Back in the late 80s/early 90s, the Splatterhouse series brought us B movie levels of gore and succeeded at a time where no one else was doing it. Namco, decided to try to bring the brand back with an updated game last year, with all the blood, profanity, and nudity you would expect from a horror movie. Unfortunately, the game was panned by a number of critics. Having played through the game, while it is far from perfect, there were some moments of greatness in the design.
I was interested in Splatterhouse, not from being a huge fan of the original, but because Bottlerocket Entertainment was developing it. They were the designers behind The Mark of Kri, which was one of my favorite titles on the PS2. In fact, it was a source of inspiration for me when I was writing my action game design document. During the development of Splatterhouse, Namco pulled the developers off the project which led to the studio being closed. The game was finished by another studio, along with members from Bottlerocket that were hired to help.
The story is a remake of the original: bad guy steals girlfriend, boyfriend mortally wounded, puts on supernatural mask and goes on a killing spree. That's pretty much all you need to know. The graphics are good looking, when the screen isn't covered in blood. Voice acting is decent and Jim Cummings as the mask steals the show, although his one liners repeat a lot over the game.
With combat, you have three main attacks: fast, smash and grabs. Each button's use can be further modified by holding the run button. The player also has a "necro bar" that fills each time the player attacks an enemy which is used for special attacks. Instead of finding health items, they can use one segment of the necro bar to siphon health from nearby enemies, the more enemies in range, the more health is recover. Later on the player unlocks other moves that do more damage and restores a little health.
The last use of the necro bar is to transform into a monster that acts as a panic button, allowing players to go crazy against the enemies. I like how the necro bar was set up, as it presents the dynamic of balancing the use of stronger attacks vs. having the ability to regenerate health on standby.
The combat system has a fluidly to it in how responsive the character is. Players can go from one combo attack to another very quickly and the options of fast, smash and grab attacks gives the player options. The upgrade system further adds to this.
Killing enemies gives the player blood that can be used at the upgrade system. There are a lot of upgrades here, that gives the player more combos, or enhances attacks. Some upgrades make it easier to chain attacks together such as after doing an evasive roll. Some of the upgrades do seem to straddle the line of being less optional and more required, such as the health and necro bar upgrades, also being invincible while dodging. Still, I like how the upgrades for the most part, avoid the standards like "+10 damage". When combined with the combat system, I was enjoying my time bashing monsters around. However Splatterhouse does have its share of problems and having finished the game, I can see why it was panned by critics.
Let's start with technical issues; the camera has a hard time keeping up with the action. Sometimes it will track the player accordingly, while other times it will require the player to control. There was several times where it would get stuck on the player or environment which can be rough during a tough fight.
Loading times are quite frankly horrible to the point that they can drive people away from the game. On start up, the game takes about 15 to 20 seconds from the main menu to the actual game. When the player dies or goes to a new level, the game then takes 20 to 30 seconds to reload. This can become an ordeal during sections where there are death traps or tough battles, as it is possible to spend more time loading then it is actually playing.
Moving on there are some gameplay issues to discuss. Splatterhouse attempts to bring back some nostalgia for the original trilogy by having 2d sections, which in a way reminds me of the Ratchet and Clank game that had 2d areas for captain quark. However, while RC designed a different system for those sections, Splatterhouse uses the 3d engine and it doesn't work.
The problems are that the controls work for a 3d environment, but are too loose for 2d. There is a noticeable delay from when the player pushes the control stick and when the character starts moving. The hit box for the character is hard to grasp which makes it hard to gauge when to jump and there are a lot of bottomless pits to avoid; both running and dodging leave the player motionless for one second, which makes it very hard to use them while maneuvering through traps. Combining how easy it is to die here with the long loading times, makes these sections less of a reward and more of an ordeal.
Next is that the enemy design was unusual, on one hand it is very repetitive but it does feature some poorly designed unique enemies. The basic enemies can be broken down into light, medium and heavy enemies. Heavy enemies usually require the player to perform a QTE driven finishing move to kill, which due to the colors on screen, makes it hard to see the analog stick prompts.
There are two enemies that seem out of place, the first are these blue enemies that will hit you for all your life in one hit reducing you to one point of health left. If they attack fast enough, you can be killed before you know what hit you. The strange part is that not even the bosses do this kind of damage and the enemy seems imbalanced. The second type was red zombies, which seem to be immune to all your attacks except for weapons and charging up a smash attack. Fighting them slowed the pace of the game down dramatically.
My biggest complaint about the gameplay, and what keeps the combat system from achieving greatness, is that it doesn't have any advance mechanics to reward expert players. In other words, it had width with the upgrade system, but lacks depth.
When you look at a game like Devil May Cry 3 or Bayonetta, there are advance mechanics in place to take the combat above simple combos. DMC 3 has several: ground to air transitions, unique combos for every weapon, styles, ranged attacks and switch between two weapons at will. Incidentally, these mechanics were also one of the reasons why DMC 3 is considered to be one of the best action games to come out. Splatterhouse however doesn't which is a shame since the foundation was really good. I like the interplay between the necro bar and the special attacks, and the responsiveness was there, but it doesn't take off and evolve.
I'm somewhat surprised with how much I enjoyed Splatterhouse, it feels miles above Dante's Inferno as an action title, but the gameplay and technical issues prevented it from reaching the heights of Devil May Cry. Personally I'm really curious as to what parts of the game were finished by Bottlerocket, and which ones were finished by the second team, as there were some points where the quality of the level design dipped a little bit. Seems like with all flawed titles, they like to tempt me by having an ending that indicates a sequel, however I wonder if we're going to wait another 17 years for it.