She Doesn’t Have to Die: A Review of Splatterhouse (2010) for the PS3

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 SPH2North 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.

What serveth a man, that he should don the Terror Mask and gain huge muscles and health regeneration, but lose his own soul?
What serveth a man, that he should don the Terror Mask and gain huge muscles and health regeneration, but lose his own soul?

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

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Dracula Rises Again, For the First Time – A Review of Castlevania III for the NES

Few games stand out in my childhood memory as prominently as Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.

I grew up living in the backwoods of Western New York, surrounded by tracts of abandoned farmland and endless expanses of forest. The winters were endless and unforgiving, the springs and summers brief but beautiful – and the falls… Well, the falls were awe-inspiring.

The hills would come alive with a cacophony of color. Fog would roll in from the swamps. Darkness would creep into the valleys earlier and earlier, shrouding the landscape in mystery and a sense of superstitious fear.

c3The changing of the seasons signaled a shift in culture. Apple cider, festivals, Halloween decorations, horror movies on TV, Dracula in English class.

And Castlevania III, borrowed from an older cousin, on my Nintendo Entertainment System.

What makes this game so great? In a word – atmosphere. The opening level is a European (Transylvanian?) village under attack from an undead scourge: zombies, skeletons, and evil animals stalking the streets. Power ups and background graphics are couched in Christian symbology, implying a real-world connection to the supernatural adventure on your screen. Abandoned cathedrals, graveyards, and menacing forests wait for you to explore them. Tight controls demand discipline, confidence, and thoughtful planning – making each death a painful lesson. Giant, well-animated bosses straight from your favorite classic horror films are the highlight of the game, each new terror met on your path at once intimidating and fantastic.

This is heroic adventure, set against Gothic and mythological settings and tropes.

And choice. Choice! Can you imagine? An 8-bit epic where the player decides where to go – and who to choose as companion – next. Should you brave the crumbling, difficult clock tower (both up and down) to earn the skills of the acrobatic pirate Grant DaNasty? Is Sypha the wizard (witch?), with a weak attack but amazing spell power, a worthy companion? Or will recruiting the wayward son of Dracula, Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards – get it?) be your greatest ally?

The music is, despite the downgraded American chipset from the Japanese Famicom version, brilliant and atmospheric. The controls are tight and perfection-oriented (if unforgiving, especially when in the context of staircases or medusa heads). The graphics are top-notch, with weather effects, detailed sprites, and creative use of a limited NES color palette. This is a game optimized for the NES console, built by programmers who know their way around the limitations of the system, and it shows.

While difficult games are not uncommon to the NES, this title, like the previous Castlevania games, has some serious design issues that artificially increase the challenge. Using stairs is a near-suicidal endeavor. Enemy attack patterns can sometimes produce situations where you cannot escape taking damage. The game is lengthy, and the final battle against Dracula is made more challenging by sending the defeated player back to the beginning of the final stage. This is an artificial challenge and a bit of a slap in the face for dedicated players. The challenge should be defeating Dracula, not grinding through an obtuse final level over and over again, only to end up at the final boss with limited health. That said, a password system and cheat codes go a long way to alleviating the frustration of this design choice.

Watch the Angry Videogame Nerd Review Castlevania III
Watch the Angry Videogame Nerd Review Castlevania III

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse remains one of the best titles for a classic system, inspiring future generations of quality games, both within the Castlevania franchise and without. Its greatest strength is its atmosphere, graphics, and sharp gameplay – and its pure, unadulterated sense of Gothic adventure. While its sequel Super Castlevania IV for the SNES is arguably a superior title (and it’s much, much easier, which is not at all a criticism), Castlevania III remains a milestone in the series and is a true artistic and technical achievement on the NES.

Anyone looking for a retro title to bring them back to a childhood spent obsessed with horror movies and Halloween will find plenty to love in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.

This review first appeared in its original form as part of 1 More Castle’s Review A Great Game Day 2013.

Video Game Review: Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders

Available on Steam; GZDoom Sourceport Available Here

Heretic is a gothic, medieval fantasy horror first-person shooter developed by Raven Software and published by id Software back in 1994. To call it a Doom clone does the game a disservice. Yes, it plays essentially the same—explore winding mazes and complex levels, blast away at monsters, find keys, hit switches, and make your way to the exit. However, its design philosophy, art style, and atmosphere set it apart, and make it a game that, all these years later, holds up better than even the venerable Doom itself.

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Heretic, like Doom (and its sequels) is a game I revisit every couple of years. Thankfully, wonderful sourceports like GZDoom exist to make the game playable with improved graphics and controls. Mapping the controls to a modern WASD + mouse setup has never been easier, and there are a variety of display options to make the game as pretty (or 90s-gnarly) as you like. Conversely, you can always play the game in DosBox for a truly retro experience.

Heretic’s big claims to fame over its predecessor Doom is the ability to look up and down, and a rudimentary inventory system. While new sourceports allow mouselook in Doom, looking up and down can unfairly affect the difficulty balance of some maps. (Then again, I have a lot more fun playing Doom when I can actually aim those friggin’ rockets at the enemies above or below me.) Needless to say, this opens up the player’s ability to survive and navigate complex ambushes and enemy placement.

The use of power ups, while not essential for an expert player, adds some variety to the corridor combat and can get you out of otherwise nigh-impossible situations. Like other shooters of its time, Heretic’s primary challenge comes from trapping you in a small, enclosed space before shoveling wave after wave of monsters at you. Using these items—invisibility, warps, wings of wrath, health flasks, and the alternative fire mode-enabling tome of power—often marks the difference between life and death in many situations. This subtle layer of depth adds a lot of strategy to the game, as you’re forced to use your resources wisely to survive the game’s brutal levels.

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Make no mistake—the levels are difficult, especially if you cut your teeth on contemporary Call of Duty garbage. These aren’t straight-line walks from cover to cover, with plenty of opportunities to regenerate your health as dumb-as-rocks enemies take cowardly potshots at you. No, you’ll have to explore a myriad of designs, including labyrinthine mazes, open spaces with scant to no cover, caves, lava rivers, villages, castles, and treacherous dungeons—and a healthy mix thereof in any given map. Heretic has a diverse level design, and you’ll never get bored with the layout.

What really sets Heretic apart from other games of its time (and many today) is its cultivation of atmosphere. Strange sounds dog your steps; creepy (and gory) textures litter the map; gothic architecture and doodads lend the maps a sense of place and menace. The game is at once subtle and overt; however, its gore effects are quaint by today’s horror standards, especially considering that contemporary developers’ ideas of “scary” and “atmosphere” are over-the-top gore.

The monsters themselves are as diverse as the levels. The first enemy type you encounter is a flying gargoyle with a peppering projectile attack; from there, melee and projectile-based enemies abound, often with high hit points and the nasty tendency to chase you down in groups. Killing even the most basic enemies is often satisfying, with ample gory visual and audio effects, making each kill feel like a victory rather than a triviality. While some enemies are overused—the scorpion warriors come to mind—they are all intimidating and dangerous. Each encounter can feel like a life-or-death situation, something Doom and other shooters (including many that came after Heretic, well into the current generation) cannot claim.

The weapons in this game, unfortunately, represent the game’s biggest shortcoming. Almost all of them are simple re-skins of the Doom arsenal. The final weapon, a mace-ball-throwing-thing, is completely useless in almost every situation. This is, however, somewhat offset by the tome of power, which unlocks alternate, devastating fire modes for a limited time, allowing even the lowly elven wand to become a room-clearing powerhouse. Keep in mind however that much of the game’s ammunition is in short supply, forcing you to conserve your damage output in favor of strategically working your way through each map’s numerous and deadly encounters.

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Shadow of the Serpent Riders includes two additional episodes not available in the initial release of the game. These level sets aren’t as tightly-designed as the first three, and tend to mass enemy placements and restrict ammunition supplies in an attempt to appeal more for expert players. The first level of episode 4 is almost impossible to beat on higher difficulty levels for all but the most dedicated and hardcore Heretic players. While I’m a fan of difficult games, there comes a point where I want to play and enjoy a game, rather than figure out the precise, time-consuming way to defeat an arbitrarily-difficulty design. Beyond the official five episodes of the game there is plenty of user-generated content out there, including new maps, mods, and whole episodes to blast your way through. It’s not as robust a community as that of Doom, but since the source code’s release, plenty of would-be level designers have offered up some really great (and completely free) content.

Heretic is pure, unadulterated horror-action-fantasy-shooter fun. It holds up well, especially with the development of modern source ports. Its single player campaign is more fun than Doom, and sports great horror sensibilities. This is an oft-overlooked classic that is ripe for a modern sequel with old-school sensibilities. Play Heretic to see what a good action horror game can be—and what a developer can accomplish when they set out to build a solid, immersive single player experience.

5/5 Interdimensional Serpent Riders

If you enjoy Heretic, you may like its sequel, Hexen.

Video Game Review: Happytime Circus 2

Happytime Circus 2 – Doom II Mod

Designed by Shitbag, aka Ray

Available for download here. Requires Doom II and the ZDoom or GZDoom sourceport.

The Doom series nominally falls into the horror genre. Truth be told, it’s nine parts action shooter, one part horror. The grisly monster designs, gore-ridden textures, rivers of blood—these are more set dressing than anything else. While I’m a lifelong fan of the original trilogy—Doom, Doom II, and yes, even Final Doom—these games are rarely scary. There’s a few jump scares when a flaming skull or chain gun-wielding zombie gets the drop on you, and there’s always a moment of adrenaline when you open a door to find a cyberdemon or arch-vile waiting for you. But true dread? Not so much.

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[Doom III is another story. Its gameplay is radically different from the original series, with a focus on close-quarters combat with only a handful of enemies. It uses sound design, lighting effects, and atmosphere to invoke a haunted carnival house atmosphere. It may not be existentially scary, but when it yells “BOO,” you’ll jump.]

While I’m not here to review the Doom series—yet—I will say that there’s a reason that I’ve played these games, off and on, since I first experienced the shareware version on a friend’s computer, sometime back in 1994. They’re fun. Frantic, bloody, fast, with a near-perfect effort-reward balance. Beyond that, the modding community that sprung up around the games, thanks to id Software’s encouragement of user-generated content and the eventual release of the source code, has allowed programmers to pick apart, rearrange, and put the game back together again in all sorts of fun and inventive ways. I rarely play “vanilla” Doom—that is, with no mods, in its original DOS format—but instead use source ports that allow for things like jumping, mouse and keyboard controls, mouse look, high-res graphics, new animations, weapons, and enemies, and of course new levels.

“Happytime Circus 2” is one such level. But it’s also a mod—it brings a fresh experience to the game, with new graphics, enemy types, programming tricks, and textures. It’s still very much a Doom level, but it often feels like something else entirely.

It’s also scary. Very scary. Especially if you don’t like clowns.

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You begin the level with a modified pistol, the open road behind you and an abandoned town ahead. While I love the id Software Doom level sets, they rarely, if ever, had maps that looked like real places. Abstract level design philosophy was in full effect at id through much of the 90s, so you’d occasionally get smatterings of realistically-built city blocks, military facilities, or castles. But more often than not you would be fighting through a fortress that didn’t seem to serve any real-world function, with nonsensical room layout and a lack of grounding details tying it to something you might see in real life.

One of the strengths of “Happytime Circus 2” is its reversal of that trend. Built on one large map, this feels quite a bit like a medium-sized town. There’s lots of streets, houses, shops, power lines, and even a cabin deep in the woods (a la Evil Dead). It’s really amazing the amount of work the designer put into building this town, using the blocky limitations of the dated idtech engine.

And the town is creepy. While the sky texture swirls above you, you’ll walk through wind-scoured empty streets, moving from house to house in search of rare healing items, ammunition, switches to pull, or doodads to shoot. I’ve spent several hours feeling creeped out as I went from one part of the town to the next, exploring at a snail’s pace. Changing music and trigger-based sound effects really put me on edge.

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It quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary town. The circus is here—or something pretending to be the circus. Within the first few houses you’ll find little clown statues (shoot them!), paintings of Pennywise, and pieces of wall falling away to reveal tent-striped surfaces beneath.

There’s no real story to speak of, but it’s easy to build one in your own head. What is the circus doing this to the town? What happened to all of the people? What the hell is going on when you accidentally cross over into the clown dimension?

There’s several weapons available to you as you explore. You’ll start with a modified pistol, but quickly find the standard shotgun. There’s also clown grenades, a gut thrower, a gas rocket launcher, a popcorn shooter, gore balloons, and glitter-spraying mines. While their designs are interesting enough, their utility is quite limited. Most of the weapons have some sort of splash damage, and the enemies you’ll fight often ambush you in close quarters, making it hard to fight back without hurting yourself. They also feel underpowered most of the time, forcing you to expend large amounts of ammunition (“clown souls”) to take down the enemies. I found the gut thrower to be completely useless, as I couldn’t hit floating enemies or seem to damage the tinier ghouls that scampered along the ground toward me. While I appreciate the effort that went into making these new weapons, they’re pretty much useless in most of the map’s combat encounters.

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Finding ammunition is also problematic, especially in the mid to late game. While the scarcity of bullets and shotgun shells works very well in the early game—adding to it a sense of dread and tension—once you open up most of the town, you’ll be fighting large groups of enemies over and over again. You’ll run out of ammunition very, very fast.

The enemies themselves are also a mixed bag. Patrolling clowns, chattering skulls, shadow teddy bears, and more await you. The problem with the enemy design is that most of them are very difficult to hit (especially those that scamper along the ground toward you at a high rate of speed), and the enemies like the clown bulbs, clown ghosts, or flaming clown skulls take a ton of damage to drop, and deal out even more. They tend to mass in large groups, making it impossible to fight them all, or even to survive many encounters without expending all of your ammunition or having to quick save.

Still, the first time you encounter a new enemy type, it’s genuinely unnerving—if you don’t jump out of your seat.

Eventually, I felt the incentive for exploration of new sections of the town to drop, as you were more likely to expend your resources than gain any as you tried to survive the horrors within each new building. Many of the enemies can move through walls, so running away typically meant they would show up a few minutes later, usually when you were inside a narrow corridor and couldn’t maneuver away from them.

The puzzles, too, are not conducive to walkthrough-free playing. You’ll hit a switch somewhere—or pass right by a switch, not realizing what it is—only to open up another switch, wall, or portal somewhere else. Shooting the little Pennywise statues triggers events, but you’ll almost never know where to go next. This leads to a lot of backtracking, a la Hexen, which artificially increases the difficulty and time you’ll spend playing.

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It was the issues with the enemies and puzzles that eventually forced me to resign from the game without completing the map. I know it is possible to beat it—there’s plenty of Let’s Play videos out there—but I’m not sure it’s worth going through the whole map just to reach the end. I got stuck in the clown dimension in what I believe was the later part of the level, and became frustrated by the never-ending stream of enemies and lack of discernible direction. I hit a switch, then couldn’t find my way back out again.

Then why would I review this? Why would I recommend the map? Simple. Despite its design flaws, there’s a lot of care and attention to detail that went into this mod. While the weapons aren’t great, they are fun to discover and play around with at first. And frankly, the first few times you explore this dead town and explore the horrors within, you’ll be creeped out. The early game is a lot of fun, especially for experienced Doom players who want to see some new and creative things done with the engine. The designer of the map knows how to set up a good atmosphere and ratchet up the tension.

This map demonstrates that it’s the little things—sound, conservative use of gore, and authentic and creepy settings—that make video game horror actually scary. Professional game designers could learn a thing or two from this mod.

[Note: the above screenshots were taken using GZDoom, a free sourceport for Doom, Heretic, Strife, and Hexen. I also had a gore mod activated.]

Video Game Review: Blood (One Unit Whole Blood)

Blood was one of many games I played as a shareware experience. Shareware, for those of you who are too young to recognize the term, meant you got a portion of the game for free—usually the first episode—but much of its content was locked away on later levels. You could tell what you were getting into if you decided to buy the full package—unlike today’s market, where pre-orders and dishonest game trailers are ubiquitous with mainstream releases.

Developed by Monolith and released for PC in 1997, Blood puts you in the boots of Caleb, a follower of the dark god Tchernobog. A sloppily-animated cutscene at the beginning of episode one shows the demon betraying his inner circle for reasons unknown, and casts Caleb into a shallow grave.

The first level begins with your grave sliding open, a pitchfork in your hands, and Caleb quoting Army of Darkness:

“I live… again.”

The story doesn’t go much deeper than that. The plot doesn’t make a ton of sense, but that’s not the point of a game called Blood. There are some little narrative flourishes within the levels here and there—Caleb offers commentary from time to time, we see evidence of a ramping up of Tchernobog’s forces, there’s a war on (in France?), and the different environments give clues that may or may not add up to a coherent narrative experience. It’s fun to fill in the blanks, but not necessary.

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Blood has the most creative and satisfying arsenal I’ve ever encountered in a shooter. Sure, the pitchfork is essentially a re-skinned knife/boot/melee attack, but at least it deals damage along its prongs (strike the wall to see what I mean). The basic pistol is a flare gun, which causes a slow burning effect in enemies, eventually incinerating them… but in the meantime, they can still move and deal you damage.

The sawed-off double barrel shotgun is satisfying, and is an excellent close-range weapon. There’s an accurate tommy gun, a napalm launcher (rocket launcher), all sorts of different kinds of dynamite, a lighter and a spray paint can, a Tesla energy cannon, a voodoo doll, and a mystic staff. The level design is very generous with ammo, so you won’t have to stick with just the shotgun/machinegun/rocket launcher combination that Doom pioneered and the industry was satisfied with not innovating beyond.

You can mix it up from time to time, and really experiment with different weapons against different enemy types, and with the satisfying alternate fire modes. Whenever I got bored with a given weapon, I’d switch over to something else. Generally speaking, each weapon has a good set of uses for a variety of situations. Flares and dynamite are good against the zombies, the sawed off and the machine gun are good against the cultists, the Tesla cannon evens the odds against gargoyles and fire-breathing dogs, and so on.

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The exceptions to this are the voodoo doll and mystic staff—both of which have rather limited utility, and can damage you if not used properly. They’re fun to use for boss fights, but not much else. The staff’s alternate fire mode is a little overpowered—I made short work of the final boss with minimal effort and one staff. It was a bit anticlimactic.

There is also an inventory system, but, beyond the doctor’s medical bag and the jump boots, there isn’t much to write home about. Power ups are also scattered around the levels—the guns akimbo is a hoot—but they don’t last long enough to make seeking them out all that worthwhile. Often I’d get an invisibility or akimbo item, only to have it burn out before I found any fresh enemies.

The defining weapon experience in Blood has to be using dynamite. There are several variations, but they all function pretty much the same: throw them at groups of enemies, and watch as their blood and viscera splatter all over the environment. Tossing a bundle with a lit fuse at a group of zombies is an experience that never gets old. They are somewhat overpowered and unbalanced, and you’ll blow yourself up if you’re not careful. That added danger simply enhances the freewheeling fun that the game emphasizes.

Blood’s enemies demonstrate the same level of innovation as the weaponry. Axe-wielding zombies (who resurrect if you don’t burn them or shoot off their heads), cultists (of various types), gargoyles, fire-breathing dogs, shark men, phantoms, dismembered hands, spiders, and more all eagerly rush toward you, eager to be picked off or blown up in grisly fashion. For the most part, the enemies are well-animated, have distinctive audio cues, and have a couple of attacks to dish out. Unfortunately, some move so quickly—a quirk of the Build Engine—making it next to impossible to get a well-aimed shot off. Some enemy types also deal obscene amounts of damage in little to no time, negatively affecting the game’s balance.

Intense enemies and weaponry is great—but the atmosphere and environments in Blood really seal the deal. You’ll fight through graveyards, mausoleums, a train station, a speeding locomotive (a simple yet memorable trick of the engine), a dark carnival, ice floes, haunted Shining-style mansions, hedge mazes, meat processing plants, bombed-out streets, evil temples, living environments, and more.

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There are some filler levels—you can’t escape warehouses, crate mazes, and drab tunnels in 90s-era first person shooters—but the levels that are beyond good are great. Utilizing largely non-abstract level design, the game really rewards you for exploration. Much of my motivation for completing the game was to see what comes next—what devious traps, impressive architecture, and hidden passages were ahead. Perseverance through the more drab stock levels is rewarded with trips through clever temples, spooky manses, and even an excellent “outdoors” level set at Camp Crystal Lake of Friday the 13th fame.

While I love Doom, the labyrinthine layout of every level in those games—even most tech bases—made for a non-intuitive exploration experience. Blood’s level design is a mix between the abstract and the real, and the levels are more interesting to explore because of it.

Although not on the level of Shadow Warrior, the game has some interactivity in the environment. However, the emphasis is on atmosphere—creative use of light, color, sound, and textures—rather than on doodad gimmicks.

As mentioned earlier, one of the strikes against this game is that its difficulty is over the top. Regular enemies can hit you with pinpoint accuracy from across the room while you struggle to get a bead on them. Enemy placement throughout many maps exploits their razor-sharp accuracy and quick-fast-in-a-hurry reaction times. You’ll often explore a new wing of a map, only to find cultists, fire-breathing dogs, or worse waiting around every blind corner, ready to shrink your health by a few dozen points in less than a second. The most unbalanced aspect of the enemies comes in the form of the gargoyles’ air attack (it’s next to impossible to hit them when they are flying above or below you) and the dogs’ fire breath (once you catch on fire, you can literally lose over 100 points of health… and running, jumping, or smashing the USE key repeatedly doesn’t always seem to douse the flames).

Healing items are in short supply. It’s very easy to get stuck in a situation where you don’t have enough health to progress—forcing you to re-load an earlier save state. Create multiple save states—including a backup at the beginning of each level. Trust me. I played the game on the second difficulty—and died a lot. Veterans of the genre will find a lot of challenge; newcomers might be put off by the difficulty, some of which is due to the aforementioned balance issues.

For all of its faults and quirks, Blood is a fantastic, spooky, and action-packed joyride down the tunnels and crypts of yesteryear’s game design and horror iconography. The game has personality, clever design, memorable weapons and enemies, and is, above all, a lot of fun to play.

A quality-focused modding community churned out some really spectacular add-ons for the game. Do some digging and you’ll find everything from one-shot levels to whole new episodes.

Horror fans and gamers who understand that first person shooters can be more than MMOs or Call of Duty clones will love the experience that is Blood.

4/5 Immolated Cultists

The commercial version, known as ONE UNIT WHOLE BLOOD, is available from GOG.com. It comes with the original four episodes, plus the two official expansions, Cryptic Passage (which is a little difficult to get running) and the Plasma Pak. It’s often on sale, and never more than a few bucks. Buy it immediately!

The game as packaged runs through DosBox. Getting the game to play with contemporary control schemes, higher display modes, and at a decent frame rate requires quite a bit of work on your part. The boards on GOG.com are a great place to start—but be prepared to do some tinkering with the configuration files and programs. I was experiencing significant frame rate issues on display settings above the default until I found a way to switch from DirectDraw to OpenGL. Additionally, I had to try many, many variations on the mouse sensitivity to get the game playable.

Because the game lacks a proper source port (the source code was never publicly released), you have to use the front-end Just Add Blood (and its three [!] patches). This program takes some tinkering to get the game running properly—follow the installation instructions—but once you do, you’re in for a grand old time.

Video Game Review: Why Didn’t We Bring Actual Flashlights?

Vanish developed by 3DrunkMen

With Halloween fast approaching, it’s always fun to dive into interactive horror. Mainstream horror releases in the last few years have trended more toward action-oriented, gory gameplay, eschewing atmosphere and dread in favor of cheap thrills.

Exploring the indie PC gaming scene, however, we find plenty of original and varied gaming experiences relating to that oldest and most powerful of mankind’s emotions.

Vanish is a freeware game that looks and feels professional. To tell you too much about it would be to spoil the fun. But I can tell you that you begin the game being dragged into what appears to be a cell in a sewer or tunnel system. You wake up to find a hole in the metal barred door, and crawl out into the tunnels.

The story is told, a la games like Slender, through notes scattered around the dark corridors. The first pieces seem innocent enough, but as you progress, environmental clues and the notes themselves become more and more bizarre.

This is a game without a “shoot” button. You can walk, crawl, run, or pick up objects. That’s about it. The game is more interested in setting up a slow-burn approach to scares. The sound design is fantastic. As you begin the game you may be a bit bored… but as time goes on, your stress level will definitely climb. I’ve only played the game for a few minutes at a time at night, quitting before I got too freaked out… or having my neck snapped. Each playthrough seems to be randomly generated, which is a nice touch. However, I’m not sure that, once you go through the game a few times, there’s much left to return to.

This is a fun, spooky, and *free* game that you should try. Play in the dark with your headphones on and some candles lit. Vanish relies on atmosphere, immersion, and simple techniques to develop honest-to-goodness dread in the player. Do yourself a favor and avoid any “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube before playing.

If you’re looking for something with chainsaws and bullets, you might as well keep moving. Here, the scares come slow and steady, if you’re willing to immerse yourself in the dark and mysterious tunnels of… wherever the hell you are.

4/5 Dying Glowsticks

Vanish is available for free from the developer’s website.

Video Game Review: Greetings, mortal. Are you ready to die?

Hexen: Beyond Heretic (1995) Developed by Raven Software, Published by id Software, Distributed by GT Software

Review by Jonathan Raab

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Are you a wizard?!

Ever since our old 486 was upgraded to an amazing 6 megabytes of RAM, I’d been able to play id Tech 1 engine games. Doom shareware levels, Heretic shareware, Final Doom—these were the first person shooters I played religiously. They looked real, or as real was back in the early to mid nineties to a young gamer with too much time on his hands and not enough real people with whom to interact. I can’t count the number of hours I spent blasting through familiar levels, aching for a full release to unlock all the super weapons and new monsters.

During those formative gaming years, I’d play anything “3D” (more often 2-and-a-half-D) that I could get my hands on. Blake Stone, Corridor 7, Nitemare 3D, and Ken’s Labyrinth included. Having played the Heretic shareware levels to death, I was elated to learn that Ravensoft produced a sequel: Hexen: Beyond Heretic.

Build on the same id Tech 1 Doom engine, the game seemed familiar enough. However, like Heretic, it offered a handful of small but important improvements to the engine and innovations in the first person shooter genre in general. You could look up and down, use an extensive inventory system, play different character classes with unique weapons, jump (!), and experience a variety of environmental effects, including moving walls, blowing leaves, swirling storms overhead, and atmospheric sound effects that really pulled you into the setting.

The problem was—and is—the game is designed to frustrate you. As a child, I couldn’t make it past the first hub zone without cheating. Re-visiting it now as an adult, I find myself having to consult a guide every few hours of play to advance. The game isn’t broken—far from it—but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But let’s start with the positive aspects of the game.

The aging id Tech 1 engine doesn’t look better in any game, period. Doom 2 has a few levels that look like real places—sort of—but Hexen takes the medieval architecture of Heretic and amps up its design, both in terms of quality of gameplay and exploration, and in terms of realism. Many of the places look like what they are supposed to be: bell towers, seminaries, chapels, outposts, fortresses, decaying houses in the swamp… Each new area is more than just a collection of stale sewers and dungeons (although there are a few of those as well).

Combat is fun and fluid, although the enemies themselves don’t pose much of a threat one-on-one. When they’re in large groups, or paired with a variety of other enemies with differing offensive and defensive capabilities, combat becomes challenging and a lot of fun. Resource management—particularly your healing items—becomes integral to your survival in the midst of the flurry of combat. There’s enough variety in the enemies and the types of encounters that Hexen throws at you to keep you on your toes.

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You’ll fight a lot of these guys.

The enemies themselves are varied, and, in groups and when fighting together, present a decent challenge. You’ll get tired of fighting a few types—namely the two-headed foot soldiers and the centaur knights—but generally combat is fun and interesting.

The weapons are unique to each class, and will affect your gameplay style. That said, I never found myself not using one of the weapons—the starting weapon included—for a long period of time. Each weapon is appropriate for different situations, and balancing which weapon you use for which encounter, all while keeping an eye on your mana levels, is part of the fun of combat.

The inventory system is robust, but you’ll often find yourself sticking to one or two items. Rarer, more powerful items don’t lend themselves to the gameplay that well, because you’ll be afraid to waste them. That said, some of the items are pretty much useless (the force push type powerup is a waste of your time), and you’ll end up sticking to either the green potions or healing potions for most encounters. Still, the Wings of Wrath, Porkolater, and Maulotaur power ups are always fun to use. Too bad they are so rare.

I’m giving the game a lot of praise. Deservedly so. But Hexen is not without its problems.

Most of the time you will not be in combat. Unlike Doom or even Heretic, the levels are not full of monsters as you progress from point A to point B. Instead, you’ll be backtracking through largely empty zones (those that you’ve cleared hours ago) to scour every wall, every space, and every doodad in sight, looking for a stone to collect, a door to open, or a switch to pull. If you’ve ever been lost in an old-school first person shooter, you understand the frustration that this model can produce. When done right, exploration, puzzle solving, and item collecting can be great parts of the FPS experience. When done wrong—and Hexen often does it wrong—you’ll just end up walking in circles, feeling trapped and frustrated.

Therefore, I recommend playing the game with a guide handy. I know that will rub a lot of purists the wrong way, but truthfully, this game was meant to be played with a guide, or with help from friends. As a kid, I could only share tips with my older cousins—who were often equally lost and baffled. Thanks to the age of the Internet, we have walkthroughs, videos, and more to help you find your way.

Would I recommend Hexen: Beyond Heretic? That depends. If you’re a fan of old-school first person shooters, and have a taste for puzzle-oriented gameplay spiced up with some fun combat, yes. Just go into the game prepared to spend some time feeling lost, and don’t be afraid to look up some help from time to time. Sticking with Hexen gives you a sense of accomplishment, not unlike that provided by other obtuse but tightly-designed games like Dark Souls.

Pick up a copy of Hexen and one of its sourceports—I recommend ZDoom or GZDoom—and play with updated controls and clearer graphics. It’s cheap, and provides plenty of old-school challenge with a lot of charm, attention to detail, and plenty of atmosphere for the horror or dark fantasy fan. Despite its obtuse puzzles, it’s infinitely more interesting and fun than most any contemporary first person shooter, which is often a simple cover-based straight line movement from one end of a long corridor to another.

Hexen pulls you into a well-realized world, and sends the id Tech 1 engine out with a flurry of fun, dark magic, macabre settings, and interesting combat.

4/5 Serpent Rider-Invaded Worlds

The entire Heretic & Hexen series is available on Steam.