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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Deception IV: The Nightmare Princess (Sony PlayStation 4)

I've done a lot of thinking about Deception IV. Having first played it a year or so ago on the PlayStation Vita, I have always had this lingering notion that as much as I enjoy it (and I really, really enjoy it), it's never quite been the game I want it to be.

Now Koei Tecmo has released a "HD Remaster" version of the game on the PlayStation 4. Deception IV: The Nightmare Princess is the original game polished to look good on the newer hardware, and comes complete with a whole lot of new content - including a new character and storyline. It's very much the ultimate package, and fans of the previous release will easily find enough new content in here to justify a re-purchase. It's much more than an expansion on the original.

But, in playing through it again I think I'm coming to understand where my lingering frustration with Deception IV is coming from. It's not how the game plays (because it plays beautifully). It's not that the camera or AI will very rarely go wonky making it difficult to see and do what I need to. No. My challenge with this game is a thematic one, and it's not even that it's bad. It's just that it doesn't really go far enough for the kind of experience that it's trying to be.

At its core, Deception IV is a a work of sadism. Playing as the incarnation of the devil himself (Laegrinna, or newcomer, Velguirie), the goal in each stage is simple; to place a very wide range of traps an area that you're defending to defeat enemies. From the classic bear trap, through to crushing boulder, spikes, iron maidens and humiliating novelties like banana peels, rakes and pumpkins, you've got an expansive range of tools at your disposal, and the secret to victory is to lay these traps about so that, as the opponent steps on them, he or she can be caught in an elaborate sequence of bloodletting that will remove a lot of his/ her health, if not defeat them outright. For example you might catch someone in a bear trap at the bottom of the stairs, and have a boulder roll down to crush them while they are immobilised. An alternative strategy would be to have them slip on a banana peel so and fall into the path of an arrow from the wall.

There's no one right sequence of traps, and as the game progresses enemies develop resistances and tactics of their own, requiring you to be very creative about how you go about annihilating them. Eventually trap sequences become long, elaborate domino-like sequences of death, with the victims screaming or groaning in pain as they're haplessly tortured down and perish. It's all presented in a comic style, with the violence more anime than explicitly gory, but the core of Deception IV is dark stuff indeed.

It's impossible to properly analyse a game whose central theme is sadism without considering the Marquis De Sade, the writer and transgressive whose name forms the root of the word "sadism." Far from being the irrelevant pornographer that many assume he was (and indeed, considered him insane for back when he was alive), Sade had a definite method to is (proverbial) madness. He considered himself a philosopher, and was intensely interested in revolutionary and counter-cultural movements. He also had a deep distaste for religious organisations and dogmas, and used his writing on a regular basis to highlight perceived hypocrisy and corruption within religious organisations. His writings are confronting, but then they're designed to confront, to challenge, and from there enlighten.

So, for example, in many of Sade's works, including The 120 Days of Sodom, Juliette and La Nouvelle Justine, he argues that cruelty is a trait that all those in power will express, because it's part of the human condition: “murder is a branch of erotic activity, one of its extravagances”. It's an idea that many of the philosophers that have since studied Sade's work have also picked up on. As Geoffry Roche noted in his essay Black Sun: Bataille on Sade: Bataille also takes at face value Sade’s contention that there is a natural association (Bataille calls is a ‘general mechanism’) linking erection, ejaculation and ‘breaking the law’: “[i]ndependently of Sade, the sexual excitement of burglars has not escaped notice. But no one before him had grasped the general mechanism linking the reflex actions of erection and ejaculation with the transgression of the law” (ER: 196; Sade J: 124). 

It's a more common theme than you might think in modern film and literature. Almost all "torture porn" and slasher horror films use this theme as a central motif. Both Hostel films were explicit in drawing the link between people in power and cruelty (and the sexualised nature of that cruelty). But also films like Cabin in the Woods, for which voyeurism and the entertainment of cruelty was a central theme, and even the likes of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, where the indestructible murdering monsters are metaphor for those in power disempowering and enacting cruelty on those that exist outside of their rules, are representative of Sade's philosophy around the cruelty of the bourgeoisie.

And for the exploration of this theme to really work, it was necessary for all these films, writings, and so forth to shock and repulse. In an increasingly desensitised community to the media it is becoming increasingly difficult to shock and offend, but for the artists behind these works, it is of critical importance that the audience is left in no uncertain mind where the evil - and social problem - lies.

This is Deception's problem. It's explicitly sadistic, featuring bloodletting that would make a Saw film blush. It fetishises the violence and sexualises all the lead characters which, in addition to giving Anita Saarkesian something to complain about (making an all-female team of protagonists into tools of a male devil will never sit well with certain feminist circles), achieves the Sadean link between violence and eroticism. But Deception never leaves us wondering where the evil is, or the broader social context that it's addressing.

Yes, in theory, you're playing as a villain. But Deception gives you brief intros for each opponent that crosses you, and while there is the occasional hero that one assumes you're meant to feel comfortable with defeating, for the most part they are a mix of self-righteous fools and scumbags themselves. It doesn't take long for any potential for moral commentary within Deception to disappear, and while it tries to dress the narrative up in humour, it still fails to provide context to the sadistic violence going on around you.

The humour itself is quite dark and sharp, but it's effective. The way the bodies twist and contort as the traps hurl them around the place is really quite amusing. The descriptions of each of the characters, brief as they are, helps set them up as caricatures, while the overarching narrative has a odd dry chuckle along the way. If Deception was designed as a satire, then it largely fails because the humour comes too inconsistently and doesn't stay with the player long, but what there is in there is a good complement to the rest of the experience.

There is plenty of meat to the actual gameplay, too. Both narrative campaigns have dozens of missions, and to worth through it all is an undertaking that would rival shorter JRPGs for sheer content. There's also good replay value, with traps split into three different categories (elaborate, sadistic, and humiliating), and it's fun to try three different runs though the story, specialising in a different category each time.

The aesthetics also help round out the package beautifully. Environments are small and enclosed, so as to force you to make efficient use of real estate to lay out your elaborate traps, but they are well designed and the variety between them is strong. Dark as the theme is, the environments are gorgeous too, looking like the kind of traditional gothic arenas you would expect to see were someone to make a game version of The Castle of Ontranto or The Monk (some of the new content takes place in truly odd, modern locations, for an additional touch of the surreal). Character models are the real highlight, though, and are a significant improvement on the detail that we saw on the PlayStation 3 and Vita original releases. Deception IV still looks like an upscaled game, but this is one of the better examples of a "remaster."

Related reading: For a second opinion on the base game, you can also check out Brad's review of the PS3 release.

While I have some issues with the way Deception IV explores its themes, it is nonetheless a very fine and entertaining game, and I can guarantee you that there is nothing else quite like it on the PlayStation 4. For that reason alone it is worth a look; it might be a polarising game at times, but it is memorable and unique project, and as such it represents a creativity that we should all be encouraging in this industry.

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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Review: Deception IV: The Nightmare Princess (Sony PlayStation 4)
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