I’ve previously written about games that didn’t quite turn out the way they were posited to be in gaming magazines and what-not, and how I hate it when expectations are driven up and the actual product turns out to be a flaming ball of mediocrity. Hybrid Heaven from Konami had all the makings of being one of those games. Presented in early previews as a Metal Gear Solid-esque stealth action game, it was worked and reworked into an action-RPG combination with nary a passing resemblance to MGS, aside from a story laden with conspiracies.
Amazingly enough, Hybrid Heaven managed to avoid the curse of the overly ambitious preview and turned out to be something pretty unique. The story begins on the eve of a major nuclear weapons treaty between the U.S. and Russia, however, there’s a plan in place by a shadowy organization to replace the U.S. President with a clone, and one of the keys figures in the swap is Secret Service agent Johnny Slater, who is summoned to New York to meet with other conspirators. At the meet, one of the other members of the group, Mr. Diaz, begins hearing voices and shoots Slater. Obviously, Diaz’s double-cross puts the entire plan in jeopardy, so he is dragged to the conspirators’ base under the New York subway system. He manages to escape his captors, but accidentally releases a swarm of bio-engineered weapons, so now Diaz has to be stopped before he continues to ROYALLY fuck things up for the bad guys. It’s a bit Resident Evil, a pinch of Metal Gear, and a splash of Men in Black (quite literally, you will have fights with the Men in Black).
Now, that may not sound terribly original, and to be fair, it’s not. But what sets this game apart, and will ultimately decide whether you love it or hate it, is the combat system. Y’see, you start with a dinky little pistol that only works on security bots, and you’ll occasionally happen upon one-shot pistols that fire ice, flame, and the like. That means that by and large, you’ll be making progress and resolving conflicts through the use of good old-fashioned, all-American FISTICUFFS. Yes, when you encounter an enemy, you’ll be dropped into Battle Mode, where you square off with your opponent like it was a UFC fight.
You have free range of motion around the room, and you’ll dance around your opponent waiting for your power meter to fill up. When it’s full, you press A to bring up a menu, from which you can use an item, fire a weapon, or select a strike. And we’re not talking a generic punch or kick, you can throw anything from a left-handed uppercut to the body, a right hook to the head, or maybe a nasty shin kick or Mirko Cro Cop left high kick to the face. If you get in close and press R, you can grapple with your opponent and utilize maneuvers like hip tosses, vertical suplexes, and yes, even a fucking piledriver. If you hit your enemy with something nasty, you can knock them down long enough to pile on the punishment with moves like the Camel Clutch and the ever-popular American History X curb-stomp. If your opponent attacks, you basically have three options: a block to lessen the damage, a side-step, or a counter, which if your opponent misses, you automatically launch a strike of your own for major damage.
On top of that, as you go through these fights, you’ll begin to level up and raise your stats in categories like hitpoints, stamina (which goes down as you attack, attack too often and the meter will drain and weaken your attacks), and offense/defense, which dictates how hard you hit and how resistant you are to attacks. You can further strengthen your different limbs individually by using them more often in your offense. Keep throwing kicks and eventually be able to Bruce Lee kick enemies halfway across the room. Keep using grapples and you’ll be a devastating wrestler and submission fighter. As you level up, you’ll also be able to store power as it charges up and launch combos that you can build yourself and save for later deployment, with the added bonus that enemies can only defend against the first move in the chain.
In fact, the only real problem I had with the fighting system is that, your moveset is small to begin, and to learn new moves, enemies have to demonstrate them…on you. This isn’t that big of a problem with punches and kicks that you can block or dodge, but with grapple moves, you pretty much have to bite the bullet and let them bludgeon you. In a cool little addition, you can also take your beefed-up fighter and enter him in Battle Mode, where you can run a gauntlet against the various enemies in the game or even battle a friend’s character from their save file.
Aside from the fighting, the other controls also work pretty smoothly. You have a running jump and a straight jump for more height, as well as the ability to grab onto ledges and pipes and pull yourself up and along. Drawing your defuser locks you in place to aim similar to Resident Evil, but most of the time, it shouldn’t be an issue. Speaking of RE, this game might’ve benefited from tank controls, as the camera can and will rotate to the worst possible angle at the worst possible time.
Also, it should be noted that there will be an element of wandering around and backtracking required, either looking for code key stations you’ll need to find to open certain doors, items, or enemy spawn rooms (marked by a yellow pad on the floor) that you’ll frequently be using as grind spots. Your map (activated by pressing B) also is less helpful than you think, especially in areas with multiple floors, as it doesn’t discern depth and can send you searching for a hallway that’s actually on another floor. There’s a very light bit of puzzle-solving along the way as well, but mostly in the form of shooting or not shooting platforms to obtain special items.
Graphics here are pretty solid. The artists did a good job of making the massive underground complex look like the factory from hell, and fight animations look pretty good despite the fact they’re trying to portray a human fighting a mutant in a friggin’ kung fu battle. And make no mistake, the enemy design is a testament to the creators’ imaginations, as you will be fighting such enemies as a bear with no reach, a giant pig, a tree monster that spits poison, things that jump down like Lickers from Resident Evil 2 and appear to be made of lava, a horse that stands on its hind legs, and a bulbous creature I have come to know as “The Scrotum Monster” that drops health pickups when you knock it down (ewww…) Yeah, you’ll fight regular humans like the aforementioned Men In Black (who are total cheesedicks who will shoot at you if you back away) , but half the fun here is had kicking an angry tree in the shins until he falls over dead.
Cutscenes are handled in-engine with text instead of speech for the most part, which works pretty well, although it comes with the Japanese style of non-verbal communication (i.e., LOTS of gesturing and little subtlety). Thankfully, there aren’t any hamfisted dialogue moments here, and the story has a few moments that can get you to think. Sounds are more than serviceable here too, like your echoing footsteps and the satisfying thwack you hear kicking the Scrotum Monster, and yes, you even strain to lift an enemy up and dump them on their back. Music’s a bit of a disappointment, though, as sadly, it subscribes to the late-’90s, early-’00s weird, sad techno style.
I rather enjoyed Hybrid Heaven, but I can kinda understand why it didn’t do better commercially or stick out better in our collective memories. The plot, while executed really well, still smacks of a B-movie, and if you didn’t care for the combat engine, you’d REALLY hate slogging through the whole game, and if you expected it to be Nintendo 64 Presents Metal Gear Solid, you were probably already dismissive of it after finding out Konami went in a different direction. It’s hard for me to think of another game to compare it to, in the sense that “if you liked Game X, you’ll probably like Hybrid Heaven”, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a unique action-RPG or anyone that just enjoys punching trees in the face.
“That’ll be all. Let’s make this work. But, man, put some clothes on, will you?” -Kevin
Really deep, customizable combat engine, rather strong execution of a potentially cheesy plot.
Like many RPG’s, some grinding is required. If you’re not a fan of the fighting style, you’re going to hate this one, occasional problems with the camera.