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The Joy of Penance Sin & Punishment: Star Successor

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The Joy of Penance: Sin & Punishment: Star Successor

For the uninitiated, Sin & Punishment: Star Successor—a Nintendo-published sci-fi shooter for the Wii, released this past June—may seem derivative of other offerings in its genre, and could even be dismissed as bland and indistinct, inviting an assessment as thorough as one would look over a package of chicken cutlets at the supermarket. That kind of dismissal, however, is inviting a wrath from the Internet that, justifiably, would be massive and brutal, for the initiated need to only glance at the name of the development team, Tokyo-based Treasure, to begin frothing with the kind excitement normally reserved for fanboys (the super-initiated?). After all, Treasure games are regarded with an esteemed and deep reverence among experienced gamers, and to see a Treasure developed game for the Wii—and one that is a sequel to a non-stateside release dating back to 2000, during the final hours of the Nintendo 64—is an achievement in itself. A predictable achievement, mind you (the original Sin & Punishment enjoyed a successful port to North America’s Virtual Console service a few years ago), but an achievement just the same.

To understand what makes Sin & Punishment: Star Successor so agonizingly enjoyable on the Wii also involves an understanding of what Treasure stands for in video games, and why they still shine as developers in a medium where narrative showmanship is encroaching on the art of crafting genuine gameplay—a practice that Star Successor sidesteps with a moderate degree of grace.

Which isn’t to say that Star Successor doesn’t contain a story. The narrative, in fact, is quite touching, transferring earnest existentialism to the confines of Japanese sci-fi fantasy, which frequently threatens to taint the dramatic with the ridiculous. In the universe of Sin and Punishment, humans act as ruthless defenders of their planets within “Inner Space,” a dimension constantly under attack from “Outer Space,” their alien counterparts. In an ironic expository twist, humans find themselves subject to liquidation by their Inner Space overlords whenever they choose to live in peace and not destroy all life different from them, as it would leave their earths vulnerable to attack from Outer Space.

The story begins after one such terrestrial cleansing, and Inner Space defender “Isa” is ordered to destroy “Kachi,” an Outer Space spy disguised as a human girl. Isa can’t bring himself to do it—Kachi hits the exact notes of “innocent and pure female alien” with the precision of a player-piano roll—and Inner Space begins its corrective onslaught on the pair. It’s important to note that all of this narrative information is gathered from the game’s paper manual rather than through cutscenes or a prologue sequence; it’s a skeleton for the limited bits of story that follow, but it certainly doesn’t have the gravitas that the rest of the game’s construction orbits around. Kachi and Isa’s relationship isn’t deeply explored, and the motivations behind Inner Space’s attack on beings in a universe trying to live in peace and understanding stays entrenched in the philosophical school of “There they are! Get them!” The story has a beginning, middle, and end, and while slightly muddled, is still competently written—and frankly, that’s enough (though the English voice acting is only a small step above mediocre, which can only hurt a localization).

Those who have played Treasure games, however, know that the story—or lack thereof—is merely a drop in the bucket of what makes their titles so compelling to play. The art form of reflexes and precise movements, of flicks and presses and whips of the wrist, is never made more realized than in a Treasure game. The zen-like concentration required to pass the more difficult sections of Star Successor is trumped only by the player’s blissful awareness of tapping into that personal ocean, of bonding with a game’s method of input in an almost instinctual way. And like all other Treasure games, it’s deviously simple control schema ensures that expert, symbiotic play is discovered rather than sweated out on screen: The analogue stick moves Isa and Kachi (one character is controlled at a time) and there is a shoot, dodge, and jump button (if choosing the remote/nunchuck control setup, the remote is used to aim the reticle). Shots can be charged, and there is a melee attack for enemies and projectiles within close range. In those limitations of movement and action rest perfect combinations of combat and evasion, transforming dexterity into an exquisite display of slick and violent acrobatics, a visceral joy.

What surprised me during my play-through wasn’t the stellar depth of the gameplay (which I was expecting), but rather the breadth of it. “On-rails” shooters are rather simplistic, mechanically; your character remains on a fixed 2D plane of space while the action in front of you operates using that extra Z-axis, giving the illusion that you are moving and enemies are coming toward you. But Star Successor gleefully throws wrenches into that standard format, transitioning into a “bullet-hell” shooter, a vehicular combat game, and even a pared-down one-on-one brawler. Boss fights, a gluttony of which bombard you throughout the game, contain a cleverness to them that wholly embodies Treasure, inviting the player to quickly pick up on and then master a new mechanic, if only for a brief, fleeting moment. One battle, for instance, requires the player to juggle two sinking platforms connected by a crane operated by a baby monster, using it to hold Kachi hostage, while another highlight of the game has Isa running along freight cars traveling on train tracks while being chased by a huge, galloping monster (depicted in a racing-style “rear-view mirror” on the top portion of the screen), all while fighting enemies and dodging volleys from turret guns. It sounds maddening, but Treasure’s talent rests with their wisdom in knowing that the satisfaction is in the alchemy, not the singular elements.

Treasure games are also noted for their unforgiving difficulty, and Star Successor lives up to that standard, although in comparison to the first Sin and Punishment, this game is slightly more accessible, and there are three difficulty modes to help you eke out your tolerance level (a second player can also jump in and add some extra firepower). Be warned, some sequences may have to be re-played over, and over, and over, and over again. However, it never feels frustrating, like a means for memorizing autonomous button presses. Rather, the task is to chip away at a raw and chaotic surface to find the intended and “right” gameplay within, the video game equivalent of “finding” a sculpture within a block of raw marble.

Unfortunately, this process was slightly tarnished by the visuals themselves. While the graphics are indeed impressive, especially given the Wii’s limited resolution output, and the frame rate is smooth with very little hiccuping or slowdown, there are times when it’s an ocular challenge to differentiate your line of fire from a foe, or target a projectile before it is dangerously close; background and foreground blend together in a manner that can be too confusing. If there was ever a game that deserved a port to Nintendo’s forthcoming 3D handheld system, the 3DS, it would be this one, as it would truly benefit from that extra layer of visual depth.
So, yes, Treasure’s first title for the Wii isn’t perfection, but then again, it wouldn’t really be a Treasure game if it were. It’s difficult to convey how much character Star Successor has, and why solid gameplay—that delicate window through which we must navigate in order to realize our video games’ intentions—can make up for lackluster narration. The balance between familiarity and surprise is where Star Successor soars, and proves again that Treasure can do some pretty bold things with the medium and, for the most part, get away with it. Fans of Treasure’s work will find plenty of reasons to rejoice and renew their admiration. For the uninitiated, your chance for a formal introduction has arrived.

Sin & Punishment: Star Successor. Publisher: Nintendo. Developer: Treasure. Release Date: June 27, 2010. Platform: Wii. ESRB: Teen. To purchase, click here.