Short. Sweet. And very concentrated. The graphics may cut your eyes, and the story may boogle your more intellectual sensibilities. But, here at Critical-Gaming gameplay takes priority. In true Treasure fashion, Sin & Punishment (S&P) delivers an engaging, deep, and action packed experience that's unlike anything I've played before. I've become quite the Treasure fan over the years. Each of their games usually inspires me to write a blog post about something amazing they've pulled off. Ikaruaga. Bangai-O Spirits. And now Sin & Punishment. Get Bonus!
From what I can tell, the story is an amalgamation of what I call the "dregs of anime." If you take a great show like Neon Genesis Evangelion and tried to copy some of the off the wall, head splitting content without releasing it gradually through a well written/paced story, you'll have one concentrated bit of pure anime utterances, themes, and feelings. In other words, you'll have an animess. These are the dregs. The best way to relate such content is to be something of an otaku. Even then it won't make much sense. Get whatever enjoyment you can out of the story in S&P. Take it as seriously as you want. Just don't complain. You can skip all cutscenes.
Engaging Mechanics Design
I bought S&P on Virtual Console shortly after it was released. Yet it took me until now to finally play past the first level and beat the game. Before, I quickly became overwhelmed because S&P is the type of game that throws you right into intense action. The biggest reason I had a hard start with this game is the strange controls. Modeled after the N64 controller, I had to tinker with the control settings before I found one that worked for me. Type 3 using the Game Cube controller. Because the N64 controller only has 1 analog stick, the game was designed to let players aim with it and move using other buttons. For gamers familiar with dual analog Game Cube, PS2-3, Xbox360, and even Wiimote Nunchuck controllers, S&P's control scheme may feel backwards and twisted. I suggest going through the tutorial. The controls aren't anything that won't feel natural in about an hour of playing.
The basic mechanics design of S&P is highly engaging in many ways. The most obvious way is the dual system controls. In S&P you control a character on a 2D plane that can freely move left, right, JUMP, and ROLL at any time. In addition to this, you independently control your aiming cursor and SHOOTing. Just wrapping your mind around the simultaneous use of these mechanics is engaging enough to last the full game. On top of this system, players can use a sword strike for objects, enemies, and projectiles that are close to the player character. This strike is powerful, but while you're swinging you briefly stop shooting. Furthermore, striking incoming projectiles reflects them in the direction you're aiming. Such a design links the two systems of character position and cursor position well.
Communicating and Controlling Space
With a 3rd person camera set behind the player character, determining how far away elements are in front of you can be extremely difficult. This is an issue of ba3D, which is a natural drawback in many 3D games. Fortunately, S&P has several design features that greatly reduce the negative effects of ba3D. The relatively slow bullet speed of player and enemy attacks functions like a measuring stick allowing players to visually feel out the 3D space. This design is actually functionally analogous to shooting star bits into space in Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2. When elements are close enough to your character for a sword strike, there's a distinct beeping sound. So even when you're unsure if you're close enough, the game will alert you. Finally, the entire gaming experience is heavily scripted. When confused about the relative spacing, you can eventually memorize the timings of events. Because the sword strike is so powerful and large capable of hitting vertical and horizontal targets, the awkward close encounters are completely avoided.
Skill, Level Design, and Difficulty Design
Discussing the skill it takes to beat S&P goes hand in hand with the difficulty design and the level design. Each level is unique with new enemies, camera angels, spatial arrangements, and level elements. Individually, each element is easy to understand and overcome. However, the game does an excellent job of developing layers of counterpoint. With just few simple elements happening simultaneously and factoring in the engaging mechanics design, and challenges quickly become difficult and at times overwhelming. Each challenge is designed to test a different combination of player skills. As the game progresses, the challenges are varied without necessarily building on the what was presented before. So, as you go along you'll have to keep sharp.
Let's look at how things break down with the DKART system.
- speed- ROLLing and rapid sword attacks require quick repeated button presses.
- control- Aiming the cursor is the only analog mechanic in the game. Even though some of the hitboxes may be generous, and the bullets are large, high levels of control skills are rewarded.
- harmony- Coordinating moving, JUMPing, aiming, SHOOTing, and the occasional weapon switch is a lot to keep straight for two hands. With my control scheme, moving left and right were mapped to the Game Cube L/R buttons. That's 5 buttons just to play normally!
- LTM- 95% of the game is scripted and therefore can be memorized. The remaining 5% is due to some enemy random yet limited AI actions. All of your reflex skills can be augmented significantly with LTM.
- Channels- S&P is action packed. There's often a lot of action on the screen. Before you learn the game (LTM) it helps to be able to analyze multiple ideas accurately in order to come up with a successful strategy on the fly.
- Tier.1 General tactical, freestyling.
- Tier.2 Deciding when to use lock-on. When players figure that their skills aren't good enough to keep up with aiming and all the other factors of combat, using lock-on can free up some brain power. Doing so involves recognizing and augmenting one facet of skill with another.
- relfex- There are a few enemy encounters that are designed to surprise you. Most of the challenges have obvious visual and/or audio tells.
- momentary vision- The earlier you can extrapolate the timing of incoming attacks the more time you have to develop solid counter strategies. Seeing incoming bullets, missiles, or enemies instantly as they appear (sometimes by the dozen) stresses this subcategory of reflex skill.
- eye movement- With so much action on screen, it's important to keep your eyes moving. Seeing the timings of incoming challenges and planning to avoid/counter them helps free your eyes up to stay focused on a few key elements; your character and your cursor.
- peripheral vision- With your eyes focused and moving between key elements, everything else must be spotted with your peripheral vision. Some levels have so many targets and so much camera motion that you can easily get overwhelmed.
- DVA- Though many enemies and attacks move slowly and simply, there are a few that move quickly and erratically. Being able to keep track of their movements while managing everything else is essential.
- Static- Because the whole game is scripted, almost everything can be learned as a string of events with static timing. Anticipating these events may fall under internal. However, with so many tells and clear visible timings, most the timing challenges in the game are external.
- Tracks- With so many incoming challenges that have different timings, the ability to keep track of it all stresses this sub category of timing skill. If you find yourself forgetting that missiles are flying at you at a constant rate right when you decided to think about the timing needed to dodge incoming lasers, then you could probably use more of this sub category.
Because Sin & Punishment is so short it's actually quite doable to beat the game without dying once. The game has such a smooth curve from learning to mastery, I can see myself conquering the game in a relatively short amount of time. But I think I'll put S&P aside and anticipate picking up the shinning successor to this excellent game. Knowing Treasure is a company that shies away from sequels, I consider Sin and Punishment Wii a... Get Bonus!