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Oct 2

Review - Rez (PS2, 2002)

An exhilarating game and a unique audio/visual experience

This is a difficult review to write because Rez is such a difficult game to describe.  Probably the most technically accurate genre descriptor would be “rail shooter,” but that term is so lifeless and prosaic when viewed next to this game that it completely misses many of the the things that make it great. Whenever my jaw wasn’t clenched in a mixture of determination and frustration, it was slack with pure amazement at what was coming out of the screen and the speakers. It’s not a perfect game, but it does a small handful of things extremely well, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and dispenses with fluff, padding and anything that doesn’t fit its vision. Rez is a game that asks you to totally submit; to let the pulsing music and abstract visuals become one and to lose yourself in the resulting mix.  It is a three-scoop crazy sundae with bonkers on top, and I loved every minute of it.

There is a story here, at least so I gather from Wikipedia and other reviews, but it must exist in the manual (which my copy doesn’t have) because only traces of it appear in the game itself.  But I think the very basic story I gleaned is more than enough to appreciate the game and provide context.  You are a hacker or perhaps a computer program, and you are being sent into a computer network to fight off what are either viruses and/or programs that believe you are a virus.  Until the last level, the story exists purely in very tiny text scrolls in the corner of the screen, most of which I barely caught.  The last level goes into a long and distinctly Japanese soliloquy about evolution (I think), but other than that the narrative is unobtrusive and, for me at least, unimportant.

Rather, the important part is the gameplay and how it seamlessly integrates with the score. The basic gameplay is not unlike the Panzer Dragoon series.  You view the world from behind the back of the player character as the game moves you forward without any input from you.  Enemies come into your field of view and you hold down a button and move the targeting reticule over them to lock on, and then fire as many as eight missiles to destroy the enemies.  The interesting thing is that everything - every missile lock, every missile impact - gets transformed into a synth note, beat, or hit that becomes part of the musical track accompanying that level.  

This is a more complex idea than it appears at first blush, and it is central to the experience of Rez.  Each of the five levels has a different musical track.  I’ve heard them described as “trance,” so I’ll go with that since I don’t know my trance from my house from my techno.  In any event, the music is constant and pulsing.  Those pulses are seen visually in the player character, heard through a droning beat, and felt through the controller (if you enable rumble).  From there, each track layers on more electronic music and noise, including that which you create through gameplay.  Getting all of that to work is a feat of design that is beyond impressive, and getting it to work so seamlessly, so that the player sometimes doesn’t even notice, only masks how impressive it really is.

But of course if you just want pulsing beats and garish colors, you could just go to a rave. This is a game after all, and the gameplay has not been sacrificed for the other elements. Each of the first four levels contains ten sub-levels and a boss fight.  It starts off easy enough.  The first few enemies come in small waves and have no offensive capabilities.  If you don’t shoot them down, they’ll fly right by, leaving you none the worse for wear.  But as the game ramps up, more and more enemies are thrown your way and more of them will have the ability to damage and kill you.  There’s no way to dodge or deflect most of their attacks, and you can take very few hits before dying, so your only defense is to get them before they get you, a task that becomes more stressful and challenging as the game goes on.

As you progress through each level, there are items that you pick up (by shooting, still) that fill up a progress bar on the screen allowing you to level up and evolve into new forms. Whereas “level up” might imply getting stronger or having new attacks or something, it’s basically just a fancy health bar.  Instead of enemy attacks knocking a little off of a green bar, they knock you back from a glowing orb to a wire frame humanoid.  The really nice thing about this levelling mechanic is that if you are having trouble with later levels, you can replay earlier ones to evolve and start the next one at the highest level you can, giving you a slightly better chance at success.  Later levels were extremely challenging for me, so I appreciated this option.  The only other pickup (and indeed the only other mechanic of note) is a bomb that you can trigger at any time which will kill everything on screen.  You can hold four of these at a time (and just like the levelling, you can go back to get more), and using them at the right time becomes crucial to your success.

The boss fights (the four regular ones and the last level, which is basically one large boss fight) are all tough and really fun.  Each of these battles requires a different strategy, sometimes several strategies, and they work your brain and fingers in nearly equal measure.  They were hard enough for me that by the time I was finished with each one I never wanted to do it again, but I never found them to be unfair or frustrating in a cheap way. Overall, I found this to be a very tough game that requires constant concentration and an ability to withstand the pain of holding and mashing the same button for long periods.  But despite my lack of twitchy skills, and my tendency towards frustration, I kept wanting to come back, over and over, because it was just too damned much fun.

The visuals in Rez are a little difficult to discuss.  I had the same problem with this game as I did with Viewtiful Joe - both games are gorgeous in their own ways, but both have so much happening on screen that it’s impossible to see and appreciate it all.  It sort of becomes cluttered in the mind, to the point where it’s difficult to remember most of it. Technically and artistically, this game is very impressive.  The wire frame vector graphics mixed with odd polygonal monsters, all presented in over saturated colors and at blinding speeds, is something totally unique that had not truly been done before and hasn’t since.  If you sit back and really look at it, there is just so much amazing stuff going on there, so it’s unfortunate the game never really lets you do that.

This is shorter than most of my reviews because Rez is a game that needs to be played to be understood.  Much of the innovative audio/visual/rumble feedback integration simply doesn’t translate to text.  It’s short (2-5 hours), simple (mechanically speaking), and at times incredibly difficult.  But it is an experience that stands alone.  A completely new and unique intellectual property, something that stands out in today’s industry.  You won’t play anything else like it, and that’s perhaps the biggest recommendation I can give.