Thursday, February 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

DARK VOID, by Capcom; 2010; Rated T; PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

DARK VOID is a third person cover based shooter but just stating the obvious doesn’t do this game justice. It is also original in both story and gameplay, has good voice acting, and sharp graphics. Yet there’s even more to this game than just the sum of its parts, and just like the rocket man on the game’s cover, there are plenty of highs and lows ahead of us on this wild ride. So buckle up, grab your helmet, and let’s blast off into the DARK VOID.
The highs come from a number of sources, first and foremost is the story. You play as crack pilot Will Grey who’s hired to transport a special package over the infamous Bermuda Triangle during the buildup to World War Two in 1938. One surprise return of an old love interest and one unscheduled crash into the ship sucking triangle and Will finds himself trapped in The Void, a pocket dimension of floating land masses and vast, empty expanses. Populating this bizarre place are survivors, and their descendents, of those lost to the Devil’s Triangle and other, lesser know interdimensional portals. Oh and there’s also a race of snake-like aliens called The Watchers living there. These slithering baddies, who often run around in robo-battle suits, have nothing but hatred for humanity and are helping “the fascists” build their war machine for the upcoming world war. It is up to Will and his new found friends to stop these sneaky space snakes and find a way to return to earth. Luckily Will gets some unexpected help in the form of famous electrical genius Nikola Tesla, and good old Nick leads us to the next, and easily the best part of this game; the flying.

Tesla gives you a jet pack and the freedom and total cool factor you feel when you are playing around with it is amazing. You can come soaring down from the heavens at your enemies, land behind them to start blasting, jet off when things get too hot to handle, and then hover in the air to rain down death upon your foes. While controlling the jetpack does take some time to get used to it is some of the best high flying action you are apt to find in any game and defiantly the highlight of DARK VOID.

And now for the game’s lows.

While the flying is great, the running and gunning this shooter offers could use some work. It gives us nothing new and usually feels a little loose, as in imprecise. There are some graphical glitches and worst, some really annoying audio boo-boos including an entire cut scene where the sound crackles throughout. However these can be fixed with a simple patch, provided that Capcom does one. What can’t be fixed with a patch is the repetitive game play. There are very few enemies so you soon become bored with shooting the same ones over and over again. If you hijack an enemy UFO its awesome…the first time you do it, but do it again and you’ll see that the animation sequence is the same. After the fourth or fifth time you do this you’ll have to fight nodding off. Lastly there is the ending which is the very definition of both anticlimactic and an obvious set up for a sequel. However the prospect of a DARK VOID sequel is actually a pretty good thing. If the game designers can add a bit more variety and iron out some of the technical problems, Dark Void 2 could be an amazing game. The basics are all there, they just need some more polish. Unfortunate as it stands now, DARK VOID is just a fun and average game. There’s nothing wrong with that, but nothing great either.

I give DARK VOID 3 Rocket Men burning up their fuses out of 5.

BORDERLANDS: MAD MOXXI’S UNDERDOME RIOT, by 2K Games and Gearbox Software; 2009; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

Those of you that have been reading Graphic Horrors from the start will know how much I loved the post apocalyptic-feeling, first person shooter-slash-rpg hybrid BORDERLANDS. You may also recall how geeked I was over its first downloadable add on; THE ZOMBIE ISLAND OF DR. NED. So with that said it is with a very heavy heart that I’ve got to say that their lattes DLC; MAD MOXXI’S UNDERDOME RIOT really isn’t that good. In fact, it should be avoided. Here’s why.
MAD MOXXI adds a great charter in Moxxi to the game. She’s a sexy, psychotic siren that runs a series of arenas called the Thunder…I mean Underdome. In these arenas you and your BORDERLANDS buddies fight wave after wave of some of the biggest, toughest, meanest baddies planet Pandora can throw at you. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well it is…at least for a while, then it all gets really repetitive. There are only three arenas to kill in, the selection of bad guys cycles through about four variant groups, and even the end bosses you fight every fifth round, taken from the various headline villains from the original game, soon begin to repeat themselves.
Worse yet, when playing through the UNDERDOME you start to feel like you’re wasting your time because you’re not advancing at all. For some unexplainable reason the game designers decided that repetitive mindless combat should be its own reward so your character gains no experience for the kills he racks up. For a game that prides itself on being one half role-playing game that is inexcusable.
Further, as you play through the original BORDERLANDS, and even while blasting zombies at Dr. Ned’s island, you gain higher skill ranking with whatever guns you use to do the killing. For example; the more people you put down with a pistol, the more damaging and accurate you become with it. Well in UNDERDOME even that is disabled, so you could waste a thousand angry road warriors with the same weapon and your proficiency with it will not raise an inch. Why the game designers decided to halt all character advancement is a mystery, and once you realize that they have do so it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Oh, and one more thing, they didn’t raise the level cap. Your character still maxes out at level fifty which you’ll easily have already hit if you played through the core game twice, like they suggest that you do, and run through Ned’s undead filled swamps. MOXXI does add a quest, that can be completed once per the aforementioned two play-throughs, that upon completion gives you another point to spend on your vault hunter’s talent/skill tree. While that is a nice addition, when compared to all the things it doesn’t allow you to increase, it feels like a Band-Aid at best.
MAD MOXXI’S UNDERDOME RIOT is combat for the sake of combat and nothing more. There’s no story, little to no character advancement, and while it offers some loot drops, none of the guns I got while in the arena was anything special. If you want to run around with your online buddies and blast BORDERLANDS baddies then this expansion will let you do that, but it offers nothing more. I hate to say it but I must; skip this one and hope that the next BORDERLANDS DLC is much better.

I give MAD MOXXI’S UNDERDOME RIOT 2 sad psycho midgets out of 5.


VANDAL HEARTS: FLAMES OF JUDGMENT, by Konami; 2010; Rated T; Xbox Live Arcade.

This game is a fantasy turn based tactical RPG. What do all those words mean? Don’t be frightened, it’s pretty simple. The game is a series of battles where you have a small unit of soldiers, archers, wizards, and healers. The fights take place on various boards. Each character acts one at a time taking actions such as moving, attacking, and casting spells. That is the turned based part of the game. The tactics come in by utilizing the map’s terrain to your advantage, flanking opponents, and using various spells to buff, heal and damage characters. The RPG (or Role Playing Game) elements come form the evolving story, equipping new armor and weapons to your characters, and having your little army gain skill proficiencies through experience. So everyone got that? Ok, lets move on.
VANDAL HEARTS is a smallish, quick and fun diversion you can get for cheep by downloading it over the Xbox Live system. It is a good introduction to these types of games being not to difficult. However that means veterans of turn based tactical games will not find it very challenging and perhaps even boring. Further the art style is rather cartoonish and would appeal to kids. While this is fine with me, some “hardcore” gamers may turn their nosed up at it. Lastly, my biggest gripe with the game is the copious amount of loading screens this game will force you to sit through. When the game starts, there’s a load screen. Go to a new map to battle, see a load screen, when the battle’s over, load screen, go to inventory, load screen, go to buy items, load screen. Load screen, load screen, load screen. For a game as simple as this an done that came out in 2010, this is unacceptable and worst of all it’s annoying as all hell.

But all is not bad in these vandal’s hearts. You play as a young healer which is a nice change from the muscle bound sword swingers you usually play in these types of games. The adventure your little healer and his palls embark on is well developed populated with interesting characters. The enemies you do battle with range from warriors and wizards like you, to wolves, huge insects, undead horrors, and gigantic sandworms. While the combat is kind of simplistic it is fun and the game is short enough so that it never gets boring. All in all VANDAL HEARTS is good at what it does but it brings nothing new to the game.

I give VANDAL HEARTS: FLAMES OF JUDGMENT 3 rounds of sword swinging combat out of 5


PHANTASMAGORIA, by Sierra Entertainment, Inc; 1995; Rated M; PC, Mac, Sega Saturn

I loved this game, and having played through it again somewhat recently I still enjoyed the hell out of it. Yes it’s kind of hokey by today’s standards; hell even back in 1995 it was still hokey, but just like a bad B-grade horror flick, that was some of its charm. And relating this video game to a movie is appropriate because it was one of the first games to have full motion video as an integral part of the game, and the amount of FMV, as well as its mature, often very bloody nature, was mind blowing. The game was created largely by Roberta Williams, the woman who dreamt up many of Sierra’s famous point and click adventures, and she had the idea that in order for a video game to be truly scary the frights on screen have to happen to real people, not just pixilated characters. Because of that, PHANTASMAGORIA was about one half horror movie, one half classic adventure game, and completely awesome in my book.
The game centers on Adrianne Delaney, a beautiful, young, female writer who purchases a huge, and very strange, mansion in the countryside. Little did Adrianne and her photographer husband, Donald, know that the mansion’s former occupant was an infamous 19th Century magician named Zoltan. Unfortunately not all magic practiced by Zoltan was parlor tricks as the illusionists used a very real dark tome to summon up a nasty spirit. The summoned demon quickly possessed the magician, turning him into a more modern version of Bluebeard. This caused Zoltan to have many wives, none of which ever lasted long or died well. Upon Zoltan’s death the spirit was trapped in a secret room of the house, a room that Adrianne accidently opens up during her new home investigations. Before you know it the demon has possessed poor Donald and soon the blood and horror will begin anew.

At its blackened heart, PHANTASMAGORIA is a classic haunted house story and it works wonderfully. As her husband becomes more and more reclusive and hostile towards her, Adrianne continues her investigation into the sordid history of the house, knowing that the two are somehow linked. This investigation is the meat of the game as you point and click your way through various locals, often activating spooky scenes as the story unfolds. Highlights of this include Adrianne seeing visions of Zoltan murdering his many wives in “poetic” ways. A woman that loves to eat is forced to eat animal entrails until she suffocates. Another wife who was an alcoholic is killed with a wine bottle, and so on. These kills could almost come from any 80s horror flick and they are complete with some pretty decent gore effects.
The story is peppered with memorable characters, some well acted and others…well not. By far the best character in the game is a crazy homeless woman named Harriet who squats with her huge, slow son in the mansion’s barn. The Harriet character is amazing in a laughably bad, scene chewing way, but instead of derailing the game she had me cracking up every time she appeared. If the phrases, “You’re all doomed,” (preceded by an old guy riding on his bicycle) or “Its garbage day!” mean anything to you and make you smile then you will also love Harriet. If those phrases don’t mean anything to you, then you really need to watch some more classic slasher films.

In its day, PHANTASMAGORIA was a bit controversial because of its depictions of violence. Some of this controversy may be warranted because the game deals with some pretty adult and unpleasant themes such as murder and rape, so sensitive readers beware. PHANTASMAGORIA is also largely also credited with creating the interactive horror genre. With its hefty 7 CD’s of content it is inarguably one of the most video packed games ever, but unlike many other FMV games there were essentially movies that you occasionally pressed a button to continue watching, the gameplay in PHANTASMAGORIA is as solid as any good point and click adventure game.
PHANTASMAGORIA is a classic in every sense of the word and a game I highly recommend all horror fans to seek out and play. You can find used copies on eBay and the like for not too much money, and again just like the last Terror Throwback, a little program called Dosbox will help you run it if you have any problems. This game was followed by a sequel which wasn’t bad, but not as good as this one. I just might cover that one in a future installment of the Throwback. But until then, do yourself a favor, track down a copy of PHANTASMAGORIA and give it a play. You’ll be glad you did.

--Brian M. Sammons