Back in 1998, Konami's Metal Gear Solid took the gaming world by storm. Its masterful combination of action-packed gameplay and cinematic storytelling was unlike anything ever before seen in a videogame. The only bad news was that unless you owned a PlayStation, you wouldn’t be playing it, as it was exclusive to Sony’s 32-bit console. Nintendo 64 owners could only look on in envy while having to endure the boasts of their PlayStation-owning friends. However, a ray of hope would soon appear in the form of Hybrid Heaven, our own Konami exclusive sure to make Sony fans jealous. This was going to be the game to eclipse Metal Gear Solid and prove once again that the Nintendo 64 was the superior console - at least, that's what long-suffering Ninty fans were hoping.
Encouragingly, when picking up Hybrid Heaven for the first time, things look fairly promising. Upon slamming in the cartridge you’re greeted by the camera panning across the New York skyline while accompanied by some dark, ambient electronic music. As if this isn’t enough to whet your appetite, the intro to the actual story mode itself comes in the form of an impressive six minute, fully-voiced cinematic cut-scene. Being a cartridge-based console, this sort of thing was a big deal on the N64, and aside from being impressive from a technical standpoint, it sets up the rest of the game nicely. What could possibly go wrong?
But before we get into all the nitty-gritty, let’s take a look at the basic information about the game. Hybrid Heaven is an action RPG in which the player assumes the role of Mr Diaz – and, no he’s not a high-school Spanish teacher. Diaz is a human/alien “hybrid” clone who has apparently turned against his former allies in their attempts to take over the world. Their dastardly plan? To secretly replace the senior members of society with hybrid clones. Although it’s perhaps slightly on the generic side of things with the whole “alien invasion” angle, it makes for a decent storyline. It’s full of twists and turns and even attempts to pose some moral questions about the ethics of cloning.
The main selling point of Hybrid Heaven is the way in which it combines action, fighting and RPG elements all into the one game. The player must negotiate the hybrids’ giant underground cloning facility by blasting sentry bots, hanging from ledges, solving simple puzzles and generally jumping and climbing around the place. However, upon encountering an enemy, things get a little bit different as the game switches into a combat mode along the lines of Tekken or Soul Calibur.
However, the combat in Hybrid Heaven differs greatly from that of a regular fighting game. Instead of simply pummelling your opponent with liberal mashing of the controller, you circle each other before choosing your time to strike. Pressing ‘A’ will cause time to freeze and a menu screen to appear; you are then able to select which attack you wish from a wide range of different punches and kicks (wrestling moves can also be performed by first entering to a grapple with your adversary). At the same time, the enemy will select his defence – be it a guard, a side-step or even a counter to your attack.
After both sides have selected their move, time unfreezes and the attack will be performed, with the results of the damage flashing up on the screen. Of course, the computer will also try to attack you in this manner and the onus will instead be on you to choose which method of defence you wish to employ. After each battle, experience points are tallied up with each body part being allocated its own attacking and defensive stats.
Konami certainly succeeded in creating something unique with the Hybrid Heaven battle system. You can even create and save your own punch/kick combos, which can be fun to experiment with. The only problem is that while the battles are entertaining at first, once the novelty wears off things quickly get repetitive. The combat eventually boils down to waiting for the power meter to charge, dodging the enemy’s attack, and then striking with an attack of your own. Repeat these steps over and over until the enemy doesn’t get back up.
There’s also a striking lack of interactivity within the battles considering that the game is, after all, an action RPG. After playing for a few hours it becomes hard to shake off the feeling that far too much seems to be based on pure dumb luck. For example, when deciding to try and counter a move, roll out of the way of harm, or just escape a hold, there doesn’t appear to be anything that the player can do to influence the outcome. Paper Mario-style timed commands would have been useful here; for example, if you wanted to break the enemy’s hold or counter his suplex you could tap ‘A’ at just the right time, therefore putting the outcome in your own hands. Sadly Hybrid Heaven has nothing like this in place. Instead, it comes across as sheer chance; if you do actually manage to counter a move, it’s never clear why you were able to achieve it.
The battle system isn’t the only aspect of Hybrid Heaven that comes across as repetitive, either. In fact, it isn’t unfair to aim this criticism at the entire game as a whole. On each level of the aliens’ complex, you’ll come across locked doors. The only way to pass through is to update your key-card. In order to do this, you’ll have to find the key-card terminal. Typically, the terminal will be guarded by enemies who have to be defeated. Repeat this combination of objectives for around fifteen hours, fight a few (admittedly quite well characterised) bosses, and you will have beaten Hybrid Heaven. It’s a tremendously dull and linear experience.
In keeping with the rest of the game, your surroundings are depressingly plain and bland. If having to trawl through miles and miles of identical metallic corridors sounds appealing, then Hybrid Heaven will be right up your street. There’s absolutely no variation in your surroundings. You’ll spend the whole game harking back to the intro in the vain hope that at some point you’ll get to visit overground Manhattan or Washington DC - anything but another set of steel grey corridors.
As if all this wasn’t enough to make any sane person turn off the console, Konami have also seen fit to include some of the most aggravating, cheap and downright broken level layout and enemy placement in the entire history of videogames. Picture the scene: you’re heading down yet another metallic corridor when you come to a door you’ve not yet been through. You head on through into the next room and before you have any time at all to get used to your new surroundings, you’re shot by a sentry bot’s laser beam. The only possible way to avoid being shot is to have played the game before and to have memorised where every single bot is. Even then, you would still have to react with lightning reflexes. This sort of thing doesn’t only happen once or twice, it’s prevalent throughout the game. Bots are hidden behind boxes, on the other side of doors, round blind corners, at the top of elevators…you get the idea. It all becomes incredibly annoying very quickly, and further reduces the game's fun factor.
This isn’t the only aspect of game design that doesn’t feel right. It’s also very hard to find a good place to “grind” and increase your stats. Once you move from one area to another, you can’t go back. So if you come up against a boss and aren’t strong enough to be able to defeat him, you’re doomed. You can’t go back, fight some enemies and get tougher. For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep a second save from an earlier part of the game to go back to, should you need to do some grinding.
Konami included a separate mode whereby you can fight random enemies. However, unless you have already completed the game, you can’t save any increase in stats from this mode. It’s an absolutely ludicrous decision. Why would you be interested in increasing your stats once the game has been completed? There’s nothing more to do after the credits have played. Do they actually think you want to battle random enemies just for the fun of it? In Pokemon, if you aren’t strong enough to beat the Elite 4, it’s okay, you just go back and get stronger. In Hybrid Heaven if you can’t beat a boss, you can’t go back, you’re just plain screwed.
At least Konami had the decency to make the most of the N64 Expansion Pak and include a hi-res option. The impact is impressive too, making the game look more like an early Dreamcast or PlayStation 2 release. Just don’t expect to be able to actually play the game however, as the added graphical demands completely cripple the frame rate. Basically, you’re left with a choice between crisp but jerky visuals or a playable but blurry, foggy game. Why there would be fog, or any form of precipitation for that matter, in an advanced, futuristic underground facility raises a lot of unanswered questions. It’s best not to think about it.
The only aspect of Hybrid Heaven which isn’t completely flawed is the in-game music. The ambient electronic score can at times be slightly reminiscent of some of the music from Metal Gear Solid 2, which is no bad thing. It’s also tense and atmospheric in places, adding a real sense of fear and trepidation to certain areas of the game. There are only two battle themes however, (one for regular enemies and another theme for the boss fights) and you’ll be sick of hearing them before long.
Hybrid Heaven certainly offers gamers something different, especially on a console not exactly renowned for its RPG selection. It’s also refreshing to be presented with such a dark, sci-fi storyline – another thing not exactly in abundance on the Nintendo 64. However, it’s far too bland and repetitive and only the most determined gamers with a great deal of patience and perseverance will see it through to the end. The battle system seems like a wasted opportunity - it could have been something great, but fails to gel on so many levels. Hardcore RPG fans may get a kick out of it, but to be perfectly honest the only reason we can see for booting this up is the N64’s total lack of RPG titles.