Godzilla is a love letter to the giant lizard in all his incarnations, and it's a cynical abuse of that love.
GodzillaPublisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PS3
Developer: Bandai Namco Games
Release Date: 2015-07-15
Godzilla is an amazing game. It's also an awful game. It's a love letter to the giant lizard in all his incarnations, and it's a cynical abuse of that love.
First, the positive: the aesthetics are perfect in a way that I didn’t even know that I wanted them to be. I thought I wanted a realistic Godzilla game, one in which buildings crumbled as if in a simulation, but instead of going for realism the game doubles down on artificiality, and in doing so, it captures all the cheesy earnestness that makes Godzilla so much fun to watch in the first place.
Playing Godzilla feels like rampaging through a movie set. Buildings don’t crumble. They explode in fireworks and smoke. Tanks and trucks look like toys, while planes and helicopters move through the air too smoothly and slowly to be realistic. Instead, they move like they’re hanging from strings. This actually makes the destruction more fun since you feel free to laugh at the screams of the puny humans as you crush them under foot.
The “story” mode, called King of Destruction, is just an excuse to fight Godzilla’s bizarre and diverse cast of enemies, all of which look and move like puppets or men in rubber suits. The controls reinforce this perception. Godzilla moves like a tank, slow and determined, which actually makes complete sense. He’s all bulk and power. He’s not meant to be nimble. While this feels awkward at first, since it goes against the popular trend of combat design, it fits this character. You’re playing a guy playing Godzilla, and it’s a joyous experience.
Since the tank controls only require the use of the left stick, the right stick can spin the camera with no effect on movement, giving you some fun directorial control over how to frame the action. This can also be quite helpful in combat. The movie set styling makes it difficult to judge the distance between you and your opponent when you’re looking over Godzilla’s shoulder, so spin the camera to profile, like a fighting game, and it becomes easy to tell when someone is within your range.
It’s an aesthetic that plays hard to nostalgia, and it succeeds. There's a genuine joy in seeing and fighting all of Godzilla’s classic enemies and allies and in finally being able to put a name to a monstrous face that you remember from childhood. It’s the joy of recognizing a long-forgotten friend.
Unfortunately, the game is intent on holding that nostalgia hostage in return for hours upon hours of boredom.
One of the big selling points of the game is the ability to play as other monsters besides Godzilla, and to the game’s credit it does have an impressive cast of kaiju, but it locks them all behind hours of grinding.
In order to play as any other monster, you must first defeat them with Godzilla in King of Destruction mode. However, this is not a straight story mode, it branches in various directions, so in order to unlock all the monsters, you must beat this mode at least four times. To make things worse, there’s no way of knowing what monster will unlock from what level. The intro movie shows off a version of the 2014 American Godzilla, and I was excited to play as that creature. Now, too many hours later, I still haven’t unlocked him, and I don’t know if I ever will. The atrocious pacing killed my genuine excitement.
The game clearly understands its nostalgic appeal because there’s even a Diorama mode that’s essentially a toy box filled with action figures that you can pose and photograph. It’s actually a very fun mode and will make you feel like a kid again, or rather it would if the game actually gave you any action figures to play with. Over the course of King of Destruction, you’ll earn items that can be used to evolve your monsters or to unlock figures for Diorama mode. The fact that the same crafting items are used to unlock both things shows how intent the game is on making you grind. In my time with the game, I only unlocked one diorama figure, and three were unlocked automatically. Even with those sparse few figures I had a blast making Godzilla jump kick a spaceship. This toy box is fun, but it’s not worth the pain of actually playing the game.
The combat just isn’t fun. In this, I sympathize with the developers. Godzilla lacks all the things that make any fight fun -- strategy and skill. He just stands there and takes a beating, then deals out a beating of his own. Fights with Godzilla just involve two monsters trading blows until one of them falls and doesn’t get back up.
In the game, simply trading blows gets boring fast, and it gets maddening when the other monster is faster than you. Many of the smaller enemies, the ones you expect to be easy, can get Godzilla stuck in a loop. They attack as a combo, and before Godzilla can recover, they start that combo again. This is fine in theory. Godzilla isn’t nimble. He’s supposed to take some hits, but in a game with a health bar, he can only take so many hits before he dies. In a movie, Godzilla is literally invincible, but in a game, he’s only as strong as his health bar, which in this case isn’t very big.
It doesn’t help that the health bar is invisible. Damage indicators only appear when you’re already close to death. The screen will turn red when your opponent starts a combo, and by the time he’s done attacking, you’ll be dead. It’s a terrible health system in a game that shouldn’t even have a health system.
What’s worse is that the developers seem aware of this imbalance since the enemy AI actively goes easy on you on every difficulty. Often, when the screen goes red, the other monsters back off for several seconds, enough time for your health to recharge. This is something all AI opponents do in all games, but the lack of strategy and variety in the combat makes it painfully noticeable here. They’ve got me on the ropes, one more hit to win, and they back away.
I don’t know which is worse: being killed by a cheap combo, or being kept alive by a patronizing AI?
Godzilla feels like a game that started with good intentions, but somewhere along the way, it turned a dark corner and ruined itself. The core combat of the game may be boring, but the nostalgia factor is so damn strong that this still could have been a game that I’d at least recommend to Godzilla fans. But it’s not. It’s an abusive game that holds its fun hostage. This is not a game anyone should play, especially Godzilla fans.