Developed by Namco
Available for the PS3 and Xbox 360
Few games of the early to mid-nineties had the balls to invoke hardcore horror, gore, and violence. With Nintendo censoring the games on its home consoles to expunge most references to religion, graphic violence, or sexuality, and with media-fueled sociopolitical hysterics over the evils of video games, many game development companies simply played it safe and avoided controversial subject matter.
That doesn’t mean that violent or mature games were hard to find. Gamers could go to the Sega Genesis, PC, or the arcades for more grown-up fare. Many gamers were, naturally, also into horror movies. Game series like Castlevania and Contra used horror elements in their level and enemy design, and there were adaptations of famous horror movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. But few titles embraced the excess and atmosphere of gross-out 80s horror cinema like Namco’s Splatterhouse.
The game first arrived in North America in the arcades in 1989, and was later ported to the Turbo Graphx-16. It featured a hockey mask-wearing college student named Rick trudging through a haunted mansion filled with ghouls, ghosts, poltergeists, and mutants conjured up by occult scientist Dr. Henry West. The game was colorful, bloody, and simple: move from left to right, using your punches, kicks, or various weapons (including a chainsaw or a double barreled shotgun) to splatter the evil creatures that stood between you and your girlfriend, Jennifer.
Visually, the game took its cues primarily from the colorful splatterfilms of the 1980s, including and especially Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Evil Dead II, as well as slasher films like the Friday the 13th series. Monsters were slimy, disgusting, and horrifying, and they died in all sorts of gruesome, blood- and slime-soaked ways—a far cry from the cutesy turtles and walking mushrooms of the Super Mario Bros. games. The backgrounds and environments of the West Mansion (aka the Splatterhouse) were littered with victims of torture, body parts, flickering candles, and dark shadows, calling to mind horror films from both the classical school and the gore wave of the 1980s. The sound effects were squishy and brutal, and the synth soundtrack featured lo-fi cross-cultural interpretations of John Carpenter or Goblin.
Its sequels saw release on the popular Sega Genesis home console. Splatterhouse 2 was more of a remake of the first game, whereas 3 was a side-scrolling beat-em-up more in line with Double Dragon.
I love Splatterhouse 2 and deeply regret selling it a few years back (hey, I was an unemployed veteran with grad school coming up, cut me some slack). When Namco published a new game for the PS3 and Xbox 360 simply called Splatterhouse in 2010, I was anxious to play it. Unfortunately, the reviews were harsh, and the game was quickly relegated to the bargain bin. But with the advent of the expensive and multiplayer-focused PS4 and Xbox One, I realized that console gaming and I are going to part ways. It was time to explore the PS3 back catalog. I found the game in the aforementioned bargain bin and snatched it up.
So what’s wrong with the game?
First of all, it’s a God of War clone. You control Rick from a third-person point of view, running around arena-style environments and punching mutant enemies. This is pretty typical for many action games of the last and current generation—but sometimes the perspective shifts to a side scrolling perspective, which is meant as a callback to the original games. The problem is, neither of these perspectives quite work, as the controls are floaty, alternating between unresponsive and over-sensitive. This is a big, big problem for an action game. As simple as the original Splatterhouse games were (at least the first and second titles), if you got hit, it was your fault. Not so here.
This lack of polished control is a symptom of a much broader problem: the game is clearly unfinished, and appears to have been rushed to meet a release deadline. Evidence of this is the “boss” fights or end-chapter encounters are often just gimmicky battles; you don’t feel in control of Rick or feel like you’re facing a legitimate combat challenge. Instead, you’re forced to mash buttons until the bosses (what few there are) present you with a quicktime event challenge. This usually needs to be repeated four or five times until the end of the battle. It gets boring, fast. What’s truly unforgiveable is that, for some chapters, there’s no boss battle at all—you just fights waves of the same old enemies, over and over again. This is true of the final battle as well. Instead of actually fighting the giant corpse creature coming to kill you and your girlfriend, you literally fight waves of the same enemies you’ve been fighting all game.
Speaking of enemies, there’s not much variety in them. There’s a few basic types that are reskinned and sometimes given additional moves or health. They all look the same, too, with unfinished texture work and the same death animations when you execute repetitive splatterkills (quicktime events).
You’re often subject to cheap deaths, and your moves lock you into overlong animations that expose you to counterattack. Combat around pits is a crapshoot, as you’ll often be pushed into a hole at seemingly random times. This triggers another one of the game’s frequent and long loading screens—which are another sign that the game wasn’t optimized before release.
The graphics alternate between decent and downright bad. Some environments, like the haunted amusement park, look pretty cool. The camera often works against you, as it seems to randomly swing around as you try to pursue an enemy across the screen, sending your view into a low-res texture somewhere as you mash buttons, hoping you’re hitting something (and not getting hit yourself). And forget trying to figure out the game’s floaty jumping controls. You’re going to fall into pits and stare at loading screens. A lot. The sound effects aren’t bad, but the metal rock soundtrack feels out of place. The game’s soundtrack works best during the side scrolling levels, as the music here consists of fun callbacks to the previous games’ great synth horror music.
This is a game that is unfinished, unoptimized, and rushed out the door for a quick cash grab.
So why would I recommend it?
Well, it gets a few things right. The story, for one, when it presents itself, is actually a fun retelling of certain Lovecraftian tropes. You’ll learn more about the history of the West Mansion and the good doctor himself through journal entries, gramophone recordings, and cutscenes. Also, the Terror Mask is a fun companion (when he’s not repeating the same catchphrases over and over again) who provides the player with a clever meta-commentary about the game’s over-the-top gore and violence. You’ll end up questioning both Rick’s motivation and your own as the Mask cajoles and pressures you to commit acts of greater and greater violence.
Now, there’s nothing particularly new here, but the story (at least up until the very end of the game, which offers a “twist” but then just rolls the credits) is well-told and full of fun references to horror movies and literature. As you move into the game’s final chapters, you might even start to find Dr. Henry West to be a somewhat sympathetic character—especially as you consider how your own actions may have contributed to creating such a monster.
The fighting, when it’s not a broken mess, can be fun and satisfying if you can get into a rhythm. It possesses a good risk/reward system, as you can play it safe to conserve your health, or you can play aggressively for a chance at earning more blood (which is used to upgrade your character and execute special moves). Using weapons is, just like in the old games, immensely satisfying, especially when you get your blood-soaked hands on a chainsaw.
What really seals the deal for me is the unlockables that you earn as you progress through the game’s campaign—and no, I’m not talking about the nudie pictures of Jennifer. Included on this disc are all three original Splatterhouse games. Even if you don’t like the main game itself, it only requires a couple of hours of playing (even on Coward Mode) to unlock these classic games. And that effort is worth it, as these originals tend to be hard to come by without resorting to emulation.
Okay, so, to sum up—this game is kind of a broken mess. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had here. Considering that I bought the game for $5.99 from my local game shop and I got a few hours of playtime out of it (and the original three games), I’d say that was worth it. Start the game on Coward Mode and decide whether you want to play through again with more of your skills unlocked. I might play through it again on a harder difficulty … Or I’ll just play the original games. Either way, I’m glad I took a chance on the game.
If you’re a fan of the originals (or interested in them), a fan of splatterpunk horror movies, or if you’re looking for a cheap, messy, hot mess of a good time to play while having a few beers, you’ll find something to like here. For those looking for a polished action experience, there are much better options out there.
2.75/5 Terror Masks