Review by midwinter

"What Not To Do With Books And Covers"

The dictionary defines androgyny as ''being neither distinguishably masculine nor feminine, as in dress, appearance, and/or behavior''. And if there's one thing that the politically correct 1990's taught us is that we should never judge someone based on such minor trivialities. Heroes can after all be found in the least likely of places. Just because the dude looks like a lady doesn't mean he isn't capable of rescuing the girl, saving the world, and getting home in time to prepare for yoga classes. Obviously Japanese game developer Red Entertainment thinks so too. They have, in what can only be described as a bold move, chosen Japanese pop sensation (and he of the female appearance) Gackt to star in their latest 3rd person action adventure. With all the characteristics of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and 100% more Chinese mythology, Bujingai is indeed venturing forth into uncharted waters. Style, flair and an unwillingness to grow facial hair collide to create one of the surprise sleeper hits of 2003...

Part Chinese fantasy, part apocalyptic future nightmare, the events seen in Bujingai take place sometime during the 22nd century. Lau Wong Yu (Gackt) is a master swordsman who is forced on a quest to stop his devil possessed friend, Lei Shen Long, from bringing destruction down upon all of man kind. Yes it's cliched, but that doesn't stop the drama from unfolding. With the guidance of famed anime writer Yousuke Kuroda (Trigun, Please Teacher), Red Entertainment have injected Bujingai with all the excitement needed to hold the player's interest right through until the final credits begin to roll. The influence of the anime industry doesn't stop there either as fan favorite voice actors, Hirokazu Yamadera (Cowboy Bebop) and Maya Sakamoto (Escaflowne, Wolf's Rain) use their considerable talents to fuse the lead characters with an energy and vibrancy so rarely seen in modern gaming. Red Entertainment's dedication to the project, combined with Gackt's own natural talents lend Bujingai an air of credibility that's sorely missing from many of its genre peers.

Bujingai marks Red Entertainment's 2nd foray into the realms of the 3rd person action adventure genre. Having learned their lessons the hard way with the highly under-rated Gungrave, the development team have fashioned a much tighter product this time round while managing to keep the stylized violence that made their first entry an underground favorite. Heavily influenced by the likes of Ang Lee, the action of Bujingai feels like it belongs more in a Hong Kong cinema sword epic than a Playstation2 game. Combat is as graceful as it is vicious with our hero engaging in what can only be described as a bloodless ballet of death. The elegantly flowing arcs of Lau's twin blades seamlessly flow together as one attack after the other form to create some of the most stunning combos ever seen in a video game. Sparks fly, swords blur, and combo attacks jump into the triple digits. This flair for the visual arts carries over to the defensive counters which are as stunning and as they are easy to perform. Having blocked an attack, the player can then counter with a well timed button press. When this happens the camera switches to a more cinematic view offering the perfect perspective of the ensuring beatdown.

Though the combat system is relatively simplistic, upgrades for each attack can be earned by collecting the spheres dropped by fallen enemies. As progress is made, the player is also given the opportunity to upgrade other aspects of Lau's character including his health, magic, defense and flight abilities. The fact that these attributes are all fully customizable adds a welcome dash of RPG style character building to the otherwise straight forward gameplay. As Lau's combo attacks and magic upgrades max out, the player is treated to some truly awe-inspiring pyrotechnics. So good are they that rarely does the shallow nature of the combat system ever become an issue. The controls are intuitive and responsive for the most part, but they do tend to suffer from a delayed reaction when the more extreme acrobatic maneuvers are required. The genre's now regulatory wall running is present and accounted for, as is a new flight option that is reminiscent of the feats seen in the previously mentioned Hong Kong sword flicks. Thank you Prince of Persia... it's been nice to meet you Ang Lee...

With only 7 levels, this is a game that's easily conquered in a single weekend. The impressive boss battles may challenge the player for a little while, but they alone won't be enough to hold back the tides of disappointment when the game ends prematurely. Some consolation may be taken in the fact that scattered throughout each stage are a series of gold coins that serve as a means to unlock the bonus features found in the main menu. Interviews with each of the actors, videos of the motion capture sessions and an assortment of various images all round out the range of extras available to players willing to go the distance. It's nothing terribly exciting, but the addition of such features will always be welcome none the less. By forcing interested players back into the game for a second go round, Bujingai's longevity has been effectively doubled albeit artificially so. While an increase in the number of levels would have been welcome, I am skeptical whether or not the core gameplay would have held the player's attention over the course of a full 10-12 hours...

The world of Bujingai is an interesting mix of the old and the new with desert castles and city slums among others all proving that variety is indeed the spice of life. If there is one common factor that binds, it would be that each of the 7 stages sadly appear to be mostly empty. With the exception of the occasional crate or giant Ming vase, there are no background objects to be found anywhere, interactive or otherwise. Excuse me waiter, where are the destructible environments that I ordered? It's not all desolate backgrounds and feelings of emptiness though because everything else about Bujingai looks great! From the game's rich textures to its smooth animations, Bujingai certainly is pretty. The enemy designs are equally as impressive with an interesting ''flesh fused steel'' theme serving to remind players once more why machines shouldn't be our friends. By mixing a post apocalyptic fatalism with ancient Chinese demonology, Red Entertainment have given birth to some of the most visually disturbing adversaries this side of a Konami survival horror game.

Aurally, players won't be disappointed either. Bujingai's fine blend of traditional Chinese drums and modern guitar riffs is sure to be remembered long after the game has been put back on the shelf. The fact that it's one of the most unique soundtracks in recent memory speaks volumes for the dedication and love that Red Entertainment have shown for this title. Swords clash with the utmost realism as the tempo of the soundtrack rises and falls in time with the action. Everything from the voice acting to the individual sound effects has been perfectly implemented with the finest attention to detail one could ask for. Sakamoto, Yamadera and Gackt are more than capable of making the player believe their pain as they battle each other for the fate of mankind. Tears are shed and curses are uttered as these 3 talents demonstrate once more why they are considered by some to be among the highest ranked thespians in the Japanese entertainment industry today. Such emotion, such professionalism, such drama!

In the end Bujingai manages to stand on its own as a shining example of how polish and presentation can make an otherwise ordinary game seem special. It may be shallow but what it lacks in technique it makes up for with style and charisma. While I certainly wouldn't want to see all games go down this path, the occasional detour such as this makes for a pleasant change of pace. Where other games have attempted similar feats of style over substance, few have succeeded such as this and in that regard Red Entertainment ought to be congratulated. If you are fully aware of the fact that what you are about to buy is a one-time experience and you are happy to accept that then Bujingai is the game for you. Your friends will gasp in awe, you will look 10 times cooler than you really are, and you may even grow to accept androgyny as a reasonable life choice... who said education couldn't be entertaining?

Pros
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* The combat system is a breeze to learn
* Stunning action sequences capture the look and feel of a Hong Kong chop socky flick
* Attacks are larger than life
* Gackt and co are perfectly cast in the lead roles
* Enemy designs are highly original and... disturbing
* The background music tracks are lively and invigorating
* Provides proof that even the androgynous can save the world

Cons
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* Too short and too easy
* Combat is a little shallow
* Backgrounds are empty and lifeless
* The controls can sometimes be unresponsive


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/11/04, Updated 08/15/04


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