One of my favorite game genre is the “Character Action Game”. Games like Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Devil May Cry are few of the titles that fall under this banner. Character action games have a certain quirk (or panache, if you will) to them that set them apart from their cousin: the “Spectacle Action Game” genre.
With that out of the way: It always irks me when gamers, reviewers in particular, make no difference between the two. Take for example the reception “The Legend of Korra” game for the PS3/4, and 360/XBONE from last year received from most major publications. Most of the complaints posed by reviewers can be attributed to the mislabeling of the game; and well the story not being as good as the series but the point still stands. Case in point IGN’s review of the game wherein it mentions the difficulty being elevated due to the way the item system works where potions used during a level aren’t replenished at the end of a chapter. Character Action games don’t do that, in fact most CAGs (which is what I’ll refer to Character Action Games from this point and in the same vein Spectacle Action Games as SAGs) penalize the player for using items. Their difficulty is designed in a way that additional aid via new moves and items help a player beat the game, but conquering the game is still reliant on the player’s knowledge of the combat system.
Now with the introductions out of the way, let me discuss the differences between a SAG and CAG. First topic of discussion is “The Game Structure”. First of all, the level design for each game vastly differs from one another. A CAG is designed with a “mission structure” in mind wherein each stage is a separate portion from the next, i.e. there’s a beginning and end to each level. On the other hand a SAG has a more fluid design. There are no transitions between levels and is just a giant open map.
Moving on to the actual design philosophy: a CAG’s structure is focused solely on the combat; the player controls the main character from level to level where the player fights his way through scores of enemies developing his familiarity and skill with the system. They’re designed in a way that puts emphasis on the game’s combat engine and the player’s ability to learn and adapt to the challenges posed by the enemies. On the other hand a SAGs structure has several layers to it. These games are designed with combat, exploration, platforming, and puzzle solving in mind. Take for example the God of War franchise. The series isn’t just known for its combat, but rather for its set pieces, and level design. Case in point the final level of the first God of War which essentially a set of puzzles which eventually leads to Kratos acquiring Pandora’s Box. Older CAGs have some elements of exploration, the Devil May Cry series in particular, but it isn’t as pronounced as God of War’s for example; also this is a result of Devil May Cry being a spin-off to the Resident Evil series. Moreover as I stated prior, CAGs also have combat in mind; so I wouldn’t blame you if this only further blurred the line between the two genres. This brings me to the next point of discussion: the Mechanical Depth of Combat.
When I talk about the Mechanical Depth of a game’s combat engine, I refer to the mechanics within the engine that isn’t just about hitting enemies. For example in the Bayonetta series has a mechanic known as Witch Time. Witch Time is activated when Bayonetta dodges an enemy’s attack at the last moment which slows down time and allows Bayonetta to attack the enemy without fear of being interrupted. An even deeper mechanic within this system is the Dodge Off-set. Dodge Off-set is done by performing a dodge in the middle of a combo and the last button pressed by the player is held down while the dodge animation is active. If done correctly the combo can be continued after the dodge is completed because otherwise a dodge maneuver would break the combo. Other CAGs have mechanics like this. From Metal Gear Rising Revengeance’s Zandatsu, Devil May Cry’s Style System, God Hand’s Dynamic Difficulty Level, each game has a unique mechanic to it (though after Bayonetta all of Platinum Game’s CAGs have incorporated Dodge Off-set). On the contrary a SAG has a more streamlined combat system. It’s a pure and simple combat engine that allows the player to feel good and succeed during combat without having to learn the nitty gritty of a game’s system. Case in point, in God of War the player is able to pretty much win the game by using the most efficient combo (Square, Square, Triangle) and the same thing can be said about Dante’s Inferno.
A SAG player can pretty much finish the game by abusing the most efficient combo, hell I completed both God of War 1 and 2’s hardest difficulties using the aforementioned combo and liberal use of magic. Contrary to this if you do not learn everything about a CAG you will most likely not be having a fun time. SAGs have a better ease of access to them in comparison to their close relatives the CAG. This leads me to my final point: Style vs. Substance.
In the same vein to the ease of access of the two games, how the two genres deal with action sequences follow the same philosophy. What I mean is this: an SAG takes away control from the player during set pieces while a CAG has the player actually performing the action necessary to execute the action. For example, we return again to our favorite God of War series: when Kratos finishes off a boss a giant circle icon appears on top of the bosses head and when triggered initiates a spectacular and gruesome QTE segment. On the contrary in Devil May Cry 4, Nero can beat a boss regularly by just beating him up with his sword, however if the player is able to parry a particular attack Nero does a completely different kill animation. Another example of this would be in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance where you can parry attacks to initiate a quick Zandatsu on enemies and even bosses. In short SAGs take control away from the player during action sequences allowing for, admittedly, extremely spectacular set pieces while in CAGs the player needs to initiate particular actions for the “hype” moments to be achieved. Basically style vs. substance, SAGs show you their set pieces while CAGs let you perform impressive deeds.
That brings me to the end of my discussion, I hope you can now differentiate the 2 genres from one another. Next time when you play an action game I trust you’d be able to temper your expectations based on the criteria I’ve laid out.