|CONSOLE: PlayStation 2
|RELEASE DATE (NA): February 15, 2005
Enter IGA. No, I don't mean the Canadian grocery chain, the Irish Games Association, or even the beloved mucosal immunity antibody Immunoglobulin A, though that last one is more relevant than you might think. I'm talking about IGA, also known as Koji Igarashi, the man behind many of the more recent Castlevania titles, having been involved in most titles since Castlevania: Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine CD and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, oft declared the best Castlevania game to date. Being chained to a single game series can weigh heavily on a person's creativity. It's understandable: we all feel a little dried up if we do the same thing all day, every day. And so, for a period, IGA stepped away from the Castlevania series to help produce Nano Breaker, a game similar in tone to the two Castlevania titles for PlayStation 2, but with a more modern flair (set in 2021, as opposed to the Middle Ages).
He probably should have stuck with Castlevania.
Nano Breaker broke me. It tore me apart like a clearance sale at JCPenney. Everything started out fairly well. You're placed in the boots of Jake, otherwise known as the Genocide Hero, who is the former leader of a cybernetic military group accused of killing thousands of innocents while on an important mission in 2014. (I don't remember this.) Jake's fate was to be deactivated as punishment for his actions. Fast forward seven years later, and there's quite the outbreak of Orgamechs, mutants involuntarily overcome with nanotechnology at the atomic level, on Nanomachine Island, a facility established for nanotechnology research. If this outbreak escapes the island and makes its way to shore, humanity will be doomed to infestation and mutation at the hands of this microbial menace. (I don't want to have to remember this.) All Orgamechs are controlled by a central computer on the island, and this computer's shutdown will cease all of their operations. Michelle Baker, the daughter of the highest nanotechnologist, is sent over there, but she needs protection, whether she wants it or not. Jake is awakened and entrusted with the task of keeping her safe while fending off the Orgamechs. Thus, you are sent to Nanomachine Island, and the job begins.
Things started to turn sour when I started playing. I suppose that was as good a time as any for things to curdle. I think the biggest issue here is that Nano Breaker uses the term "hack 'n slash" a bit too literally. When you get dumped into the game — in a post-apocalyptic style downtown area — a couple of grayish humanoids begin lumbering your way, so you'd better start slicing them. The two main forms of attack are vertical slices and horizontal ones. The vertical one is good for taking out one enemy at a time but leaves you open to taking damage. The horizontal one can take out multiple enemies around you, but it's so weak that you'll be foostering with your sword for days. So those humanoids came up, and they take longer to kill than anticipated. The game tries to vary things up with weapon combos, but they're really just like icing on a fruitcake: they don't cover up the main problem. It's not such a big deal, as most enemies on their own are as tame as pussycats, though in numbers, they can whittle you down, mostly because you need too much time to kill them. You just can't be efficient enough all the time. Only the bosses offer some challenge, but once you discover the correct method of defeating them, it's a cakewalk... for the most part. Certain boss battles in the game — the final boss battle trilogy, which, I might add, has practically no save points for about two hours prior, making this game even less bearable — are ridiculously tough by comparison to others. One battle requires you to avoid a giant laser attack by dodge rolling to the side, which is great... if the boss didn't decide to turn and smash that attack right where you were going! I cannot shudder hard enough while remembering this.
There are more weapon combos in Nano Breaker than I can keep track of. In fact, the game goes even further by saying, "Hmmm... this still isn't enough." Then it adds double the number of combos, all involving holding down the R1 button for different slicing attacks. And not only will I fail to memorize every single button combination for these things, but the ones that I do try to incorporate into my fighting style fail to work most of the time. You really have to be precise with those button presses, and you have to do it with extreme speed. Time waits for no Nano Breaker! Your sword supposedly can also turn into other weapons, such as a hammer or an axe, but the effect (if there is one) is so quick, you won't catch it. The only positive here is that your sword DOES have a hypnotic swinging effect. But that can't save a broken game. On the plus side, Jake has a whip for capturing enemies... if that's interesting. And I don't mean capturing as in a Pokémon game; I mean capturing as in bringing closer to you. Oh, the joy.
I feel bad for whoever has to clean this mess up.
Nano Breaker isn't all slicing and dicing, although that IS a significant part of it. The game is also about exploration in a similar vein to the Castlevania series IGA came from. In fact, Nano Breaker feels much like a carbon copy of that series, except with inferior combat and a protagonist with less personality than raisin toast. There are elements that require effective jumping, and Jake's not exactly an expert at that. One "puzzle" involves you hopping across a lava pit using blocks that fall from the ceiling. If you're not careful (or even if you are), chances are pretty high you'll miss a jump and step straight into the lava pool below, suckling away your life meter faster than you can say, "I wish I had saved my money!" Other times, it's just a matter of terrible camera angles keeping you down. I swear, that camera has a mind of its own sometimes.
Most games have their lead characters level up by battling monsters and gaining experience points until they reach a certain plateau and improve their skills. Nano Breaker doesn't have experience points, and the only things you can level up are your life bar and your booster bar. Instead of experience points, progress is measured in gallons of blood. I'm dead serious. Whenever you slice into an Orgamech, your blood meter increases — and usually, blood splatters all over the place. You can really make the area around you look like an oversized batch of raspberry pie filling quickly. The most fun comes when you corner four or five of the humanoid Orgamechs into a corner and just slash them with frenzied fury, cranking up your blood meter and splattering the crimson goo all over the place. Then the game crawls to about 5 frames per second, and it takes forever to accomplish anything. All that blood rendering really chews up the processing power. For every 2,000 gallons of blood you spill, you'll either receive some of your health back or some of your booster power meter refilled. At 10,000 gallons, you'll receive a permanent life bar or booster meter increase. The sad part? Unless an enemy drops a health item, which is surprisingly rare, the spillage of blood is the ONLY way to restore your health. Staying healthy is a more time-consuming activity than I could have imagined, but it's a necessity to continuing on.
That spouting of blood is probably the most interesting thing to look at in Nano Breaker because most environments are bitter shades of gray. I've never quite seen a game that fails to incorporate so little colour into its palette. Heck, even the enemies are either gray or, when you find more powerful versions of them, brown. Sometimes I attacked enemies just to see colour for the first time in ages. For once, "seeing red" meant happiness. Konami was kind enough to give us the option to change the colour of the blood, from red to green to blue to yellow to even a rainbow of fun colours so you can feel like you're committing a clown massacre!
The music also feels a bit out of place, too. The very first area's background music was rather solemn, understandable given the circumstances, but if you're trying to energize me to play your game, don't throw a melancholy piano soliloquoy my way! Later tracks are slightly more upbeat; you can sense the electric guitar riffs and hip-hop rhythms trying to bust their way into the foreground, and it feels very forced. If you want your game to be "cool", the game as a whole should eminate this persona, not just the background sound while the rest of the game drags on.
Nano Breaker has high points, yes, but they are few and far between, dissolved between lengthy bouts against boring enemies and treks in the most lifeless of scenery. The battle system comes off as being complex and modern, but those complexities are often undetectable and relatively useless as far as surviving in the game goes. Mastering the game unlocks extra stuff, such as being able to play as Jaguar from Neo Contra or Splatter Mode, where you get to visit levels and just spill as much blood as possible. After the first playthrough, I had neither the energy nor the desire to push forward with these. What started off as potentially a good idea ended up as a lackluster game that is far too clone-ish of Igarashi's other work (heck, Nano Breaker actually runs off a slightly modified version of the Castlevania engine) and a bit too silly in design to be taken seriously. Nano Broken.