“…I’m not talking about money, Jack.”
The speaker, a beefy man resembling a samurai in a high-tech battle suit, flippantly gestures to Raiden, Hideo Kojima’s pretty-boy-agent-turned-badass-cyborg. Raiden sits atop an idling motorcycle stopped on a hot, deserted road in the middle of nowhere.
“I’m talking ideals.”
“Excuse me?” Raiden asks, perhaps mirroring the player.
“…Forget it.” The cyborg ninja’s heavily-corded adversary dismisses the thought with a shake of his head. “We’ve both heard enough speeches about higher causes by now.”
The line passes without special emphasis, but for hardcore Metal Gear fans it may be hard not to chuckle. Kojima’s directorial penchant for long-winded philosophy has long been a divisive cornerstone of Metal Gear Solid’s narrative pastiche, and as Raiden prepares for a late-game face-off against his rival Samuel’s high-frequency blade, it is a battle of ideologies, albeit simple ones: two swords of opposing stripes fighting for the right to, well, kill each other.
Like the rest of Metal Gear Rising (or as it is more aptly subtitled, Revengeance), you’re not quite sure if at this moment the scriptwriter (incidentally not an employee of Platinum Games but Kojima Productions itself) might be poking fun of Metal Gear Solid’s narrative legacy or is just trying his best to ape it. At times these are probably two sides of the same coin. Ideologically, this makes Revengeance a weird game to approach.
This expectation is hardly new. The game was outright scrapped in 2011 by Kojima Productions after its initial incarnation—where Raiden could cut absolutely anything rendered in-game to pieces—was deemed literally impossible to program. Transmuted into an over-the-top action title, Revengeance’s completion marks the first time the bulk of development on a major, original Metal Gear title has been handed off to another studio.
But in the absence of Snake, Ocelot and close to everything else you’ve come to expect from Metal Gear in the past decade-plus of Kojima’s guiding hand, there’s an even stranger question perpetually looming throughout Raiden’s ripping slice-and-dice yarn. Stripped of its expected components, what exactly is Metal Gear?
Despite its broader trappings as a loose Metal Gear Solid 4 epilogue of sorts, Platinum doesn’t exactly have an answer. There is arguably no better studio to handle this sort of plasmatically stylish affair, and I won’t deny the sheer joy of slowing down time to carefully choose the angle Raiden’s blade will repeatedly take as it bites into a weakened PMC soldier or mooing bipedal Gekko.
That said, I’m of two minds over Platinum’s interpretation. Yes, its Metal Gear-ishness can be a little existentially suspect—the mad scientist of Raiden’s support group at one point outright explains that unmanned gears have made the manually piloted Metal Gear models of old obsolete, making fan-service appearances appear somewhat uneven, if not just sporadically thrown in to make sure you remember what universe you’re in.
On the other hand, julienning your way through untold UGs and cyborgs alike is so much damn fun you can kind of ignore how, say, the ridiculous cybernetic gorillas you’re hacking to bits feel like they’re on loan from some other game.
Since cutting what you will is more or less the point of the game, it’s a relief that its rhythm feels so good. The technical points of Revengeance’s violent engagements are easy to miss at a glance, implementing a directional system that lets you change the flow of Raiden’s repertoire on a dime.
This is also the key to blocking and parrying, an integral part of the equation and a clever design so subtly implemented it doesn’t even feel like you’re doing anything technical. Normal move-set aside, Revengeance finds its groove in the balance within the finite use of Zandatsu, a fancy Japanese way of saying you can dismember an enemy in slo-mo and subsequently rip out and crush their cybernetically-enhanced innards to replenish health and necessary blade energy.
Zandatsu, much less any kind of cutting or stabbing, unsurprisingly never gets old. Of course, with a game like this your first play-through is more or less merely basic combat training, forcing you to hone such techniques to a razor’s edge for a second, third or fourth pass.
When it comes to the Metal Gear you know and love, the boss encounters are probably where Revengeance hits closest to home. The bizarre rogue’s gallery on display includes, among others, an octopus-armed female assassin and a mercenary with a magnetically-charged body that splits apart when under duress, and nearly every one of these larger than life conflicts is pretty memorable.
The opening in Montenegro especially is probably among the most amazingly excessive of any of Platinum’s games, showcasing pre-vengeance Raiden facing off a heavily-modified unmanned Metal Gear RAY that uses its fin as a massive sword. It’s the kind of adrenal insanity only found in the most Japanese of games, and Platinum’s flair for style extends as far as the incidentals—sprint and Raiden’s will effortlessly slash away any incoming gunfire.
Given its silly subtitle, it’s no great surprise that Revengeance is generally at its best when it fully embraces its cheesy ideology. Boss battles are accompanied by a mix of double bass, guitar crunch and dub, which would be face-palmy enough on its own but for the groan-inducing lyrics that somehow actually work, and quite well.
The heavier ties to Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4 are expectedly a bit more serious, though they’ll sail over your head if you’re not well versed in Metal Gear. The counterbalance comes in the form of moments like Raiden rolling into Mexico wearing a mariachi outfit and rescuing a bunch of brains.
Playing such divergent tones off each other doesn’t always gel. An abruptly proselytizing political shift in the final hour is jarring (complete with a contextually-nonsensical faceoff against a new Metal Gear model), nor does Revengeance generally have much luxury in fleshing out finer story points or tying up many loose ends, particularly if you don’t feel like calling your support team via codec very often.
Then again, you also get robotic dogs pondering human nature and Raiden growling his best Clint Eastwood. Scatterbrained ideals or not, that should count for something.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance was developed by Platinum Games and published by Konami. Our review is based on the PlayStation 3 version. It also is available for the Xbox 360.
Steve Haske is a gun-for-hire journalist based out of the Pacific Northwest who writes for EGM, Edge, Unwinnable and a host of other publications. You can find him on Twitter @afraidtomerge.