Silent Hill – PS1

SH What is it

It’s a Western deity worshipped by over 2 billion people.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of writing humor is that often times, I have a tendency to shout out scathing remarks which your average high school student would follow up with, “What? I’m just telling the truth.” However, there’s a limit for mean, a point where the fruit of ridicule hangs so low that it’s slowly cooked by the geothermal heat of the earth’s crust, the kind of mean-spirited taunting usually reserved for major GOP candidates who feel that those poverty-stricken, unemployed, single teen moms have it too good and ought to be taken down a peg. And such is my problem with Silent Hill. After glancing at my notes and realizing that I’ve just copied lines of dialogue verbatim, I can’t help but feel a bit sleazy for going after the video game version of that girl who wanders around a frat party in various stages of undress loudly repeating “I’m so hammered!” in hopes that someone will take her to bed to fix all her self-esteem and daddy issues. I know the game was popular when it came out, but Silent Hill has aged so poorly that it has a permanent spot in the back of the fridge because you’d rather let its primordial soup run its course than get near it to clean it out. But, damn it! I swear I’m going to keep writing these things until someone gives me a job writing comedy, so…on with the show!

SH Boomstick

Where’s a boomstick when you need one?

Harry Mason is your standard survival horror everyman with a personality slightly less impressive than an avocado. He comes to Silent Hill for vacation-slash-finding-his-missing-daughter, but after getting lost in an alley designed by Pac Man, three sloth monsters try to stab him to death. He wakes up in a cafe with the NRA’s wet dream: a 22-year-old police girl who tosses Harry a gun without so much as a perfunctory “Are you a criminal?” She merely leaves him with the instructions, “Don’t shoot me” (indicating the near certainty that she’ll become a boss fight) and “Know what you’re shooting before you pull the trigger.” Three seconds later, an unidentifiable monster attacks and Harry blasts it without thinking, much less a scientific analysis of its genus and species. And thus begins a long and rambling plot full of unexplained events and vague motivations in which Harry spends more time chasing after a cult than looking for his daughter.

Let me get this out of the way; I liked the game. I enjoyed playing it in that way that you sometimes can’t stop fantasizing about girls your brain tells you are unattractive. And in the end, fun gameplay is what counts. But don’t get me wrong—my brain was telling me this game is very unattractive. Something about a fun game that has a character utter the phrase, “Rather than shifting from reality to nightmare, it feels like reality is becoming the nightmare,” creates a mental friction not unlike receiving a hand job from a belt sander. Half the time the game doesn’t trust players to have any sort of thought process running, forcing Harry to narrate out loud and shout out “What is that?” (or another favorite, “Cheryl?”) at so many obvious objects and events that turning it into a drinking game would prove fatal after thirty minutes of game play. I also noticed that the dialogue often spends copious amounts of time reiterating simple ideas. Here’s a line from the script:

This may sound really off the wall, but listen to me. You’ve got to believe me. I haven’t gone crazy and I’m not fooling around. At first, I thought I was losing my mind. But now I know I’m not. It’s not me.

Midvale

Harry Mason, ca. 1982

I honestly can’t tell what’s more off-putting: when a character gets stuck in a loop and you have to give them a good whack to move on to the next thought, or listening to the voice actors say things like, “Devoured by darkness” and “My daughter is missing” with all the passion of a geometry lecture delivered by a narcoleptic. And the other half of the time, the writers rely on the fact that the player’s brain has a shorter draw distance than the town. Early on, Harry finds a scrap of paper with the words “to school” scrawled in Crayola, and like the junior Scooby Doo detective that he is, assumes that Cheryl has simply ditched him to hang out at the school in a strange town. I like to picture this guy in the same graduating class as Rick Grimes and the guy from Heavy Rain.

No Dog

But Cheryl could be in there. Or Carl. Jason? Janet? Brad? Janet? Dr. Scott? Rocky?

Game play is all right, I guess. Not exactly a stunning endorsement, I know,. But being one of the early balls to explode forth from the canon of survival horror, I can’t really fault them for abiding by things that weren’t tropes yet when the game came out. You wander through an environment full of obstructions, trying to find multiple keys for single doors which the owners have cleverly scattered halfway across town in some drunken fit of reverse-kleptomania. You solve puzzles. You dodge and fight monsters. The control scheme offers the greatest challenge though, as not only was “Push the direction you want to move” as terrifying, foreign and quite obviously much easier to use as the metric system, the tank controls would glitch out every so often, making it impossible for Harry to step around and avoid monsters. The one saving grace is that it was often rather fun to build up a head of steam and then ram Harry into immobile objects for the satisfying “thwack” it would make, even if I did do this accidentally while being chased, leading to several eviscerations.

I’ve always thought Silent Hill puzzles were a bit contrived. My first time playing Silent Hill 2, I had spent a good half hour whacking monsters with a stick with a nail in it, but then I came to a key that was just out of reach beyond a barred doorway. Oh, if only I had some long, hooked tool that might be able to extend my reach! Woe is me! In the original, I picked up an axe halfway through the game, but still needed keys to get through wooden doors for some reason.

SH - Sloths

Harry faces down one of the seven deadly sins.

One of the bigger annoyances are the sloth monsters encountered in the school level. Despite the fact that you’ll find more bullets than textbooks, there’s absolutely no reason to use them as the sloths are invincible. Personally, I find that this defeats the main decision that makes survival horror fun to play—do you want to eliminate monsters permanently, or conserve ammo and risk a mad dash around the enemy every time? Silent Hill’s school makes that decision for you. Shooting them incapacitates them briefly, but three bullets to the face don’t affect them any more than the recoil of the gun does to Harry, so while he stands there waiting for his pants to dry, the sloths grab on to your legs like murderous toddlers looking for a ride. Not surprisingly, the monsters are actually supposed to be children, but censors felt that in a game littered with corpses and stocked full of monsters, cultists and blood, the idea of killing a violent hell-spawned creature of evil and darkness crossed a line, so long as said demon was only a meter tall.

SH Corpse

Oh! Thank god it’s not a kid. Otherwise this might have been tragic and gruesome.

But the game is tolerable, if not good. I had originally planned some jokes about Harry breathing like an obscene phone call when he’s wounded, and how the fog filling the town made it seem like the design team based their whole concept on the game having a low draw-distance. However, not having a life meter is one of the things that contributes to the uncertainty of survival horror (challenging when you think your health items are best spent), and upon reading that the design team introduced the fog for exactly that reason, I started thinking of it as a rather clever solution to a problem. Furthermore, Silent Hill moved away from horror based on jump scares and other things that make people like Markiplier scream like a drunken frat boy overstimulated by a football game. Even considering the control issues and the fact that tutorial tips display when loading after a game over—you know, approximately ten seconds after they would have been useful—I thought the challenge was well-balanced.

Don’t ask me about the weird Animal House style dance video they play after the credits, though. That’s probably the scariest thing about the game.

Haunting Ground – PS2

HauntingGround_NA_PS2cover

Rest of the Herd

Gary Larson cartoons are not easy to come by online.

I don’t understand horror. Don’t get me wrong, I like it well enough, but when a zombie punches through an oak door that would have shattered a karate master’s arm to the elbow and the people watching the movie with me engage in a spontaneous spelunking into the depths of the couch cushions, I don’t really get the panic. Ghost movies, too. They all use the same, cliched haunting tricks. The room is empty, and the chair moves by itself. Terrifying! Based on popular movies—strike that—based on the crap that Netflix posts because every college student with a camera is so desperate for their homemade found footage film to be seen that they practically give away the rights, you’d wonder why ghosts go through all the effort of returning from the dead to wreak bloody revenge and do nothing more than mess up the living’s feng shui. But then, maybe it’s the rest of the herd that’s gone insane. I remember a creative writing assignment in eighth grade that focused on horror. After a dozen stories about ghosts and monsters and people screaming and running, the teacher read my story—narrated in the second person (“You” instead of “I” or “He/She”)–where the readers find themselves jumping at shadows, alone in the woods. When we finally coaxed the other students to come out of their backpacks, I realized maybe I actually did understand horror.

Breast2

Breast physics courtesy of CG Animators who have never actually seen a naked girl before.

That issue came up for me again as I tried to justify the $80 price tag of “Haunting Ground.” The game’s pacing ripped along at glacial speeds, the combat is as thrilling as a Gus Van Sant film, and 36-Ds describes both the protagonists breasts and last three years of high school. But at the same time, there’s something unsettling enough about this game about castles, alchemy, cloning, and Frankenstein monsters. I think it’s because it feels like it could really happen.

Breasts

Normally when someone’s scared, they only lift their eyebrows.

Maybe I should explain. The story follows Fiona Belli, a young girl with a heart of gold, the breasts of a goddess, and the brain of a sea cucumber, who wakes up after a car crash to find out she’s inherited a big, gloomy castle with a definite Luigi’s Mansion vibe. While first wandering the castle, Fiona encounters two things. One, a white German shepherd named Hewie, who takes an immediate liking to the girl, follows her around, and obeys her every…fifth or sixth…command. Second, she runs into a man with the body of Hodor and the face of Smeagol, who looks between her and the doll he’s holding, chucks the doll aside, and with an excited look, grabs his crotch. When a grown man reaches for his junk with a childlike gleam in his eye, you know only two things can come next. Either he’s about to vigorously molest and/or rape you, or he’s about to perform “Smooth Criminal”…and then vigorously molest and/or rape you. Much like in the Clock Tower games that came before Haunting Grounds, Fiona has the combat prowess of Winnie the Pooh, and so the true challenge of the game is not to fight and defeat enemies, but to flee and evade them.

Daniella

The maid, Daniella, tries to kill Fiona. Hewie Lewis tries to save her with the Power of Love.

Fiona has several options, most of which give way to “run like hell,” which can take anywhere from a minute or two to a half an hour or more. She can order Hewie to attack, which if successful will buy her a few moments to put distance between her and her pursuer, but will more often simply alert her to the fact that the dog has wandered off and is likely halfway across the castle rolling in something interesting that he smelled. (This gets especially frustrating about halfway through the game when, in a cut scene, Fiona manages to get Hewie to leap up a statue and place a key item in a dragon’s mouth, but the fucking dog still won’t come when you call it.) You can kneel down to all the effect that kneeling would help you escape from a real-life stalker in a parking deck, or if you have a good head start and know where you’re headed, you can dive into one of the castle’s…four or five…hiding spots. Each of which you can only use once. If you’re lucky, you’ll manage to shake your stalker, after which you can go back to whichever puzzle you were trying to solve when you were interrupted (Note to contractors: If you ever get a request to build a room that only appears when you insert a statue into a model, or a door that won’t open without three crests, a diamond key, and the death of your trusty henchman, call the cops. Ain’t no one wants that shit unless its for some evil, H.H. Holmes crap.), at which point you’ll likely get interrupted again before you can figure out the solution.

Smeagol

Smeagol, after discovering that Pizza Hut not only delivers, but tastes better than raw fish.

The game is frustrating, time-consuming, and a bit slow paced, but definitely worth playing for the unique and subtle story. I can’t think of another title that doesn’t salt its gameplay with jump scares like it were preparing it for a year-long sea voyage, and none of the villains parade around in viscera like a burlesque dancer from a Saw movie. Haunting Ground relies on a more organic sense of horror generated from tense, creepy situations and semi-realistic villain motives. Your first adversary chases you with an adolescent lust and a poor understanding of personal boundaries. After dealing with him, you find yourself stalked by an older woman who is literally jealous of your womb and feels incomplete because she’s not as young, healthy and fertile as Fiona. Next comes two much older—several hundred years older—men who want to make her pregnant and expect her simply to, well, lie down and take it without putting up any complaint or personal choice in the matter. For one reason or another, every enemy in the game wants you for your womb and doesn’t care what you think. It doesn’t take much in the way of imaginative gymnastics to look at Fiona as the poster child for modern feminism and the pro-choice movement, not for any personal inner-strength she portrays (I’ve seen graham crackers hold together under more pressure than this girl), but for presenting realistic concerns in a way that is understandably scary.

Debilitas

Dog leaps in to save Fiona, who stands there like a confused cheerleader. Meanwhile, Dog comes down with a case of athlete’s tongue.

And it’s all presented subtly. The game gives you a handful of cut scenes, but none of them are as frightening as crawling under a bed and hearing someone walk around the room, only able to glimpse occasional looks at their feet from a limited field of vision. Or hearing sounds off-screen and trying to interpret them—depending on who catches you, the sounds overlaid on the game-over screen can sound like a brutal rape, or an insane woman removing your reproductive system with all the care of a loose tooth tied to a door knob. Items and journals you find, as is common in survival horror, give you some back story, but it doesn’t unnerve you the way that hearing Hewie growl at something in the next room does. Throughout the game you have to keep yourself from losing both stamina and composure, but they’re almost superfluous when the player actually starts to become unhinged while sitting on the safe side of the screen. (Although I did rather enjoy the boss fight where Fiona, Hewie, and the enemy had all lost stamina and spent a good five minutes chasing each other around the room as though they had just been released from the ICU.)

Yes, the game has flaws. No, as far as video games go it’ll probably never rank up with Chrono Trigger, Resident Evil or…I don’t know, what the hell do people like these days? Let’s go with Nintendogs. (Hah. Recycled Family Guy joke.) Fiona is terribly frustrating to control—dear God, woman! Just stomp on his head a few times while he’s pinned to the ground! Or take the maid’s weapon from her! Don’t just stand there wallowing in your own cowardice and likely a few bodily fluids! (Hah. Recycled Futurama joke.) And the dog is even worse, obeying all your commands like an angry teenager just an MIP-scolding away from joining the French Foreign Legion. Probably the most frustrating aspect is the system for crafting items and equipment, in which you essentially have to line up a ten-part slot machine in order to get anything good. (Naturally, the one time I actually crafted a protective necklace, I died and lost the progress)

Cheap Death

Oh yeah! I forgot to mention…sometimes the castle just kills you without warning. Save often.

But for the most part, the game is unlike other video game experiences, and the $80 price might actually reflect the quality of story, rather than just Capcom’s lack of foresight and failure to make enough copies for people who would want it.

Michigan: Report from Hell – PS2 (Europe)

Loved

I loved you, but if you can’t prioritize me over that big gaping hole in your abdomen, I don’t think this relationship is going to work.

In the Firefly episode, The Train Job, they pull out a map of the route the train takes. From west to east, it runs from Hancock to Paradise City. This was a big hit in Northern Michigan, where it takes roughly five hours to drive from Hancock in the west to Paradise in the East. Michigan, you see, has a bit of a geographical identity crisis. Not only can you visit paradise, but its only a ten-minute drive from Florida to Alberta, and if you’d like you can stop at Phoenix on the way. We have a small town, Sault Ste. Marie, that’s named itself after the thriving Canadian city just across the water. It also has Christmas 364 days a year, and nowhere is happier than the Gay Bar…in the town of Gay. And that’s all just in Northern Michigan. Down in the Lower Peninsula, where the people don’t realize we call them trolls (because they live below the Mackinaw Bridge), things aren’t quite as nice, but not only did they christen a town named Hell, but it regularly freezes over. So naturally when I found out about the Europe-exclusive game, Michigan: Report from Hell, I thought it deserved at least an hour of my time. And as luck would have it, it deserved two.

HELLFirst of all, let me say that setting Michigan: Report from Hell in Chicago borders on dishonest. It’s like opening a bottle of Mountain Dew and tasting Diet Coke. Or flipping open a Pizza Hut box to find a hubcap from a Winnebago. I think we can take legal action against Europe for wasting a title like that. Second, I don’t usually believe that something can be “So bad it’s good,” but if this unique piece of…survival horror was trying to elicit a strong emotional reaction from me, it succeeded beyond any horror game I’ve ever played. If it was trying for fear, though, then it may have better luck selling football equipment at an ICU.

You play as a cameraman for a Chicago news team. You also apparently have no arms and have grafted the camera onto your forehead because you can’t actually interact with anything other than to ram them with the camera, a move that takes more time to charge than a super kamehameha. Instead, you zoom in on objects to examine them or to tell your reporter to do something for you, like opening doors. The goal is allegedly to alert the reporter to the right objects, puzzles and monsters to keep them from stepping into, let’s assume, a portal to Hell. In reality, these reporters are more fragile than a Christian girl’s hymen on prom night. One of the first reporters I had to babysit saw a spider and literally died. I hadn’t even made it to hell.

Escape

He’ll never think to look for us on the other side of that line!

The story opens in a thick fog. Apparently Chicago is known for its warm, sunny climate and perpetually mild weather because the government has ordered an evacuation. The game says this is because they don’t know the cause of the fog. Apparently no one ever told them how water condenses out of humid air as the temperature drops, or that such a thing happens rather frequently along Lake Michigan (Oh, hey! That explains the title!…poorly.) On your first assignment, a bloodied woman staggers out of the mist and into an interview with a reporter who had, in the tutorial only moments before, suggested that you stop and help people if they clearly needed it. (You know, sometimes I truly envy youtubers who can actually show you this shit) The girl decides she’d rather be devoured by a monster, frightening the reporter so much she turns around and high-tails it to safety nearly ten whole meters down an unobstructed road to her news van. Then, naturally, the monster eats her too. Ah, the wonders of natural selection.

Action

Now let’s re-hash this several times before you bleed to death.

Technically, the first level starts with your next reporter. Standing in a ruined hotel room, she receives a phone call from a panicking girl. “It’s okay,” she tells the girl in a calm, unhurried tone. “Stay where you are. We’re coming to help you. You’ll be safe. I promise. We’re on our way to rescue you.” Because the speediest rescuers often get stuck on one thought like an autistic myna bird. And if responding to her panic like Ferris Bueller’s econ teacher accidentally instilled too much confidence in her, she immediately rushes downstairs to give a ten-minute pep talk to the sound guy, who’s dramatically torn up over the death of the first reporter. Apparently, though, reporter #1 “knew the risks” when she signed on to the job. I’d like to see my local news station’s liability form for “may get devoured by hell spawn.” And then she runs over to a fountain machine, can’t pour herself a Pepsi, sees a spider, and if you don’t squish it on the camera lens, she dies. No health bar, no second chances, thankfully no restarting the level and sitting through the inane, repetitive dialogue. She just dies and the game dispenses the next reporter like the next pinball on your quarter.

Brisco

The sound guy turning into Gene Simmons would have been very exciting…if I had actually seen it while playing the game.

And that pretty much sums up my major complaint with the game. The concept is interesting, but when the phone rings and the game feels I need a character to explain, “Hey, that’s the telephone,” I start to think I may find better things to do with my time. After getting a reporter who doesn’t have the survival instinct of a lemming, I got to wander around a nursing home for a bit. That’s when I noticed that while you can use the camera to get the reporter to open doors and search for things, she’ll only open whatever door she’s standing by and will only search for items within her reach. This means the game offers only slightly more challenge than playing I Spy while treading water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Erotic

Rendered by someone who clearly has never had sex with a woman before. Aren’t you turned on by women who store cherry popsicles between their legs?

I didn’t stick with the game long. I encountered a woman who I assume is Reporter #4, strapped to a pool table in such a way that I felt like I had interrupted something way more interesting than Report from Hell. She asked Reporter #3 to set her loose, and rather than cutting the straps, we had to comb the area for missing pool balls, then rack them up with no more hints than a supposed poster on the wall darker than Dick Cheney’s soul. That’s about when I had had enough.

Softball

This is either erotic, or a dolphin who swallowed two softballs and then died.

It’s a great concept, I’ll give it that much. You’re sufficiently disempowered to make a great horror protagonist. There are moral choices, and even the option of scoring “erotic” points for filming compromising shots of the reporters. Unfortunately in two hours of gameplay I encountered absolutely none of that. Personally, the only thing this game is good for is an episode of JonTron.

Luigi’s Mansion – Game Cube

Luigi6

I had a teacher once say about procrastination, “If you put something off long enough, eventually something will happen that means you won’t have to do it at all.” He used to work at a mental health clinic, and said that there were some patients where it just didn’t make sense to file the discharge papers. They’d be back. Soon. And if their discharge hadn’t been filed, it would be like they’d never left. Still, I maintain this blog as a way to write on a regular basis and an attempt to have a bit more skill at humor than, say, a dead mackerel, Rush Limbaugh, a Perkins Mammoth Muffin, or Will Ferrell. As such, I sometimes struggle to keep things posted on time, and every game I play (and recently, every book I read) deserves equal attention online if not just for the purpose of buying me time. So even though I played this game months ago, I only got around to writing three paragraphs at the time, and now I really need to sit down and finish it. Bonus points to readers who can guess which three paragraphs I wrote immediately after, and which ones sound old and stale, like a dead Mackerel, Rush Limbaugh, a Perkins Mammoth Muffin, or Will Ferrell.

Luigi2Sometimes I question whether it’s healthy for me to write about every game I play, or whether I’m intentionally turning myself into a sour cynic, hell-bent on juicing every flaw out of a game for lame attempts at comedy. And after attempting a run at Mario Sunshine, I looked at the copy of Luigi’s Mansion I acquired with that same sad look I give the bathroom door at 4:00 in the morning–it’s going to happen, but I don’t have to like the inconvenience. But while it doesn’t happen often, occasionally I get so wrapped up in a game that I forget to think of anything funny to say about it. Which means I’m still in a tough spot, even though I liked the game. So I guess I’ll throw out one of my simplified reviews: It’s like Fatal Frame with a vacuum cleaner.

Luigi1

…he slimed me.

The game opens with Luigi on his way to a mansion that he won in a contest he didn’t enter. Inside he finds a bunch of ghosts and Professor E. Gadd, a goofy little scientist who seems to speak a dialect of Ewok. Gadd is experimenting with the idea of Ghostbusters’ nuclear-powered proton packs: namely, if a common, household vacuum cleaner wouldn’t be a safer, cheaper option. (Spoiler alert: it is.) When he meets Luigi, he recognizes hero potential, and not the kid-gloves and pulled-punches potential of Mario is Missing. But as it turns out, Mario is, indeed, missing, which happens to be the only time Luigi can get any screen time. So rather than leave his brother to rot and run off with the princess himself, Luigi straps a hoover to his back and starts sucking down all the ghosts that got loose in his mansion.

Luigi5

“Jesus fuckin-a-christ! I sure-a hope I don’t get-a my face devoured by-a those skinless-a hell hounds!”

Luigi’s Mansion represents an odd foray by Nintendo into the world of survival horror. Screw you, Wikipedia, for listing it as action-adventure. Let’s run down a checklist, shall we? The character searches for a missing sibling. Check. Luigi wanders through a creepy mansion filled with ghosts, looking for keys that help him get into other areas. Check. When accessing a new area, the game shows a door “loading” screen. Check. Obnoxious footsteps that make you sound like a Dutch clog-dancing tournament. Big Check. For Bowser’s sake, Luigi can’t even jump—but the ghosts can. The game hits every cliché in the survival horror book like it was trying to get an “A” on the test. However, you don’t often see genres mixed into this one. If you play survival horror, you can damn well be certain the game will either try to scare the ammo out of you, ignite a passionate wrath…with awful controls…or lull you into a coma of boredom with horror tropes and jump scares. Luigi’s Mansion turns it into a cartoon, a rather amusing one, at that. The ghosts each have their own personalities (seemingly straight out of Ghostbusters). Luigi himself displays a level of fear that could give a whale a heart attack, which in addition to making him more endearing than Mario ever was, implies either a great bond of love and devotion to his brother, or a pretty severe case of codependency and/or Stockholm Syndrome.

Luigi3

Am I interrupting something?

Tank controls have been a staple of the genre since Resident Evil. “We’ll have them fight zombies, but conserve ammo!” “But the zombies move more slowly than social progress in Alabama!” “Well, lets just kick the controls in the head. By the time they figure out how to run away, their brains will be Cap’n Crunch for zombies.” However, Luigi’s vacuum cleaner controls feel both challenging and meaningful. I absolutely despise fishing (constantly being told not to talk or I’d scare the fish…which I later found out was just a bullshit excuse to shut me up), and refuse to do it even in Zelda games. But I imagine the satisfaction of reeling in a ghost is a lot like what people who enjoy fishing must feel when they finally bring in that barracuda they’ve been stalking.

Luigi4

The Flowers are Still Standing!

One last thing to say about this game, the music is catchy. So catchy in fact that every so often Luigi himself starts humming nervously along with it. It’s a nice little ditty, and if you decide to play the game I certainly hope you like it too…since it’s the only song they give you for the entire game. “Sorry, Luigi. Even Nintendo doesn’t want to waste time on you, so here’s something I plunked out on my piano this morning!” By the time you finish the game, that song remains the only truly horrifying thing left to face.

Parasite Eve 2 – Playstation

Note: Gamersgate supporters would like to see less of this.

Note: Gamersgate supporters would like to see less of this.

Back in the late nineties when Squaresoft could do no wrong, they made a bold move by backing away from Nintendo in favor of Sony. This meant two things for me. One, I had just blown my entire finances on an N64 and they had just rendered that purchase useless. Two, they now had virtually limitless room for bigger and better games. So when I finally gathered enough pop cans out of local garbages and exchanged the sticky, tobacco-ridden gold for a Playstation, I had to resort to begging for games for Christmas presents. When I popped that disc in the little gray box and hit power on Christmas morning (fuck baby Jesus! I’ll go to church when he’s earned enough EXP to unlock his parasite powers!), I met Parasite Eve, and thus began a lifelong relationship with a game that would inspire me to piss off my high school teachers with endless questions about the motives and abilities of mitochondria and at least one major research paper on spontaneous human combustion.

"Full Frontal" must not translate well from Japanese.

“Full Frontal” must not translate well from Japanese.

So when Square announced not only a sequel, but a sequel with a full-frontal shower scene (some people may have exaggerated certain reports), naturally I…had no cash and put off buying the game indefinitely. I really do wonder why I put off the game this long. But I finally got my hands on the working game, and now for your special Halloween article, I present “Parasite Eve II, or Resident Evil, Symphony of the Night.” The rumors I heard involve an all-out, knock-down, out-for-blood difference of creative opinion, with the director of the first game wanting an RPG detective story with the development team wanting to do something more like Resident Evil (I will update if I can find a source confirming). While the director seemingly won the first game (one imagines with a level-68 meteor spell while under a protect charm to ward off 9mm bullets), the development team apparently zombified him for the sequel, as the game reads so closely from Resident Evil’s play book that you can practically see the scribble marks over “T-Virus” right beside every mention of the word “mitochondria.” A rip-off this blatant could even garner plagiarism accusations from Terry Brooks.

Apparently, Mitochondria can write flame throwers into your DNA.

Apparently, Mitochondria can write flame throwers into your DNA.

The story follows Aya Brea, the most drop-dead gorgeous survival horror protagonist I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, three years after saving all of humanity from rogue microscopic organelles with murderous intentions and ambitions of world-domination. Despite the fact that the first game wrapped up all loose ends nice and tight, mitochondria still occasionally alters the DNA of people and animals because if they didn’t, well, the sequel wouldn’t make sense, would it? Aya has pulled a Leon Kennedy, leaving the police force to work as a government agent. Her boss sends her to investigate Raccoon City the town of Dryfield, where she discovers an abandoned underground laboratory dedicated to replicating the T-Virus neo-mitochondria. Oh, what horrors of dialogue writing will she face? What plot holes might she fall into? Stay tuned to find out!

Are you my mummy?

Are you my mummy?

The game plays well, let me say up front. Rather than borrow Resident Evil’s raise-the-gun-and-hope-for-the-best method of aiming, Parasite Eve 2 introduces a lock-on method of aiming, which allows you to point your gun directly at whatever you want to die. You can even see it, too…if the enemy hasn’t wandered out of the pre-rendered camera angle. Battles also have a more realistic flow than in the original game. Granted, from a game play perspective, PE1‘s combat system worked nearly flawlessly. However, it did take a leap of faith to understand why Aya always felt the need to step back and re-evaluate her strategy/situation/life between attacks. PE2 lets her pull the trigger as fast as the bullets come out of the gun.

PE2 drops some RPG elements from the first game, including leveling-up. Throughout the game, guns simply don’t get stronger, and Aya can’t suddenly take a shotgun blast to the face without flinching. On one hand, yes this makes the game more realistic, but assuming most people bought this game based on the merits of the original storyline where a flying opera singer with a velociraptor claw for a lower torso recruits your microscopic organisms to turn traitor and set themselves on fire, I think the target audience only cares about realism to a very small extent. Sacrificing game play for that element of realism may have about the same effect of eating tree bark instead of pasta and expecting health benefits from the all-natural ingredients. It may make you feel good at first, but in the end you’ll find yourself with significantly less health after taking damage in a cut scene. Right before the final boss. Seriously. Fuck you, game.

Then I could do what all snowmen do in summer.

Then I could do what all snowmen do in summer.

This element of realism grows a little murky when calling in to save your game for the first time. PE2 still uses phones as save points, but feels the need to put someone on the other end of the line, and every time you find a phone, after standing there wondering if it dials out (while the player watches, wondering how Aya ever passed high school, let alone her NYPD exams and field tests), we have to listen to the commentary of the NPCs, like a Greek Chorus of Nitwits repeating to the player what we already know. Especially astute players and their walkthroughs might access a minute sub-plot about a mole in the agency, but this proves about as vital and interesting as a pile of toenail clippings. Anyway, the first time you call in to save, your boss authorizes you to use weapons and armor you find on corpses. Thanks chief, but won’t I make the dead guys happier by dying myself rather than taking their stuff?

Bad writing plagues this game. Resident Evil often stitches together stories by ripping pages out of dime store sci-fi novels and pressing them together in whatever order they fall, but next to PE2, Resident Evil rises to the quality of Dostoyevsky. Characters speak in unnatural, stilted dialogue, like a troop of actors who all simultaneously forgot their lines, the premise of the play, and everything they learned since the third grade. Aya, one of the most awesome, badass protagonists of all time suddenly feels the need to flaunt her girliness by criticizing the P.I.’s outfit and telling us about the clearance sale she visited the previous weekend. And let me tell you, nothing builds up to an exciting climax of an epic survival horror game like a series of long, boring cut scenes filled with exposition that won’t matter thirty seconds later.

Smooth. On the upside, I no longer feel as bad for some of my failed attempts at talking to girls in high school.

Smooth. On the upside, I no longer feel as bad for some of my failed attempts at talking to girls in high school.

Ladies and Gentelmen, your villain. Code Name: Love Potion

Ladies and Gentlemen, your villain. Code Name: Love Potion

The original Parasite Eve showed a lot of effort in writing. They showed us a connection between Aya and her antagonist, which made their final confrontation meaningful as more than an obligatory battle. The story gave her doubts and personal conflicts. PE2, on the other hand, refers to the primary antagonist as “the big guy,” and he never takes off his army mask. You don’t know his identity or his motivations, much less how he connects with Aya or the events of the previous game. They introduce a private investigator as sort of a love interest, but they have even less chemistry than Leon and Ada in RE2, spend almost no time together, an remember how I said you lose HP in the cut scene before the final boss fight? Yeah…spoiler alert…he shoots Aya. In order to earn the trust of the villain that he betrays in the same cut scene. But no biggie, right? ‘Cuz he’s a hot guy. What else does he need?

I try to get away, but something irresistible just keeps drawing me back.

I try to get away, but something irresistible just keeps drawing me back.

The game doesn’t suck. Completely. Although I maintain that RE-style walking controls never helped anyone and feel even clunkier here where Aya automatically tries to reorient herself towards her target enemy, thus constantly steering her slightly back towards any enemy she needs to escape. The overly simplistic weapon customization system pales in comparison with PE1. And the puzzles, while they earn bonus points as interesting challenges, might offer too much of a challenge for someone who just wants to get on with the game, thus making a walkthrough necessary for completion. But I did play through the game twice (even though the New Game Plus option gives you nothing worthwhile) in order to get both the bad ending and the…well, still bad, but longer ending.

I couldn't find a clear solution anywhere online. Use this screensshot! This screenshot will help you finish this puzzle!

I couldn’t find a clear solution anywhere online. Use this screen shot! This screen shot will help you finish this puzzle!

I guess the “good” ending best sums up the obliviousness of the development team. A year after Mr. Sack-of-Flour Personality disappears, Aya visits the Museum of Natural History in New York–because when Alan Grant needed to relax, he spent some time on Isla Nublar–and the doors burst open behind her to reveal the Private Investigator, and I couldn’t find myself caring less about this bland, poorly written douchebag who shot me right before the final battle. Kick his ass to the curb, Aya! You can do better than him, and you have a birthday coming up…

Ju-on: Haunted House Simulator – Wii

Taking the week off, everyone! Here’s a review by Anne, the only person I know who has ever told me I’m optimistic. Enjoy!

Juon

Let me start off by saying I HATE THIS GAME! I spent multiple curse filled, blood pressure raising, hours playing this game and even the memories of it make me want to toss my Wii-mote off a tall building. There, with that out of the way I can look at this game a little more objectively but still, you know what you’re in for.

Ju-on: The Haunted House Simulator is, as so many people before me have stated, more of an experience than a real game. It plays in the style of old point and click adventures to a certain extent in that you use the Wii-mote as a flashlight and as a means of telling the lucky character of any given level where to go. This also allows you to interact with a limited number of pre-set objects that either progress the story or cause a jump-scare to occur. I say limited because there are a certain number of paper scraps one must collect in each level and they tend to be hidden in drawers or in mailboxes but it is sometimes difficult to figure out what can be interacted with and what is just a static background piece. The best example I can give is in the security guard level there is a section where you must flush all of the urinals in the men’s bathroom in order to set off the next sequence but prior to this none of the bathrooms have allowed such an option, so the player must go by trial and error to discover what will make the story progress. In addition, if you do not collect all of the pieces in the level you will find yourself replaying as the only way to unlock the final level is through having all of the pages from all of the previous levels completed.

I understand that some people find children creepy...but did he have to drop his pants?

I understand that some people find children creepy…but did he have to drop his pants?

With all of that nitty-gritty detail out of the way let’s talk game play. I would like to start off with one not to subtle hint: there is no run button. Each character walks down their given corridors like they are strolling through a museum rather than being chased for their lives by a vindictive ghost. Personally, if I were in their shoes I would have noped the fuck out of there way before things got as bad as they do and to hell with my dog, my job, or my ‘family’ (I think that’s what they’re indicating with that picture that shows up in each level and the little bit of commentary in the last one?). Picture this if you will: you are walking your dog when it suddenly gets away from you and runs into a darkened warehouse. In the very first room that you enter you hear it barking and attempt to open a set of doors only to be grabbed by something behind the door and shaken. Would you calmly start browsing around for batteries, keys, and hidden pages? I personally would be well on my way to another zip code and hoping the dog was smarter than it looked.

Oh yeah, I'll tell you something I think you'll understand...

Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something I think you’ll understand…

Additionally, and I know this is picking at small details but what is with the trend of having video game protagonists get horse shoes nailed to their feet before any game that involves any level of stealth. This game’s horse shoe sound effects are so bad that there were several times that I missed the beginning of a scare because I couldn’t hear it over my own character’s walking. Again, am I the only one who would be tip-toeing as quietly as possible if I were being chased or even taking off my shoes if they insisted on making that much noise? Also, where does one find a horse-shoer for humans? Is it a niche market? Is there a discount since there are only two feet to shoe or is it extra since you probably have to anaesthetize them so they don’t pass out when you nail the shoe on?

Finally, the motion sensor aspect of this game as a way to simulate a flashlight is actually a really innovative and interesting idea. Newer horror games have run with this theme with the most notable one in recent memory being Outlast. The problem with this is that the Wii-mote sensor in this particular game is AWFUL. I thought I had played bad Wii games before but I was wrong. When my character wasn’t determinedly staring at the ceiling like a paranoid pest control worker he or she would make 180-degree spins to go in the opposite direction of where I needed to go. This wouldn’t have been such a problem except that every level is for all intents and purposes timed due to the shortest lasting batteries that have ever been my honor to curse about. This means that half the time a ‘scary’ nose would occur and I wouldn’t even be looking in the right direction for the scare.

Because nothing horrifies me more than a comically large hair clog in a bathroom drain.

Because nothing horrifies me more than a comically large hair clog in a bathroom drain.

Which brings me to related point. If you run out of batteries or fail a quick time event, which you will because of the aforementioned control issues, you have to start the level all over again from the very beginning. This wouldn’t be such an issue except every last cut scene must be triggered in order in order to progress and the jump scares don’t change. After the first, or heaven forbid eighth time, you go through a level the preset scares simply feel like they’re taking up valuable time and are a chore to slog through. I’ll admit that every once in a great long while you’ll find an optional jump scare that you may have missed along the way but it is extremely rare and yet these soon to be yawn worthy moments still lead to the ‘scared’ and ‘sissy’ meters at the end of a level somehow filling even if you in no way waggle the controller during one.

...Seems legit. Nothing bad ever happens to anyone who crawls into a jagged hole in a fence in the middle of the night when surrounded by blood.

…Seems legit. Nothing bad ever happens to anyone who crawls into a jagged hole in a fence in the middle of the night when surrounded by blood.

One memorable time I was playing through a level for the umpteenth time and finally completed it only for the game to taunt me with a quip about my basically needing to go hide under a blanket while during the very next level when I nearly jumped out of my skin at a well placed and new to me jump scare it told me I had nerves of steel.

Now here is the part of the review that I like to call ‘random crap that was said during the game’. Some of this will actually be from my brother’s run as I made him play it to make up for him making me play through the first level of Dark Souls II blind (and I don’t play that type of game so I had no idea what to do at first) and spent a good hour or so laughing at me.

~’This looks like the owner’s own personal crop of weed.’ -Regarding the field from level 3 (the delivery boy level) with the grass covered play set and oddly shaped ‘plants’.

~’This person should just lay down the cash to get an LED flashlight or even a crank operated one.’ -Regarding the quickly draining batteries of the flashlights in every level.

~’This is a sign that you’ve taken your delivery to the next level… neither rain, nor sleet, nor slashing knife…’ ‘Oh, no worries, some days are just so strange.’ -Regarding the delivery man not only entering the apartment to attempt to deliver the package but then continues wandering around the buildings afterward rather that high-tailing it out of there.

~’That guy needs to wear bifocals!’ -Regarding the delivery man’s need to hold the package right up to his eye in order to check the address and later being unable to see more than an inch or two in front of his face.

~’Not the death tuba!’ -After yet again missing a jump-scare because my character was facing the entirely wrong direction.

Sacks of bloody garbage bags outside this creepy abandoned apartment? Seems like an invitation to go inside instead of leaving the package on the door step like a normal UPS guy!

Sacks of bloody garbage bags outside this creepy abandoned apartment? Seems like an invitation to go inside instead of leaving the package on the door step like a normal UPS guy!

So is the game worth the play through, I hear nobody ask. In my opinion no. It has all of the ideas and elements to be a great game from the haunting locations and claustrophobic environments of the classic Silent Hill games to the raging jump scares that we’ve come to associate with games like Five Nights at Freddy’s. The problem is that it has extremely limited replay value and even then it isn’t all that scary. I spent most of the short play time simply re-doing levels where I had failed a quick time sequence due to poor control sensitivity or looking for the annoying and sometimes ridiculously placed page fragments that truly require a walk-through to locate. This is made double frustrating by the fact that the levels are so dark that sometimes you don’t know if you’re actually progressing or simply have collided with an obstacle that you can’t see and are slamming the character uselessly and repeatedly against said immovable object. Darkness is atmospheric but it is not, in and of itself, scary.

In addition, the Grudge lady is poorly animated from her chunky octopus hair to her albino son who is practicing his cat calls. Even fans of the original movies are going to be disappointed as there is minimal plot other than that one or all of the characters in the game may or may not be living at the original Grudge site. If the game gave us any reason to relate to or even empathize with the characters this might have played out differently but as it is, slapping a name on the beginning of each level and then asking the player to feel bad when they ultimately meet their untimely demise is bad story writing. This is not to say the game can’t be entertaining for a short time but at least this gamer spent more of her time cursing poor controller sensitivity and crappy batteries then actually feeling frightened and in a haunted house simulator, the sense of impending doom is everything.

Evil Dead: Hail to the King – PS1, Dreamcast

Evil Dead Annie

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.

Bad Ash Evil DeadOkay, 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.

They're coming to get you, Barbara.

They’re coming to get you, Barbara.

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.

Now if only I had some alternative way of getting through this door...

Now if only I had some alternative way of getting through this door…

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.

Fuck that shit. Finally I get to use my weapons creatively.

Fuck that shit. Finally I get to use my weapons creatively.

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.

Oh yeah. They send him to Damascus. Did I mention he spends all of disc two in Damascus? Because that makes sense.

Oh yeah. They send him to Damascus. Did I mention he spends all of disc two in Damascus? Because that makes sense.

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.

Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly – PS2, XBox

Fatal-frame-II-screenshot-fatal-frame-ii-crimson-butterfly-11732067-640-480

I have to confess that this week’s entry has put me in a situation not unlike walking in on a room full of beautiful, lonely lesbians; I may have just discovered the best thing in existence, but I can’t praise it because of a single catch in the logic that renders it of absolutely no use to me. To give you an idea of how confused this game makes me, that previous sentence took approximately fifteen minutes to write.  Have you ever played a game so brilliantly designed that you wanted to erect a statue of it and place it at the top of the highest mountain so that everyone could see your rather weird graven image, but one thing about it just kept driving you insane until you decided you’d rather construct an effigy of the game and hang it, set it on fire, then pee on the ashes? Well, if not, I recommend Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly.

Fatal Frame 2 tells the story of twin girls Mio and Mayu, who after a shaky-cam montage that the player can only pray to the game to explain, find themselves in an abandoned traditional village after nightfall. After a bit of exploration, the girls start hearing noises and seeing glimpses of movement here and there.  Doors begin to unlock by themselves, and items appear in rooms when Mio and Mayu leave to search other rooms. Soon, they come across a camera with a note explaining, in terms only slightly more scientific than the average paranormal investigator uses to describe their own equipment, that it has the power to exorcise ghosts. And then Mayu displays the most astounding lack of survival skills in the history of horror, running off into the village full of angry spirits without her sister, who now holds the only means of defense against the supernatural menace.

Most people believe they don't look good in pictures. Some people truly don't.

Most people believe they don’t look good in pictures. Some people truly don’t.

Fatal Frame 2 combines all the best aspects of successful survival horror games.  Like Resident Evil, the noises Mio makes as she traipses through the environment sometimes sound enough like ghost noises to keep you panicking.  Like Silent Hill, it creates an atmosphere of total isolation, garnished with introspection and the slight hint of a dark past.  The horror builds off of Japanese culture, especially the significance of twins and the mythology of butterflies, which many Western players will find unfamiliar enough to spook them (but relax; if you’ve seen “The Ring,” the game offers one scene of a ghost girl climbing out of a well). Furthermore, they took away the standard issue gun and replaced it with a camera, making the player feel completely helpless in the face of adversity–it even requires letting ghosts get close and attack in order to do any meaningful damage to them. Imagine a donut made out of birthday cake, filled with chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, frosted with Oreo cream and topped with M&Ms; this game feels like that. (I’ve recently cut back on sweets…can you tell?)

Now picture this without the edges of the screen, the girl following you, most of the girl leading, the house, the road, the trees and...well, see that lightly glowing spot at the center? I didn't see much more than that.

Now picture this without the edges of the screen, the girl following you, most of the girl leading, the house, the road, the trees and…well, see that lightly glowing spot at the center? I didn’t see much more than that.

However, Fatal Frame’s Fatal Flaw might just negate all of that.  Have you ever played a survival horror game that asked you at the beginning to “adjust the brightness until you can just barely see the gray line”? Well, this game doesn’t do that. It just assumes you like it dark. In fact, not only do you not want to see the gray line, but you don’t really care to see the text asking you the question, either.  What? You can’t see Mio? Well, you shouldn’t look at her anyway, given her young age. If you need to know what your environment looks like, you have a map. Use it! (I honestly spent less time following my GPS through downtown Minneapolis than I did checking the map screen for Fatal Frame).

If you manage to find a bright enough TV screen, you get to see an excellent rendering of a run-down, abandoned town.

If you manage to find a bright enough TV screen, you get to see an excellent rendering of a run-down, abandoned town.

While I understand what Tecmo intended by making the game darker than a chain smoker’s lung, and while I have to begrudgingly admit that certain scenes would not come across as terrifying in a lighter environment, I often needed to check the map to see what direction Mio faced, and due to the adoption of Resident Evil’s shifting camera angles, even that didn’t guarantee that I knew how to get her to move forward instead of back, slightly to the left, or directly into the nearby wall. Horror relies on senses, and the deprivation of one heightens the unknown, forcing you to interpret information more heavily with your other senses.  Good horror can overload those senses. However, video games lack texture.  You can drop a character into a pitch black room, but the player doesn’t entirely come along for the ride. A vibrating controller simply doesn’t substitute for placing your hand on something warm and gooey that you can’t see. One might as well climb into a sensory deprivation chamber and then have a friend dump a bucket of spiders on the outside. Yeah, it might scare you if you think about it hard enough, but you have a good layer of insulation protecting you.

It turns out that other people have had this problem as well, but no one could offer an infallible solution. Despite the game having the option to increase brightness, you can only increase it enough by finding a TV that naturally has a more vivid contrast. For the record, none of mine could do it. They both interpret an increase of brightness as watering down the picture with more white pixels. All in all, not very helpful.

See! This girl creeps me out more than any of the ghosts in the game

See! This girl creeps me out more than any of the ghosts in the game

I wish I could get past that because I did enjoy the game (at least what I could see of it). I can only describe the initial ghost encounters as “pants dampeningly scary,” and by the time the shock wears off, it feels as if some sort of character growth happened…somewhere. (I don’t know. They don’t really talk much.) Despite occasionally pairing up with Mayu, it doesn’t turn into a babysitting mission. Still, they managed to make her creepy enough that I started to feel safer without her around. True to the genre, the player learns Mio’s story as Mio in turn learns the story of the village. Also true to the genre, she does this by picking up scattered notebooks, letters, and other writings left around the village because apocalyptic horrors always result from a breakdown in private filing systems. If you ever notice disembodied pages from diaries lying around town, get out while you can; those places collect monsters like Gamestop collects used Madden games.

Because black and white scares people, reminding themof the dark days before Kodachrome and Technicolor

Because black and white scares people, reminding themof the dark days before Kodachrome and Technicolor

Unfortunately, not only did the lack of  vision and direction ruin the experience, but a plot full of dangling details never fully explained make the ending not quite satisfying (I played the PS2 version, but I heard they added endings for the XBox and Wii). Plus, while having doors unlock on their own adds to the creepy factor, it doesn’t give you that solid line on where to go next, like Resident Evil does when it hands you a specifically marked key.  And while the four houses in the village don’t really qualify it as sprawling, I’ve never enjoyed the “just walk around until something happens” mentality, which only pisses me off and sends me rifling through the internet for a walkthrough, a cardinal no-no in my book of game design flaws. Still, I have to give them credit for minimizing puzzles.

So I should probably lay out all the information to see my ultimate opinion of the game: creepy as hell, great atmosphere, nice departure from guns-n-ammo approach to horror, no stupid puzzle solving. On the con side: walking from room to room feels like solving a puzzle, shifting camera angles in the dark causes Mio to dance in little circles, and the ending falls just shy of explaining anything.  I can honestly say I have never played a better survival horror game, nor have I played a worse one.

Resident Evil: Deadly Silence – NDS

You should take solace in the fact that the spiders still qualify both as "big" and "hairy."

You should take solace in the fact that the spiders still qualify both as “big” and “hairy.”

I might compare art to beautiful prostitutes; lovely, inspiring, everyone has seen them, and people everywhere feel an instinctual need to do them both, but no one wants to get caught giving them money.  Sadly, despite all our magnanimous feelings toward art, if it doesn’t turn a profit at the end of the day, it doesn’t happen, and as the $400 average price for a current generation system will attest, video games, while creative and artistic endeavors, still need to turn tricks to keep afloat. If you’ve read my recent entries, you’ve heard me rant about Nintendo’s efforts to package the portability of Game Boy games over any actual quality of games. Their breakthrough efforts with the DS gave us an onslaught of games, and statistically speaking we could expect many good ones in the pile of broken coding. However, that didn’t stop them from porting the 1996 classic, Resident Evil to yet another system to make a quick buck on making it portable.

...these guys. Still hate 'em.

…these guys. Still hate ’em.

To Capcom’s credit, they try to make this game more interesting every time they expect us to shell out more cash for their new edition. The major feature of Deadly Silence builds off the DS (I see what you did there!) hardware.  Although cheap and gimmicky in places, I can’t really lament REDS the way I would other game ports.  The game practically invented modern survival horror, and as such it works because it embraces horror elements such as fear and surprise. While essentially the same as the original PS1 version, I have to begrudgingly admit that they’ve altered it enough so as to keep it fresh and startling.  Since the game actually features two modes–classic and rebirth–and since they didn’t really do anything but a straight-up port for classic, I’ll concentrate on rebirth mode here.

Immediately I noticed they fixed the knife mechanics. I really enjoyed the knife in RE4, and found it quite satisfying to take down monsters by a quick jab to the knee caps and repeatedly plunging the blade into their parasite-ridden flesh like Dexter, reveling in the squishy noises until that last groan tells me to to look for a new victim. Unfortunately, the knives in earlier games don’t provide such a cathartic experience, and serve only to sacrifice the number of useful items you can carry in exchange for the ability to play “here comes the airplane” with zombies, thrusting what can only look like a juicy piece of meat directly into their all-too-willing jaws. Instead of offering yourself up as bait, the knife remains equipped like it does in RE4, under control of the left shoulder button, and it actually damages the zombies enough to make it a worthwhile weapon. And I know that people say it’s always worked against the spider, but do you know what works better? A fricken flame thrower.

...because he should really see a doctor if his blood has the color and consistency of the green ketchup.

…because he should really see a doctor if his blood has the color and consistency of the green ketchup.

As another nice feature, which completes my list of any actual differences between the original and the remake/port, the top screen of the DS displays both a map of the mansion and the player’s current health status. While the flashing colors to display injuries doesn’t make it less cryptic, still leading to the inevitable question of whether or not it hurts enough to only take a few aspirin or to inject that case full of morphine directly into your brain, it at least removes the need to open a menu and give the character time to reflect on the nature of wounds and come to grips with their inevitable mortality.

Jill learned this in 'Nam.

Jill learned this in ‘Nam.

Some of the puzzles have different mechanisms for solving: use the microphone to blow out a candle, use the stylus to draw in wires or jiggle a sword out of a door. These really add nothing to the game other than the altered layout of items forces you to take a new route, which causes you to backtrack through areas that may or may not have new challenges. Keepin’ it fresh, eh, Capcom? The real addition involves a mini-game sequence activated semi-randomly as you enter a room. The player shifts to a first-person perspective and requires use of the stylus to hack and slash a rush of monsters. Specific attacks can stun monsters, otherwise they plow through to your tasty brains, oblivious to the holes opening up in their torsos. I enjoyed this, more or less, but during the more frustrating onslaughts I couldn’t help but ask, “If Jill had a fully loaded shotgun as she walked through that door, why did she feel the need to combat this 15-meter, venomous snake like a boyscout whittling a marshmallow-roasting stick?”

Yes. We get it. Jill Sandwich. Sounds funny. Now shut up and edit the script.

Yes. We get it. Now shut up and edit the script.

Beating the game once unlocks a more developed version of this, called “Master of Knifing,” which also suggests that Capcom decided to embrace, rather than repair, acting so bad that the actors refuse to list their full names on IMDB. Yes, we all know about the “Master of Unlocking” and the “Jill Sandwich” lines, but seriously, the actors read every line like a mommy reading to an infant that doesn’t speak English yet. And the mommy has never heard anyone speak English or use inflections or tone of voice. They had the decency to rethink the puzzles and the layout and to fix the knife and all that; did it never occur to them to wander over to the nearest high school, pull a handful of the extras out of an Our Town rehearsal and spend ten minutes with them to get a performance far superior to the original cast?  Did that take bit of energy cross the line, or did they just really enjoy a performance stitched together from the discarded audio of 1980s cleaning supply infomercials?  Just because the game sold well and people had a good laugh at the lousy actors doesn’t mean it should stay that way.  Resident Evil built its fame on setting tone and using creepy sounds to scare the shit out of both ends of the player; the acting not only breaks that tone, but reverses its effect.  Humor relieves stress, and in a game designed for tension, they can’t really relent on stress.  Just pack up the original recording as an unlockable feature if you love it so much.

For those times when using a shotgun just wouldn't give you the same rush. Thinking of these two as adrenaline junkies really changes the tone of the game.

For those times when using a shotgun just wouldn’t give you the same rush. Thinking of these two as adrenaline junkies really changes the tone of the game.

Mostly though, I can’t complain.  The puzzle redesign puts certain items in places where the unaltered story may not send you–but hey, I’ll tell you right now that you find the wolf medal in the guard house, but be prepared to knife the giant snake for it.  Otherwise, well, the game won’t surprise you too much.  Same thing, but different. But mostly the same.

____

Even though I thought I’d disappear for a while, I’ve managed to update weekly. This week should challenge me, though, as right now I have about 30% of Assassin’s Creed II and maybe 40% of Final Fantasy VII done.  I generally don’t like playing two games at once, but Anne’s never seen FFVII, and I need something to do when she goes to work. So look for reviews of those two games in the near future. Maybe I’ll throw in an Atari, arcade, or NES game just to have something quick to play and easy to write about.

As usual, thanks for reading!

Koudelka – PS1

Many Victorian women preferred to wear bondage corsets as tops.

Many Victorian women preferred to wear bondage corsets as tops.

When Hiroki Kikuta, composer for Secret of Mana, left Square to found his own game company, he wanted to produce something fast-paced, exciting and dark, citing Resident Evil as his inspiration.  The developers working for him at Sacnoth, however, wanted something more like Final Fantasy and other games being released by Squaresoft.  I enjoy cross-genre works.  They take bits of the familiar and twist it into something fun and new.  Sacnoth’s 1999 release, Koudelka, takes the best of both worlds, combining the fast, exciting combat of Resident Evil with a well-written, progressive storyline like an RPG.

Just kidding! It’s actually all the backtracking and item hunting of a survival horror game with the repetitive random-enemy encounters of an RPG! Congratulations to Sacnoth for totally missing the point of playing either of those genres.

The story opens in 1889 when a voice calls a young Gypsy girl, Koudelka, to the Nemeton Monastery in Wales.  Equipped with nothing but her traditional Victorian-Era hot pants, bondage corset, and a personality that would strip the skin off a crocodile and rust off a Buick, she climbs the wall into a Medieval torture dungeon full of fresh corpses and stale plot premises.

I punched a chair!

I punched a chair!

From the point where she meets up with the game’s two companions, the story kind of flows freely, like a soda that Sacnoth spilled in a lake and then tried to put it all back in the bottle.  The characters seem to want to investigate the bulk supply of mangled corpses stocked in the monastery, but kind of lose interest when the ghost of a little girl dumps them into a hole, and that plot kind of peters out in favor of a mystery surrounding the back story of one of the games lesser noticeable characters, who literally dies in the second scene he appears in, at which point the game drops even that plot.  Eventually, it settles on something somewhat interesting; as it turns out, a priest tried to resurrect his wife, who happens to be the former love interest of one of the playable characters.  However, messing with dark magics never ends well, something went horribly wrong, yada yada, and now we have to fight her soulless body.

Fin.

This guy! Dark...

This guy! Neat.

In a game that clearly attempts to build a Lovecraftian atmosphere, that part of the story rouses interest.  Still, the story stands on a foundation of apple sauce, jello, and the hopes and dreams of lousy game designers, and it falls somewhat flat.

Really? You can't figure this one out?

Really? You can’t figure this one out?

The semi-strategical combat system attempts for something interesting, but doesn’t work right.  The player can move characters around on a grid like most tactics games, but every battlefield consists of a flat, featureless floor.  Only one battle bothered to include any obstacles, and due to a weird quirk where the game refuses to let you step past the entire line containing the foremost enemy, it ended up looking like a bunch of people who couldn’t navigate themselves around an inanimate wooden box.  Furthermore, considering the small size of the battlefield, large move capabilities of the characters, and lack of limits on ranged and magic attacks, it ends up amounting to a system almost exactly like the SNES Final Fantasy games where players and enemies line up and face each other like colonial armies.  Actions in battle consist only of standard attacks, moving, and casting a handful of spells–four attack, two healing, and a smattering of support–that might level up by the end of the game if you cast them enough. The game lacks money and shops, so all items and equipment come from either picking up randomly placed items that blend in with the environment, or from random creature drops.  As a player, one strategy fits all, and with very few options to choose from, most battles in Koudelka–which, I remind you, calls itself a strategy game–end up playing out exactly the same as every other battle.

Roger Bacon

Roger Motherfuckin’ Bacon

Koudelka stands as a shining example of how unlike in Hollywood, games sequels can succeed even when the original holds itself up to standards I wouldn’t accept from a kindergarten school play.  Sacnoth apparently understood that the only interesting things about this game were the magic spell used to resurrect the dead and the creepy old monk, Roger Bacon, who wanders around the monastery like a madman.  They went on to develop a little-known but excellent series called Shadow Hearts, recycling very little from the Koudelka universe other than those things.

This might look neat...if it weren't made of polygons.

This might look neat…if it weren’t made of polygons.

Still, I won’t say I hated Koudelka or that I had trouble rousing up interest in it.  It just feels like they needed to screw up before they figured out what would work in subsequent games.  I can tell they put some work into the Lovecraftian monster design, but on the rendered polygons of the PS1 they intimidated me about as much as a Lego Cthulu.  And while themes of dark magics and forbidden knowledge work well in Shadow Hearts, Koudelka had all the consistency of a story narrated by Leonard from Memento.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a tendency to like games even when they don’t deserve it.  For the most part, I feel that way about Koudelka.  As a long-time fan of Shadow Hearts, I still consider this a must-play for series completionists.  Still, I’m not likely to  come back to it any time soon.