Sin and Punishment Review – At the Top of the Treasure Chest

Due to my recent acquisition of an RGB modded Nintendo 64 and an EverDrive-64 X7, I was able to indulge in something I’ve wanted to do for a long time — play Sin and Punishment on original hardware. Often considered the ‘one that got away’, Treasure’s rollercoaster third-person rail shooter was a popular choice for import gamers in the early 2000s and eventually saw a localised Western release in 2007 for the Wii Virtual Console. Playing the game on a physical N64 is a huge treat, enhanced by the opportunity to experience the meticulous controls designed specifically for the console. One of Treasure’s primary goals when developing Sin and Punishment was to use the three-pronged N64 controller to its maximum potential. Accommodating both the left and right-handed, players are expected to use the thumb of their dominant hand to move the firing reticule, and their non-dominant thumb to move the playable character (either using the d-pad or the c buttons). It is impressive that Treasure utilised both sides of this oft-criticised controller and the game feels smooth and natural whichever way you hold it. The controls, in general, are stellar, successfully translating Treasure’s 2D sensibilities into a 3D space. The company clearly build upon the foundation they established during the 16-bit era, building upon their deceptively simple yet layered gameplay systems. Dual protagonists, Saki and Airan, can double-jump, dodge roll and attack close-quarters with a sword (which also acts as a counter that can be used to send back enemy projectiles). The addition of these quasi-platforming mechanics to the basic rail shooter formula results in a frenetic, entirely unique gameplay experience. Sin and Punishment also regularly plays with perspective, constantly switching camera angles as levels twist and turn, while occasionally forcing the player into 2D side-scrolling sections in which they must manually advance forward (as opposed to the usual rule that a rail shooter should remain, well, on rails). This helps to keep the experience fresh and speaks to Treasure’s divine ability to constantly innovate and keep the player engaged over the entire course of their games.

Spread over three acts (each divided into three or four segments) Sin and Punishment moves at a breakneck pace and, remaining true to its arcade stylings, wraps up in less than an hour (depending on how many times you kick the bucket). Like almost all of Treasure’s catalogue, the short length is offset by sheer replayability. The carefully crafted, accessible gameplay is a pitch-perfect match for the game’s challenging, score-attack set-pieces and creates an addictive, player-driven loop. Three difficulty levels (some featuring entirely new bosses) ensure that Sin and Punishment will see (at the bare minimum) two or three replays, and your first run will always feel like a learning experience; practice for the real thing. While gameplay is clearly the central design focus (case in point, the huge flashing message ‘start > skip’ that sits at the top of every single cutscene) there is a delightfully bizarre, over-the-top story to complement the high energy action. Said story follows Saki and Airan as they fight the genetically engineered mutants, the ‘Ruffians’, and the oppressive ‘peacekeeping’ force the ‘Armed Volunteers’. Both central characters are guided by a mysterious, powerful young girl named Achi. The plot and visual design are very clearly inspired (like a lot of Japanese media during the late ’90s and early ’00s) by Neon Genesis Evangelion, focusing on themes of choice, freedom, individuality and, of course, titanic, cosmic aliens fighting each other. The similarity to EVA is most apparent during the culmination of the first act, arguably the highlight of the entire game, in which Saki, literally drowning in a pool of blood that swallows the entirety of Japan, emerges transformed as an ‘Evangelion Unit-01’ look-a-like to battle a similarly angular mutant.

The moment-to-moment writing of Sin and Punishment is almost incomprehensibly schizophrenic, serving as nothing more than a segue way between ridiculous set pieces. In essence, it really doesn’t have to be more than that, and the bizarre dialogue has a strange appeal to it, which successfully elevates the material. One of the reasons Sin and Punishment was so popular as an import choice was the fact it was completely dubbed in English from inception. The voice acting is delightfully cheesy and stilted, recalling the best of 90’s rental store direct-to-video anime, endowing the entire experience with a unique, slightly goofy charm (shout-out to main antagonist and head of the ‘Armed Volunteers’, Brad) that simultaneously contrasts and complements the more serious, violent aspects of the plot (think of it as slightly Lynchian, a juxtaposition of the sinister surreal and the mundane). This likeability is further reinforced by a striking art style and sharp character design, which is a result of Treasure’s insistence on limiting the polygon count to keep the game running smoothly. All the characters and enemies in Sin and Punishment are made up of a set number of large polygons, which gives them a sharp, angular appearance. The designs, at least in-game, recall Vagrant Story’s bottom-heavy character models, with facial expressions that are entirely made up of flat textures. Thanks to these large-poly models, Sin and Punishment also exhibits something of an unusual anime-meets-Western-comic-book styling (whether intended or not), which immediately brings to mind (at least for me) the work of Jhonen Vasquez (creator of Invader Zim), with his lanky, large-eyed cast of freaks and geeks.

Sin and Punishment is a title fully deserving of its position in the cult-classic canon and stands as an entirely novel, genre-bending, ambitious N64 behemoth. Deftly combining rail shooter conventions with fast-paced, explosive action platforming, the game is pure entertainment, bolstered by a surreal, silly and altogether quite disturbing plot. As cliched as it is to say, there really is nothing quite like it, especially on the Nintendo 64, which was far more renowned for its 3D platformers than its Evangelion-inspired sci-fi romps (that is, discounting the actual Japan only Evangelion game released on the system). Blasting away a beach full of alien creatures before chasing a mutant spider into an abandoned store to cut it up with your sword is so distinctly and unapologetically Treasure. The kind of thrill that only a company firing on all cylinders can deliver.

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