Games time forgot: Hybrid Heaven

I remember back when I was too stupid to realize the truth behind Nintendo Power. I read preview after preview, writeup after writeup on forthcoming Nintendo 64 games and was totally won over by the writers’ enthusiasm. “Man!,” I thought. “Every game coming out on the N64 looks so goddamn good! How lucky I am to own the best next-gen system on the market!”

Confident that Nintendo Power was not, in fact, a steaming, incestuous cesspool of pro-Nintendo propaganda, I bought into the hype for Hybrid Heaven without reservation or apology. A game which would meld 3rd person action with RPG elements? As a Nintendo 64 gamer, I had never seen a game of this sort before, and was relatively sure that nothing of the sort had ever existed on any system.

Though I was disappointed by the final product, it still felt like an unusual, interesting, failed experiment in melding two different genres into a cohesive whole. For that reason alone, it’s maybe worth looking at again. Maybe.

Hit the jump for more.

Story:

I didn’t get more than halfway into Hybrid Heaven before giving up, and every review and article I’ve read seems to suggest that then, and only then, is the player given even the slightest inkling as to what the hell is going on. Incidentally, reading the Wikipedia plot synopsis did not help matters:

Players assume the role of Mr. Diaz, a synthetic human hybrid created by aliens. In the game’s introduction, he turns on his masters when he kills a synthetic human intended to replace the President’s bodyguard, Johnny Slater. Diaz finds himself in a massive underground installation created by the aliens under Manhattan. As the game progresses, it is revealed that the player is actually assuming the role of Slater, who was disguised as Diaz by the Gargatuans. The Gargatuans are an alien race around three feet tall who, after being betrayed by a member of their species who awoke from hypersleep and piloted the ship to Earth, are forced to help said traitor with his genetic experiments. The alien creates clones and hybrids (a genetic mix of human and Gargatuan DNA, resulting in extra-powerful creatures) and intends to conquer the earth through a replacement of its leaders, beginning with the United States. A few Gargatuans have escaped the traitor, and conduct a underground resistance in the woodwork. They found Johnny after he had been cloned and disguised him as Diaz, who they incapacitated and kept unconscious. Johnny regains his memories, which were blocked while he was disguised. The player then must travel even further down the bunker in the hopes of stopping the aliens from replacing the president with a clone and by request of the Gargatuans to defeat the traitor. Johnny’s personal motive to help him stay focused is that he must make it back in time to meet his girlfriend under the Christmas Tree in Times Square.

Enemies included clones (unremarkable creations, created mainly for menial labor), agents (resemble the public perception of the secret service, men in black suits with sunglasses), mutants (genetic experiments that resulted in vicious creatures, presumably for military use. When one mutant was released early in the game, it killed several technicians before you finally killed it), robots (mostly humanoid, but some were straight-out mechs), and Hybrids. One Hybrid, created to replace the Secretary of Defense (or possibly State), is Johnny’s antagonist for much of the game, before a final showdown wherein the alien creature explains much of the plot.

What? I just–what? Even after reading that synopsis twice, I still have no idea who the good guys or the bad guys are, or what your goal is, or even what the hell is going on on a minute to minute basis. Since most of the story is evidently delivered through unskippable cut scenes, this is one part of the game I definitely don’t miss.

Gameplay:

Until you meet an enemy, Hybrid Heaven plays like a typical, yet totally serviceable third person action game. You’ll explore the evil (or good, or whatever) underground Hybrid base, get keys, open doors, maneuver around boxes and obstacles, and so on and so forth. At the time, the graphics and general mood made it a pleasure just to run around and explore one’s surroundings (I use the word “explore” loosely, as the game is pretty damn linear), and the sexy character models ready the player for some badass, knock-down-drag-out combat.

Which, of course, you don’t really get.

It’s been God knows how many years since I last played Hybrid Heaven, and I still can’t decide whether the combat mechanic was a potentially useful idea executed poorly, or a completely flawed mechanic from the start. Basically, movement occurs in real time and attacks must be charged by waiting (a la Secret of Mana), but once you get within range of an enemy and hit the attack button, the combat switches to a strange turn-based fighting hybrid. Once you decide to attack, a menu opens up with a bunch of different punches and kicks to choose from. The enemy then opens up their menu and chooses a particular defense. After both attack and defense have been chosen, the game moves back into realtime and the attacks are automatically carried out. Attacks work in a quasi rock-paper-scissors style, where certain defenses work better against certain attacks, and doing more damage to particular parts of an enemy’s body will make them more susceptible to damage in that area. There’s also a reasonably neat combo-creation mechanic, which to this day I haven’t seen implemented in more than one other game (God Hand).

Since the 3rd person action-platforming-exploration-whatever gets pretty old pretty quickly, the game has to fall back on its combat mechanics for entertainment value. After a few hours of play, however, the combat simply becomes a bit too repetitive. You never find any guns or extra weapons; the protagonist, Diaz, simply gets more melee combat moves as the game progresses and the enemies get more powerful attacks. The battle system is surprisingly deep, but it never changes up its essential tenets — attack this one spot a lot, learn which defenses work best for which attacks — enough to really justify the game’s length. I think the idea of turn-based hand-to-hand can be quite cool (I hear people enjoy Toribash, even though I have no goddamn clue how to play it), but Hybrid Heaven‘s feels more like a first, flawed step in that direction rather than a definitive leap.

Why you’re probably not playing it:

As I said pre-jump, Hybrid Heaven was hyped like a sonofabitch due mainly to the N64’s lack of legitimate RPGs. The only major role-playing game prior to its release was Quest 64, which, if you don’t remember it, be goddamn thankful because it was a pile of shit. N64 owners were looking for a Final Fantasy for their own system, and, for whatever reason, Hybrid Heaven was promised to fill that void. When it didn’t, gamers reacted not with rage (see: Bouncer) but overwhelming apathy. Hybrid Heaven was forgotten almost immediately, its risky mechanical gambits dismissed due to its repetitive nature and crap story.

I still do believe there’s a lot to be learned from how Hybrid Heaven tries to innovate RPG combat mechanics, but that’s more or less all it’s good for now. If you can find it for incredibly cheap, it’s worth a look if only as a historical relic or lost game design experiment, but in its stated goal — providing a fun, deep, RPG/action hybrid experience — it trips on its own shoelaces.

Anthony Burch