What is it about NANO-BREAKER that's so mindbogglingly awesome? From a critical standpoint, it must be one of the most mediocre PS2 games ever made. But that hasn't stopped me from coming back to it time and time again for close to 7 years now. This is my "comfort food" video game. Whenever I'm depressed, lost or confused, I just flip on this sucker (or watch the cheesy trailer online) and my spirits immediately lift. But what is it about that is so sublimely awesome? Is it the gallons of blood, the laughable voicework, the gorgeous FMV's or a combination of all the above? Well, a little of this and a little of that and voila! you have NANO BREAKER.
The premise is typical anime scifi schlock. In the near future, nanotechnology has been refined and perfected to be used on a mass scale to enhance human life as we know it. All of these physically enhanced human Guinea pigs live on a paradisal settlement known as Nanotechnology Island. But one day, the main computer goes berserk and orders the nanites to transform its citizens into hulking cybernetic monstrosities known as Orgamechs. Instead of nuking the island and being done with it, the government decides the best course of action is to shut down the main computer. But who can possibly survive on an island filled with an airborne nanite plague and homicidal cyborgs? The government decides to fight fire with fire and send in a Cyborg itself. A fair haired soldier with a shiny white suit of cybernetic armor and an incredibly monotone voice. The player assumes the role of this hero: Jake Warren, Cyborg hunter extraordinaire who wields a deadly plasma blade which can cut through steel and orgamech flesh like cheese. On the island, Jake must face monstrosities of all kinds from slimy orgamech mutants to more slimy orgamech mutants and a rival Cyborg named Keith.
The story takes all the cliches you could possibly imagine in a military scifi themed Japanese game and blends them together in the most unoriginal way possible. But, like all other aspects of NANO BREAKER, its rendered in such an offbeat manner that it comes off as mesmerizingly hypnotic. Part of the reason for this is that the FMV's used to convey the story are gorgeous, well funded and extremely detailed. Playing this game just after having plowed through a smorgasbord of PS3 action games, it really occurs to me that the technical quality of video game FMV's has not hugely improved over the years. Indeed, these FMVs look just as good today as they did 8 years ago.
Another reason is the extreme contrast between outrageous scifi horror and polished superhero fantasy. The opening FMV showing a mother and her child being infected by the nanite plague is still one of the goriest and most disturbing openings I recall seeing in a video game in recent years. Then Jake comes gliding into action with his neatly combed blond hair, erotic white armor and sizzling lightsaber. The reassuring teenage idol superman does not mix at all with the gruesome horror we saw in the first scene. The transition is so jarring it will either leave you dumbfounded or laughing out loud before you know it. Another offender is the dialogue, which tends to oscillate between predictable and laughter. One moment the characters will be muttering generic technobabble about nanotechnology and government research. Then in the next scene, you have Keith viciously barking to Jake such corny lines like "How does it feel...to be sliced in half by ME!?"
The quality of the voicework also contributes the unintentional mesmerizing hilarity. Crispin Freeman and Steve Blum are certainly no strangers to the voice-over industry, but their performances here might make you rethink their reputation. Freeman's voice for Jake is monotone and stilted, occasionally punctuated by bursts of constipated urgency. Blum as Keith, in sharp contrast, is completely over the top, bordering on the personality of a frothing maniac. The unintentionally humorous interactions between these two completely polar voiceboxes are the highlights of this sad little saga. Like so much of NANO BREAKER, its memorable because its just so off base.
Let's move onto the gameplay. NANO BREAKER is a third person action adventure game inspired by DMC based on the engine used for the next gen CASTLEVANIA games. Jake can jump, slash, or pull his way around just about any obstacle the game can throw at him. His weapon of choice is not a whip, like his Belmont ancestors, but rather a plasma sword: a lightsaber-esque weapon that ruins the programming of his nano-powered opponents (as well as chopping them up into big greasy chunks of cyborg flesh). Jake's weapon can also change into other shapes as well, such as an axe or a hammer, which are considerably more powerful than the main sword. But these transformations can only be activated by achieving a long combo string.
Combo attack strings are an integral part of NANO BREAKER. Instead of just upgrading weapons with experience points or at a hi-tech forge, Jake has to find "combo chips" to increase the variety of his attacks. Combo chips can be tagged onto the end of an existing combo to increase its length or tag on a different climactic finish, usually involving the aforementioned transformation into another weapon. For instance, say you want more horizontal attack combos. You go to the menu, open up a skill tree displaying all your possible horizontal combination attacks, tag on a combo chip to one branch of that tree...and voila! You've unlocked a new combo or finisher attack. So now instead of just slashing twice and stopping, Jake can slash three times and that third slash will always transform his sword into an enormous plasma scythe which cuts down all the enemies around him.
Learning these special combo attacks is essential to understanding NANO BREAKER's "complex" fight system. You see, counter to conventional logic concerning intelligent and cunning AI behavior, the opponents you fight in NANO BREAKER are dumb as bricks for the most part. The conventional orgamechs are just these unimposing bipedal wiry cyborg types who walk up to you, mindlessly thrash their arms up and down until you die or they get slashed to pieces. What I'm trying to say is...they're very predictable. And once you start slashing at them, they just freeze in place and put up no fight at all.
Since the act of killing them is far too easy, the only major challenge is trying to find the most rewarding tactic to take them down. When I say "rewarding", I mean currency. What is currency in NANO BREAKER? Some distinctive human fluids with a red hue.
Imagine if you were to fill a sprinkler with tomato juice, flipped it on at full strength, and watched those jets of red liquid come crashing down in a parabolic decent all over your lawn. That is the best visual analogy I can think of to describe the bloodletting in this game. In NANO BREAKER, enemies do not ooze bleed, they RAIN blood. Every enemy pops like a balloon and their fluids go flying up and crashing down on the ground again like a jetspray. NANO BREAKER may have possibly been the bloodiest game ever made for the time, although it's been bested by 2010's SPLATTERHOUSE. Like that game, blood is not simply for visual enthrallment...it's also your experience as well. The more gallons of blood you spill, the more health and power bonuses you gain. There is no personal inventory in NANO BREAKER, so if you need health, your only option is to paint the environment red (or whatever color you've set the fluids to appear as in the options menu).
But in order to get more of the red stuff, you've got to know what attacks to use. Simply hammering SQUARE or TRIANGLE might allow you hack off the limb of an opponent, but you'll only a couple big gooey red drops. You need to aim (as Robert E. Lee would say) right for the center. Cleaving an enemy right through the torso with a powerful weapon like a scythe or axe will earn you the most amount of fluid. That's why it's so important to learn the right combos, so you transform your weapons into the appropriate murderous tools to generate the most/blood experience. So there's really a double benefit to making those fluids rain down on you, since you're making Jake a healthier person as well. When you cleave the torsos of several enemies and watch their middles erupt in huge fountains of scarlet, then you know you're doing good in the game.
What physiological sense this makes in the context of the game, I'm not sure. But it's implementation is part of NANO BREAKER's completely off-beat appeal. In 2005, GOD OF WAR also emerged on the scene as well. And as gory as the encounters get in that game, they are nothing compared to the scarlet showers one can generate in NANO BREAKER. In NANO BREAKER, you can literally fill up entire rivers with this red spillage. Also unlike the canned animations in GOD OF WAR which also result in your enemy avatar disappearing, in NANO BREAKER these eruptions literally interact with the game world, coating it all around you with red and changing its very texture.
Okay...enough about the blood. Did I also mention there's platforming in the game? Yes, Jake can leap, glide and pull himself up onto ledges to navigate the environmental obstacles set his way. Unfortunately, like much of NANO BREAKER, something is distinctly lacking in the execution of this area too. Jake jumps with a very odd posture, like he's constantly got a rod supporting his back or something. His stiff leap unfortunately translates into stiff controls, and it's very difficult to get him to quickly and successfully hop from one platform to another. Later on, you get a double jump, which makes things a little easier. From hereon out, the platforming becomes a little more tolerable and serves as an interesting diversion to all the hacking and slashing.
The technical qualities of NANO BREAKER fall close to the center, but personally I was impressed. The graphics are definitely PS2 quality, with high resolution models for the characters and enemies and some nice lighting effects to complement Jake's sword and it's various animations. The backgrounds are all rendered in real time, which unfortunately is a downer, since they're fairly generic for the most (mainly just run down streets, back alleyways and the like) and contain too much fogging to disguise the distance up ahead. The audio is where NANO BREAKER also stands out, albeit not astoundingly. Jake's ferocious grunts, the high pitched screeches of his dismembered enemies, the vroom of this lightsaber, can actually be pretty deafening at times. That's good. But all this chaos is complemented by a rather bizarre choice of soundtrack, involving a soothing compilation of piano-driven muzac interspersed with groovy techno themes and heavy metal guitar riffs. Although the choice of music is eccentric, there are not enough memorable leitmotifs. It's an odd combination, and doesn't match up with the quality of Michiru Yamane's work for the CASTLEVANIA series. However it is still memorable if only because it tries to be unique.
How…odd of a game NANO BREAKER is. Utterly predictable, yet bogglingly offbeat. Underacting contrasted with overacting. Bland, barren environments contrasted with over the top scarlet spillage. Piano muzac contrasted with heavy metal. Even the opening, with its grim, over the top scifi horror contrasts heavily with the campy scifi escapades that follow. The game is a paradox. An avant garde title that is completely generic. It's so wrong…and yet so right at the same time. I love it.
But would I recommend it? Not to everyone...just those who have an open for experimental titles with misguided artistic intentions. It's just too bizarre a combination. Just watch the insane trailer and see for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CQ4V1xdfcs
It might fall to the bottom of your list, but it's an experience you won't be forgetting it any time soon.