon encounters two others: Edward Plunkett, an adventurer and looter, and James O’Flaherty, a bishop there to investigate the mysterious “Émigré Document” at the monastery. Both end up joining with Koudelka to investigate the monastery for their own reasons, and end up uncovering the dark past and terrifying secrets of the monastery together, as their unlikely alliance slowly gives way to the companionship they will need to explore the monastery, and return from it alive.
Koudelka scales the walls of the Nemeton Monastery in the game's opening cutscene.
Koudelka was a game so obscure at the time of its release that it probably would have been totally forgotten by now, if not for the moderate cult popularity of its Playstation 2 successors, the Shadow Hearts series. At the time of its release, however, I recall being totally fixated on it. The rare previews I’d seen in various video game publications had completely grabbed my interest; a dark, gothic, M-rated horror RPG set in the 1800’s? Now HERE’S something different, I thought. Even when the game was released to average and mediocre reviews, I was still transfixed by the look and concept of it, and it did nothing to deter my fascination with this obscure and unique game.
The game proved oddly elusive to me upon its release, and whether it was bad luck on my part or an actual lack of copies produced or shipped, I have no idea, but within the first month or so after its release, I went through hell just to get my hands on it. None of the stores in my area were carrying it, so I, naturally, turned to the internet to acquire a copy; upon trying to order it from EBWorld, I found the game listed as out of stock, despite even a small advertisement for it on the side of their homepage. So I backordered it……and received an email a week or two later saying they were not expecting any more copies of it to arrive, and thus cancelled my order. So I turned to a number of other online retailers, including the once-popular Chips n’ Bits, all of whom either had it backordered or not listed at all. I finally backordered it from Chips n’ Bits and, after waiting a couple weeks for it to come back into stock, I FINALLY had a copy shipped to me. A strange sequence of events, for sure, especially since the game isn’t notably rare or expensive nowadays (not common, mind you, but not terribly rare), and it became more readily available within the following couple of months. At any rate, when I finally acquired the game, I was jonesing to play it, even with a slight paranoia that the mediocre reviews might be right…..and that I might be disappointed…..
Those fears were quickly washed away, however. Shortly after popping in the first disc, viewing the game’s beautiful prerendered opening, getting into the first battle, and then moving on and doing some exploring, I was sure; this was no mistake, I was going to love this game. Koudelka was, and still is, a game that is fascinating and unique, and lives on as one of my favorite games of the Playstation era. To be clear, it has some issues, namely with the battle system, which may deter some players, and its unconventional hybrid of the survival horror and RPG genres, while interesting, puts it into a weird niche that seemed to ensure its obscurity. However, these questionable issues and quips did little to take away from the fact that Koudelka is a memorable, atmospheric experience, with excellent characters, a fascinating story, and a dark setting and style rarely seen in RPGs of its time.
Koudelka is filled with a dark style and atmosphere unique to its genre.
History, Release and Reception:
Koudelka was developed by the somewhat short-lived and obscure developer, Sacnoth. Sacnoth was a development company founded by Hiroki Kikuta, who had previously worked as a musical composer for Squaresoft in the mid-90’s, and eventually decided to set out on his own to create his own video games. Sacnoth was the result of his creative venture.
Sacnoth founder Hiroki Kikuta has spent much of his career as a musical composer, his work including the soundtrack for the SNES classic Secret of Mana, in addition to his own score for Koudelka.
1999/2000 saw two releases from Sacnoth: the highly-regarded, but extremely over-looked and under-produced, NeoGeo Pocket Color mech-strategy game, Faselei, and Koudelka. Koudelka was to be Kikuta’s masterpiece and Sacnoth’s flagship game, it seemed. Kikuta felt that the RPG genre was generally plagued by immaturity, and that it had become stagnant, relying too much on repeated genre conventions. Koudelka was to be Kikuta’s masterpiece that would take the genre in a new direction and change all that. Indeed, none could claim he wasn’t passionate about it: he claimed to have read over 100 books on British history and took the design team on a trip to Wales, all in an effort to perfect his would-be masterpiece. However, disputes and disagreements between Kikuta and his team on the direction which the gameplay should take lead to an ultimately compromised vision. Kikuta wanted a more action-oriented battle system, whereas much of the team felt it would be wiser to stick close to the turn-based conventions established by industry giant, Squaresoft. This dispute is quite likely what lead to that which became the game’s heaviest criticism; it’s somewhat odd choice of a grid-based, tactical-RPG style, battle system.
Kikuta also created the mech-strategy game Faselei, but Koudelka was the game he envisioned as his and Sacnoth's crowning achievement.
Koudelka eventually was released to little fanfare and mediocre-to-average reviews. Most critics felt generally the same way about it; the prerendered cutscenes and environments were pretty, the concept original, and the characters and story intriguing. However, the main qualm most critics had with it, which was largely what dragged down its scores, was the aforementioned battle system, along with some of the more frustrating aspects tied to it. Due in part to its lukewarm critical reception, coupled with a general lack of coverage and awareness, Koudelka was quickly forgotten. A short-lived Koudelka manga sprang up in Japan around the time of its Japanese release as well, but only lasted for three volumes and was largely overlooked and forgotten due to the game’s lack of popularity.
The game enjoyed a bit of recognition when the Shadow Hearts series came around during the PS2 era, and developed a small but dedicated cult following. By this point, however, Kikuta had already left Sacnoth due to the aforementioned disputes and Koudelka’s lack of success. Sacnoth eventually ended up making three Shadow Hearts games for the Playstation 2, changing its name to Nautilus, and getting acquired by Aruze Entertainment along the way, before finally being announced as officially “dissolved” by Aruze in 2007. Koudelka, meanwhile, while by far the least known and most rarely mentioned game in the series, still managed some recognition amongst Shadow Hearts fans as the predecessor to the series and the origin of its tale. A bittersweet story, for sure, but at least, in the end, Koudelka managed to avoid being completely forgotten thanks to its ties with its slightly more successful successors.
Although Kikuta left Sacnoth after Koudelka, the Shadow Hearts series carried on the game's legacy, expanding on its story and universe.
Koudelka really doesn’t have a lot of flaws outside of its battle system but, unfortunately, an RPG’s battle system can often go a long way toward making or breaking it.
I’ll be honest; I had no issues personally with Koudelka’s battle system. I understood the issues it had, why it detracted from the game for some, and that it did feel somewhat odd and out-of-place with the rest of the game. However, to me anyways, its flaws were not much of a big deal, and I even found myself enjoying the battles despite them. That said, the issues with it can’t be overlooked or denied, especially since enough people took issue with them that it dragged down its overall critical reception, and even the creator was apparently dissatisfied with it.
Koudelka features random battles which take place on a small grid which the player and enemies move around on. Think strategy-RPG, but on a smaller scale, with flat terrain. The battle system in and of itself honestly works, and it’s never unmanageable or too hard to tell what you’re doing, really. The problems lie much in its lack of explanation, slow-pace, frustratingly random breakable weapons, and, once again, the jarring transition to battle, and the whole feeling that the battles are disjointed from the rest of the game.
While random encounters happen at a completely reasonable rate, where you are never overwhelmed by them, the pace of the actual battles is still a bit too slow and protracted for most. During battle, certain actions, like spell casting, can take a while to load after selecting them. Moving each of your three characters around the grid, positioning them correctly for attack, watching the enemies do the same, then going through your menus and actually attacking takes a bit of time, too. While it adds an interesting element of strategy to the combat, it also throws off the pacing of the overall game by moving at its own, slower pace and once again, ultimately making it feel like the battles exist in their own little world, without a lot of connection to the rest of the game.
Koudelka's battle system employs a strategy-RPG-esque grid, which allows characters to move around and reposition themselves on the battlefield.
It doesn’t help to dispel this feeling of disconnection with the fact that battles visually appear to take place on a whole other plain of existence. The battlefields which random encounters transport the player to have no real variety, and are more or less just a small piece of land on which the characters move around, surrounded by darkness. One minute you’re in a side room or roaming the courtyard of the monastery, the next, a random encounter hits and your party is fighting enemies in a black abyss. It didn’t bother me to any real degree, but it’s a noticeable issue, and a bit more detail, backgrounds and variety to the battlefields would have probably gone a long way towards solving that feeling of disconnection between the bulk of the game and the battles.
Likewise, the game leaves the player to figure out the details of combat, for the most part. Again, the battles are manageable and menus and commands clear enough that most people shouldn’t have a lot of trouble operating them. However, it also makes some elements, like move and hit rates, and the power of magic and attacks, seem random at times. More troubling, however, and probably the element of battle I found could be most frustrating, were the game’s breakable weapons. Any weapon you pick up and use in battle can pretty much break at any time. While it’s not entirely random, and different weapons have different levels of durability, any old attack could break your weapon at pretty much any time. Before long, I found myself not using good weapons I’d picked up in all but the most important fights and boss battles, for fear of them breaking on some petty monster and being lost forever.
Koudelka's battle system was its greatest complaint from critics and fans. While some players enjoyed it, many others were unhappy with it, including Kikuta himself.
Besides the issues with the battle system, though, there’s really not much wrong with Koudelka. Yes, you could point out small things here and there. Save points can be a bit infrequent at times. The preset camera angles on some rooms can occasionally be a bit confusing, or make for a jarring transition between areas. But that’s something one could say for just about any Playstation game with prerendered environments, and rarely ever produced any real problems or confusion. Outside of that, the only real issue that springs to mind outside the battles is the requirements for getting the best ending (there are three endings total), or for completing a few other optional parts or obtaining some optional scenes. The game is pretty unspecific about said requirements, and the actions or items required for them, and it would be very easy to overlook a few of them without a guide or walkthrough. These are not numerous, particularly difficult or easy to miss for any player who is attentive or thorough, however, and simply looking at a walkthrough and quickly checking said requirements/optional actions or items solves the problem easily. Overall, outside of some qualms with its battle system, Koudelka is a well-crafted game that has a lot of great things going for it.
Why it’s Worth a Second Look:
Koudelka is worth a second look because, despite what differing opinions say about its battle system, it is otherwise a damn fine game and an incredibly memorable experience. The game is well-crafted, good-looking, and filled with style and atmosphere. It also has a wonderful and refreshingly unique setting, a great story, and excellent characters, all of which are fully voiced throughout the entire game. Not only that, but the voice acting, dialogue and writing are shockingly good, especially for a game of its time. And on top of it all, the Nemeton Monastery and its surrounding areas are an extremely enjoyable and engaging place to discover and explore.
Koudelka looks very good for a Playstation game. Its prerendered cutscenes look crisp and cinematic, and show off the game’s dark gothic style and great character and monster designs nicely. In-game graphics are pretty nice, too. Prerendered backgrounds are good-looking, and while they aren’t as crisp and clear as those in, say, the Final Fantasy or Resident Evil series, the environments are detailed and dripping with dark, atmospheric style. Character models are actually nice-looking and detailed for a 32-bit game, as well, and are very well animated during in-game cutscenes. Overall, the only area where the game stumbles graphically is in its lack of detail on its battlefields. Otherwise, Koudelka is a nice looking game.
Koudelka features many prerendered cutscenes, and all are cinematic and impressively detailed.
Speaking of visuals, one of Koudelka’s greatest strengths is in its style, artistic designs and atmosphere. Hiroki Kikuta certainly succeeded in his goal of creating a dark, mature and unconventional RPG, and it shows right from the beginning. Koudelka’s gothic architecture, gloomy environments, strange and disturbing monsters, and realistic character designs all come together to create a foreboding and mercilessly dark atmosphere. Further enhancing Koudelka’s dark and unique atmosphere are its sound and music. Subtle details in sound bring the creepy old monastery to life, with wind howling distantly in the background, fire crackling, and character’s footsteps and voices echoing through its seemingly abandoned depths. The sound is minimalist, but it should be; the game is often quiet, but is haunting in its silence. Koudelka’s music is similarly minimalist and atmospheric. Most of the musical tracks appear during battles, and while unusual in style, are befitting of the game’s atmosphere in a certain way. Outside battle, music is minimal, often relegated to cutscenes or dramatic moments. While critic’s opinions seemed somewhat divided on the music, I personally found it minimalist, unique and fitting.
Prerendered backgrounds are detailed and stylish.
Of all the game’s aural aspects, however, special note should be made of not just Koudelka’s surprisingly high-quality English voice acting, but also its extremely well-written dialogue. Not only is the writing and voice acting well above the standard of most games of its time, it’s still better than many of the games being released today. The game is heavy on dialogue, with many extended conversations, and that’s a very good thing, because not only are the characters interesting, but they are so interesting partially because the script and voice work do such an excellent job of bringing them to life. Conversations actually sound like conversations, not stilted dialogue, and help to develop the characters and story naturally.
Koudelka's cast is endearing and diverse.
Much of the writing comes off with a bit of a theatrical charm; which is a good thing. Since this is a Playstation game with prerendered backgrounds, and without the ability to create highly detailed character models, one could liken the presentation and effect of in-game cutscenes to that of a theatrical performance; while Koudelka’s prerendered cutscenes are, of course, very cinematic, in-game ones usually play out from a single angle on a prerendered environment, with all the characters of the scene on the stage of that particular environment. This creates an effect similar to watching a theatrical play, and so it seems appropriate, and works perfectly, that the voice acting, along with the animated, motion-captured character models, have the expressive, dramatic quality of stage actors during a performance. Not only does it make for consistently entertaining dialogue and cutscenes, it also makes up for the lack of subtle cinematic expression the fixed camera angles, prerendered environments and low-detail 3D character models of a 32-bit game lack. The one strike I could issue against the voice acting is that most of the accents are not native to the setting in which the game takes place; however, the writing and quality of the acting overcome this discrepancy easily, and it never detracts from the game or the characters.
Koudelka is indeed a well-written and well-acted game, and on that note, the characters and story are creative, in-depth and thoroughly interesting. The story was fascinating, unique and well-told when I first played it, and time has not diminished it. After Koudelka, Edward and James come together, they slowly unravel an increasingly dark, tragic and twisted story, which they, in turn, become entangled in. I don’t want to spoil too much, since the story is one of the game’s driving forces, but the story becomes much more than a haunted house mystery; including elements of historical fiction, dark supernatural forces, the story of an old seafaring vessel, and plenty of tragic human drama tying it all together. Tied right into the story is the rich and three-dimensional cast. Koudelka herself is a great character and an interesting protagonist; she has a unique look about her, and a strong personality which truly evolves throughout the course of the game. Koudelka, Edward and James are fascinating to learn about, and just as fascinating in the development of their friendship and the excellent chemistry and character interaction between them. They are three people who are seemingly very different, and watching them converse, bicker and slowly develop from grudging comrades by necessity to companions who genuinely care about one another is satisfying and entertaining because of how well the game handles it.
The thing I loved the very most about Koudelka is the maturity with which it handles itself and its subject matter throughout the entirety of the game. There are no stupid gags, no comic relief characters, no ridiculously over-the-top moments. There are moments of humor, but they come in the form of realistic character interaction true to who the characters are and their relationships to one another. The historical setting has a coldly realistic look and vibe to it. The supernatural elements are handled with maturity and care, and never become an excuse for ridiculous superpowers or super-human fight scenes. The atmosphere and story stick adamantly to their dark and dramatic nature. The cast is filled with adult characters, who interact like adults, have adult personalities and problems, and are never over-dramatized nor become stereotypes or caricatures of themselves. In short, when Koudelka claims to be a mature game made with a mature audience in mind, it actually means it: this game is aimed at an adult audience. Even today, amongst the many games attempting to become a mature, adult, artistic form of entertainment, Koudelka still stands out as a rare example of a game that really WAS for adults, and not in a superficial sense.
The story is dark and filled with mature and often disturbing themes.
On the gameplay side of the equation, opinions may be divided on the battle system, but the other elements are actually fun and satisfying. Exploring the Nemeton Monastery is exciting, intriguing and appropriately mysterious. Roaming its long hallways, dark side rooms, gloomy courtyards and forgotten depths should prove exciting to any gamer with a curious and adventurous attitude. There’s a real sense of discovery as you uncover items hidden in dark corners, read dusty old letters and documents, solve puzzles, and unlock doors which lead you further into the mysterious depths of the monastery. Random encounters are present throughout the game, but occur at a completely reasonable and well-spaced rate that rarely feels overwhelming or irritating, unlike in so many other games.
While opinions differ on the battle system, the leveling system, on the other hand, is satisfying and rewarding. Players are free to level and customize each character as they see fit by distributing points they earn at each level up into the areas of their choosing, and thus outfitting characters of their choice with magic, melee, guns, defense, MP, HP, etc. This, in turn, adds to the battle system and, at least for myself, made battles an overall enjoyable and rewarding experience despite their issues, as I visibly watched my character’s skill sets grow to my own liking.
Exploring the monastery is both mysterious and intriguing.
Koudelka is a game of decent size and length, and it is well-paced overall, without ending too soon or running on too long with fluff or filler. I’ve heard varying reports of Koudelka’s actual length, and I’m going to assume that it is a matter of playstyle coupled with the amount of battles and exploring you do. Personally, my file clocked in at around 35 hours by the end of it all, but I also explored every nook and cranny, including a few optional parts, and spent some time level-grinding after each boss fight, so I’m sure that increased the play time a bit. I’ve heard other sources say the game is closer to 20 or 25 hours, while yet others say they blew through it in around 15. Whatever the case, Koudelka felt just the right length to me. It never droned on or hit any ruts, and the story remained focused throughout. It should be noted that the game does have multiple endings; three to be exact. However, it should also be noted, without any spoilers, that the best one isn’t hard to obtain and is, well, the best ending to see (and of the other two, one is pretty much the "dud" ending). So most probably won’t find themselves replaying the game just to see the others, especially since another full playthrough would not be required to view them, anyways. I do not say this as if it were a problem, though; the ending wraps things up nicely and the game feels full and complete by the end of it all.
While the battle system has been a subject of debate, the leveling is deep, open-ended and satisfying.
Koudelka may have been a compromised vision, which lead to some questionable decisions for its battle system, but even this couldn’t change the fact that Koudelka was an inspired game with real passion and a great idea behind it. And its creator’s passion and inspiration shine through to create an experience that is still unique, mature and fascinating today, if sadly overlooked and forgotten. Make no mistake, while the Shadow Hearts series are some of my personal favorite games, and I loved each of the entries in the series pretty much equally (including Koudelka), it is also increasingly clear with each entry that Kikuta was not behind those games. While the Shadow Hearts series is indeed strongly tied to Koudelka in its stories (which, in turn, enhances the stories of all of the games, in my opinion), it also delved, increasingly so with each of its three entries, more into the over-the-top events and superpowers, the RPG conventions, and the moments of slap-stick humor which Kikuta originally tried so hard to avoid with Koudelka. In this, Koudelka remains something all its own; a surprisingly mature, adult game which, while perhaps flawed or compromised in some areas, is still to this day a unique and inspired vision; a memorable experience worth rediscovering.
While Kikuta's vision may have been compromised in some regards, Koudelka still proves to be a unique, engrossing and truly mature game.
Who Should Play It?
Any fans of RPGs or survival horror looking for something out of the ordinary. Adult gamers looking for an intelligent, well-written story with a realistic style, or anybody with an interest in historical fiction or stories dealing with the supernatural or the occult. And, of course, any fans of the Shadow Hearts series owe it to themselves to check out Koudelka and see where the story began.
Release dates: April 28th, 2009 (N.A.), May 8th, 2009 (Europe)
Cover art for Velvet Assassin.
What Is This Game?
Velvet Assassin is a World War II stealth action game which follows the exploits of a British intelligence agent named Violette Summer; a character based on real-life French-British secret agent, Violette Szabo. The game starts off with Violette Summer lying in a hospital bed in a coma; after the opening, it dives into the memories of Violette, which is where the bulk of the game and its missions take place, as Violette recalls various missions against the Nazis which lead her up to this point. Velvet Assassin plays similarly to the stealth-action ninja series, Tenchu. With guards following set routes through environments, the player is tasked with sneaking behind walls and in the shadows, while finding the best way to either creep past them or, more often, sneak up on them and perform stealth kills, and the ultimate goal usually being to get from point A to point B as stealthily as possible.
Violette preparing to dispatch an unsuspecting Nazi.
I was one of the few people who was not only aware of this game since the first previews and screenshots of it surfaced, but was also very interested in it. Ya see, this game had me at first glance for two reasons: it was a World War II game that was NOT a first person shooter, and it was a stealth-action game. As a bit of a World War II buff, I love to see any World War II game trying something interesting or different. And as a fan of old-school stealth action gameplay (see: Tenchu fan), I’m always excited to try anything in the genre. Long story short, I ended up picking the game up within its first week of release.
From its very beginning, Velvet Assassin captured my interest with its rich style and atmosphere. Velvet Assassin is one of the most purely atmospheric releases I’ve played in a while, and while the story itself is minimalist, it creates a mood, style and atmosphere so unique, so thick and dark, that it almost feels like a horror game at times; which is a good thing. Velvet Assassin goes a long way towards showing how great art and sound design and creative stylistic choices can not only create a game that is moody and atmospheric, but can also look great graphically even without the highest tech in the business. The atmosphere it captures is one I’ve found nothing quite like in a World War II video game before, and it is in this that the game stands out as a unique and memorable experience, despite a minimalistic story and some dated (though, to be clear, still often very enjoyable) gameplay mechanics. Velvet Assassin is not a “perfect” game, nor is it particularly high-budget or “next-gen”, but it also hits many high points in areas big-budget, high-profile releases often neglect or take for granted….
Velvet Assassin has some disturbing themes and images throughout.
History, Release and Reception:
Velvet Assassin was created by German developer Replay Studios, a studio found in 2002, but at the time of Velvet Assassin’s release, had only two previously released titles. Its development cycle was relatively low-key, and typical of a somewhat low-profile release. First announced under the title “Sabotage,” details and screenshots trickled out here and there, but the developers and, subsequently, the press, made a point to emphasize the game’s inspiration: real-life World War II French-British agent, Violette Szabo.
And, indeed, this is a point worth emphasizing, because Szabo was a very interesting woman, and a game inspired by her story was sure to be, at the very least, a unique and fresh idea. It should be clear, though, that the game is not ABOUT Miss Szabo herself, but is just that: inspired by her. The main character of Velvet Assassin is the fictional Violette Summer, and while Velvet Assassin takes places over six missions spanning 12 levels, the real Violette Szabo completed one successful mission, and was captured during her second, tortured, and eventually executed by the Nazis. To be clear, however, the developers were not deceptive on this subject, and made it clear in interviews that while the game was inspired by a real-life hero, it was, in fact, a fictional story. And it did indeed make for a game that stood out from the crowd to those who looked into it, despite its relatively low-profile prior to release.
Violette Summer (left) was inspired by real-life WWII secret agent, Violette Szabo (right)
The title was eventually changed from “Sabotage” to Velvet Assassin, and the game was released first in North America on April 28th 2009, and in Europe on May 8th 2009. Critical reception of the game was generally middle of the road, with scores ranging from mediocre to slightly above average. Gamespot gave Velvet Assassin one of its high scores, a 7.5, and noted, as I have, the game’s rich atmosphere and tense moments as positives. Meanwhile, IGN put it on the slightly less-positive side of the road with a 5/10, emphasizing the game’s “dated” mechanics and lackluster storytelling. Either way, the game was quickly lost in the shuffle and has been rarely mentioned since. Which is a shame, since it is a unique title which gamers interested in stealth action or World War II would do well by themselves to experience….
Velvet Assassin is not a terribly flawed or broken game, really; most setbacks it has are really just what you’d called “dated” or “last-gen” elements. Velvet Assassin works and looks fine, but just isn’t necessarily “next-gen;” a point that has proven to be a setback for many lower-profile games critically in the current generation, where large leaps forward in budgets, game design and mechanics for high-profile releases, as the industry moves closer to the “mainstream,” have increasingly widened the gap between big-name titles and smaller releases. While this has had positive effects for big-name releases, it’s also made for a tough critical environment for games like Velvet Assassin, which don’t have the budget for the highest tech, don’t have the quickest A.I. or are grounded in design choices that have quickly come to be considered outdated as the industry hurdles forward.
This is particularly applicable to Velvet Assassin’s “problems” because many of them are either elements of “last-gen” game design, or are small issues that would have been forgiven or overlooked much more readily just a few years ago. Essentially, I understand the issues which some have pointed out with Velvet Assassin, but feel that, to anybody who has enjoyed video games for more than the past five or six years, and can still have fun with a game from a previous generation, Velvet Assassin’s “dated” game design will most likely be very enjoyable, and its inherent flaws will seem miniscule and forgivable to fans of the genre.
Velvet Assassin's gameplay is reminiscent of older stealth-action titles from previous generations.
Velvet Assassin does have some moments of foolish or basic enemy A.I. that will be immediately familiar to fans of the stealth action genre. Guards follow set patrol routes through areas of environments, and if the player is spotted, will chase them for a moderate length of time (or call for help, if you’re unlucky), enter a state of “searching” when they lose them, and then eventually return to their original patrol as if nothing happened. It’s the player’s job, as in most titles of this nature, to dispose of the guards without being spotted by or, if they are spotted, to run away, hide, and try again when they calm down. While fans of old-school stealth action will take no issue with this type of enemy A.I. and the gameplay process surrounding it, it could also be seen as old-fashioned and a bit rusty to others.
While the aforementioned A.I. and old-school stealth game design choices are less flaws and more a matter of taste, Velvet Assassin does have a couple of other minor, but more legitimate, gameplay flaws. In particular, I found it odd that, in a stealth action game of this type, there was no way to press up against or move along walls, and as such no real way to peer around corners naturally. Theses staples of the genre are almost expected and, while the game is designed around the lack of them well-enough that they’re absence is rarely too much of a problem, it’s still an odd choice to exclude such a basic function, and can at times leave you wishing it was there.
There’s also a general lack of replayability to the game, which isn’t a huge issue with the experience itself, but still means you’ll have little reason to go back to it after your first playthrough. Aside from different difficulty levels, there’s not much to unlock or see after finishing the game, and stages are, of course, the same the second time as they were the first. Clocking in at around 10 hours on your first playthrough, with 12 missions, the game isn’t terribly short, but isn’t terribly long, either, and without any real incentive to play through it again, besides earning extra achievements or finding some mostly inconsequential collectibles, there’s a good chance the game will end up shelved after your first playthrough.
Velvet Assassin’s other, more noteworthy and serious problem, is with its storytelling; or lack thereof. While the game and its cutscenes are extremely heavy on atmosphere, style and mood, and do an excellent job of establishing these elements, what they fail to do is convey a real, cohesive story with any real characters or dramatic effect. As mentioned earlier, the bulk of game takes place with Violette in a coma, recalling in her mind the missions which lead up to this point. And from that point on all we really get in the way of story is Violette’s narration during cutscenes explaining what each mission was about and the events surrounding it; while the cutscenes are filled with stylized visuals to underscore Violette’s narration, we never get a real story out of them; Violette’s narration is the only real speaking role we get, and the story is told more as a series of diary entries than it is a cinematic, progressive story. I am all for non-traditional storytelling, especially in a game so focused on style and atmosphere, but the result really is that the story never feels fleshed out or fully engaging. Which is a shame, because with such an interesting concept, such a mesmerizing style, such dark and serious themes, and such an interesting person serving as inspiration, the game could have made for a fascinating tale. Instead, by the end, I was left feeling as if an amazing story about a really fascinating character had just happened……and the game hadn’t really bothered to fill me in on it.
Velvet Assassin's cutscenes are stylish and pretty, but do little to convey the story dramatically.
Why it’s Worth a Second Look:
Storytelling issues aside, Velvet Assassin really is a fun, satisfying and unique game, and it has a lot going for it which make it more than worth a look. While the storytelling left a bit to be desired, the style and atmosphere the game so expertly creates go a long way towards making up for that shortcoming. The game oozes dark style and atmosphere, and establishes an incredible sense of darkness, dread and evil surrounding the main character. Many games in the horror genre could, in fact, stand to learn something from Velvet Assassin. While Velvet Assassin is not a horror game, it creates a mood and atmosphere so oppressively dark and, sometimes, morbid, that the game is genuinely depressing and scary at times. Which works great, too, because this oppressive atmosphere makes your enemies come off as all the more dangerous and the situations you are placed in that much more dire. This does a great job of unnerving the player and creating a fitting sense of danger as they sneak behind enemy lines and carefully attempt to avoid detection.
Velvet Assassin's visuals are filled with dark, brooding style and the game is heavily atmospheric.
Contributing to Velvet Assassin’s powerful atmosphere are its beautifully stylish visuals and understated but highly effective sound and music. Visually, the game is vibrant and rich. While the graphics aren’t high-end technically, they prove that great art, environment and character design, along with great lighting and shadows, and a vibrant color palette can more than offset such shortcomings. Violette herself’s character design is unique and appealing, and while Violette is meant to be a darkly beautiful woman, the game doesn’t exploit her, or feel like it’s trying to make her the “sexy female lead.” From her hairstyle, to her costumes, to her perpetually sullen face, Violette is a visually unique and striking heroine. Likewise, enemies have a tough and menacing look about them; most of them look like mean sons of bitches that’d kill you without hesitation, and that’s good, because when you’re sneaking around trying not to be spotted, it’s good to feel like there’s a reason for it.
Violette Summer is a unique and visually striking heroine.
Environments look great and are possibly the graphical highlight of the game. Colors are rich, and even bright environments have a rich darkness to them thanks to a choice of deep, dark, rich colors; colors that look almost ready to bleed off the screen. For a game so shrouded in darkness, its impressive how simultaneously rich and vibrant its color palette is. Even in its darkest environments (which there are many of), the game still never looks dull or drab. The use of shadows in the game look great, too; and since hiding in them is a central element of gameplay, they serve as more than just an cool effect. Buildings, people and objects cast long, dark shadows which both provide cover AND add to the nightmarish ambiance of the game. Meanwhile, the trippy, time-freezing “morphine mode” sequences continue to add to the dream-like effect with saturated colors and overwhelming brightness.
Environments are vibrant and richly detailed, and the game in general often looks gorgeous. Proof that great artistic design and style are often more important than a huge budget.
Cutscenes, while they may not do a great job of conveying the story, still look great and add to the dream-like (or nightmare-like) atmosphere of the game. With some gorgeous stylistic choices and interesting camerawork and visuals, Violette’s cold, depressing narration and good sound work, they may not convey the story as best they could, but still look good and are just as atmospheric and moody as the rest of the game.
Speaking of sound, the game’s sound work and music are at times minimalist, but always effective and well done. Distant screams and gunfire often add to a sense of uneasiness in outdoor areas, while indoor environments echo with damp footsteps, dripping and clanking, and the resounding echo of enemy soldier’s voices. Gun sound effects are fitting and give off a satisfying sense of impact and power. Music is incredibly effective and stylish and contributes greatly to the sense of unease and horror throughout the game, as well. Filled with creative and unusual sounds, I would compare much of it to the soundtracks of the Silent Hill series. The music can fade into the background at quiet moments, and then become overpowering and frightening at more tense moments. When sneaking around, it does a great job of subtly heightening the tension in the background, while in more tense moments, or when the player is spotted, it can become overpowering and intense; in any instance, it’s always fitting and contributes heavily to the sense of unease and horror throughout the game.
Gameplay-wise, the game may be a bit dated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying or enjoyable. Anybody familiar with old-school stealth-action will feel right at home, and especially fans of Tenchu will find the pattern of sneaking around, finding enemies, observing their routines, and waiting for the right opportunity to execute them as satisfying and enjoyable as ever. Some may point out that the gun combat when caught in a firefight is a little clunky, but since this is a game which emphasizes stealth, that is less a flaw, and more a gameplay element which encourages and rewards stealth and strategy over going in guns blazing. The element of gunplay is really the difference between Velvet Assassin and Tenchu’s gameplay, and while the majority of the time it is most effective (and satisfying) to sneak up on an enemy and dispatch them with your knife through a brutal stealth kill, your silenced pistol makes it possible for dispatching enemies at long-range with stealth, and will inevitably help you out of some of the game’s tighter situations. The only time gun combat became a bit frustrating is in the game’s few moments where an unavoidable firefight occurs, but these moments are few and far between, and overall it is never a major issue, nor is the gun combat broken to any degree that it is an unforgivable problem.
Stealth kills are brutal and satisfying.
While the absence of a mechanic which lets you creep along walls is a bit odd, the game’s other stealth elements are well-implemented and provide for a good amount of strategy and variety to the stealth gameplay. Carrying and hiding bodies is possible, and often essential, to not alerting the enemy of any disturbances. Use of disguises in certain levels is also a fun and different way of eluding the enemy, and acting casual in said disguises is key to not giving yourself away. Peering through doors, or creeping underneath objects or through small openings is also a strategic element which allows the player to scope out and assess the environment ahead of them while developing a good strategy of how to navigate the upcoming area and take out the enemies in it. You can also hide inside certain object or behind doors to get the jump on enemies that are close by.
The ability to disguise yourself as the enemy is available in some stages.
One of the most noteworthy strategic elements of stealth in the game, though, is the “morphine mode.” Since the majority of the game takes place through Violette’s memories while she is lying in a coma, most stages (with the exception of the last couple) allow you a limited number of morphine shots; which essentially freeze time momentarily, while the game enters a dream-like visual state. This allows you time to gain the advantage in tougher situations, and to reposition yourself to a safer spot, or run up on an enemy and quickly dispatch him. The limited time and number of uses make it a good mechanic for getting out of sticky situations, but also requires the player to make careful us of it and save it for times when it is most needed. Plus, it makes for an interesting and stylish visual effect.
Morphine mode creates an interesting visual effect.
The game also employs a basic leveling system which lets you upgrade Stealth, Strength and Morphine levels. It’s not of huge consequence, but does allow for you to adjust Violette’s abilities to your playstyle a bit. While basic, it is still a welcome enough addition.
The core element of stealth in the game relies on darkness and a good hiding place, however. Shadows and darkness play a key role in the game, and taking out the lights in an environment or sticking to its shadows are essential for remaining hidden. The darkness can mean the difference between an enemy spotting you or walking right past. Like much of the enemy A.I. in old-school stealth action games, it’s not always completely realistic all the time, however, it does make for fun gameplay that is satisfying, while not utterly overwhelming.
Light and darkness play a huge role in stealth.
Velvet Assassin is a stylish and atmospheric game with a unique setting and concept. Its old-school stealth gameplay may be labeled as archaic by some, but to old fans of the genre, it will probably feel more like a welcome return to genre conventions than a broken or outdated gameplay style. However, while fans of the stealth genre will no doubt find fun and satisfaction in the gameplay, the real star of this game is definitely its dark, moody style and atmosphere. The game shows that high tech isn’t all it takes to create a good looking game, and its great lighting, environments, stylistic effects and character design, along with eerie and unique music and sound work, combine to create a game with a visual and aural style that is strong and original. The game isn’t terribly long, but provides an experience that is fun, refreshing and different. With the game currently all but forgotten, and its price tag not much more than ten dollars, curious gamers should check this one out: it’s a dark, atmospheric experience that you won’t find anything else quite like.
Velvet Assassin's gameplay may be "last-gen," but it still proves to be an intense, extremely stylish and unique experience.
Who Should Play It?
Fans of stealth-action titles, namely the “Tenchu” series and similar games. Those interested in World War II video games, especially if they are looking for one that is out of the ordinary, with a unique style and genre. Also, some fans of horror video games may find the extremely dark and sometimes eerie or frightening atmosphere intriguing.
Alternate titles(s): Rainy Woods (development), Red Seeds Profile (Japan)
Developer: Access Games
Publishers: Ignition Entertainment (N.A.), Marvelous Entertainment (Japan), Rising Star Games (Europe)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (N.A., Europe, Japan), Playstation 3 (Japan only)
Release dates: February 17th, 2010 (N.A.), March 11th, 2010 (Japan), October 29th, 2010 (Europe)
Cover art for Deadly Premonition.
What Is This Game?
Deadly Premonition is part open-world adventure game, part survival horror. Deadly Premonition follows a main story arc, but takes place in an open world that allows the player to wander and explore freely, featuring a day/night cycle, side quests, secrets, shops, and even fishing. The story follows FBI Agent Francis York Morgan as he arrives in the small town of Greenvale to investigate the bizarre and unusual murder of a teenage girl. Shortly after his arrival, he finds himself working with the Sheriff, George Woodman, and his deputy, Emily Wyatt, as they try to unravel the mystery behind it all. There is more to this investigation than it seems, everyone is a suspect, and the town has a dark past that it has been trying to forget. Before long, Agent Morgan (along with the mysterious voice in his head, Zack) finds himself in for a long stay in Greenvale as he unravels an increasingly sinister mystery.
Agent Francis York Morgan looks down the road to Greenvale after the game's opening scenes.
Deadly Premonition has gained a sort of notoriety this generation for its cult status and, as such, has become a sort of poster child for obscure, low-budget games the past few years. And for anybody who goes into it with the right mindset, and gives it some time, it becomes very obvious why. In some ways, Deadly Premonition is an incredibly flawed game, however, and it is an easy one to get off on the wrong foot with. The game starts off with what is essentially a protracted “dungeon” area, which places an emphasis on its less-than-stellar combat and movement controls. The graphics, likewise, are sub-par. They’re generally very bland, with dull colors and a lack of detail, and animations are stiff and robotic much of the time. Likewise, the game comes off as incredibly cheesy at first, with dialogue that seems absolutely ridiculous and the vibe of a clichéd, low-budget B-movie. To top it off, Agent Francis York Morgan, the player’s character, seems like a complete goofball…….but then something happens.
You get past the first area, and suddenly….what’s this? This game is open world? You begin to wander a bit, and realize the town of Greenvale, in which Deadly Premonition takes place, is actually open for exploration and investigation. You spend some time with the game, and you realize it’s filled with places, side quests, items and characters. Sure, the characters are ridiculous, but now it’s clear there’s a bit more to this game than you initially thought…..So you play it a bit more, and realize the story is actually becoming something more than you thought, too….what you thought was a parade of B-movie horror clichés is now becoming an engrossing mystery with supernatural elements…..Then, you roam the town and progress with the story a bit more. You get to know the people of Greenvale, and Agent Francis York Morgan…..and slowly it becomes clear that they are not bad or cliché, but instead hilariously, intentionally quirky and eccentric, and surprisingly likeable and deep. Slowly, the game’s technical flaws are forgotten……and, whether intentionally or not, somehow become part of the game’s strange, quirky, oddball charm. It all just works! But how did it work? What’s this game’s deal? Let’s take more of a look and find out……
Just like the mysterious red seeds, there's more than meets the eye to Deadly Premonition.....
History, Release and Reception:
Deadly Premonition was floating around in development for quite a while under the title “Rainy Woods.” Its trailer premiered in 2007, and I personally recall watching the trailer and thinking……wait, is this a “Twin Peaks” game? Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought this, because so many people noted this that the development cycle was prolonged and the release date pushed back to revise the game and lessen some of the similarities between it and the show which served as its inspiration. The game fell off the radar for a while, and when it finally resurfaced, Ignition Games announced it would be releasing the game under the title “Deadly Premonition” in the U.S. The game was released on February 17th 2010; but the brilliance of its release was its super-low-budget retail price of $19.99. This almost certainly lent a huge hand to its surprising success as a cult hit. Twenty bucks? Heck, why not pick it up? I know for a fact that was why I ended up buying it. There I was picking up a copy of Bioshock 2 and….hey, what’s this $20 horror game I’ve never heard of? Might as well get it, it’s only twenty bucks! (funny thing, too, that I ended up putting aside Bioshock 2 to play the random budget game I bought alongside it). In any case, the strategy worked, and the game sold surprisingly well. It was released about a month later in Japan under the title “Red Seeds Profile” and in Europe in the fall.
Maybe even more surprising than the game’s sales was its critical reception. Even with its myriad technical flaws, Deadly Premonition’s quirky charm and underlying genius earned it a generally good reception from a number of major publications and websites. Many major publications and websites gave it good scores and noted its charm and good qualities in spite of its flaws, and Destructoid even gave it a 10/10 and called it a “beautiful trainwreck.” On top of that, Game Informer liked it enough to mention it a number of times throughout the following year, including a few awards at the end of the year. IGN, on the other hand, outright bashed the game, giving it a 2.0; but then doubled back later in the year with a U.K. review that gave it a 7.5. Deadly Premonition seemed to force a bit of a revolution in critical analysis of video games, in any case, and a bit of appreciation rarely seen for similarly flawed or low-budget games. The game did so surprisingly well that its creator, “SWERY,” is making a director’s cut, and has even mentioned a sequel. Who doesn’t like a good underdog story, huh?
Deadly Premonition may not be the best looking game, but beyond its technical shortcomings lie an engrossing open-world and fascinating story that earned it praise from a number of major gaming website and magazines.
There’s no beating around the bush, so let’s get the negative stuff out of the way: And that’s that, from a technical standpoint, Deadly Premonition is a pretty flawed game. From graphics to controls to gameplay mechanics to sound and voice work, Deadly Premonition comes off as low budget, clunky and awkward at first.
As I mentioned earlier, graphics are bland, with drab colors and a general lack of detail. In addition, character animations are often stiff and robotic, and some facial expressions come off as weird and even a bit creepy.
Voice work comes off as a mixed bag with some weird writing at first, too, especially before you begin to realize that much of that quirky awkwardness in the dialogue is actually intentional. It’s not a flaw, really, but can be a turn off before you realize what direction the game is going in. Sound effects are also limited and at times unfitting. One hilarious instance of this which immediately comes to mind is the squirrel in the opening cutscene that Agent Morgan swerves off the road to avoid; it makes a monkey squeal. Also worth noting is how, every time you land a headshot on an enemy, Agent Morgan remarks on it with “Nice!” or “Great!” or something along those lines; which becomes pretty funny when you’re using an automatic weapon and he says it for every single bullet that hits the enemy. Music also tends to overpower voices during cutscenes sometimes, and is oddly unfitting at times, as well.
Likewise, controls and various elements of gameplay are awkward and tough to manage at times. Vehicles in the game, which you’ll use often to navigate and explore the world, control like tanks and can be pretty tough to steer. But when the controls are most problematic is probably during the combat, which you’ll usually encounter during the dungeon-esque “otherworld” sequences. Aiming guns is twitchy and the clunky movements make combat tough, especially when there are multiple or faster enemies. These “otherworld” sequences are also a bit prolonged and repetitive, due to the lack of enemy variety, repetitious environments, and generally straight-forward nature (lots of hallways and finding keys). The boss fights later on in the game are pretty hard to manage, too.
Combat can bit a bit awkward at times.
However, what may be a bigger gameplay-related issue is the confusing and disorienting town map. This was the one problem that actually managed to get a bit frustrating, even for me. Ya see, you can only zoom your view of the map out to a very limited degree; meaning that you can never get a full view of the entire game world on the map, or even a quarter of it, for that matter. It’s just locked on your location and you have to move it around manually to try to get an idea of your surrounding area. But what’s worse than that is that the view of the map is CONSTANTLY readjusting itself based on which direction the Agent Morgan is facing; in other words, when you look at the map one second, and are facing north, you’ll see it one way. Then, when you unpause, turn your character around, and go back to view the map again, you’ll find the entire map has flipped itself upside down. This issue never impairs your progress with the main story or with finding your next objective, as those are clearly marked, but it does make navigating and exploring the town very disorienting and, in a game that so heavily encourages exploring, finding secrets and side quests, and getting to know its world, can become frustrating when you are trying to do just that.
Deadly Premonition was obviously made on a very limited budget, and much of these flaws are likely due to that. However, what’s worth noting more than anything, is how most of these flaws become part of the game’s quirky, strange, low-budget charm. After a while, they almost work FOR the game, not against it. Strange as it seems, this game knows what it is, and almost everything about it, even its low-budget, graphical flaws, hilarious voice and sound work and clunky controls, begin to fit right in and become part of it all. It’s almost uncanny how well it all works, in all its outlandish, low-budget glory. Which leads us to……
Deadly Premonition is filled with quirky dialogue and characters.
Why it’s Worth a Second Look:
Despite all its flaws, or, maybe even partially BECAUSE of them, Deadly Premonition is greater than the sum of its parts. It rises above its flaws because it is filled with genuine creativity and passion, and because it handles itself, even its rough spots, with a certain grace, dignity and insane genius. There is a lot to love about this game.
The story and characters are undoubtedly some of the game’s greatest strengths. What starts out seeming like a bad knock-off of every horror video game ever slowly reveals itself to be anything but typical or predictable, with a genuinely engrossing supernatural murder mystery and a whole town full of fascinatingly quirky and surprisingly deep characters. A long list of side quests do a lot to flesh out the smaller characters, while the main story does a great job of taking the core cast and exploring who they are. Many of them seem strange or stereotypical at first, but as the story progresses you’ll realize they are anything but. Rarely have I cared so much about a cast of characters in a game, and few games I have played take as much time and care as Deadly Premonition does to get to know it’s characters, spend time with them, develop them, and flesh them out. There are a lot of quiet but introspective moments and small but important conversations between characters, and it all serves to create an incredibly likeable and endearing cast. By the end of the game, you’ll find yourself really caring about Agent Francis York Morgan and the strange bunch around him, and it makes for some very powerful and emotional moments later on.
The cast is filled with deep and likeable characters. And conversations and interactions between them are always interesting.
It helps, too, that the story these characters are at the center is so engrossing, and surprisingly well thought-out. Deadly Premonition is a rather long game, and that’s a good thing. It takes its time and invites you into its world. And as you spend time and grow to care about it all, it slowly reveals more of itself to you. It hooks you, drags you into its world and keeps you wanting for more; wanting to see more of the town, wanting to know more about the characters and wanting to know just what in the hell is really going on. The pacing is excellent, and it keeps you intrigued. On top of that, by the end of the game, I was actually impressed by how well thought out and neatly woven together the whole story was. I won’t spoil anything, but the way the characters, the town’s dark past, the axe wielding “Raincoat Killer” and supernatural elements all wove together to create such strange yet fascinating story was actually pretty impressive; and Agent Morgan and his own past were equally interesting. Impressive stuff coming from a game I expected very little from in its humble beginnings.
The story is filled with twists and turns and will keep you guessing throughout.
The game’s world is just as endearing and interesting as its characters and story; which is good, since it is so strongly tied TO its story and characters. The town of Greenvale is surprisingly large and intricately designed. The amount of care put into the game world itself goes to show that, low budget be damned, the game’s creators really cared about this game. The game features a day/night cycle, and that cycle really does affect the game. The townspeople move about town each day on their own schedules, going places, running errands, walking the dog, etc. Shops, bars and restaurants open and close at different hours and the player even has a schedule to keep: get up in the morning, grab some coffee (which Agent Morgan not only loves, but sees premonitions of the future in!) move about town, investigate, send your clothes to the laundry for cleaning, and try to get to bed at a decent time back at the hotel. The town even goes crazy after midnight, and “otherworld” creatures and giant demon dogs come out until morning.
On top of all that, the game is filled with side quests, secret items and areas, and the ability to go off investigating on your own; peering into people’s windows, talking to them for information and trying to find clues. Side quests, likewise, are varied and interesting, and help you get to know the town and its people. Some find you driving a crazy old lady who thinks her “pot is going to get cold” if she doesn’t get home in time, while others have you investigating haunted areas of town. In any case, they are abundant and full of variety. On top of that, there are also a slew of min-games throughout town, including darts, fishing and even vehicle time trials. There’s even collectibles (trading cards!), secret weapons, and hidden items. There’s a lot to do and see in Greenvale.
There's no shortage of things to do in Greenvale. Mini-games, secrets and side quests are everywhere. You can even go fishing!
The music of the game is wonderfully unique and often delightfully unfitting, too. Yes, I know, I mentioned this up in the “flaws” section too, but as with so much of what may be perceived as flaws at first in this game, it ends up becoming a part of the game’s strange, quirky charm. Music ranges from eerie horror undertones, to swanky jazz, to soothing guitars and humming, to a hilarious, jolly “whistling” theme. It’s all so varied and odd, and yet fits the game perfectly. Likewise, the voice acting and dialogue, as mentioned before, may seem silly at first, but as you realize the tone and atmosphere of the game, they too become a perfect fit for the strange and delightful cast. Speaking of the dialogue and voice acting, another delightful point of the game are the numerous conversations and moments referencing classic film and B-movie history. Agent Morgan, and his ‘friend’ Zack, are films buffs, and the conversations and references which spring up because of it are often absolutely priceless.
While the “otherworld” scenes, where Agent Morgan suddenly is transported into supernatural dungeon areas, can be a bit prolonged and repetitive at times, they are also worth it for their better, more intense moments. In particular, your encounters with the murderous “Raincoat Killer” are truly intense and frightening. Often requiring you to mash buttons, perform QTE’s, run for your life, or find a hiding place and hold your breath so he can’t hear you breathing, these scenes are tense, pulse-pounding affairs which make the slower parts of the otherworld scenes completely worthwhile. The feeling of “Oh crap” every time the Raincoat Killer shows up never goes away, and it does a great job of establishing him to the player as a menacing villain.
When the Raincoat Killer shows up, its time to run like hell.
All of this amounts to a very unique feel and atmosphere for Deadly Premonition that really makes it a unique experience. And indeed, the game is very atmospheric; with its own, weird atmosphere. Its gloomy and foreboding at all times, but interspersed with humor and moments of fun. And yet even in its lightest moments, with all the silly characters and humor, there’s still an underlying feeling of dread and mystery in the background. It works, and it keeps you in the game’s world the whole time you’re playing.
Deadly Premonition is a game worth a look by anybody ready to overlook its shortcomings, and maybe even some who aren’t too sure. It defies the odds in that, by all means, it shouldn’t be as damn good as it somehow manages to be. This is most likely due, at least in part, to it being a work that seems to have clearly had a lot of love put into it by its creators. It doesn’t feel like a game trying to please or cater to anybody; and maybe that’s why it ended up with such a miniscule budget. And yet, despite its limitations, it proves that passion and a good idea can overcome a game’s shortcomings or technical limitations. Its true brilliance is really in how well it makes everything work as a whole, even in areas where it is flawed. The depth and intricacy of the game’s world, characters and story is impossible to deny, and overshadows what the game lacks in graphical or mechanical prowess. Deadly Premonition is a pretty long game; between 25 and 35 hours, depending on how much wandering, exploring and side questing you do; and that’s good. Greenvale is a bizarre and engrossing town to get lost in. If you can overlook the technical problems, you’ll find a unique and fascinating game in Deadly Premonition; one that overcomes the odds to become a truly memorable gaming experience.
For all its flaws, Deadly Premonition still manages to come out as an incredibly likeable and engrossing game.
Who should play it?
Any fan of adventure, horror or open-world games, or those with a love for strange and quirky games. As long as you can look past low-end graphics and some faulty gameplay mechanics. Also, any fans of the “Twin Peaks” television series will probably appreciate the inspiration the game draws from that series and the homage it pays to it, as well.