In the months after the Wii’s launch, as it exploded in popularity and consoles flew off the shelves, I breathed a sigh of relief. As a Nintendo fan I’d hoped that the company could pull itself out of the dismal GameCube failure, and with such a dramatic success Nintendo’s console might become the hotbed of industry creativity that the NES and SNES had once been. I never predicted that the Wii would become a dumping ground for minigame shovelware; I thought that with such a massive install base and an innovative new controller, the Wii would be like the PS2. Publishers would be willing to take more risks and promote more oddball, creative games on the console. With so many Wiis out there, an obscure game would sell well by virtue of the law of averages. Maybe the Wii would play host to games like Katamari, Ico and Rez.
Well here we are in 2009 and through the likes of Wii Music, Wii Fit and their innumerable imitators, the Wii has become the world’s most popular shallow baby toy. Still, there are a few good people pushing creativity, like THQ and their stable of developers. THQ might be known for doing a lot of licensed stuff but they also support original games like De Blob…and Deadly Creatures. Developed by Rainbow Studios (and originating in a dream had by lead designer Jordan Itkowitz), Deadly Creatures is the out of the ordinary, creative idea game I’ve been wanting. Don’t let the developer’s past credentials fool you; Deadly Creatures isn’t about ATVs or MX bikes. It’s about bugs.
It’s such an intriguing concept that I’m surprised nobody has done it until now. You play as two arthropod predators—a tarantula and a scorpion—working to survive in their natural habitat. This isn’t a kiddy, family friendly game. The bugs don’t have goofy voices or googly eyes; it feels like an interactive National Geographic documentary, with a well written human sub plot running underneath. The objective is to survive and explore, using nothing but your nature-given abilities. It’s fascinating, and even though the basic formula is that of an action game the overall design makes it very, very different.
Rainbow didn’t go overboard with the waggle controls and I appreciate that. The exoskeleton-clad protagonists are maneuvered with the Nunchuk analog stick, with the A button dishing out primary attacks which can then be combo’d with gestures for stronger, flashier attacks. The B trigger isn’t used at first, but after the first level or so it activates venom attacks. The Z and C buttons are context sensitive and activate creature-specific abilities, like blocking, jumping and web use. The IR pointer handles the first person camera, for aiming webs or simply taking in the scenery.
The game consists of ten levels, and you alternate as the tarantula and scorpion each level. You’ll often find yourself exploring the same terrain twice, but Rainbow did a good job of rearranging the goals and progression so it doesn’t feel like backtracking. All levels can be explored two ways by virtue of the two creatures’ differing abilities. For example, you might traverse a series of cacti by web-zipping back and forth as the tarantula, and as the scorpion you’ll explore the subterranean tunnels by digging underground. The level progression is fairly linear but there are plenty of branching paths and secret areas to explore, often leading to unlockables and extra features.
As you progress through both creatures’ campaigns (if you can call them that), you will unlock new attacks, moves and abilities. The spider gains the web-zip early on, and eventually a long-range pounce and the ability to crawl on upside down surfaces. The spider’s abilities focus on agility and dynamic exploration; you’ll be doing a lot of jumping, wall-crawling and webline-casting. The scorpion by comparison is a tank. He’s a bit slower and can’t leap around but he can block weaker attacks and remove environmental obstacles, like dirt walls and dead weeds.The combat follows a similar dimorphism and requires you to develop different strategies for both creatures, against the same wide array of enemies which keeps things interesting. The spider’s strength lies in pouncing, jabbing, biting and stringing together quick attacks. You’ll often find yourself landing a few quick strikes and then scurrying back to a safe distance, or moving to engage another foe to stay unpredictable. The spider is also capable of spraying silk in an enemy’s face, slowing them down long enough to land a tricky strong attack. Nastier tactics, like a stealth pounce and even the ability to latch onto an upturned enemy and suck their blood, become available later on.
The scorpion isn’t as fast or maneuverable but he makes up for this with sheer strength and style. His combat centers on well-timed blocks and heavy attacks. Once you’ve worn an enemy down, the scorpion can execute some pretty brutal finishers that employ simple Wii remote gestures. There’s nothing quite like snipping the wings off of a hovering wasp, or stabbing a mantis with its own broken pincer. Both arachnids gain the ability to poison enemies early in the game.
If I’m making Deadly Creatures sound like a generic actioner then I apologize, because it’s not. The gameplay, controls and mechanics are traditional, and as a hardcore gamer starved on waggle-heavy minigames I appreciate that. It is the theme and design of Deadly Creatures that make it fresh, unique.
The theme of survival permeates every aspect of the game. You’ll encounter an impressive variety of other, equally deadly creatures, and each one is a mortal enemy. It can be a praying mantis, a wolf spider, a wasp, or even a fellow tarantula or scorpion the same species as you, but the rules are always the same: kill or become food. The game does a good job of making seemingly annoying vermin, like small lizards or rats, into terrifying predators, especially when they gang up on you. Most of the creatures are just as dangerous as you are—just as tough and agile, and with biological weapons like venom, silk and projectile poison. The horned lizards can even shoot steaming blood from their eyes.
The few boss fights emphasize survival as well. They’re suitably epic but the focus isn’t on eviscerating your opponent because they’re usually five times your size. In a struggle with a rattlesnake or Gila monster your main goal is to hurt the enemy enough to slow them down and then get the heck out of dodge—there’s no point in killing them if you end up poisoned and hemorrhaging bug guts. The two main arachnids clash on a couple of occasions, and it’s a little strange to be locked in a mortal fight with the spider you just controlled a level ago. The tiny world these creatures live in is so routinely violent, so survival-of-the-fittest, I’m surprised it hasn’t been turned into an action game before.
A human subplot is going on above the bug world, concerning two prospectors voiced by Dennis Hopper and Billy Bob Thornton. The story never gets too invasive and you’ll see it (mostly) from a distance, but it does add a great context and an interesting parallel to what your two arachnids are up to.
It’s not all life and death, though. A lot of the game is exploration, punctuated by quick, brutal combat, and when you’re in between fights you’ll be traversing some truly stunning environments. Rainbow wanted to get this game looking as realistic as possible while still keeping it fun, and the effort shows. The game takes place in the America southwest, so you’ll be crawling across desert fields, under and over cacti, up mountainous rocks and down into dusty caverns. It may sound a little boring but the variety is impressive; one level has been webbed over by black widows, and both playable bugs must struggle through nets of silk or be eaten alive. At one point you find yourself in the makeshift tomb of a civil war soldier—you’ll even fight a tarantula in his ribcage and then escape through his desiccated skull, all while stumbling over the gold coins the prospectors are after. When you get closer to human civilization you’ll encounter structures made out of trash—massive soda cans, discarded toys and a gigantic truck turned on its side. These areas reminded me of Mushroom Men, another game played from a micro perspective.Rainbow made sure to keep these areas seamless and believable—there are very few video game conventions to distract from the realism. There are no powerups or bonus items; to increase your health capacity, you eat a certain kind of cricket. Unlocking bonus movies and concept art is achieved by eating the grubs pasted all over every level. It all makes sense within the context of the world Rainbow made, and the presentation drives it home.
The voice acting, although a bit sparse for my liking is superb, coming from two accomplished actors. The human plot isn’t too complicated but at least the acting makes it interesting and credible. The rest of the sound work—creature sounds, environmental effects—are subdued but realistic; you won’t have any spiders shrieking like space aliens. The music is mostly atmospheric but still high quality. The battles and boss fights pick up the tempo quickly, and the whole score is orchestral.
It is the graphics, however, that really make the experience. I know it’s ironic, that a Wii game’s visuals are its defining feature, but in this case it is true. Each creature looks, moves and behaves so realistically that I’d swear some of the developers were entomologists (in fact they put out a humorous promo video that showed them trying to motion-capture a scorpion). A few of the finishing moves are a little too dramatic to be completely correct, but overall the accuracy is uncanny.
Deadly Creatures has a subtle, earthy beauty. It won’t wow you right off the bat but its visual accuracy and clever world design will catch you off guard. Don’t be surprised if you spend minutes examining your tarantula’s fuzzy body, only to look off into the desert horizon, shimmering with depth-of-field blur. A few clipping glitches might break you out of the experience for a second or two, but these are easily forgiven when looking at the whole package.
This game is not an amazing high profile blockbuster. It won’t change your ideas about gaming, and it has its fair share of issues; the aforementioned clipping errors, the lack of a much-needed lock on feature, and a poorly compressed ending cinematic. Deadly Creatures isn’t a Wii frontrunner, but a “cool idea game,” and that’s what makes it special. It does something original and it does it well, with quality, effort and high production values. If you are a Wii owner that cares about good games on the console, then buy this game. It will encourage more creativity on the platform and might just get us a sequel. Jordan Itkowitz said he’d like to explore other environments and their resident creatures, and I can’t wait to feel deadly again.