Vanquish is one of those games that blended in next to its contemporaries, creating a passionate group of players that discovered it as a hidden gem of the era. At a glance, this power fantasy starring a rather plain armored super-soldier seems to be a typical third-person shooter with various guns and cover mechanics. What lies beneath is a complex web of systems that all aim to let players express themselves, chase high scores and fast completion times, and ultimately look cool. Yet, that interesting complexity is wrapped in what appears to be a mockery of the genre but it is inherently living in the same tired structure and themes.
I was aware that Vanquish had awesome mechanical designs back in the day and even now I think the protagonist, Sam Gideon, has a rocket punch that would make a top ten list. Cool robotics aside, I avoided Vanquish upon initial release because of the reviews of the time lamenting about how short the game was. My final in-game time was well under four hours, making my recent playthrough a short tour of what I missed out on but this time taking better advantage of modern hardware. I did have some performance issues on the Xbox One S but pretty much everything I play on that console seems to bug out. Cutscenes, in particular, looked pretty choppy but I was still able to play through the campaign once without much trouble. Even though I’m aware of the incredible depth Shinji Mikami and the team at Platinum Games achieved, I’m not convinced that Vanquish is an all-time classic that everyone should play. While I enjoyed messing around with the fast gunplay, I found Vanquish to be more of a fun experiment that deserves to be explored further in future work.
Platinum Games has a stellar library, even though they did have a few years of bad releases that were still fine playthroughs for the most part. Their licensed games such as Transformers Devastation and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan both captured the visual flair of the source material well but failed to go further than that as games. The Legend of Korra was probably the lowest point of quality but even that remains relevant for trophy earners and achievement hunters. Recently, Platinum has been hitting it out of the park with the beautifully profound Nier: Automata and the stellar Switch release Astral Chain. Vanquish sticks out as a weird attempt to break a genre and it works in that regard but everything surrounding the mechanics is what failed to captivate me.
Vanquish stars Sam Gideon, a gruff soldier that smokes and cracks the most boring one-liners. He’s like a bad action flick hero that was the star of an undercooked third entry in a franchise that hasn’t had a theatrical release since the first film and even that was a spin-off of a much better movie.
Story-wise, Vanquish is the Scorpion King 3 of games.
The writing is awful, barebones and retreads the same ground constantly. It’s also a game that leaned heavily on using fuck a lot and it just doesn’t work. Gideon doesn’t have the personality that makes Platinum Games so fun to just experience, even on the lowest difficulty settings. The Augmented Reaction Suit is his defining feature, a robotic white armor that has all these intricate and constantly shifting parts. I spent most of the downtime in the game just switching weapons to see them artfully materialize around a single frame. It’s the type of modeling that looks incredible when slowed down.
Thankfully, slowing down time is a major key to victory in Vanquish and it feels awesome to use. Because Gideon’s system overheats, there’s this balance that one has to master. Zipping around foes, landing that perfect kick, and blasting a grenade in mid-air is all connected by a series of subtle mechanics. Really skilled players have mastered animation canceling and maximizing invincibility frames, all while charting the fastest route through each level. Adding to that baked-in sense of mastery, each level gets a score and a time and on the leaderboards, it’s easy to find one’s place and shoot for a higher spot.
Enemies play well into the game’s combat too with various tactics, patterns, and exploits. For example, the larger charging foes can be interrupted with a well placed shot or overwhelmed with gunfire through perfect timing and accuracy. By the end of the game, I wasn’t staying behind cover at all but instead, I was rushing in, flanking, and using mobility to my advantage. That doesn’t always work; a misplaced melee, for example, leaves Gideon wide open while his suit cools off. Being in the wrong place can result in streams of bullets and missiles that just shreds squirrely players. Familiarity with the game’s obstacles and basic mechanics is the first major hurdle for those wanting to master Vanquish.
The game’s narrative is dumb. It feels like parody but much of the laugh out loud moments are stripped out and I spent cutscenes just bored. Sometimes there would be a flashy bit of action but it was mostly a barely serviceable framework for the level design. Levels all take place in a crumbling space colony, a sprawling city with various simple zones like a monorail and a large park. They are paced out well and each area feels like a bit of puzzle to overcome but many of them do kind of blur together. That and there’s a lot of forced dialogue sections that I could’ve done without. I would have loved to have played a wave-based survival mode or go through randomized strings of challenges. There’s a lot that could have been done in the game’s modes but all there is the story with varying degrees of difficulty. For some, that’s enough but I can’t help but wonder what could have been.
Sound design is fine for the most part but the mixing on the voices is way out of balance. Without subtitles, it was really tough to hear what nonsense was being spouted. Rather than even attempt to understand the base narrative, I just got comfy and went along for the ride. That ride is something worthy of partaking for players curious about unique gameplay approaches but again there are enough low spots that it’s hard to recommend. Now, those into speedruns and score-chasing will likely find Vanquish a worthy beast but for most players, it will be a game played once in a while on a low challenge setting to feel a quick rush.
That style of fluidity in shooters does seem to be carrying into other games though. Vanquish is just a piece of that evolution but I imagine that there are plenty of shooter developers that used it as a point of inspiration. Titanfall 2 and Apex Legends seem to carry comparable energy and even Warframe can feel similar depending on one’s build and loadout.
Criticisms aside, there is enough in Vanquish to warrant a modern sequel or an expansion on the fast and flashy third-person shooter. Now that Vanquish and Bayonetta have made it to most platforms it will be interesting to see if Platinum Games does anything with those ideas. They are definitely one of the most unique game studios out there and I’m glad they go out of their way to make games with a flair of oddity and style. Bringing both Vanquish and Bayonetta to modern consoles also makes my gaming preservationist heart swell and I’m glad that porting and remastering continue to be a trend.
I tip my hat to Vanquish but I wouldn’t have it over for dinner very often.
Vanquish was released on PS4 and Xbox One as a part of the Bayonetta and Vanquish 10th Anniversary Bundle for $39.99 USD but either game can be purchased separately for $24.99 USD. More information is available on the official Platinum Games website.
For a look at the Bayonetta side of this package, check out Matt’s review.
An Xbox One digital copy was provided for the purpose of review. Screenshots captured natively on Xbox One S.