MAN that’s ugly… and the Titans too.
The new, major hotness in the realm of Japanese animation is Attack on Titan, a show about massive, humanoid, cannibalistic Titans showing up out of nowhere one day a hundred years ago. As soon as they arrive, they decimate the human race, turning the few people who remained into either refugees or revenge-driven warriors. And who wouldn’t be one or the other? In the very first episode of the show, a future soldier’s mother is eaten right in front of him—blood everywhere, screaming, crying, just horrifying wanton destruction and death.
But hey, they get some interesting, inventive weaponry: a combination of gas-powered thrusters, grappling hooks, and swords, which blast them across rooftops, around trees, over abandoned fields, and allow them to kill some of these Titans by slashing at the nape of their necks like human wasps. The show itself is intense, and the setting is incredibly dark and depressing.
So allow me to make it even more depressing: There is a sorry game based on all of this.
Attack on Titan: Humanity in Chains is a retelling of the story from multiple character perspectives in a mission-based storyline. Most of the missions involve fighting Titans in some ways, but while that’s the majority of what’s set to happen, there are many missions that involve the most basic of play styles. Five characters integral to the story each have their own set of missions to accomplish, and though each have their own “unique” set of missions, there’s plenty of overlapping with other characters. That overlapping is really just an attempt to string out the super-thin storytelling and present the same small collection of clips from the animation in repeat.
There are a few different types of missions, so there’s that. Fight Titans, that makes sense. Defend a strategic point, that makes sense too. Running around a field following lit markers, for a tutorial, makes some bland sense, but when time has been had to adjust to controls, telling a player “go here," then “go there” in multiple missions is just an insult to the player. It’s as if someone wrote a book on game design after having played Superman 64, then gave it to a new recruit who read the the first chapters, and started listing players could do, all the while having no concept of why any of those things would be “fun." Or, I’m guessing, what “fun” in a video game actually is.
Actually fighting Titans is fun though, at least at first. Players can control the gas power and grappling hooks in towns (a-la every decent Spider-Man game), then press a button and focus on a Titan’s body part to attack. If a critical hit occurs, then that can open up the Titan to be killed outright. In the first few tutorial-ish missions, this was a fun concept and executed in an engaging way, but after a while it became monotonous. Lock on (one-button lock), attack at the right time, then auto-lock on their neck and attack the same way, then repeat for six or so hours of story.
The first few times it’s engaging, but the thrill is quickly lost in the frustration in the plethora of unseen attacks that send you plummeting to either the ground or the Titan’s mouth. If I had to guess, I’d say 75% of the time I didn’t even see an attack, and after about 50% of them, I was dead within 20 seconds.
And if that's not frustrating enough, there's always the camera. The constantly-defaulting angles make little viewing sense (you can’t see anything around you, just up at a 45-degree angle), it’s easy to get stuck in crevices and watch as your chosen character is humping the wall in a glitch fit. I remember on one “find the sweet beans” mission—yes, that was a thing—the area to search was so large and the camera so hair-pullingly bad I was tempted to break my 3DS so it wouldn’t hurt me anymore. I’m not a “throw controllers” kind of player, I’m really not, but this one had me considering my options. I decided not to throw, instead favoring the classic “use every swear word I know to ease the pain” technique [It's called lalochezia... the more you know! ~Ed. Nick] I developed to help me pass my high school English classes.
What that all amounts to is a result that's phoned in. Some of the Titans look interesting, like care had been put into their design, but others look like generic wax molds of big-bellied and small-headed (or big-headed and small-bodied) drunks. There are only three main playing fields across the 42 missions in the story and more through the World Mode, which includes online rankings and a combination of single and multiplayer missions. And while the town looks like the one from the animation, the other two—a lifeless forest and a plain that lives up to its name of “plain”—there’s nothing visually impressive or interesting. The music, however, is operatic and beautiful, taken straight from the animation. A bright spark in the middle of a muddy rain… full of cannibalistic giants.
The only clear thing I took from this game was that this is why licensed games are given a bad reputation. This package feels phoned in at best, an incredible disappointment given that it's built on good source material. This could’ve been a tactical, frenetic experience, a focus on getting a squad together and attacking Titans from a team perspective. It could’ve been a long-form experience in storytelling and bouncing between uniquely-controlled characters. Even if keeping the focus on the actual one-on-ones with the Titans themselves, there simply could—and should—have been more to it than empty fetch quests, an awful camera, and lackadaisical hit detection.
When the best part of your game is leaving the title screen up to repeatedly watch the anime’s intro sequence and hear that operatic battle cry of an anthem, you’ve done bad. What a disappointment. But honestly, with the reputation licensed games have, I can't say I'm surprised.