God Hand’s penultimate fight pits Gene against his rival Azel in a knuckle-breaking slug-fest that demands that the player understands every pillar of the games mechanics. To stop him from resurrecting the ancient devil Angra, you need to pick and choose your moves to beat his, to reposition to gain a tactical advantage, and to bob and weave around counter attacks that can lead into a button mashing power struggle you’ll feel all the way down your arm. And just like main character Gene, Azel can activate the supreme powers in his arm and execute a fast-action barrage thanks to his God Hand. To beat him, you need the full cooperation of a focused mind and tuned body.
Because they’re principally concerned with mankind’s relationship with reality, martial arts instill a set of values for guiding an individual past the struggles of life. Everything from the stance, to whether it’s primarily interested in offensive techs or defensive ones, to how it regards opponents, belies a complete philosophical framework. In God Hand’s virtual dojo, Shinji Mikami has created a construct that respects you enough to beat you to the floor but is compassionate enough to let you stand back up. And as it requires the player to express themselves within its rules, God Hand offers a cohesive aesthetic that is as dumb and ugly as it is brilliant and beautiful.
God Hand wouldn’t exist without Resident Evil 4, adapting its tank controls and camera angle to the 3D beat ‘em up. But as much as its gameplay builds off that classic’s base, God Hand was inspired by Fist of the North Star’s brazen machismo and coats its Mad Max-ian post-apocalyptic landscape with a layer of ball-busting humor. With a fiction that sets its sights as broadly as possible, dystopic thugs, Luchador-mask-wearing Gorilla’s, and electrically-supercharged mechanical doctors are appropriate for a world framed to the twang of steel-string guitars and brass trumpets. It is a properly amoral place where saving a civilian and letting them die are both consistent with the narrative. This grungy tone perfectly harmonizes with a utilitarian design that prioritizes function over style and floats large recovery items on the map so it’s easy to life up when a gang of whip-wielding dominatrices are hot on your heels. The game comes from a bizarre alternate reality where every new console was just a more powerful Sega Genesis.
If you’re receptive to its lessons, failure will teach you everything you need to succeed. When the game passes control of Gene over to you the first time, he’s staring down two thugs whose hard punches, strong blocks, and balance breaking shoves can easily crush anyone who entered the game world egotistically assuming they would dominate. But that very ego is the first vulnerability that needs to be trained out of you. God Hand knows that failure is the soul enriching promise that you’re not at your best yet, so promotes the quintessentially intellectual pursuits of harmony, tranquility, and the connectedness of mind and body that will let you overcome it.
Of course, the test of any martial art is in how it dispatches external threats, so getting through the first map is you trial of merit. In God Hand, even the most basic level thug can easily hold their own in a fight and each type and their variations only add to the complexity up to and including pairing up for combo moves. Hitboxes and animations are tight and accurately represent the characteristics of the models, an incredibly important aspect for a genre where inches are the difference between safety and death. The many boss encounters vary the battles even more, with the Four Devas and their demonic forms providing an exhilarating one-on-one challenge.
The foundation of any fighting style is its stance and all techniques build outward from it. Because the human body is mechanical, different setups provide unique advantages and weaknesses. Does the stance favor stability or provide flexibility? Does it facilitate grappling like judo or rely on keeping your distance like kickboxing? God Hand staples both offensive and defensive maneuvers to the right hand, forcing the player to focus on one or the other. On the stick is the revolutionary evasion system that has sideways or down creating sidesteps and backflips. As versatile as those are, they are incomplete without the forward stick’s duck move that will evade any medium to high attack and crucially lets you stand your ground. With the exception of circle, the face buttons (and those plus down) let the player map upwards of a dozen different moves, the square button in particular accommodating a chain of attacks. This reduces the player’s responsibility in battle to six independent inputs rather than forcing them to memorize combo strings.
If God Hand’s independent beats weren’t versatile enough, it also implemented mechanisms to link your ground and air games into a single game flow. Once an enemy has been put into the mat, the player can stomp until their target rolls away or execute a heel drop to bounce them back up. Air born foes can be juggled with well-timed attacks – too late and the enemy will hit the floor and roll away, too early and they’ll tech recover into a rage state. Fastening every enemy with a stun meter encourages aggression and rewards the player with a paralyzed foe they can pummel into burger. As the dizzied state and pummel QTE run on their own separate timers, the player is forced to gamble on trying to get as many attacks in the first before initiating the latter. And with each and every hit, that purple God gauge fills up.
Since the bare-knuckle brawling premise closes the distance of battle, the camera was put behind Gene’s back to allow the visuals to properly communicate the length of a punch and provides a large enough viewing angle to approximate the real breadth of human perception. To keep it consistent, the game smartly sidesteps camera problems by having the camera phase out any surface it clips in to, reducing the number of factors that can arbitrarily disadvantage the player during combat. Having a restricted view, the game automatically becomes about enemy management and requires a keen sense of situational awareness. The crowd management means that you need to know who your foes are, what they’re capable of, where they stand, when to move, and how to take them out.
That God Hand expects you to process this all within seconds and lets you react to them in a fraction of that time is both testament to its design and proof of its technical prowess. Action game’s great virtue is in the size of their feedback loops where the smaller the act the quicker you learn from it. Since enemy mechanics are composed of the same universal ruleset as Gene plus the ability to block, the rhythm of fight can quickly change, forcing the player to regularly adjust to accommodate not only the enemy before them but the two making their way from behind. It’s about fitting as many actions as you can within the limited resource called time.
As with any aesthetic form, the tools need to provide free artistic expression. From the beginning, God Hand lets you freely reassign your available techniques to any of the attacks and by the end has put some hundred plus on sale. Every tech comes with a demo in the menu, presenting you with wind up and recovery animations and damage values in the active phase. This is all in an attempt to be as transparent as possible so you can make informed decisions on building your move set based on your play style. Want a lightning fast square chain loop to minimize the focus needed on your offensive so you can put it on watching enemy actions? Set techs with minimal startup and recovery so you can attack quickly. Want to set up powerful but slow moves late the chain? Get used to cancelling with the dodge. Assign higher damage moves, guard breaks, sweeps, jugglers, or launchers to the other buttons to cover your bases and wait for the proper time to strike.
Think about what it means to apply so much of your knowledge of the mechanics outside of the battle. It frees up precious brain power for recognizing enemy tells, when to correctly apply techniques, and to think on the larger scale of enemy management. The single attack design means you’re never more than a button press away from dealing with changes in the combat scenario. After that, it’s all up to your ability to execute. Once you start grasping the mechanics, you can begin replacing defensive maneuvers with offensive ones of differing attack profiles, learning when to replace the forward evade with a low sweep, when to switch from the back flip to a move whose wind up steps back then lunges forward with a powerful launching kick.
With the low technical overhead, God Hand turns into a conceptual game that stimulates your cognitive faculties so you become a receptacle for pure data collection and clear thinking. It induces a fighting zen state that would be unnecessary if it was any slower. As your ability increases, so does the difficulty thanks to its reflexive mechanisms that increase the AI the better you perform. Calmness and ability creates success that is met with greater challenge requiring more calmness and greater ability. That it can bring tranquility to the mind that can be applied to real life is unquestionable to me.
A significant part of any martial arts philosophy is its views on the nature of justice. A truly just world applies the same laws to all its objects and works diligently to limit arbitrary handicaps. In nearly every element of God Hand’s design, we’ve seen that great care went into constructing a consistent set of rules that binds everything together. The end result of this attention is a game where the player’s ability is neither subordinated nor prioritized to the world. It’s a reality of cause and effect and fairness, a physics system that contrasts the might-makes-right dystopic setting where injustice is par for the course. At no time in the Azel fight or the levels that lead up to it does the gameplay feel cheap or subjective, no matter what side of Gene’s fist you’re standing. And when Devil Hand Azel falls, the massive Angra is released from his prison.
Angra’s large form means that Gene needs to think differently than he had during the preceding fight as too much focus on his large fire spewing face will blind you to the hand coming to your left. God Hand doesn’t teach you what to think, it teaches you how to think when stressors are actively pressuring you. It knows that lessons are more effective when they’re wrapped up in joy and silliness and that warriors will keep fighting any battle they’re enjoying, no matter the size of the evil before them. God Hand is dumb fucking fun and its teachings will save your life.
DEVELOPER: Clover Studios
PLATFORM: PlayStation 2
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.