When I was still in high school, burying my face more often into emulators than civics class assignments, I distinctly remember being very fond of the Splatterhouse series. It was the right time; in high school I generally dug horror, gore, and all manner of spooks, creepers and creatures for no reason other than being ‘out there’. I’m sure a lot of you can say the same. I also liked Sega Genesis and baseless angst, so it was kind of an interesting convergence of loves. I remember having a discussion with other nerds on the sidelines of a gym period about how ‘rad’ a remake would be, though at time it probably would have been a so-so hack n’ slash for the PS2. Well it looks like in time I got my wish as Namco Bandai has decided to revisit a series that myself and many others enjoyed for all the reasons besides the fact it was a game. Is this the game I asked for years ago or just a nightmare wrapped in another’s dream?
Like the other incarnations of the series, Rick has awoken in the creepy mansion of Doctor West, his main squeeze Jen has been kidnapped and a cursed skull mask is forcibly attached to his face. The mask reveals itself to be a gifter of power, exchanging a second shot at life with unimaginable strength in exchange for a host, blood and putting up with some absolutely annoying banter. As Rick travels through the mansion, and as it happens several other time periods and dimensions, he unravels the sad history of one Doctor West, a love long lost to darkness and a great mind lost to madness transforming the house into shrine of bloodletting… or at least you get around to all that eventually. The game decides to reveal ‘what happened’ as you go along, but from the start of the game decides not to explain anything. Like when a dying kid in a Mastodon shirt pops up on your screen writhing about, it made me think that my disc had actually succumbed to an error (it didn’t but, oh, it would later.) Saving the explanation as a reward may have been a creative choice, but it was the wrong one, as the revelations of the nightmare aren’t really that twisty. As a result, keeping the player in the dark just ends up feeling really odd.
Splatterhouse switched development teams last year, and while I’m not sure if and where there is an overlap in content between BottleRocket and Namco’s in-house team, there does seem to be an underlying inconsistency throughout. Pacing is bipolar and all over the place; the game starts off falling hard on its face. The first few levels are slow, dull and monotonous, though variety does begin to peek through in some later, more inspired stages. Most of the game is made up of large rooms where you bash the same half dozen enemy types faces in, split up with few retro side-scrolling throwbacks, specific objectives (like three spikes that need impaling upon or rooms filled with enjoyable death traps) and some truly awkward platforming.
Combat is also inconsistent, mostly routine button mashing with some ideas that must have felt better on paper than in play. Rick has combos and light/heavy attacks, but he also has access to a second form, one more possessed by the mask upon his face. To access these hulking abilities, Rick needs blood, which can be beaten out of enemies, squished out of worms found in breakable objects and juiced out of unique (and excessive) special kills. Bars of blood can be used to unleash brutal attacks one at a time, but fill up enough blood and Rick can transform into a strong, spiny beast that can mince even the most fearsome foes in a few seconds. The problem is – and it’s really due to a net of design choices – using blood also lets you restore your health, either fully from the transformation or slowly through draining health from your foes. It sounds good, but this becomes a problem when some you encounter some extremely overpowered enemies. Even after extending your health bar it takes just one asshole or a monsoon of certain dinkuses to deplete it, to which your immediate reaction will probably be to completely depend on, not utilize, the ability to regain health, starting a deadly and boring circle of events. Enemy types repeat constantly too, even the boss-ier ones. Even the unique one-time bosses aren’t as creatively satisfying as they could be given that the game’s only required theme is ‘anything that oozes.’
When I previously mentioned that this may be a game made for my high school self, some of the subconcious psychic messages I sent to Namco Bandai must have been lost in the translation, because the tone seems much more directed to general high-schoolers. The original games were a shameless celebration of gore, having you commit acts of simple violence against puss-vomiting heathens. What we have here is a celebration of that annoying kid who skips class, dies his hair raven black and wears needless straps on some truly goofy pants. Think The Toxic Avenger versus the Saw series. The overall aesthetic isn’t really attributed to classic splatter gore as much as it is fan art for the band Disturbed. The visuals are fairly uninspired, and they can only be described as a montage of covers from every nu-metal band that you hate. Rick wears torn jeans and a dingly-dangly little chain, the whole outfit screams headbanger. The mask, voiced by a way-better-than-this Jim Cummings, is so fucking annoying. So annoying. He speaks in an enthusiastically offensive too-cool-for-school attitude, finding rancid ways of delivering even the most simple directions. Calling you a pussy, or others pussy, or just finding opportunities to wedge the word ‘pussy’ among its brethren of cusses, an irritating ‘funny’ tone in the same fashion a schoolyard bully will guffaw at his own ‘hilarious’ antics.
There are some nostalgic elements in the game, but Splatterhouse has mostly lost touch with its roots. The original games were inherently offensive, where is this game is trying really, really hard, like it’s boiled the idea of offense out of a focus group instead of finding entertaining ways of producing it. Admittedly, there is stiff competition out there these days. Unlike on the old Sega Genesis, we have God of War which plays with gore gloriously, and I can think of at least two recent EA games where you dismember mutant infants. Maybe we’re looking at the direct product of nervous competitio, which is a real shame. Splatterhouse still could have been really cool despite these conditions. Something eerie, goofy and spooky, instead of a game desperately scrambling for relevance.
Splatterhouse has its moments, some levels such as a theme park dark ride, a Wicker Man inspired sequence and an actual slaughterhouse stand as some legitimately entertaining stages, but the bulk of the package just feels a bit shallow and worse yet completely inconsistent; the highlights are at constant war with the lowlights. Splatterhouse does have elements worthy of praise, though they fail to overcome the flaws. The overall package simply fails to surpass the games it is attempting to imitate. If you really miss this franchise, the few and the weird of you out there, there is some reason to visit this. And yes, much of that reason is because the original three games are included.