Aside from a few notables, action games have fallen out of favor as of late. The pressure of making a fleshed-out environment, tight gameplay and controls, is just too much. There are decades of fantastic platform action games that have tempered expectations. So to make an impact and pull attention away from the troop of first person shooters an action game has to be exceptional. Splatterhouse attempts to stand out from the crowd by drenching itself in blood and gore, something the series has a reputation for, but when you wipe away the sticky red mess you'll find solid gameplay, a lovecraftian story, and just enough content to hold your interest. Will it stop you from playing the latest Halo or Call of Duty? Probably not, but it's something to play while you're waiting for your friends to get online.
I've been trying to digest all of the history of Splatterhouse and the horror genre for the past couple of days, and I've been able to reconcile my own views on violence in videogames as a result. There was a reason I left the horror and ghost stories behind as a teenager; I matured. That's not to say that violence is childish, far from it. The realization that such atrocious acts in horror stories have been and will be committed by actual humans in the real world has tempered my views on violence, and that's what I mean by maturation. The fantasy of games like Splatterhouse is something that some can get lost in, while I get sick at the thought of what a powerful brute with a baseball bat would do to a child as he does with the demons in the game. Splatterhouse features over the top fantasy violence, but I felt ill more than a couple times as the constant stream of killing verged on distasteful.
Thankfully Rick is a reluctant participant in the violence committed, and the monsters he fights really are just monsters. He serves as the human analog, and I found Rick to be perfectly relateable and I sympathized with him. The terror mask is a different story. It is a blood thirsty entity that uses humans as it's playthings and does not care whether they live or die, unless they serve its purpose. Harboring its own agenda, the terror mask revels in blood while driving Rick toward the goal of rescuing his girlfriend. There is no duality with the Terror Mask, no matter what it might tell you. The third major player (Jen is more of a catalyst than a character) in this tale of revenge, is Dr. West. He is what Rick will become if he doesn't rescue Jen, and let's the evil in his life take absolute control. It is Dr. West's quest for vengeance against the people of Arkham and the desire to see his beloved Lorena restored to life that sets the tale of Splatterhouse in motion.
The influence of H.P. Lovecraft is an undeniable presence in the game, not just in the setting (it is set in Arkham after all) but in the themes of forbidden knowledge, old gods influencing humans, inherited guilt, fate, and a threat to civilization all have a presence to varying degrees. It's unfortunate that these themes are never fully realized as they would be in a novel. The end result feels more like the story of a slasher film. What could have been a very engrossing story is limited to a vehicle for the blood, gory, and references to other popular horror film tropes. That being said, the story of Splatterhouse is much stronger than I had expected from this type of game.
Splatterhouse is a videogame built on the roots of side scrolling beat 'em ups. It makes the transition into the third dimension with few growing pains. The controls are adapted from industry mainstays like God of War and Ninja Gaiden and will be easy to learn for anyone whose played those titles. Blood or “necro” is the currency for just about everything. Necro builds up the power bar allowing Rick to activate the mask's full abilities and become an unstoppable killing machine. It's also used to restore health and to buy upgraded moves. Unlike other action games, Rick doesn't have weapons permanently glued to his body. The classic video game method of solving problems by punching them is alive and well in Splatterhouse. When weapons are obtained they effectively dispatch weaker enemies, but are useless against tougher foes. The most common way of taking them out of the picture is splatterkills. Gutting, wrenching kill scenes achieved with quick time events that leave many enemies torn to pieces. Just punch them enough to weaken them, then you can take them apart like legos. Enemy variety is limited though for the 12 levels. There's enough that you can expect a variation for each level, but there are only 10 main stays that appear in each. The boss fights are few and far between, which is a shame. Fighting a poltergeist doll or Biggy man, a lumbering psychopath with two chainsaws for arms, were memorable moments. This was one of the places where the Lovecraftian story telling and the grindhouse tendencies of Splatterhouse clashed though. Did fighting a giant electric gorilla make much sense to the plot? No, but it was awesome.
The weakest link in the blood soaked chain that is Splatterhouse is the level design. Not that it's a game breaker but I found too many points in which I wasn't doing much of anything. There weren't any settings that took my breathe away, though they certainly set the mood. A creepy mansion, gargantuan slaughterhouse, post-apocalyptic New York, and a fantasy world built around western and Mayan influences are the most notable levels. Traversing them usually involves walking down corridors to the next arena sized room for another fight. Occasionally the game will go into side-scrolling in a throwback to the older games. These were the least fun sections of the game. The controls are not fine tuned for reliable jumping and the these sections are definitely platforming heavy. One of the few times I threw the controller down in frustration was after failing to cross a five foot gap while dodging bile from the ceiling for the seventh time. I did make it past the section eventually, and the deaths would not have been such a big deal, if it wasn't for the 2 minute load screen between each. Add the taunting of the mask in for good measure and the constant deaths were torturous. This type of situation came up only occasionally but it had me dreading each side-scrolling section, and not in a good way. Again, it didn't completely ruin the experience, but I could have done without them.
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