Halloween inspires people to act like idiots. As far as holidays go, this one takes root and festers in more people than almost every other holiday. It creates almost as many idiots as Thanksgiving, which exists to bring entire extended families together in a single house until they remember how much they hate each other and the courts have to debate the grayer areas of the definition of “premeditated.” All the while, it tries to recall Halloween’s suggestions for the more creative uses for a bread knife, can opener and turkey baster. But while all the family holidays bulge with volatile anger, the horror-themed holiday pushes people to a different kind of idiocy. Namely, filming barely scripted movies on their iPhones, hoping to produce the next Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, and forcing the courts to debate the grayer areas of the definition of shit. Since Anne likes to burn through these movies like a chain smoker on a lunch break, I’ve seen more of them than I’d care to, but since Halloween demands my attention year-round, I thought I’d discuss one of the most horrific aspects of life on earth just shy of the GOP platform: a movie adaptation video game.
Okay, so strictly speaking I can’t call Evil Dead: Hail to the King an adaptation. It acts more like the Army of Darkness sequel that will never happen. Set eight years after Ash returns to his normal life–also the number of years between the last movie and the game’s release–the iconic swaggering hero still suffers from nightmares stemming from his cabin vacation. His new girlfriend, Jenny, suggests he conquers his post-traumatic stress disorder by facing his fears and returning to the cabin. You know, much in the same way that sending soldiers back into active combat or raping a rape survivor will cure them of their PTSD. Naturally, when they arrive at the Knowby cabin, Ash’s evil hand shows up, plays the professor’s recording of him playing the literary version of “Bloody Mary,” and all hell-on-earth breaks loose. Bad Ash jumps out of a mirror, kidnaps Jenny, then vanishes. Ash has to collect five pages from the Necronomicon. Begin.
If you didn’t see the films, that may not have made sense to you, but from a series seemingly written by an alzheimer’s patient with ADHD, Evil Dead has never really cared much for continuity. Hardcore fans will enjoy walking through the familiar layout of the cabin, swinging the chainsaw, maybe even wandering out back to the work shed. But after the first few minutes, you venture out into the surrounding woods. Which, as it turns out, have a much higher population density than the movies suggested. The pages have scattered around a moonshiners’ cabin, a boy scout camp ground, and a church, all within a few minutes’ walking distance from the isolated setting where the cast of the films had no hope of reaching civilization.
You hardly venture a few steps from the starting point when the first monster attacks. Excellent! Monsters! The one thing that would make an excellent game adaptation, right? Well, the first monster rises up out of an interdimensional portal on the floor. Floating just off the ground, you come face to face with a flying torso ghost thing. Because who could forget, right? All those torso ghosts that Ash…hacked with an axe…in the movies? Get used to it. Johnny-haunt-lately here becomes the basic enemy for the game. The goomba. The octorok. The met (hard hat, for those of you unfamiliar with Mega Man nomenclature). Fortunately, fighting them almost never pays off, so if you can figure out how to run (with the ever-so-intuitive R1 button), you’ll live much longer. Otherwise, the game’s combat feels less like a system and more like trading blows. You stand facing it and hit it with either your ax or your chainsaw like a post-modern Green Knight, and the monster stands there and slices off your head like Sir Gawain. All in all, fighting one of these things usually takes about three minutes and five health items. They don’t go down easily. Sure, you get guns later on, but the game limits ammo and has no mechanic for aiming, so you just have to point yourself in the general direction and hope for the best. Early in the game, most enemies leave health items when they die, but this has all the effect of getting a box of band aids and an enema from the guy who gives you ebola.
So having mentioned the absurd play control, I should point out that Hail to the King shoots for the survival horror genre, imitating Resident Evil like an obnoxious little brother. It keeps all the most exciting moments, but skips over the finer details that actually make for a finely-tuned sort of stressful experience. Ash gathers items that he uses to open up new areas. Usually it doesn’t take much effort to figure out how to use them. The map for the game doesn’t have nearly as many locations as even RE’s Spencer mansion, so often you’ll find your keys right under the mat. Still, you need a few leaps of faith to bypass the usual flaws in survival horror puzzling; Ash approaches the door to the hellbilly cabin. “I can’t get in! The lock doesn’t open from this side!” I almost had to put down my ax and take off my chain saw arm so I could relax enough to figure out how to get in. (Rest assured, when I do an article on Silent Hill 2, I will say something about how James can’t reach the key on the other side of the bars, but doesn’t think to use his monster-whacking stick.) At the very least, I felt justified in playing this game if not for one puzzle near the end, which said, “A complex scale used to measure the specific gravity of six nearby materials.” Thankfully, the powerful cliche keeping the door locked proves no match for Ash’s (finally) direct problem solving approach–he blasts the scale with his shotgun and the door opens.
While it plays like an uninspired rough draft of Resident Evil that rushes you from boss fight to boss fight like it had a moral objection to down time, Bruce Campbell’s Ash saves Hail to the King from the piles of utter failure. The story revolves around a series of excuses for his swaggering, Army-of-Darkness bravado to take over, and the player even has a button dedicated to firing off taunting quips at the enemies. Bad sequels tend to rehash the same jokes, putting out more fan service than plot. If this game got one thing right, they built new dialogue around an existing character, and naturally Campbell knows how to bring out the finer nuances of cocky cynicism that turned Ash into the Beowulf of low-budget horror.
This game takes the trophy for biggest disclaimer I’ve ever attached to a recommendation. “You should play this game…if you really liked Army of Darkness or Evil Dead 2…and you didn’t have to pay much for it…and you don’t have access to a Resident Evil game…or Onimusha.” Despite its blandness, it plays well enough, and you can run through the whole thing in a few hours due to its boss-rush design, so it doesn’t require much of a commitment, and I do sometimes lament the fact that they don’t make any Mega Man-length games anymore. But if you have the choice this weekend, opt to see the Evil Dead musical instead.