Monday, July 7, 2014

Hybrid Heaven

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Released on August 31, 1999, by Konami Computer Entertainment Osaka, the aptly titled Hybrid Heaven futures a unique combination of 3-D fighting, RPG, and action-adventure elements, as secret service agent, Johnny Slater, attempts to stop sinister forces from transforming Earth into the titular land.
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The Personal Story:
Despite its predecessor vying for the title of "Greatest RPG Platform of All Time," the Nintendo 64 features a near black hole in the Role-Playing Game department. Being a Nintendo diehard since the late-80's, I decided to enjoy everything else the Nintendo 64 had to offer, going back to RPG titles I missed on the Super Nintendo to get my fill in that department. My Chrono Trigger file wasn't going to get leveled up to "**" all by itself. The wealth of Super Nintendo RPG's filled this role so well, I missed out on the small handful of Nintendo 64 RPG's released, despite owning a Nintendo Power issued with Hybrid Heaven featured on the cover. Half a decade later, I saw Hybrid Heaven in the $5 bin at the used video game store. Why not?  

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Graphics: Without an Expansion Pak, Hybrid Heaven is a good-looking game. In the Expansion Pak-enhanced High Res mode, Hybrid Heaven is sharp and beautiful. The player must traverse the depths of a subterranean alien shelter, containing some of the largest environments on a Nintendo 64 cartridge. Konami could have taken it easy, using the setting as an excuse to create monotonous, repetitive levels. Instead, Konami stretched their collective imaginations to create some very original-looking levels. All nine stages look unique from one another (and that's with two of the stages being the same area--the second time through, it's on fire and falling apart). Of particular note are the deepest stages, where Konami goes all out to create a spooky (not scary) alien vibe--lights that hold no function, geometrical designs that make no sense. Real-time lighting is stellar, yet subtle, and even includes floor-lighting during a few of the more atmospheric fights. Character models and designs look great, with the exception of a few of the monsters (who suffer from the stereotypical "wait what?" lost in translation of Japanese culture to American eyeball). Animation is surprisingly lifelike. Fire and water effects are nifty, if not quite up to the standards set by the system's best.

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Sound: Hybrid Heaven features an ambient score, fitting for the setting. Music builds naturally, with stages often containing music of a near-meditative quality at the start, with feistier touches slowly added as the player progresses, to often driving percussion and bass as the stage gets more frenetic. Battle-music gets the juices flowing nicely. Fight sound effects are awesome-every punch, kick, grapple, body slam, and bone-crunch sounds authentic. Explosions are great, though the sound of Slater's weapon during the game's adventure areas, the defuser, is a weird wet pop. If Hybrid Heaven's sound design has a major flaw, it is the lack of full speech. The isolating nature of the gameplay (running around an enormous, nearly abandoned alien structure) does not necessarily call for speech, but Hybrid Heaven's involving story does. Most of the game's twists and turns are conveyed by dialogue, between multiple characters, during conversation. Characters speak via text box, all text white, and at times the identity of the speaker in a long conversation can be confusing. Speech would have made Hybrid Heaven's story far more enveloping, but unfortunately, Konami could not access the compression techniques pioneered by Factor Five the year before (and used by many third generation games--released in August of 1999, Hybrid Heaven falls at the very end of Nintendo 64's second generation of software). The full speech in the games opening and closing cutscenes, however, is appreciated.

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Gameplay: Hybrid Heaven's gameplay features a tiny bit of negative, and a whole lot of positive. The negative is the game's action-adventure sections. These portions of the game aren't very good, but they also thankfully take up very little of the player's time. They simply exist to connect the game's far superior fighting portions to one another. Slater must use his weak defuser gun to take out a variety of electronic monitoring devices. He also has to climb over ledges, avoid obstacles, and solve very simple puzzles. This element does highlight the beauty of Hybrid Heaven's environments, and as previously stated, mainly functions to get Slater from one fight to the next. The fights make this game, though. Hybrid Heaven's completely unique fighting system is incredible fun. When Slater comes across an enemy, the game goes into battle mode. As his power bar fills up, Slater gets the opportunity to attack. All the while, he is free to move around the room as the player pleases. Whatever body part the player decides to use for attack is leveled up. If one has a preference for kicking foes with Slater's left leg, Slater's left leg will be stronger than the rest of his body. Conversely, if Slater gets kicked more often in his left leg, his left leg will be more resilient than the rest of his body. If a foe uses a new move on Slater (whether it be a kick, punch, or wrestling move), Slater learns that move. The OCD player, never avoiding a fight, is rewarded mightily. Hybrid Heaven provides many areas with regeneration pads, where the patient player can fight a foe again and again, collecting item after item when the enemy is defeated. Thus, by the end of the game, the player who has put in 25 hours (versus the 20 it takes to rush through) can absolutely unload on Hybrid Heaven's multiple final bosses. This is incredibly satisfying.

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Lasting Value: Completely mastering Hybrid Heaven's fighting system takes time. The player can try rushing through the game, but slowing to down to turn Slater into an unstoppable fighting machine is far more satisfying. Hybrid Heaven isn't a short game, nor does it outlast its welcome. It ends just when it should. For players who haven't had enough, Hybrid Heaven features a neat multiplayer option, where two players can duke it out in a slightly toned-down version of the single-player fight mode. As a final little cherry on top, Hybrid Heaven contains a single player battle mode, where the player can hone their skills in a safe area that has no bearing on their single-player campaign.

The alien architecture looks nice without an expansion pack, but brilliant with it. Smooth framerate, and well-animated characters, though a few of the monsters look silly.

Music and Sound
Ambient score suits the setting, and punches, kicks, and body slams sound right on, but the lack of full speech hurts the presentation of Hybrid Heaven's story.

Shooting element is weak, but a miniscule portion of the game. The meat, running around a giant alien dwelling kickboxing mutants in a deep, semi-RPG style, is a blast.

Lasting Value
The 25-hour single-player mode is the star, but 2-player brawls, as well as a practice-fighting mode are decent distractions.