Imagine if someone were to take 2003's Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, strip away the Castlevania license in favor of some generic sci-fi drudgery, stick a big sword in the hand of the main hero instead of a whip, and make him capable of little more than some by-the-books hack-and-slash combat. It doesn't sound like the most appealing game in the world, does it? Well, this is exactly what Konami's Nano Breaker is. Produced by Koji Igarashi, the man behind the most recent entries in the Castlevania franchise, Nano Breaker is not a particularly impressive game on any front, and it lacks any manner of originality or technical prowess. Considering the talent behind the game, it's disappointing that it could be so utterly devoid of positive traits, but no matter how hard you look, you won't be able to scrounge up much of anything to really like about Nano Breaker.
In Nano Breaker, you play as a fair-haired cyborg named Jake. It seems that Jake is something of a feared figure among the human population. At one point he was set to be executed for the slaughter of countless people, but evidently that didn't pan out, since Jake is awoken at the beginning of the game from cryogenic slumber to lead a rescue on a government-run island. This island was home to a host of researchers whose sole purpose was to unlock the supposedly untapped potential of nanotechnology. Of course, it wouldn't be proper sci-fi if things didn't go horribly wrong, and it most certainly does when the pesky nanobots who run all of the island's systems execute a hostile takeover of both the island and its inhabitants, who are promptly transformed into horrible robot zombies called "orgamechs." Throw in an obnoxious female scientist who has taken off to Nanotechnology Island (no, seriously, that's what it's called) on her own and must subsequently be rescued; an angry general who is supposedly in charge of this project, yet seems absolutely dumbfounded by the entire situation; a rival cyborg named Keith who is bent on showing up at random intervals to annoy you; and as little plot exposition as is physically possible to keep the story going without forgetting about it entirely, and voilà, you've got Nano Breaker.
You play Nano Breaker as you would play any other hack-and-slash action game. Armed with a government-issued plasma blade, Jake starts out with a limited number of abilities, which include four different types of slash attacks, a fairly unwieldy jump, and an energy whip that extends from the blade itself and pulls enemies toward you. The gimmick of the combat system is Jake's ability to string together various combos via combo chips you pick up in scattered locations throughout the game. Each combo has a specific icon assigned to it in the start menu, as well as a level, and you can change these combo chips out in favor of other moves, should you feel the need to do so. Apart from these combo moves (most of which are unnecessary, except during some specific boss fights) and a few other earnable abilities--like a double jump and a projectile-attack reflection move--there's not much to the combat in the game. While these elements would normally be enough to make for a captivating hack-and-slash game, the remaining components of Nano Breaker conspire to drag the whole experience down.
The combat itself is defeated by the downright idiotic enemy behavior. Enemies will kind of lumber toward you, flailing their limbs or shooting their guns at sporadic intervals, and no one enemy ever puts up any kind of a fight. In fact, the only reason the grunt enemies present any semblance of a challenge is that often you have to deal with many of them at once. Enemies tend to appear in large groups, though thanks to the whip mechanic, you can often one-hit-kill specific enemies, or failing that, you can bang out some quick combos to blow one away before the rest of them catch up. As a last resort, you can just run away. Save for a few occasions when the game will block your path before you can move on, you can often just run past enemies into the next room, unscathed. You can't do this with boss fights (which are rarely challenging or fun), but for large sections of the game, you can run right by every orgamech you see, blowing through an already fairly short game in no time.
The level designs in the game don't do anything to counteract this either. Nanotechnology Island is set up in typical fashion, with lots of small, cramped rooms to run through, each filled with a few different bad guys. Run into a room, clear it (or don't), run into another room, repeat. That's pretty much all there is. The layouts are linear to the point where it is impossible to explore anything, even if you wanted to. There's no interactivity with the levels, except for a few buttons or levers you'll have to whack with your sword and a few areas where you'll find yourself dealing with one of the game's exceptionally awful jump puzzles.
The most challenging portions of Nano Breaker come in the form of periodic and infuriating bouts with jump puzzles. At times, Nano Breaker seems like it desperately wants to be some kind of platformer, and when it tries to be one, the results are far from enjoyable. Most of this can be blamed on Jake's jump mechanic itself. It's exceedingly easy to incorrectly time a jump when trying to jump forward, meaning you'll find yourself starting puzzle after puzzle from the very beginning dozens of times, just because you pressed the button a quarter of a second too late and thus fell into a pit of some sort. It's merely irritating when the game first starts throwing these at you, but as it begins to toss moving and falling platforms at you, the experience becomes completely intolerable. To be fair, there are only about a half-dozen of these, but they're all fairly lengthy, and they're easily the worst aspect of the game.
Graphically, Nano Breaker is a drab-looking PS2 game. Ugly, muddy textures, color schemes that range from gray to grayer, and dull set piece after dull set piece pretty much make up each and every environment in the game. The character models aren't significantly better either. Jake has a badass-looking cybernetic body, but his head is a blend of Sephiroth's wavy white hair and supermodel Kate Moss' face. The orgamechs look pretty intimidating in cutscenes, but in the game they look bland and uninteresting. A weird one will pop up now and then, but they're mostly generic. On the plus side, the game does run fairly well. Animations are smooth and nicely put together, the camera is only occasionally problematic, and the frame rate rarely chops up (though when it does, it does so quite badly). The game also provides one neat visual effect--the ridiculous amounts of "oil" that spurt from fallen enemies, which happens to look an awful lot like blood. A meter at the bottom of the screen even tracks how much oil you spill, and you are awarded health bonuses based on the amount. It's perhaps a little on the copious side, but at least the heavy drippings of red goo add a little color to the otherwise flavorless backgrounds.
The audio in the game is highly forgettable across the board. If you've ever played games like this, then you probably know what to expect on the voice-acting front: ham-fisted line delivery, badly written (and possibly badly translated) dialogue, and occasional moments when you can't help but laugh at how ridiculous it all sounds. Jake is pretty bad, as is his evil cybernetic counterpart, but the worst is the scientist girl you have to rescue, Michelle. Apparently someone directed the actress playing Michelle to be the most irritating, annoying, and downright unlikable woman in need of rescue, ever. Thankfully, your exchanges with her are short and infrequent. Nano Breaker's soundtrack is a bizarre smattering of ethereal piano music, techno beats, and random silence. It rarely captures much of a mood, let alone the right mood, and it's not particularly listenable.
Nano Breaker simply lacks what it takes to make an enjoyable hack-and-slash action game. Containing only a short, repetitive, and largely dull single-player quest, with no unique visuals, extra play modes, or likable characters to engage you, Nano Breaker seems content to settle into quiet mediocrity. Unless you're desperate for some mindless action for your PS2, Nano Breaker should not be considered.