Friday, April 27, 2012

Splatterhouse (2010)

I've always been fascinated by what people consider a "bad game." As a guy who grew up watching shitty horror flicks interspersed with weird foreign movies on Cinemax and chasing down any music I could find in the pre-internet to pre-Napster era, usually by watching MTV after midnight (hey, it was suburban/rural Pennsylvania... we didn't get an "alternative rock" radio station until nu metal came along), I quickly learned that the best stuff wasn't necessarily the best-looking. To this day, I have as much love for something like Critters 3 or Cyborg 2 as I do bigger budget megaplex fare.

In the gaming world, I love tracking down the weird stuff. Buying a new copy of Deadly Premonition without having read a single thing about it or heard anything from anyone and diving into all it's terrible awesomeness has been a highlight for me in this generation of gaming. Grasshopper Manufacture's Shadows Of The Damned was a gleefully cheesy homage to B movies and cult horror classics mixed with a liberal dose of machismo that, despite some dated controls, was an absolute blast to play. It was also widely ignored by fans. There's also Atlus' demented dating sim from Hell/puzzle game Catherine. Hell, most of the games Atlus puts out have a wide streak of weirdness in them. And that's just off the top of my head. If you're willing to take a risk, there's plenty of rough diamonds out there to find.

That said, does Namco's remake of the gore classic Splatterhouse series fall into the category of "cheesy cult classic" the way the previously mentioned games do? Eh. Not really. But it's still worth playing.

Splatterhouse started as a blatant Friday The 13th rip-off done in the style of a side-scrolling beat-'em-up. It was cheap, crass, gory and tough. Like a lot of games of it's generation, the plot was largely incidental: boy meets girl, girl gets kidnapped by evil doctor, boy puts on cursed mask that turns him into a hulking monster and goes on a monster-killing rampage. It spanned a few different games that found their way to different systems with varying degrees of success. I have a lot of fond memories of smacking shambling monsters with a two-by-four but the series holds a sentimental place in my heart more for it's willingness to go for the gore in an age of very kid friendly platformers.

The remake stays the course with a fleshed out re-telling of the original story in the form of a 3rd person brawler. It's got boobs, blood and a surprisingly killer heavy metal soundtrack. On paper, it was a game designed perfectly for me. I mean, as a collectable, you pick up torn photos of your kidnapped girlfriend topless. Yes, goofballs like me were certainly the target audience.

Things got lost in the implementation, though. Most notably, combat. Most of it is a standard 3rd person brawling with a leveling system a la Devil May Cry or God Of War. However, weapons are rare and degrade quickly so you're going to be fist fighting through a majority of the game. Therein lies the problem. There's a wealth of different moves to buy but a lot of them seem superfluous and not as effective as I'd have liked. I found myself using the same five or six moves throughout the game.

Also problematic were the context-sensitive finishers. The game doesn't have a ton of enemy variety and all enemies have only a maximum of two finishers. Ripping a giant creature's asshole out might be worth a giggle the first couple of times but tedium sets in fast. By the time you hit the last third of the game, you've seen just about everything and merely repeat the same fights over and over again.

Creature design is so-so. Mostly they are variations of the enemy types you'd expect, right down to the evil clowns. Some of the enemies seem to be based on the original Splatterhouse designs and feel too generic. The levels also feel a bit too familiar: creepy mansion, creepy junkyard, creepy circus, etc.

The game picks up in other areas, though. The gore is fantastic. Without hyperbole, this is possibly the bloodiest game I've ever played. Everything is soaked in it. It's even the in-game currency for leveling up your character.

The biggest surprise was the story itself. Not necessarily the characters, they're very much archetypes. Rick, the hero, is metal nerd and a college student. Jennifer, the inexplicably hot girlfriend, is a screaming plot device with no personality. The villian, Dr. West, is a Lovecraft character dialed up to eleven. Though they were stuck using the thinly drawn characters from the original games, there was still room to play around with the characterizations to make things feel more interesting. Particularly Jennifer, who exists only to be kidnapped. They probably would have been better off making her either more nerdy hot (with the nude pictures you collect during the game showing a racier side of her) or a more righteous modern chick that doesn't enjoy being forced into a victim role. As a generic blond hottie, Jennifer is a character archetype better off updated for the times.

However, working within the confines of the original story, writer Gordon Rennie (a former writer for the legendary UK comic magazine 2000 A.D) improves on things admirably. The Terror Mask that saves Rick from a bloody death is given a gruff, profanity heavy personality (voiced by Jim Cummings, who you might remember as Darkwing Motherfucking Duck) that taunts and teases the freaked-out and panic-y Rick throughout the game. Because they are symbiotically connected, the Terror Mask can comb through the dark recesses of Rick's mind for all his dirty little secrets and happily uses that information to make Rick more and more miserable and, as a result, more pliable and easy to manipulate. The mask has it's own history and it's own reasons for saving Rick and fighting Dr. West. The interactions between the two are your primary source of dialogue and as the game reaches the conclusion, the roles have shifted a bit. Rick grows more comfortable in his new reality and the Terror Mask doesn't like it. They may need each other to survive but a stronger and more assertive Rick is detrimental to the Terror Mask's plans and they both know it.

There's also the obvious similarities between the goals of Rick and Dr. West. Ultimately, both just want their loved one back. When the game starts introducing elements of time travel, it all ties together neatly in a way I won't spoil other than to say that West's centuries long acts of hubris had damned him from the start. It's a neat and unexpected bit of nuance in a game you would not expect any nuance from. Naturally, West is now completely bugfuck and would rather invoke Lovecraftian Old Ones to destroy everything than live without his Leonora. And without a sequel to look forward to (as you'd expect, the game bombed pretty bad), the game broadly hints that Rick may end up going down the same path as West, starting the whole thing rolling all over again.

It's not Shakespeare, as the hoary old cliche goes, but in a game mostly about boobs and blood, it's a damn sight more thoughtful than you'd expect... and with the combat such a let-down, it's good to have something to look forward to.

When you're done with the single player, the game offers an arena mode that, honestly, isn't worth the time unless you're achievement hunting. The real bonus is that all of the previous Splatterhouse games are unlocked once you finish the game, allowing you to go back and re-live the magic of reducing monsters to mush in 2-D. (Of course, you could always skip ahead and just get the original Splatterhouse for your iPod/iPad as well.)

You can chalk up this remake as a noble failure. Maybe if it had an extra six months or a year in development it would have been a game worth remembering but for a niche title like this, that was probably never in the cards. Unless you're die hard about owning the original games, Splatterhouse is the definition of a "rental" but if you're looking for something a little obscure and rough around the edges, you could do a lot worse.

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