Review by AutoRock

"You will find him in the matinee"

Superheroes.

They're fictional, of course. Only people pretending to be other people, smoke and mirrors and CGI, wrapped up in committee-approved drama, projected from printed celluloid upon glittering silver screen. It's nice, though, to watch a hero in action; perhaps to be heartened or inspired by their faultless valour. It's just a shame that they're confined to the realm of widescreen make-believe.

Here's a question, though: will videogames ever have their own infallible hero?

Well, perhaps. Joe (flame-red of beard and skater-casual of dress) certainly thinks he could fill that void. The star of his very own side-scrolling beat-em-up, he's also a die-hard hero movie fan, and it's at a showing of one of the old classics that Joe's life takes a thrilling turn. Fending off his girlfriend Silvia's whoreish advances, Joe is shocked to see his idol, the unstoppable Captain Blue, defeated by the evil Jadow cult. He's even more shocked when Blue's massive robot killer reaches through the screen and kidnaps Silvia. Not one to be defeated by mortality, the late Cap'n commands his own robot Six Machine (tee hee) to pull Joe into the fray as well, and sets about moulding Joe into the ultimate hero.

Happy to take up the gauntlet against the Jadow while rescuing Silvia, Joe's quest for viewtifulness takes him through 7 lengthy action-packed stages. Initially dumped into the overgrown back garden of a seemingly-haunted mansion, Joe is quickly taught how to transform himself (with a cry of 'Henshin') into the red-and-pink-clad Viewtiful Joe; he's soon fighting his stylish way through the Jadow's mechanical minion masses, solving the occasional puzzle or duelling the occasional boss along the way.

Dispatching the first few clockwork goons that tumble out of the twisted weeds is easy; controls are simple and responsive, making graceful double-jumps and stylish combos effortless. Uncomplicated at first blow but with depth enough to be interesting, the fighting mechanics are also superb. Joe's repertoire of moves are all child's play to pull off, but a surprising amount of skill and dexterity is required to avoid enemy attacks (Joe's too cool to block and uses a simple high-low indicator system to dodge) and strike at the correct times.

This is especially true with the more skilled enemies Joe does battle with. Unarmed, the basic 'Biancky' robot is easily destroyed, but they often come well equipped; swords, six-guns, jetpacks, tutus - all requiring different tactics to be dealt with. Later enemies range from rocket-launching ninjas to cutlass-swinging naval commanders; these gentlemen strike and block more reliably than the riff-raff, attacking with devastating blows and lengthy combos that quickly sap Joe's slight health reserves. Since all of the aforementioned are usually attacking en masse, the average battle in VJ is an intense melee, requiring constant concentration and snap tactical decisions.

But then, if it wasn't difficult, it wouldn't be heroic, would it? Joe's superhero status is cemented by his blessing with the powers needed to demolish evil. Fitting in with his own fanaticism, Joe's powers - VFX - are based on cinematography and editing techniques. The first VFX power you're granted is Slow - hold L, and the world falls into smooth slow-motion, where bullets ooze billowing trails as they crawl through the air, helicopters blades spin too slowly to keep the vehicle up, and Joe effortlessly dances around lethargic attacks. Increased strength makes robots shatter into clouds of drifting shrapnel with every blow. Newfound dominance over time aiding his progress, Joe fights his way into the catacombs under the mansion, where he soon gains the opposite power - Mach Speed, the ability to burst into blistering fast-motion and rattle off lightning-quick flurries upon your helpless victims. Rain down enough blows on an enemy and Joe will even be set ablaze, so that every fire-trailing swing spreads the flames to your enemies as well.

Our hero bursts into the bright city of the second level, swinging reality between vision-melting slow and pulse-pounding fast as he goes. Here, Joe receives the power to finish off his VFX repertoire - Zoom. A thrust of the C stick slingshots the camera into unflinching close-up, capturing Joe's good side as he poses manfully, a confident grin spreading across his handsome face. The attention brings the best out of him, unlocking a new range of super-strong moves and unfeasibly-fast combos that can better any opponent. Unfortunately, use of these moves is, like all the other powers, strictly rationed; using VFX drains Joe's VFX energy. While it regenerates reasonably quickly, full depletion transforms Viewtiful Joe back to the powerless Regular Joe (bringing on a cool sepia-toned film effect); only once the bar is replenished will Joe transform ("Henshin a-go-go, baby!") back to being Viewtiful.

Complimenting the VFX, Joe can also purchase extra moves (using Viewtifuls racked up by beating enemies) to turn him into a more versatile fighter. They start off cheap and simple (the Red Hot flying Kick) and move up to expensive and awesome; Joe's most impressive technique is the Viewtiful Forever, with which he dodges, then poses, blowing all around him away with sheer untamed coolness alone.

The best thing about both these moves and the VFX is the complete lack of redundancy in their ranks - every move becomes indispensable after the first few uses, and none of the VFX powers are worth ignoring. Also likable is the way stylish fighting is encouraged by tangible rewards. The Slow/Zoom punch combo will get you by in most situations, but if you want to collect more Viewtifuls to buy more moves and get better end-of-level ranks, then you have to be a bit more cunning with the VFX and set up bigger, multi-target combos. The entire system is very well balanced and works wonderfully, no matter how you want to play the game.

Well on his way to becoming the ultimate superhero and having reached a dead-end in the city, Joe is sidetracked from his rescue mission by his heroic duty; an undersea lab is in danger. This third stage is a stellar example of VJ's varied level design; on the approach, Joe rides Six Machine through the air in an entertaining shoot-em-up mini-game, before entering the lab in a short freefall section. The level proper (a splendidly-atmospheric trip through some flooded observation tunnels) then begins with an easier example of one of the game's puzzles - using Slow VFX to make a propeller-driven platform spin slower, and so fall onto a switch. All of the game's conundrums work this way; at first the twisted sense of logic is slightly baffling, but the puzzles mainly utilise the same ideas, and once you grasp those (Slow makes things more powerful, Fast makes fire, etc) things get somewhat easier to figure out.

The mental trickery does not stop at the puzzles, though; the game's incredible bosses also require a fair bit of ingenuity, as well as some old-fashioned skill. Ranging from a flame-belching hell-lion to a teeth-gnashing sharkman to a mysterious doppelganger, the Jadow captains are some of the sturdiest adversaries the game has to offer. That is, until you work out their attacks and patterns, at which point they become still-intense trials of concentration and endurance.

This uncompromising difficulty is actually felt throughout VJ. As Joe storms into the fourth level, opening with a tough battle through a submarine's torpedo bay, it becomes apparent that progression is getting slower. Fighting off hordes of sailor-suited Bianckys, dodging the massive missiles and manoeuvring platforms with Slow and Mach Speed; these are hard trials that, for most players, will take a lot of time, effort, and lives to overcome. The difficulty level, as well as the punishing level structure (only occasionally can you save mid-stage) is perhaps the only thing you could call a flaw in VJ's design. The game's frivolous audio-visual stylings give the impression that it's a game you could rocket through without breaking a sweat; instead, every level is a harsh challenge to overcome.

It is, of course, ridiculous to call the game flawed because it isn't exactly as we expected; especially when it's as well-executed as this. VJ is never 'cheap' - difficulty is always a result of clever enemies or astonishing odds, rather than unbalanced mechanics. The learning curve is also perfect; the first few levels drip-feed both enemies and VFX at a steady pace, until you're proficient with your skills and well-briefed on the enemies on which you use them. If you're absolutely useless, the game even gives you a hand in the form of Viewtifuls stored after using continues - the longer you're stuck, the more Viewtifuls you collect, the more moves and lives you can buy, the easier it gets. Very handy.

Any real flaws, then? Well, a later level assaults you with a tiresome rush of the old bosses, but that's unlikely to instill apocalyptic rage in any player. It isn't a flaw, but the dearth of interactive environments is lamentable, especially with the potential for balletic VFX-Slow-aided destruction. Then there's the length; the game's 7 levels might come up a little short for those who demand a marathon from every game (although the bevy of unlockable characters provides great replay value).

It would, of course, be madness to condemn the game for these tiny failings, especially one as loaded with inimitable verve as this. Few other games look as good - from the blazing roses-and-flames logo to every thick-outlined-sharp-shadowed Biancky blowing to slow-motioned bits against the lovingly-drawn backdrop, it's always beautiful. Few other games sound as good either - videogame auditory fluff at it's finest, the game's catchy soundtrack complements the visuals flawlessly. VJ is a superb game; a challenging, well-executed blockbuster that absolutely charms the senses, not through trite whimsicality or bland attempts at being 'dark', but through simple, spine-tingling coolness.

And then there's Joe. He's certainly a likable character; it's impossible not to grin as flips around in his absurd-yet-awesome poses, or at the way he clamps his helmet shut before a boss battle. Other heroes (you know who you are, Dante) ruin the image when they open their stupid mouths, but Joe's self-aware trash talk is a joy to hear; snickering at his own corny lines, he enjoys the game as much as the player does.

But is he good enough to be gaming's own superhero? Good enough to have words made up for him?

Of course. He is, as they say in the movies, viewtiful!!


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 09/25/04, Updated 11/27/04


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