In March, there was “Yakuza 3“, and if the year had ended thus, all would be well. Being the only direct sequel in this list, it is tempting to simply dismiss “Yakuza” as another structurally formulaic piece; truth be told, it is a J-RPG at heart and it is indeed the third title in a series that has advanced practically nil since its inception. But to reduce it to its archetypal game design is a huge misconception of its nature, overlooking the nuances that drive its riveting character. For behind its brawler combat and roleplay mechanics, lies a stunning cultural representation of Japanese society. Toshihiro Nagoshi learned invaluable lessons with his contribution to Suzuki’s “Shenmue” and applied them by crafting a vivid spatial rendering of real-life Japanese streets, one which takes full advantage of PS3’s graphical prowess. Every detail and minutiae is treated with artful respect, from the glorious neon landscapes to the seedy underbelly of the urban sprawl, building a rich virtual landscape that is a wonder to simply behold, but also to explore and play with. To those who minimize the aesthetic power of videogames and insist on refusing three-dimensional spaces as art in of themselves, “Yakuza” will definitely force you to question those assumptions. Not that it does not fully use the procedural power of videogames, quite on the contrary, it employs it accurately but with naturalist poise, subjugating everything from game rules to mini-games and NPC behavior to a specific perspective on how Japanese society should be decoded. Last but not least, it cares for its characters almost as much as “Heavy Rain“, for despite its anachronistic narrative structure and interfaces (deeply rooted in J-RPG precepts), it focuses most of its story on Kazuma’s relationships with orphanage children and local townspeople, while still managing to tackle crucial themes like political corruption. And it does it masterfully one might add, with this year’s greatest technical achievement in animation, characterization and voice acting… by far. Masterpiece? Yes, that title will just about do.
The heat of June graced us with the obligatory reference of “Demon’s Souls” (in Europe at least). The reason Hidetaka Miyazaki’s spiritual follower to “King’s Field” should be remembered in days to come is that it is one of the few videogames of the past year that was created as if outside our time. While sprouting some impressive technology (beautifully harnessed by its gothic atmosphere), it refuses modern game design dogmas and upholds some of the finer lessons from classic game design that, unfortunately, now lie forgotten. Its roleplaying roots hark back to early dungeon crawlers such as “Rogue” or “Wizardry”, but what truly makes the experience click is the total absence of intrusive, non-diegetic, text-heavy narrative and gameplay devices. Its mostly minimalist interface and free-exploration actually evoke some of the finest ideals from classic titles like the original “Legend of Zelda” and “Metroid”. As in those, players are free to roam the landscape, with very little guidance on how to play or interpret the game world, its denizens and locations speaking for themselves as if digital artifacts in an archeological site. Players thus become engrossed in the fantasy, as each part of the conceptual framework that supports it has to be filled by their imagination, gaining the power to enchant them with its eerie qualities. The extreme difficulty and lack of hand-holding further potentiate this involvement, letting the player suffer for himself all the hardships of becoming a true hero – the frustration and failure that come with each death – so as to only reap rewards when merit is due, resulting in a climatic release of true ‘fiero’. The cycle of tension and release drives the experience with glorious emotional payback, in a game that never forgets it is a game, never aspiring to be anything but a game, and because of it, is one of the finest videogames proper in this generation.
[To be concluded in part 3…]