Friday, February 12, 2016

Baroque comparison--what was lost in the upgrade

NOTE: PS2 screenshots were captured from this video, hence the watermarks.

Baroque was released on Playstation and Saturn by Sting in 1998--you may have missed it back then since it was a Japan only release. You might also know Sting best from their series of Dreamcast/Gamecube RPGs, Evolution. Unlike the somewhat conventional JRPG style of Evolution, Baroque is an obtuse, creepy, unfriendly, depressing and profoundly atmospheric first person dungeon crawler that could be compared to a sort of roguelike Shadow Tower.

The Blaze has ruined the planet as we know it; what is left is a barren, red wasteland populated with mutated people and the once-human "Meta Beings", violent and distorted monsters that will kill anything that crosses their path. As an young man with no memory of his past, the player is confronted by Archangel, a man wearing fake wings that signify his standing in some sort of mysterious holy order. Archangel tells the player to enter the Neuro Tower, a bizarre and ever changing structure that, rather than rising upward, descends deep into the ground.

About ten years after its initial release Sting recreated Baroque from the ground up and unleashed it on PS2 and Wii. Aside from a few quality-of-life improvements to make the game more accessible (especially the very welcome English translation) I see it as an inferior remake; let's look at some comparison shots between the remake and the PS1/Saturn original.

Need I add any comment here? The original version of the "Absolute God", the entity at the bottom of the Neuro tower, was scary as shit. I've never seen anything like that in a video game. To replace it with the bound naked woman? This ill advised change. Less creepy, more fanservice.

The main draw of the game to me was the dark and alien atmosphere created by the PS1's more primitive graphics--the Meta Beings, while still very weird and creepy, just don't strike the same chord as their hand-drawn sprite counterparts.

The overall design of the Neuro Tower doesn't look as decrepit and dark in the remake either, losing the sort of Kowloon Walled City feeling I got from the original. It has a more technological look that is striking in parts but overall less effective than the lo-fi creepiness of the Saturn and PS1 release.

Yikes. As you can see the overall production also has a more anime feel to it which I'm just not into here.

NPC comparisons. I don't mind some of these as much, though I don't care for Archangel's design on either version. At least they gave the Horned Girl a place to sit in the remake!

What do you think of the changes between Baroque and its remake? Do you agree that the unique atmosphere that crappy graphics bring to a game is something we've lost these days? I know that the inherent creepiness in vague and grainy visuals was more a byproduct than an intentional move by game developers back then, but I can't deny that it led to games like Baroque, Silent Hill etc. looking creepier and more atmospheric than their later-gen sequels.

There are always exceptions, though!


  1. I totally agree with you here! I've briefly played the Saturn version of Baroque (didn't get too far because of the language barrier) and I found the atmosphere to be extremely compelling in a cyberpunk Silent Hill kind of way. I am generally of the opinion that simpler graphics cause a player to engage more with a game through their imagination, and that ESPECIALLY with horror, imagination is far more powerful than complete and direct presentation. With the PS2 remake of Baroque it seems like they took something gloriously strange, imaginative and obscure and turned it into a bland anime JRPG outing with superficial "horror" elements. I can't imagine the original design team was heavily involved with the remake; it just doesn't have the spirit of the original at all. It doesn't intrigue and disturb in the same way.

    It's great that you chose REmake as a counter-example though, because I totally agree there too. That's in my top 5 survival horror games ever, and the graphics in it are beautifully detailed. But REmake has such a strong sense of personality, wonderful design, and a total commitment to the soul of the original game, unlike the Baroque remake.

    I mean, just look at the empty open blackness that's in the background of most of those PS1 Baroque screenshots... It's terrifying, a dark space that the mind struggles to fill in. Was it a hardware limitation? Yeah, probably. But you can find the same kind of effect in many of the environments in Silent Hill 1 for PSX, and they produce the same powerful effect. The PS2 backgrounds, in comparison, are mostly a bunch of gray walls. Where's the darkness? Where's the intriguing sense of the unknown? This is one of the best examples I've ever seen of how over-illustrating with graphics kills off the player's ability to imagine, and more specifically kills off that sense of mystery which is so effective at creating joy in exploration and a sense of wonder in any kind of video game, but is probably most powerful of all in horror. Also, the replacement of that mysterious half-shadowed sepia face with a generic 3D-rendered moe-looking anime girl face... lol.

  2. This is a fantastic comparison. I've been meaning to play the Wii version of Baroque for quite a while now, but the 32-bit version just looks so much better in comparison. The differences between PS2 and Wii Fatal Frame 2 weren't as stark but it was similar, where the graphics were better, a little too much attention was given to making the girls look better, it wasn't quite as clunky as the PS2 game, but the Wii game just was't as creepy, at least not in the "ghosts are scary" way.

    1. Thanks for looking! It makes me want to do some research and see if other remakes have lost some indefinable quality when the graphics quality went up.

      I agree, Fatal Frame PS2 was just old enough that we still had that grit on the graphics, kinda reminiscent of the film grain in older movies...or maybe that was just the grain filter they added to the game, haha.

  3. NOTE TO READERS: just so you know, I replied to gnosisonic's excellent comment off-site, so don't think that I'm ignoring these!

  4. Personally, I felt just as creeped out by the remake as the original; in fact, I overall prefer the remake. While the original did have that inherent tension, the fact that you couldn't have a view other than first-person made it more frustrating than anything. Fighting in that view feels like you're not even there, truly, and so didn't help in immersion for me. The remake's creepiness is slightly duller with some of the design choices, but having the above third-person-view and enhanced graphics overall immerse me better, elevates it above the original for me; it felt like I was actually fighting, using those items, and etc. Then again, I'm not particularly attached to the viewpoint that 'unseen = scarier', so there's that to consider in comparing.

    As far as the Absolute God, absolutely disagree. The fact that she's naked didn't come off as fanservice at all imo; in fact, it just came off as uncanny and wrong considering that she's bound, and it's never presented as titillating in the slightest either. In fact, the moment you hear 'don't go crazy', any feelings of such that might've been there just vanish and never come back. Plus, her distortion making her appear human (specifically the Archangel's sister) is a great contrast to the distortions of the other characters/Meta-Beings, and I prefer that over the not-particularly-scary (imo) undefined form seen above. In addition, the anime styling itself being in such a creepy game, even as other characters are rendered more realistically, only furthers the contrast and uncanny feeling

    1. (11 months late in replying...)

      I appreciate the comments, even if we don't see eye to eye with it. There's no doubt there are a lot of factors that lead to you not really feeling like you're there in the original (the same kind of floaty combat that plagued King's Field, for starters) and that's hard to argue for. I still prefer the jankiness of the original, but thanks for sharing your perspective!

  5. I love both remake and original. Btw I never play 3rd person in remake, only first person view!

    And yeah also disagree about absolutegod. And if any anime is reminded to me, that would be those 80s animes with oppressed atmo like wicked city, doomed megalopolis etc

    1. as for the Absolute God, I think I'd be more on board with it if the character art styles were...better, haha. If they shared that same hard edged 80's anime look instead of the softer, doe-eyed style I would've had a lot better reaction. Thanks for the comment! I like both versions, all things considered--the remake definitely plays better even if the atmosphere doesn't work for me.

  6. Yeah I liked the original style much more, the graphics looks grittier. It reminds me of the difference between the old 80's/early 90's anime and modern stuff that looks much soft/glossier. Same deal with the classic Doom/Quake games... they have a much more distinctive style than the generic sleek scifi/hell environments of Doom 2016.