It's very easy to look at Jet Li's 2004 PS2 game Rise to Honour and dismiss it as another budgety, throw away, cash grab sort of game designed to bank off the martial-arts stars name.
Middling review scores, a front cover that sees Jet posing in what looks like his everyday attire, some early 2000's goons trying to look cool behind him, and a back cover that goes way too hard on a Times New Roman looking font.
I personally always saw this game at the shops but always passed on picking it up, it just looked cheap – but it being cheap couldn't be further from the truth.
This is a first-party, big-budget, full-blown, at the time highly advertised PS2 game developed by none other than Sony Computer Entertainment of America – and playing it you can just feel the money poured into it.
Remembering this came out at the beginning of 2004, it has good facial animation and lighting and particle effects and reflections and even a section showing off some fancy water physics.
It's all backed up by thoughtful visual design, flowing action movie music, a good variety of locations, and a solid frame rate.
Though it's obviously dated, if you like that PS2 era look you'll love the look of this, even if Jet Li doesn't look that much like Jet Li.
That's not to mention how there's plenty of well directed cutscenes, never any loading screens while playing – and it's not easy to tell where they hid the loading, and fully mocapped animation by none other than Jet Li himself which apparently took six weeks to capture.
If that wasn't enough, Sony hired choreographer and director Corey Yuen who you might know as the director of The Transporter and who worked with Li a ton before this to direct the game's mocap sessions.
My point is Sony bankrolled hard on this.
It had been in development since at least the year 2000, it was the first game Sony showed off at their e3 2003 conference, and if you're to believe Sony at that conference, apparently Jet Li just gave Sony a call out of the blue saying he wanted to be in a video game and off they went.
“Here we are early in the year 2000 and we're putting together a game that's based on Hong Kong action movies.
Jet Li calls up Sony and says hey I'd like to be in a videogame!” They also introduced a Rise to Honour as a brand new franchise in that conference but that was never to be.
Now it is a flawed game, and there is a reason that critics weren't too crack hot on it, and we'll get into that – but it's also one of those games where in every comments section and user review section of the game, there's without fail a bunch of people singing the game's praises saying it's criminally underrated as they desperately clamor for a remaster.
Seeing this love for the game is what had me personally excited to dive in and find out if it is indeed criminally underrated or not, and how it holds up today.
Upon booting it up for the first time you'll not only be impressed by the sleek presentation, but you'll be at least a bit intrigued by how the game walks a little different in how it handles basic mechanics.
From the outside it looks like a stock standard, button mashing beat them up but really you actually flicked the right stick towards opponents to hit them and you use the triggers to block, counter, grab, and go into a sort of rage mode which uses the ability meter.
This combat was pushed really heavily in the game's marketing, advertised as an innovative 360-degree fighting system.
In most of his films Jet Li does that classic martial arts movie trope where he takes down dozens of baddies by standing in the middle of them and whacking everyone around him whether they're behind him or next to him or in front of him and this control scheme with these animations have been designed to emulate that.
If you're targeting a guy in front of you, mid combo you can flick the stick in the opposite direction to hit the guy behind you which does feel good especially when you combine it with countering and grabbing.
It's punchy, responsive, and so intuitive that you'll almost immediately stop thinking about how unconventionally it controls.
Since the right stick is used for fighting, camera control has been sacrificed but impressively that's very rarely a problem and virtually never a problem during combat.
The way the camera follows you through levels is both practical and, knowing full well how buzz-wordy this next word is, cinematic.
It's just a pleasant game to look at.
Unfortunately cracks do start to show, mainly because its imprecise.
Like you can't really pick your moves and while it does feel satisfying to land hits, it also feels like you're guiding Jet Li and he's choosing which moves to use.
There's one counter that's a sweep kick and it's a very effective move since it hits lots of guys at once, but it can only be used against certain enemy attacks meaning you can't just use it whenever you want.
In other games you'd just press a button combination to do it, but here because everything is a bit weird you can't so it feels needlessly limited.
A more traditional control scheme would have fixed this but I do like what they were going for here and it really just needed tweaking.
All the combat is limited to the R1 button, the L1 button, and the right stick with R2 and L2 being unbound.
Had they utilized those triggers to maybe account for light and heavy attacks or differentiate between kicks and punches or both, they could have introduced some much-needed depth.
You also can't touch enemies while they're on the ground which just simplifies things further and though there are melee weapons in the game, which could add some much-needed complexity, they're bafflingly way too clunky and slow to use so it's almost never worth using them.
The pick up weapon button is the same button as block so you'll accidentally be picking up weapons all the time which is less than ideal and when you duel wield things get even worse.
If you're running at full speed while dual wielding, attacks simply won't register, you have to stop to attack and it feels awful.
I thought this was a bug at first but having finished the game twice with different copies of the game, both emulated and on a physical PS2, it's just how the game is.
Still though I want to emphasize that this is a fun combat system, it just doesn't need to be as simple as it is.
Hant to hand combat isn't Rise to Honours only gameplay pillar though with shootouts taking up a smaller chunk at a game, and the obsession with the right stick continues here.
Flick it towards enemies to lock-on, never run out of ammo or even reload, and just run around amongst the chaos.
They're easy spectacle sections that are again overly simple but they're an exciting way to break up the game.
You can even use your ability meter to go full Hong Kong action movie with a slo-mo Max Payne dive which is as effective as it is cool.
Then there's the stealth sections taking up an even smaller amount of the game.
Simple, line-of-sight, instant game over if you're caught affairs which don't allow any margin for error and make you play exactly how they want you to.
Like the rest of the game they're very straightforward but unfortunately these are very, very frustrating.
You move too slowly and though the enemies do just loop back and forth over and over again, the patterns they take often so bizarre that you actually need to wait around to watch an entire loop because they'll consistently get spooked by nothing at the same time in every loop and turn around to check on things.
There's actually only three stealth sections in the entire game but they're so annoying that it feels there's more and the final two are in really dull industrial type areas which doesn't help.
I actually didn't mind the first one simply because of the setting and we got to hear some great enemy banter including this fourth wall breaking conversation.
“It's Frankie's birthday next week he wants that Rise to Honour game” “oh yeah I saw the commercial for that one it looks really good” Susie won't get it for him unless he gets an A on his biology final” “buy it anyway Frankie's a smart kid” “Susie would kill me” “what a wimp” As the game goes on the frustration sadly extends beyond just the stealth levels.
The difficulty begins to skyrocket, and because the fighting system is so simple it feels more like you need to exploit tricks to beat the game.
I swear to god that the final goon fight was designed around you needing to figure out that you have to spam wall flips just to beat it and the boss battles, as much as I love their character, definitely err on the side of cheap and unfair.
They'll dodge absolutely everything you throw at them so it's all about figuring out the one thing the game wants you to do whether it's drowning them to fill up your ability meter or waiting for them to play out that one certain combo so you can get a hit in rather than them testing your skills in any way.
It's just complete trial and error.
So with the game mechanically being very simple, and with it being frustrating at times especially near the end, it's no surprise that critics weren't to crash hot on this – especially because it's only six hours long and it was hyped up so much.
As a value proposition buying a somewhat frustrating six hour long game on release simply isn't very appealing.
But despite all this I really really enjoyed my time with Rise to Honour.
If you're a 'game play is the only thing that matters' sort of person then stay far far away, you won't like this game and that's completely valid, however if you're like me and you can look past these hang-ups there is a lot to love here.
There was a big push in the early 2000s to make video games that were a cinematic experience particularly from Sony.
You had the live action PS2 adverts made to look film like with directors like David Lynch, you had games like The Getaway removing any form of a heads-up display, upping the production with the cutscenes and borderline parrodying British gangster flicks, and you had games like ICO doing the same HUD-less thing and using a flowing restricted camera to look more cinematic.
Rise to Honour does have a small heads-up display that you can turn off and like I said it does restrict camera movement to good cinematic effect but it's the breakneck pace and barrage of cutscenes short and long that give it its cinematic flair.
Between fights there'll be cut scenes, between stealth sections there'll be cut scenes, between levels there'll be cut scenes that jump between different locations and again these cut scenes are all directed well and seamlessly transition in and out of gameplay without loading and they're spliced in in such a way that they rarely feel interruptive – and really this is where the cinematic buzzword ended up trending towards with modern triple-A games because Rise to Honour ebbs and flows more like Uncharted than anything else.
There's a sentiment among fans that Rise to Honour was way ahead of its time and I believe this is why, there's no collectibles or RPG elements or anything gamey – its instead very linear, very handcrafted, and it just keeps moving forward – and sure the gameplay is very simple but that doesn't stop it from feeling good and being approachable.
Like with Uncharted, which arguably also suffers from overly simple gameplay, it's easy to lose yourself to Rise to Honour for a few hours.
If it starts getting a little tired, it'll hit you with a new story beat or a location change or a gameplay change.
There's even some setpiece-y light platforming bits just like Uncharted where you're chasing someone or running away from something but instead of a jump button you use the context-sensitive R1 button which admittedly is more clunky but it does get the job done – and it's all backed up by a fun very typical Hong Kong action movie story where Jet is an undercover cop named Kit Yun who's assigned as a bodyguard for a Hong Kong mob boss but once that boss gets killed Kit must avenge his death and honour his dying wishes, or Rise to Honour (this joke wasn't worth it) his dying wishes rather.
It's pulpy and silly but the themes of family, revenge, allegiance and of course honour all come into play in a fun way with good setups and payoffs and all the fights and location changes are justified by the story.
It's really simple stuff but it's satisfying to follow and it's very very effective at getting that Hong Kong cinema vibe down.
There's even a hospital sequence near the end of the movie complete with trolley beds to ride and shoot on just like in Hard-Boiled or in Jet Li's own movie Black Mask.
Interestingly the game takes place half in Hong Kong and half in San Francisco and in Hong Kong you can choose between Cantonese or English dialogue.
After playing through the game twice with both as expected subs over dubs.
I'd be lying to you if I said that there weren't problems with the game beyond just the gameplay.
The voice acting is pretty questionable and it's one of those games where it feels like you should be actually playing a lot of the cutscenes, like there's an entire sequence where you're running away from a helicopter but then in a cutscene Kit shoots it down or right at the end of the game there could have been another final boss battle, I won't spoil the twist but it would have been very satisfying to play.
At least there's no quick time events I guess and the cutscenes are well done enough that it is forgivable.
There's also a small handful of levels that feel visually uninspired and do drag on a bit, particularly towards the end, but they stand out more because the rest of the game is so tight and because the gameplay is so simple.
Like really what is with the video games and sewers, or at least places that look like sewers, but hey it still moves quick enough that you know a bad level or sequence won't last too long.
Weighing it all up, Jet Li's Rise to Honour these days stands as a great way to relive some PS2 charm with more modern sensibilities.
Because it predicted how a contemporary 6-hour third-person action game campaign would flow and thanks to its technical competence and production value it's aged incredibly well and its unique approach to game mechanics gives it an interesting edge.
It's very much the PS2 game for a busy working adult who just wants to play something quick, straightforward, welcoming and charming to transport you back to that era provided you have the tolerance and patience for some unfair fights.
So it's not some mind-blowing or amazing game and with its shortcomings I can understand a lot of the critic reviews from back in the day but Rise to Honour has a lot of heart and I'm very glad that I played it.
Even though I just beat it twice in a row and because it's so linear it doesn't really demand replaying by any means, I can see myself returning to the game later on in life for a Jet Li flavored short and sweet PS2 campaign to kick back and smile at.
And with that we wrap up a review of Jet Li's Rise to Honour, I hope you enjoyed it, I know I've certainly enjoyed making it and discovering this game, thank you for watching, I hope you've been well, if you want to support the show you can subscribe and like and hit the bell which I know is a youtuber thing to say or you can support on Patreon – so this is where I thank all my patrons including the ones coming up on the screen and especially including Thank you all for watching, thank you for supporting the show, and I'll see you all in the next video take care.