Does God Hand make sense? Not a chance. Does it have awesome graphics? Not really. Does it introduce new gameplay or innovative mechanics? Nope. Is it more fun than a barge full of inebriated midgets? Oh hell yes.
The beat-em-up genre has been pretty beat up lately. Final Fight was awful, Yakuza was a yawner, and I am still not in an emotional place to revisit that game whose name will not be mentioned (It rhymes with Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance, *shudder*). God Hand, from its first over-the-top macho “Yeahhhh!” and its first mohawked gang of baddies, seems to be a retread of all the conventional beat-em-up failures. But after a kick to the balls, a bitch-slap, a reference to Dave Chappelle’s Rick James, and a poisoned chihuaua, you know this game isn’t one to take itself seriously.
[image1]And that, believe it or not, makes most of the difference. When God Hand’s tongue isn’t drooling over the thousands of scantily-clad and literally-spankable babes in the game, it is firmly placed in cheek. The jokes range from just silly (the gorilla that you fight has a zipper running down its back), to pop-cultural (you take on a team of midget power rangers), to cute (one enemy’s attack transforms you into an adorable puppy, whose attack is just a menacing, if irresistibly precious, growl). God Hand puts the fun back in beating people retarded.
The humor and light-heartedness are certainly one half of what was missing from beat-em-up’s before. The other missing half was a decent combat system that could incorporate timing and reflexes into the traditional button-mashing slop. God Hand’s fighting is refreshingly intuitive and quick, leading to fast-paced and intense battles with plenty of the old ultra-violence.
Gone are the elaborate multi-button combos that test your memory and patience. Instead, God Hand features merely one single-button combo. Mash on the square button and mayhem ensues. However, the moves within the combo (there can be up to five) are fully customizable. Do you want to start out with a huge karate chop to the forehead or with a smashing kick to the nuts? Do you finish with a leg sweep that will knock the opponent to the ground or with an uppercut that will launch them into the air? There are costs and benefits to any arrangement, and with over 150 unique moves, the one combo is multi-purpose. It’s the Swiss-army knife for opening cans of whoop-ass.
In addition to the limber combo, five assignable special punch slots allow you to add painful charge punches, guard-breakers, and flying kicks to your arsenal. These also are easy to trigger, and the real test of God Hand isn’t in pulling off ridiculous button combinations, but reading and reacting to enemy attacks and blocks. There’s plenty of button mashing, but it’s broken up by lightning quick dodges and special guard-breaking attacks. The fighting hits that delicate balance between playful and intense, sort of like jello wrestling with a jello wrestling champion.
There is, alas, no jello wrestling in God Hand, but it wouldn’t be surprising if there were. Enemies include all manner of off-the-wall characters with absurd costumes and ridiculous scripts. The variety and lethality of their attacks, however, is no laughing matter. Enemy types are uniquely varied, and learning the proper timing for dodges and attacks makes up a good part of the strategy. God Hand is not easy, and one whip-wielding dominatrix is as likely to make you cry out the safe word as the giant mace-handed Mexican wrestler.
[image2]When things really get hairy, you can unleash the God Hand, which is a basic chargeable super-attack, or one of several “Roulette” attacks, which are obtained by picking up special items. Neither of these are very original in themselves, but they are both essential for making it past crowded levels and tough bosses.
Another non-original feature, but one that has been missing from games for a long while, are random item drops and periodic random evil demon ambushes. Every so often, after you’ve pummeled a snot-nosed punk into alley dust, he will resurrect himself as a super bad demon. It’s unpredictable and adds needed craziness to a genre that is usually straightforward.
Levels themselves are straight-ahead hallway type affairs. The game is deceptively linear, but in this case that’s not a bad thing at all. Unlike 3rd-person beat-em-ups that try to free roam (and often fail), this game plays much more like the original Double Dragon or Streets of Rage, from area to area, little baddies followed by bigger ones.
The only criticism is that these areas are frequently bland, consisting of bare rooms and empty expanses of floor. Even worse is the tendency for walls and furniture to disappear when you are too close. It might be a help to have x-ray vision, but I don’t think the God Hand was also supposed to have God Eyes.
The big missing element from this game is apparent as soon as it is compared to any old-school beat-em-up. No cooperative play means that all the joy of unleashing a brutal God smack to the face cannot be shared. The game is still remarkable without it, but a coop mode would have been a very sweet addition.
[image3]Oh, did I really make it this far without explaining what the God Hand is, and what the game is about? Don’t worry, it’s not that important. Suffice it to say, you have a powerful demon arm, called the God Hand, and a ragtag bunch of sadistic and sarcastic demons (which could have been pulled straight from a Metal Gear Solid cast of characters) is out to get it. The absurd story is just a thin tent to house the carnivalesque characters and jaw-dropping martial arts.
Upbeat 70’s surfer music keeps the mood from ever getting too serious, and the scripting, though translated, includes lots of jokes that could not have been in the Japanese version (e.g. “what did the five fingers say to the face?”). Good audio decisions set a funhouse tone for the whole game.
The characters and enemies are well-drawn, however, environmental elements disappear often, and the lack of control over the camera can sometimes strand you staring at a brick wall. It’s not the prettiest game, but with the thousands of customization options, the hundreds of enemy types, and the frequently hilarious and irreverent humor you won’t complain. I only do because it’s my job.
There’s plenty of other stuff in the mix too, like the ubiquitous casino and the timing mini-games (think God of War). But all those bells and whistles take a back-seat to solid fundamentals and a commitment to comedy, making God Hand only the best beat-em-up game released for the PS2.