Reviewed: February 23, 2005
Released: February 15, 2005
Jake Warren was a cyborg super-soldier who was supposedly destroyed after he massacred civilians in a military disaster during America's last war. In reality, however, a high-ranking general had him hidden away in cryogenic storage, worried that Jake's talents might someday be necessary again. In Nano Breaker, the newest action title from Konami, that someday is now.
Nano Breaker was developed by the famous Koji Igarashi (aka IGA), who's been the driving force behind the last several Castlevania games. He's also been criticized for having an extremely nebulous grasp of how to develop in 3D. Nano Breaker is his latest "hold your breath" title, in a sense. Would the 2D master finally be able to grasp 3D gameplay and make a title that truly shines?
Set during a near-future age of nanotechnology experimentation, Nano Breaker tells the story of a grand experiment in improving human life gone horribly wrong. “Nanotechnology”, for those of you who haven't heard of it, is the science of engineering microscopic robots. Though in its infancy today, nanotech is quite real. The prevailing notion is that nanobots could be used to repair human tissues and regenerate organs at a cellular level, allowing us to lead healthier and much longer lives.
In the game, just such an enterprise is being undertaken on a willing group of test volunteers living on a remote island under the aegis of the U.S. government. Of course, happy people do not a compelling game make. In an opening cinematic right out of a zombie flick, the nanobots run wild and begin to self-replicate uncontrollably inside their host's bodies, turning them into semi-aware, bloody monstrosities called orgamechs. The orgamechs, naturally, feel like it's about time to serve the servants and begin killing as many things as they can. The game gives the weak excuse that the 'bots need blood to continue feeding and replicating, but zombiephiles know better: they're up to no good because they're evil, plain and simple. The reason is unimportant. Nano Breaker sets up like a survival horror title - that is, until Jake is flown in.
Jake is a decommissioned super-soldier long thought dead by most. He hails from an earlier breed of cyborg experimentation, a fusion of man and machine more directly obvious than a hidden cloud of nanites in the blood. He's got wings that help him slow a rapid descent, an energy shield, superhuman strength and reflexes, and some serious birthin' hips. Sheesh, Konami! Nonetheless, he's the man to get the job done, or so we're told.
The game starts with Jake receiving a new weapon called a plasma blade that's guaranteed to decimate nanobots "at the molecular level." He leaps off of his transport onto the island below and begins, ideally, to kick tail and become the futuristic counterpart to Devil May Cry's famous Dante.
Unfortunately, after the stylish setup, Nano Breaker begins to fall apart at the seams. The main problem is, as usual, the gameplay. Koji Igarashi still hasn't gotten it right, and this game is a veritable showcase of his lack of 3D gaming sensibilities.
To start with, the vast majority of this game (read: all of it) is combat. There are no puzzles to speak of, and certainly no exploration to do. Despite the floating camera perspective, this game feels as linear as a side-scrolling beat-em-up from the mid '80s. Bringing up the area map reveals a depressing crisscross of straight lines that represent all of the game's few levels. Except in the rarest cases, playing Nano Breaker is about walking forward, killing all the bloodthirsty orgamechs in an artificially defined "area," and then being allowed into the next area.
This in and of itself wouldn't be so awful if fighting were fun, but it isn't. Nano Breaker allows players to slowly earn power-up points that can be freely equipped into a complex combo system, which is great... except that 90% of the combos available to Jake are literally useless. The thing is, the orgamechs swarm, and they don't all attack at once. Any move that does not quickly clear some space around Jake is going to become irrelevant almost immediately.
A good example is the first "morphing" combo, which allows Jake's plasma blade to briefly take the form of a huge axe for a single-target, overhand chop. This combo looks pretty cool, and does a lot of damage, but Jake spends so much time hefting the "axe" over his head before the final blow that even the slowest orgamech has ample time to move out of the way - and most do. Then you've got a half-second of recovery time during which Jake can do nothing, while all around, orgamech people and dogs are beating the living daylights out of him. Nano Breaker is full of useless crap like this - stuff that should be really cool, that looks cool, but is completely useless in practice.
On top of that, there isn't even the slightest amount of environmental interaction. In an early zone, I saw a deliciously 3D abandoned tank in my path. Thinking of the advice that my plasma blade could destroy "anything, down to the molecular level," I gleefully attacked the tank in hopes of sending some foes reeling with the explosion that was sure to result. Of course, nothing happened. My blade just passed right through the vehicle as though it were mere decoration - which is exactly what it was.
Nano Breaker isn't all bad - the pacing is fast and furious, and there's definitely some satisfaction to be had from surviving a very tough, pitched battle against four dozen orgamechs. The story, though standard, is a fine excuse for a game. The unlocking, customizable combo system occasionally yields a gem of a move that can make the game much easier.
Unfortunately, there's too much lacking in the game for it to really be considered a success. There are a host of other annoyances that I neglected to mention - too few save points, and a boss with absolutely no reason to even be on the island, let alone be fighting Jake - and the overall experience is more frustrating than anything else. Nano Breaker quickly degenerates into repetitive, depthless monster bashing, with few truly enjoyable moments.
If there's one word to describe Nano Breaker's graphics, it's "fog". Fog, fog, fog. Fog everywhere. No, I'm serious. Not the kind that's cool, that rises up in hi-res tendrils from the ground floor of the level. This fog is the kind that crappy games use to hide the horizon. Except in Nano Breaker's case, the horizon is about thirty yards off. It really is that bad. And it's a dull gray, featureless mass that doesn't suggest atmosphere so much as it suggests shoddy design. The game supposedly takes place, by and large, outdoors. But there's no way to tell, with this kind of fogging drenched all over the island.
If the fog is ignored (and trust me, it's hard to), the rest of the game doesn't look so bad. Monsters (err, "orgamechs") all have enough texturing and polygons to look suitably nefarious and complex. Also, they bleed. If you thought you'd seen bloody games, think again. Okay, so technically it isn't "blood," it's some sort of orgamech fluid. But whatever. It's basically blood, and it spews in glorious fountains all over the battlefield. The game even keeps track of how many gallons Jake has shed!
Jake himself looks pretty cool, with long hair and a face that, at least in the cinematics, manages to capture the delicate look of studied stoicism. Jake Warren looks like someone who bottles up complex emotions inside and does penitence within himself, rather than on anyone else's time. His plasma blade has some awesome effects attached to it, too. Too bad the experience of weilding it doesn't measure up to the experience of looking at it.
Speaking of those cinematic cutscenes, they're pretty standard overall. Nano Breaker does a good job with facial expressions, but it manages to still look overbearingly artificial at some points. Perhaps it's the over-texturing of some objects; perhaps it's a lighting problem, or something else entirely. At any rate, there are a lot of them, and they don't look bad by any stretch of the imagination. However, they're nothing that'll make gamers drop their Pocky in amazement, either.
Nano Breaker does something very odd with its soundtrack, something I've never run into in any video game to date: During normal fighting, the music cuts out entirely. Most games usually ramp up the drama or excitement of combat by intensifying the music, or changing it to an entirely different song. RPG’s tend to use heroic-sounding battle themes, while Devil May Cry was rightly famous for it's rockin' battle music. But in this game? Nothing.
I have to admit, it's weird to be listening to some very cool, ethereal-sounding music, and then suddenly be fighting in relative silence. The only sounds are effects. There are a lot of effects, true; however, that's no excuse not to have at least some sort of music playing in the background. It sounds hollow, and adds to the repetitive feel of beating orgamechs to a pulp.
Aside from that oddity, which I suspect may be a sign of rushed development rather than a calculated move, the music in Nano Breaker is cool. It lends an unearthly, beauty/terror sort of feel to exploring the desolate isle. The main problem with it is that most of the time, Jake will be busy fighting, and so most of the time there is no music. Weird.
Sound effects and voice acting are par for the course, neither one worth mentioning except to say that for everything that stands out, there's something else that sort of sucks. A lot like the rest of the game, actually.
By now, most of you should have realized that Nano Breaker isn't the greatest gaming value on the market. It's got a few different modes of play, but the main mode is riddled with problems that keep a very cool premise from rising to the heights of visceral button-mashing action it deserves. (The others are even less fun - Splatter mode is just fighting with no story. Woo-hoo.)
The problem with Nano Breaker is that it's just not much fun to play. The game only has five levels, though each level is admittedly huge. However, I can't see any but the most rabid action fans playing through far enough to even beat the first one. Combat quickly degenerates into performing horizontal sweeps as often as possible, and any attempt to "mix it up" usually results in Jake taking damage. That isn't good, because save points are few and far between, and enemies regenerate instantly the moment he leaves an area. Most boss battles are either way too easy or way too hard, and coupling that with the fact that there are no save points near most of them makes for a frustrating gameplay experience.
At the best, this game is worth a rental. But with Devil May Cry 3, God of War and more on the close horizon, my recommendation is to just skip over Nano Breaker entirely. It's just not fun to play. You'd be better served busting out an older favorite and waiting for something better in the meantime.
Nano Breaker is the latest exhibit in the case against IGA making 3D titles. He's rightly respected for his 2D Castlevania creations, but 3D just isn't in the man's blood. After a fun setup and character introduction, the game degenerates into one long, flat repetition of horizontal sweeps and annoying bosses.
Aside from the critically flawed gameplay, Nano Breaker also suffers from a fog problem that is almost too hideous to even think about. Why, Konami? Why? This is the PS2 we're talking about here, not the N64! There really is no excuse for this transgression. A lack of battle music (or ANY music during battle, for that matter) only hurts a game that's already 90% fighting.
I had high hopes for Nano Breaker, as did a lot of Castlevania faithful waiting for a truly awesome 3D equivalent to Symphony of the Night and the like. Unfortunately, it looks like we'll have to keep holding our breaths and just hope that the next Castlevania game isn't as much of a flop as Koji Igarashi's latest effort.