Koei Tecmo’s Attack on Titan is a fascinating game. The console adaptation of the breakout apocalyptic franchise in which giant humanoids feast on people is a lot of fun to play, capturing the thrill that watching or reading the comics only hoped to convey. Hajime Isayama’s apocalyptic fantasy, with its gas-powered jets and swords, has quite a dramatic and inventive solution to giant extermination.
But with a preoccupation to action, the game fails to do what the anime series (to be honest, I’ve never read the manga) does best: create horror and drama.
“Horror” is a bit of a misnomer for Attack on Titan. Yes, the show is often scary, but because it’s about giants and the apocalypse, Attack on Titan isn’t the kind of horror in which Dario Argento or Wes Craven specialized. It’s about as much horror as The Walking Dead is: Bountiful in atmosphere, hardly concerned with frights.
Still, video games by its nature offer a dimension that passive activities like TV and comics cannot. The anime, chiefly written by one of my favorite genre writers Yasuko Kobayashi, did extremely well in capturing the abysmal nihilism when mankind is doomed to be food for mindless predators. This is a non-spoiler: The death of lead character Eren Yeager’s mother, who is eaten alive, is one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen, animation or otherwise.
Because the game is a strict adaptation, as that’s more marketable, the game plays this gruesome and memorable scene in a non-interactive cutscene, underwhelming the combined game experience. Hell yeah, killing Titans is fun. But packaged with the CGI cutscenes that basically re-animate scenes verbatim from the anime? That’s less fun.
What if the game didn’t care about recreating the anime so slavishly? What if, instead, the game took advantage of an interactive experience and made a giant monster game as terrifying as it should be? Slicing and dicing Titans is a chaotic affair, a roller-coaster that’s visually and physically thrilling. But would fighting Titans really be like a roller-coaster, or would it be a PTSD-inducing nightmare?
Giant monster horror has a long history going back to H.P. Lovecraft, but Japan’s most recognized is Ishiro Honda’s Gojira from 1954. A meditative nightmare on nuclear annihilation, Gojira was moody and bleak, and it remains unmatched in tone by contemporaries sixty years later. (I have not yet seen Shin Godzilla and the 2014 Godzilla had a quite a lot of action.)
Other games like Shadow of the Colossus and the upcoming Prey for the Gods have mapped out how monster combat games should work, favoring a more tense “boss battle” fight for every monster instead of making them numerous and easy to kill like putties from Power Rangers.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, has already dived into monster horror despite being a budding technology with games like The Brookhaven Experiment, Edge of Nowhere, and Kaiju Fury!, a collaboration between the celebrated Stan Winston School of Character Arts, VR studio Jaunt, and New Deal Studios. Kaiju Fury! puts virtual reality audiences in a live-action giant monster attack, simulating the helplessness no Godzilla movie has done before.
To bring it all back together: I never felt helpless in Attack on Titan. While the anime does a bang-up job creating this feeling through sympathetic characters and their unenviable environment, the video game never succeeds in instilling urgency or causing terror while playing. If I died, it was merely game over. There’s a lack of stakes and tension to keep flying and slicing about — only the pure thrill of it. It’s great, and it’s fun, but, eventually, it runs out of gas.