Splatterhouse Playtest: Exactly What It Says On The Box
Let’s face it; from the title alone, you can probably tell whether or not Splatterhouse is a game for you. It reeks of the names of horror films long forgotten, or lesser known titles from horror directors such as Dario Argento or George Romero. However, if you’re the kind of person who swears by The Cat o’ Nine Tails or insists that Day of the Dead is better than Dawn, read on and find out if this is the game for you!
(You can read on, even if you’re just curious. You might like the game anyway!)
Splatterhouse is a modern reboot of the arcade/TurboGrafx/Genesis series of the same name. The series has had a cult following ever since the first game was released in 1988. Not for any gameplay innovations, mind you, but for its shocking violence and strong horror imagery. The Terror Mask-clad Rick could pick up an assortment of weapons to decapitate, bisect, and otherwise maim and murder the various monsters he had to fight. Curiously, however, despite all of the violence (thank Splatterhouse in part for creating video game age ratings), the series also had a surprisingly interesting story at its heart about Rick and his girlfriend (and later wife) Jennifer.
In a nutshell, the Splatterhouse series could be described as a basic boy-meets-girl, girl-gets-kidnapped, boy-dons-ancient-Mayan-ritual-mask, girl-gets-possessed, boy-murders-girl, boy-brings-girl-back-from-hell, boy-marries-girl, boy-has-child-with-girl, boy-fights-Mayan-ritual-mask-to-save-his-family story, but for the time, it was presented in a very interesting way. Splatterhouse 3 even used digitized actors for the cutscenes and even made an attempt at full-motion video on the Genesis!
Splatterhouse’s 2010 update is incredibly devoted to the originals. If you’ve played any game with light and heavy attacks in the last six years or so, you’ll feel right at home with the combat system. X (or Square on PS3) does light attacks, Y (triangle) does chargeable heavy attacks, and (surprise!) you can grab and throw enemies with B (circle). Namco Bandai tried to change things up a little bit by adding running attacks (started with the right trigger), but while it’s fun to tackle or shoulder-charge enemies, there’s not much groundbreaking here. It’s smooth and fun, but it’s not going to blow your mind.
That said, there were a number of elements of the combat that I appreciated. First and foremost, the game is not afraid to kill you very quickly. Even certain "weaker" enemies will tear your arm off in a number of hits, which means that you have to be careful until the arm re-grows, or use a mask ability. Mask abilities afford Rick a couple of benefits: they heal him and tear through enemies like paper. These techniques use a chunk of Rick’s "necro meter" which is filled (as many meters are in this sort of game) by hitting things. Alternately, if you desire health more than mutilation, you can use a "Splatter Siphon" which draws blood from the enemies around you to bring you to nearly full health (if you mash B enough).
Speaking of blood, there’s a LOT of it in Splatterhouse. Particularly when you obtain one of the series’ signature weapons. Practically every memorable weapon from the originals is in here: cleaver, chainsaw, baseball bat, iron pipe, and shotgun. For the most part, each weapon works differently, and all of them greatly accelerate the rate at which you eliminate enemies. Cleavers and similar sharp objects will hack off limbs and heads (which can also be used as weapons!) whereas the iron pipe will smack enemies into walls a la classic Splatterhouse.
Overall, I felt as though Namco really nailed the feel of the weapons in the game. It didn’t really feel like Splatterhouse to me until I picked up my first cleaver. Much like the originals, the weapons feel really empowering and can clear a room in seconds, but just as you start getting cocky, they’ll break. This balance is interrupted somewhat by enemies that will break your weapons when struck and burning enemies who are almost untouchable without a weapon… especially when both attack you simultaneously.
Contrary to what I expected, Splatterhouse also oozes a bizarre charm. As opposed to the earlier games where Rick was essentially a silent protagonist, both Rick and the Terror Mask talk here. A lot.
Rick’s been reimagined for this game as a nerdy, metal-loving (as evidenced by the Mastodon T-shirt he wears in cutscenes) college student. However, despite his status as the "main character," the real star of the show is the Terror Mask itself. Voiced by Jim Cummings, the terror mask is quite a talker, egging Rick on as he tears through the undead one minute and making fun of him the next. While the Terror Mask can get repetitive, he’s also a source of much-needed (if immature) humor. For instance, after you’ve seated some enemies on "impalement chairs" and microwaved them to death, The Terror Mask mutters "See, that’s the kind of shit that got us an M rating." It’s surreal to have the recognizable voice of the man who voices Winnie the Pooh and Tigger yelling at you to rip things to shreds, but at the same time, it adds a sense of character that you don’t get in other brawlers.
The Terror Mask’s dialogue actually has some gameplay benefits as well. Certain areas will have you fighting in moving environments, and when you need to move, the mask will inform you in his charmingly vulgar way. I was shocked to find that listening to the mask was often the only way I could survive these scenarios. It was a really clever, unobtrusive way to tie the narrative to the gameplay ever so slightly, and I wish more areas would have taken advantage of it.
I mentioned earlier that Rick was a heavy metal enthusiast, and it’s more than clear that the developers of Splatterhouse are as well. Aside from the game’s heavy metal soundtrack (that I only recognized two bands from), metal has seeped its way into the aesthetic of the game and even a few of its achievements. Rick looks like he could be a band’s mascot, and the enemies and environments wouldn’t look too out of place on a Slayer cover.
Unfortunately, this often means that enemies don’t quite have the individuality that the 2D monstrosities of the past did, especially considering that certain enemies get retextured and reused quite a bit. At the same time, however, the game’s comic book/album cover art style and shading will occasionally combine with the licensed metal tracks in just the right way to create a sort of Splatterhouse euphoria. It’s hard to explain, but when the right song plays when you’re in a certain groove with the combat, every action you take feels a million times cooler, even if you’re totally unfamiliar with whatever you’re listening to. It’s almost like playing your own AMV, but much more satisfying than that sounds.
Speaking of developer enthusiasm, it’s also clear that the various dev teams who worked on the game were huge fans of the originals. From the occasional 2D side-scrolling segments replete with one-hit kill enemies and weapons that splat said enemies against the wall (and to achievements with titles like "Be Garbage of Cesspool," it’s apparent that the people working on this title have played the originals several times over. The boss fight with the two-chainsaw-armed Biggy Man (my personal favorite fight in the game) starts in 2D and gives Rick a shotgun, emulating the fight from the first game almost perfectly before switching to 3D.
There are also little references to horror films littered all over the mansion. For instance, you first find the shotgun near a corpse that looks very similar to Ash from the Evil Dead series. It’s every bit as much of a tribute to the original series as they were to horror cinema at the time, and the developers’ passion for both shines through. One could, however, argue that Splatterhouse emulates the originals almost too closely, because the jumping hasn’t gotten any better since 1988. These instant deaths are made even more annoying than the originals because of the incredibly long load times that punctuate each failure.
So, the combat is fun, and the game bleeds love and charm. So what’s the problem?
A lack of overall polish, unfortunately. From the torturously long load times (20-40 seconds, even while installed on 360) to the somewhat unimpressive environments and enemies, there’s a lot of stuff in the game that feels unfinished. It’s also rather buggy. Voices will cut out at random, subtitles will stick on the screen, and at least once, I had to restart the game because I couldn’t progress. Considering that the game was originally meant for release in 2009, one would hope that some of these issues would be resolved. Instead, it just reveals the problems that resulted from hopping from one developer to another.
The much touted "Splatterkills" are rather underwhelming, too. While they’re quite gruesome, there’s only about seven of them, and considering how much the game wants you to kill things with them, they get very repetitive. By the end, I was only using them out of necessity. Even the Terror Mask’s one-liners that accompany them are unfortunately limited, adding to the sense of ennui.
And of course, there’s the issue of the ending. There isn’t one, exactly. While the game’s story was a rather compelling apocalyptic Lovecraftian tale, the ending feels incredibly abrupt and unsatisfying. The "final boss" looks incredible in CG, but the "fight" itself is nothing more than an assortment of enemies to fend off, followed by a quick-time event. Given the plot that leads up to the fight, having such an underwhelming conclusion is a disappointment.
Splatterhouse kind of reminds me of 2009′s Bionic Commando. Both games are self referential, have great voice acting, are willing to kill the player in a matter of seconds, and feel like their respective franchises adapted into 3D. Unfortunately, both also have long load times, troubled development histories, and cliffhanger endings unlikely to ever be resolved. Both are fun, but likely to be overlooked and forgotten, and considering how much passion went into them, that’s kind of sad.
Splatterhouse may never be called a great game, but I could see it becoming a cult classic, just like the games and (some of) the films that inspired it.