Considering the intense critical and commercial acclaim Hajime Isayama's Attack on Titan has been receiving, the emergence of a game based on the events portrayed in the anime and manga series was more of a question of “when”, rather than “if”. The more surprising news is that the game’s actually quite good, and a long way off being a bare-minimum, cash-in effort.
For the uninitiated, Attack on Titan - or Shingeki no Kyojin, to use its Japanese name — is set in a world where mankind cowers behind massive walls, living in fear of giant humanoid monsters known as Titans. These beasts may externally resemble people, but they seem to possess a very basic intelligence and — more worryingly — are hell-bent on eating humans for fun. Central characters Eren Yeager, Mikasa Ackerman and Armin Arlert join the ranks of the army which is tasked with defending the vital walls, and they learn to use the 3D Manoeuvring Gear — gas-powered grappling hooks which allow soldiers to take to the air and target the only weak area of the Titans: the back of the neck.
There are two modes of play in Attack on Titan: The Last Wings of Mankind. “Story Mode” follows the plot of the anime (which in turn is based on the earlier manga), using a mixture of stills and cutscenes to fill in the parts where you’re not slicing deep into the necks of the massive, hulking Titans. To make sure players get the full experience, this mode forces you to complete missions as Eren, Mikasa and Armin, with additional characters Levi and Sasha available as free downloadable DLC. “World Mode” frees the game from all plot requirements and allows players to create their very own character to tackle a variety of unique missions with, either alone or optionally with other players. This new character gains experience, money and items as missions are cleared, and this can be used to customise the character and their equipment to the player’s liking.
Story mode starts off with a series of basic tutorial missions, appropriately enough recounting lead character Eren Yeager’s time in training to become an effective Titan killer. These brief missions teach players the essentials, such as how to move around quickly using the 3D Manoeuvre Gear, how to pick up and use the helpful items that are occasionally found in boxes or lying on the ground and — most importantly of all – how to properly attack Titans.
Going straight for the Titan's vulnerable neck will often see you swatted away and frantically limping for cover (or worse – eaten alive), so it’s best to incapacitate them first – hacking off a leg or severing their Achilles’ tendon tends to do the trick, although slashing at their face can work in a pinch, too. Titans regenerate lost limbs and heal non-fatal damage quickly, so it’s important to grapple-wire your way to the back of their head as soon as possible — ideally before you’ve even hit the ground — and then perform a critical strike to finally finish them off.
The critical strike system is quite simple on the surface – while you’re being reeled in towards a Titan’s weak point at breakneck speed (pressing the Y button) you initiate an attack (with the X button) which brings up a red target circle and a thin blue timing circle that shrinks towards the centre. As soon as this thin blue circle is within the red area it will change to yellow, and that’s when you need to hit X again to perform a critical strike. The further away you are from your target when you start the attack, the larger the strike area and the longer you have to perform the move — but the catch is that this also gives the Titan more time to react and knock you down.
Adventurous players can make things more difficult for themselves by using spinning strikes – far more powerful than normal attacks, but very difficult to pull off correctly. Once you do get the hang of controlling the 3DS Manoeuvring Gear and slaying Titans there’s a very satisfying flow to the missions, although the sheer size and strength of your enemies means that even when you feel like you’re dominating the game, you’re only ever one mistake away from utter disaster.
There was a danger that the game would soon wear its central premise thin – after all, there’s only so much Titan attacking anyone can take – but the mission-based structure keeps game sessions quick, focused and urgent. Once you know what you’re doing, a successful mission should generally take less than five minutes from start to finish, with some early ones coming in at the sub-sixty seconds mark after you've got a bit of practise under your belt. Missions fall into a few standard types, ranging from the expected “defeat the Titans” gig to more strategic battles that require players to defend a particular point or rescue injured allies. Eren’s dramatic Titan transformation gets some screen time too, and while these segments aren't as refined as the regular gameplay, developer Spike Chunsoft has done a great job of communicating the raw power Eren has when he’s in this form; knocking Titan heads clean off feels as vicious and weighty as it should do.
In short, Attack on Titan is an unexpected pleasure. Navigating the environments you’re placed in using the 3D Manoeuvring Gear is frenetic and fun, downing Titans is exciting and seeing other team members rushing past to attack or coming over to help you out brings a sense of immersion to mankind's epic struggle — even if your single player allies are largely just for show. Mission gradings add some always-welcome replayability and the detailed breakdown at the end of each successful mission lets you see exactly where you needed to improve. Cap it all off with an encyclopaedia that logs every unique Titan you come across and you've got something that’s a good game in its own right as well as an impeccable adaptation of a popular anime license. We can only hope that the interest in the series outside Japan leads to a localisation so international fans can enjoy it too.