Red Steel Review

  • First Released Nov 19, 2006
  • WII

Red Steel introduces a promising control scheme for shooting thugs and for slashing them with samurai swords, but wraps it in a buggy, thoroughly unimpressive game.

Red Steel is like a typical PG-13-rated, straight-to-DVD action movie: It can be fun for a while, but it's probably going to leave a bad taste in your mouth. The analogy runs deeper than that. In the game, which is rife with bad dialogue and generic shoot-outs, you're an American bodyguard who must learn the way of the samurai so that he can defeat the Japanese gangsters who've kidnapped his girlfriend. Of course, you'll be spending much more time gunning down yakuza thugs than engaging in any swordplay, and unfortunately, neither aspect of the game is particularly good. Nor is the game's presentation, which looks dated and downright ugly in spots. Red Steel basically proves that the Wii Remote, in spite of its unconventional design, can do at least an adequate job of letting you control a first-person action game. And to some extent, the controls do feel novel, enough to help make a mediocre shooter seem at least somewhat special.

Red Steel's theme and unusual controls might be compelling, but the action and presentation stumble and fall flat.
Red Steel's theme and unusual controls might be compelling, but the action and presentation stumble and fall flat.

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The story is shallow and sometimes goes as far as to get in the way of the action, such as when you're stuck replaying a tough action sequence with a tedious, unskippable cutscene in it. You play as a guy named Scott, though he doesn't speak and is given no personality since you view the game entirely from a first-person viewpoint. He's about to meet the father of his pretty Japanese fiancée when all hell breaks loose and a bunch of dudes start shooting up the place. It turns out that Dad's a high-ranking yakuza boss and he's got enemies. Anyway, the girl is captured, so you go after her. Along the way, you pick up a sword. Eventually you find yourself in Japan, getting in good with a rival family and doing jobs for its lieutenants so that they help you out. You keep on shooting lots of goons with guns, sometimes stopping for a sword fight.

There's no reason to care much about Scott, his girl, his yakuza friends, or the bad guys. Some of the dialogue is just rotten, while some of it is unintentionally funny. Many of the characters you'll meet speak with thick Japanese accents, but apart from that, Red Steel doesn't come across as authentic in any way. There's nothing exotic about running and gunning through factories and high-rises. There's one crazy level in a deranged amusement park, which, while not terribly original in itself, is probably the one noteworthy departure from the predictable, linear environments you'll be trudging through. In between missions, you'll sometimes get graphic-novel-style cutscenes, reminiscent of Max Payne or Sin City, except they look like storyboards rather than completed images. The entire game carries the half-baked look and feel of these cutscenes.

At best, Red Steel's controls are novel, and they have the potential to be a good fit for a better game. You use the Wii Remote to aim the gun you have equipped, though you might be put off by how your own wrist movements are awkwardly emulated by the onscreen hand-holding-a-gun. Pressing and holding the A button brings your weapon up to eye level, slowing your turning speed so you can more easily draw a bead on a bad guy. There's a rather generous auto-aim window to help you shoot people down. One of the stranger aspects of the shooting is how you can zoom in for a closer look at your foes by moving the Wii Remote toward the screen. When using a sniper rifle, this doesn't seem like an intuitive way of adjusting the scope to a higher magnification, but it works.

Meanwhile, you'll be holding the Nunchuk attachment in your off hand, and a quick swing of it makes you reload your gun, open doors, and so on. You can even tip over some tables to make cover, though this isn't necessary. Of course, the Nunchuk's analog stick is used to make you run in different directions, while the remote controls your turning as well as your aiming. As you shoot, the sounds of your weapon reloading and a few other effects come crunching through the Wii Remote's tinny little speaker, which can be distracting, though you can turn the volume down if you want. You can carry only two guns at a time, but during the course of the game you'll get to wield a nice-enough, predictable variety of pistols, automatics, and shotguns. Overall, the shooting controls definitely take getting used to and don't wind up feeling particularly immersive, let alone superior to the conventional first-person shooter controls found on other consoles or the PC. But at least they're different and, while this admittedly is not much of a compliment, functional.

Controlling the action takes some getting used to, but soon enough you'll be blasting lowlifes like nobody's business.
Controlling the action takes some getting used to, but soon enough you'll be blasting lowlifes like nobody's business.

You'll be shooting lots of near-brain-dead thugs throughout the game, who sometimes use cover pretty well but at other times will run right past you for no reason. They can be reasonably fun to shoot sometimes, especially since the game does a pretty good job of having destructible environments that get all torn up by errant gunfire. At other times, though, you'll be getting sniped by foes you can barely even see, which can be maddening. However, ducking behind cover to avoid taking any more damage for a couple of seconds causes all of your health to quickly regenerate, which, along with the lackluster artificial intelligence, makes most shoot-outs a breeze. There's one other twist to the gunplay--your focus mode, which is an ability you gain that lets you stop time altogether so you can carefully line up some cheap shots. Using this ability, you can shoot the guns right out of the bad guys' hands, then force them to surrender by waving the Wii Remote around. Later on in the game, this becomes the easiest way to defeat groups of enemies quickly. It's nonsensical but it at least affords a change of pace from the rinse-and-repeat nature of most of the shooting.

The controls for swordplay are different because the Nunchuk essentially becomes your shield; you'll usually fight with both a katana and a parrying blade of some sort, so the Wii Remote controls your sword swings, while a flick of the Nunchuk may be used to deflect some enemy attacks. The sword-fighting sequences in the game feature a few good-looking animations and can be quite challenging, since later foes will repel almost any move you make. But they're deeply disappointing for the most part, beginning with the fact that not an ounce of blood ever gets spilled, in spite of the misleading title of the game (though in compliance with the T for Teen rating).

The sword-fighting sequences add some variety between all the shooting, but neither side of the action feels all that satisfying.
The sword-fighting sequences add some variety between all the shooting, but neither side of the action feels all that satisfying.

The problem is that the swordplay feels more like Neanderthals clubbing each other than like a fencing match between highly skilled, agile swordsmen. Your attacks come out quite slowly, and while you can swing in a few different directions depending on how you move the Wii Remote, the number of moves at your disposal is limited--even after you unlock a few special moves and combos. It's particularly frustrating that stabbing attacks seem to be impossible, even though your enemies will use them against you and even though the Wii Remote is clearly capable of registering a linear, forward motion (as with the sniper scope zoom). The sword fights in Red Steel also take place in confined areas, so if you dodge out of the way too many times, suddenly both you and your opponent will calmly walk back to the center of the arena, which disrupts the flow of the fight.

Yet what's most bewildering about Red Steel's sword fights is that they're scripted such that shooting is impossible during these sequences, and vice versa. Here's how they come up: After shooting through maybe a dozen punks in a couple of rooms, you'll wander into a room where there's a guy with a sword. As you approach, you draw your sword automatically, and the fight ensues, conveniently uninterrupted by other gun-carrying enemies. Even when you're about to die, it's simply not possible to draw a gun during a sword fight. Haven't any of these people seen Raiders of the Lost Ark? At any rate, it's just an annoying gameplay contrivance, nothing more. Once you defeat an opponent in a sword duel, you're given the option to finish him off or spare his life. The latter choice earns you a sum of "respects," which presumably are tied to how many new moves you're able to learn, though neither the manual nor the game explains this clearly.

Red Steel starts off easy but gets substantially tougher by the end, with a few frustrating parts along the way. At least it's a good-sized campaign, weighing in at more than 10 hours. There's not a lot to do except move from one mission to the next, but for what it's worth, the latter half of game opens up so that you can train to get a few new moves and a few new guns in between levels. However, there's next to no replay value overall, partly because Red Steel doesn't even provide a choice of difficulty settings, cooperative gameplay, or anything like that. There's a basic split-screen competitive multiplayer mode for up to four players, but it's nothing to get excited about. The action feels flat and is limited to gunplay, not sword duels. It's worth noting that the one nonstandard multiplayer mode, though basically busted, is really weird. In it, you keep getting phone calls through your Wii Remote, telling you to go after particular targets or giving other instructions. Completing these assignments gets you more points. It's potentially a neat idea, but having your Wii Remote constantly vibrating with phone calls as you fight isn't much fun. And the idea that your telephoned instructions are meant to be a secret is absurd, because the friends you're playing with should be able to hear your Wii Remote as well as you can.

If you're hoping that Red Steel's presentation quality helps make up for its middling gameplay, you should stop. Red Steel might have looked pretty good for the time, had it been released a few years ago. But between all the bland, blurry textures, the sluggish frame rate, and the plain-looking weapons and characters, it's decidedly below par by today's standards. There are a few decent touches here and there, such as some preposterously overdone explosion effects (you've never seen a forklift blow up like this). Some of the rustic Japanese environments near the end of the game also look better than the urban stuff you'll be seeing most of the way. But Red Steel's visuals detract from the experience more than they add to it. This is partly because the game is rife with bugs and glitches, most of which are purely cosmetic at least. You'll sometimes see enemies frozen in place or floating in the air and other things like that. It's also really distracting that you can shoot straight through non-enemy characters. Or if you see an opponent getting ready for a sword fight off in the distance and apply that Raiders of the Lost Ark logic, he'll be magically invulnerable to your shots as well. Things like this just about ruin your suspension of disbelief while playing, but on the plus side, they can be unintentionally funny. The game supports widescreen progressive-scan displays, though the visuals don't look much better this way than on a standard TV set.

Don't expect multiplayer Red Steel to make up for the shortcomings of the story mode.
Don't expect multiplayer Red Steel to make up for the shortcomings of the story mode.

The game's audio is its best trait, relatively speaking. Some of the guns sound good, as do the clashes and clangs of the swords. There are some good music tracks as well, including some J-pop, some rock, and plenty of suspenseful-sounding stuff, and the soundtrack dynamically adjusts to when the shooting starts and stops. It has some stinkers in it, though, and the voice acting in Red Steel is often pretty bad--especially some of the inane, censor-approved lines you'll hear from your enemies, who call you things like "moron" and "murderer" as they fight for their lives. Thankfully, the Japanese-speaking enemies you fight get away with some swearing in their native tongue.

Red Steel isn't completely devoid of merit, but it's a half-baked, buggy game that feels rushed and poorly executed. There's a good concept in here somewhere, as a swords-and-guns shooter pitting you against yakuza villains certainly seems like it could be very exciting. However, the experience itself hardly fulfills any of the promises behind it. So if you're looking for an exciting new way to simulate gunning or cutting lots of dudes down using the Wii Remote, you'd best keep looking.

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The Good

  • Interesting take on first-person shooter controls
  • Nice explosions and destructible environments

The Bad

  • Clunky sword-fighting sequences slapped into the middle of all the shooting
  • Inane story chock-full of painful dialogue and voice acting
  • Numerous noticeable bugs and glitches

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