Sunday, October 30, 2011

Top Ten Classic Horror Video Games - Part 2


Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen
Release - November 1996
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

"I didn't care if I was in heaven or hell. All I wanted was to kill my assassins."

The Legacy of Kain series came at a time when few games outside of AD&D allowed a character to play as a villain. The "protagonist" of Blood Omen, the vampire Kain, is undoubtedly one of the darkest main characters in video games. A nobleman slaughtered and "gifted" with vampirism, Kain hunts down his assassins and, at the behest of his mysterious benefactor, accepts a quest to assassinate the corrupted Circle of Nine. Their defeat may restore the land, but Kain's only interest is curing his vampirism and returning to some sense of normalcy.

Gameplay follows the familiar Legend of Zelda top-down adventure
format, but taken in a dark direction. Kain acquires various abilities one might expect of a vampire, such as transformations and magic spells, which certain puzzles require to solve. What makes it stand out is certainly the dark atmosphere and the amount of blood that bathes the screen. One of the first images we see in the intro are bodies impaled on stakes, evoking the legend of Vlad Tepes.

This is another game where I feel a lot of credit goes to the sound design. The music is beautifully atmospheric, offering a number of different instruments from vocalization to what sounds like a panflute. This is one of the few PlayStation games that features voice acting, and Simon Templeman's performance as Kain is incredibly memorable for all the right reasons, as he really sells Kain's charisma without sacrificing his dark, selfish nature.

The game's ending allows a choice between sacrificing Kain's vampirism (thus killing himself) to purify the land, or remaining alive and holding onto the curse, dooming the land for eternity. The canon choice is to doom the land. Now that is a badass.


Doom
Release - December 10, 1993
Purchase - Steam, Xbox Live

Finally, a game I don't have to say anything about! But there's still a lot to say about it. id Software's second entry into the 3D first-person-shooter genre is among the most well-known and controversial games ever produced, and most of those reasons fit right in with our horror showcase - gore, monsters, and a chainsaw. "I'm the Lord of the Harvest!"

For its time, Doom had some incredible lighting and sound effects that gave it a seriously haunting atmosphere. Lights flicker or shut off completely, so in many places you can't see what's coming at you until you find a light switch. Occasionally, you'll run into traps which shut off the lights and send dozens of monsters after you. Awesome. Often you'll hear something barking at you from behind before you knew anything was there. These touches are what make a bunch of 2D sprites with glowing eyes legitimately scary.

Keeping your adrenaline going through this experience is one of the most recognizable soundtracks in video games. Composed by Robert "Bobby" Prince, who took "make this soundtrack sound like these artists" a little too literally, the sountrack borrows themes from awesome songs like "Behind the Crooked Cross" by Slayer and Metallica's "The Thing that Should Not Be". Though there's no official list of sources, the Doom Wiki has a whole page about it. Most games in the horror genre rely on creepy, atmospheric music, but Doom's relentless metal is both empowering and intimidating, making the experience a fairly unique one. Because the soundtrack was coded for MIDI, it uses completely different instruments on different machines, so some versions sound better than others. My personal favorite is the SoundBlaster AWE32, though the 3DO comes close and the SNES port is pretty good, too.

I've gone and spoiled the ending!
Of course, you're asking "Is there a story to this masterpiece?" Odds are you'll still be asking that after you've played it. Mixing films like Alien with zombie fare and demonology, the story deals with a space marine (known only as Doomguy out of universe) who is the sole survivor of some kind of accident involving transporters which managed to summon creatures from hell. But the game never stops to tell a story or explain anything, with the exception of brief text between episodes, nor does it have to. Like a solid console game, if the gameplay is engrossing enough, story be damned. There is a lot of outside text about the game, both in the manual and in its sequels, but it doesn't really add anything to the series: by the time Doom 3 came along, Doom's format had already been done with much better stories.

I'd still highly recommend Doom to anyone, and if you've already played it to death or think it looks too dated, check out the Doomsday Engine and high resolution texture packs (dengine.net) to bring new life into the game. Also check out id's other offerings Hexen, Heretic, and Quake.


Parasite Eve
Release - March 29, 1998
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

Despite a few good titles, FMV games left a bad taste in everyone's mouths regarding the whole movie versus game debate. Games are meant to be played; movies are meant to be watched. Parasite Eve was one of the few games to embrace cutscenes as a pervasive means of storytelling while including great levels of depth and gameplay, touting itself as a "cinematic experience". Thanks to some excellent writing, beautiful imagery, solid action-RPG gameplay and a haunting soundtrack by Shimomura Yoko, it manages to pull off the blend we now take for granted.

The story is unique for a number of reasons. It is a sequel to a Japanese novel of the same name written by Sena Hideaki, in which a woman's mitochondria awaken in an attempt to take over their human host cells rather than continue to live in symbiosis with them. Once awakened in her, they try to incite the same awakening in other people. A weird plot to be sure, but the novelty and the scientific "realism" gave it a unique brand of science-fiction horror not unlike Resident Evil. The plot picks up in Manhattan, where a second Eve is awakening. After causing the spontaneous combustion of everyone in an opera house, the new Eve is fascinated by sole survivor Aya Brea, who she believes is also a potential for awakening. The plot explodes the events of the novel, giving Eve the ability to terrorize the entire island of Manhattan, and escalates the absurdity as Eve tries to conceive the Ultimate Being. Aya is a compelling lead, a tough New York cop faced with the existential crisis of becoming a kin of what she's fighting against. In an excellent move, the new location means the characters know as much about the events of the novel as the audience might, particularly in the North American version.

Good God, the imagery in this game. We get to see a lot of the transformation scenes as mitochondria take over their hosts, which are all beautifully horrendous. Monster designs are clever and imaginitive, with some of the best to be seen at the Museum of Natural History (there is a T-Rex fight, which all good games should have). Eve has several transformations as she becomes progressively more powerful, and while I won't ruin the final boss for anyone who hasn't played the game before, the experience will definitely stay with you.

If you've played Brave Fencer Musashi, you'll be glad to know this is one of the majority of Square's games that has no voice acting, and given games like Resident Evil where the horrible voice acting takes too much away from the horror elements, it's a welcome silence. Appropriately, the only voice we hear is Eve's, as she possesses a young opera singer's body. The operatic vocalization pervades the soundtrack whenever Eve is on screen, particularly during battle sequences, and the effect is incredibly eerie. Shimomura's music perfectly complements the tone of the game, and the piano pieces are breathtaking.

Parasite Eve was followed by Parasite Eve II, which took the character and story in a completely new direction that didn't quite catch on as well as the first. Compounded by a more Resident Evil-like control style and overstating Aya Brea's sex appeal, it feels like a totally different game, but still a good bit of fun.


Half-Life
Release - November 19, 1998
Purchase - Steam

Welcome to Black Mesa. Doom spawned sequels, successors, and countless user-generated mods, so much so that the formula was getting predictable and fairly tired. In 1994, Origin Systems released System Shock, which took the familiar first-person interface being used in the Ultima series and introduced it to a Doom-like cyberpunk universe, creating a game that was both first-person action and full of puzzle-based gameplay, with a heavier emphasis on puzzle-solving.

Valve's Half-Life represented a more complete symbiosis of the two ideas. Armed with only an HEV suit, a crowbar and sharp wits, theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman must fight his way out of the Black Mesa Research Facility after an experiment creates an interdimensional portal, allowing an aggressive alien species called the Xen into the facility. While combat is emphasized, advancing often requires solving puzzles, like using scientists to activate retinal scanners and using environmental objects to clear obstacles.

The monster designs are all imaginative, but the one that stands out as the "mascot" is the headcrab, Half-Life's version of the facehugger. With four crab-like legs and a mouth on its underside, it attaches itself to a victim's head, mutating the victim and controlling their body in a zombie-like fashion. Without a host, headcrabs are incredibly small and quick, making them difficult to hit, and often attack in groups. They can leap an incredible distance and use their legs as cutting tools, making them extremely dangerous opponents, not to mention creepy as hell. The chirping noise they make is the stuff of nightmares.

Tracking Freeman's progress is the gray-suited "G-Man", a Kafka-esque character who seems to be manipulating Freeman, though to what end is completely unexplained. The G-Man adds a strong existential element to an already absurd situation, calling into question issues like fate, agency, and religion, as well as the relationship of game developer to player.

Half-Life has several add-ons and fan-created mods which add different perspectives to the experience. In June of 2004, Steam released an updated version of Half-Life using the Source Engine of its sequel, showing this game is worth keeping around.


Resident Evil (バイオハザード)
Release - March 22, 1996
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

Before choosing to include this, I thought: "Don't open that door!" "Zombies in a mansion" is how I once summarized this Capcom classic, and with that attitude in mind, I hated it. Zombies aren't scary, they're just obnoxious. If the game allowed you to kick, half of the enemies would be no problem at all.

It's the other half that make this game worth playing, though. The infamous moment when zombie dogs come crashing through the window is genuinely startling for first-time players, and the dogs are some of the hardest normal enemies in the game (thanks to poor game mechanics, but even so). Of course, this makes us wonder why humans are so crippled by the T-Virus while dogs seem as agile as ever, but I digress. The bosses/obstacles are imaginative, with a zombie plant and the massive beast Tyrant as highlights.

The plot is definitely the strong point of the game. A team of special police investigating a series of cannibalistic murders goes missing, and a backup team is sent to recover them. When they find the scene they are attacked by wild dogs, their pilot abandons them and they're forced to seek refuge in a nearby mansion. They are quickly separated, and investigating the mansion reveals it to be the testing ground of a virus that turns human beings into zombies. As with Parasite Eve, there's a scientific approach to the horror aspect, though the use of viruses makes it a bit more generic.

The real "Evil" or "Biohazard" the title suggests is the Umbrella Corporation, a pharmaceutical conglomerate hoping to branch into bioweaponry for military contracts. When seen in that light, the story is brilliant; the zombies themselves are faceless victims of corporate greed, unchecked business ethics, and nationalistic paranoia, offering real-world commentary and an excuse to have a mansion full of zombies.

Unfortunately, Resident Evil has come to be characterized by its many flaws. The control scheme is horrendous, using the same tank-like system that crippled early 3D exploration games like Alone in the Dark. Characters can only shoot/stab at 45 degree angles, leaving a wide range in front of them they can't hit, and headshots are only possible at extremely close range. Thanks to these and limited ammo, a smart player will generally avoid combat altogether, but the few enemies you have to fight (like the zombie dogs and crows) are a pain in the ass to hit.

The voice acting is legendary for its poor quality. It's as if the director asked the actors to deliver their lines in the same tone they would order at a fast food window. It might fall into the category of "so bad it's good" for some gamers, but for the rest, there's a remake, or you could consider learning Japanese and play the original Biohazard. The localization did not take itself very seriously.


There's a slew of sequels, spinoffs, remakes and films for this series, but I prefer the simplicity of the first few games. The first three feel like a trilogy; the rest feel like milking a franchise.

~

I hope you enjoyed this top ten list! Come back soon for a third installment of honorable (and not so honorable) mentions for games that didn't quite make the top ten for one reason or another. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Top Ten Classic Horror Video Games - Part 1

Most horror fans around this time of year plan movie marathons, but for me, it's all video games. Films don't have nearly the same level of immersion that video games do, and you can only be scared so many times by a guy suddenly appearing from behind a corner. To really get into the Halloween spirit, I've compiled a list of the top ten classic horror games, based on my personal playing experience. These will be in no particular order because, well, choosing between them is as difficult as choosing between movie monsters. If you're looking to have your spine tingled this weekend with some good, inexpensive games, here are my recommendations.



Ghosts 'N Goblins (魔界村)
Release - 1985-1986
Purchase - Virtual Console, Capcom Classics Collection

The NES version of Ghosts 'N Goblins has been the subject of many retro game reviews for its sheer, unbridled difficulty. Sir Arthur can only take two hits before dying, and there's no shortage of undead, demons and monsters with no purpose but to stop you. The plot centers around saving Princess Prin Prin from the lair of King Satan, but fighting your way there and slaying the beast only reveals that Arthur was caught in a "trap", either in his mind or a false reality, and the player must complete the game a second time at a higher difficulty in order to beat it. Second quests were fairly common in the early NES days, with Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. and Super Pitfall including them, but this game actually requires a second playthrough for any kind of closure.

The game has a few programming flaws that make the difficulty that much greater. The worst of these is the torch/flame weapon Arthur can acquire. While it seems like an upgrade and does heavy damage, Arthur can only throw three at a time before having to wait for one of them to burn out to throw another. If you aren't precise, you can find yourself standing around defenseless pretty often. Getting this weapon is as good as killing yourself, if not worse; you keep the weapon after you die. Other weapons like the lance allow virtual autofire, so why the flame is so crippling is beyond me.

If you want a game with horror themes, punishing difficulty, and an offbeat sense of humor, Ghosts 'N Goblins is a great experience.


Phantasmagoria
Release - July 31, 1995
Purchase - Good Old Games

Ah, good old FMV games. Most FMV-based games failed to integrate full-motion video with gameplay to create a truly immersive gaming experience: instead we had games like Night Trap, where you simply watch a movie and make choices at preset times in the video. When Sierra got their hands on the technology, however, they created some incredible adventure games, and Phatasmagoria stands out as the creepiest, by far.

The plot involves a young married couple, writer Adrienne Delaney and photographer Don Gordon, who purchase an old mansion previously owned by an eccentric magician. It isn't long before Adrienne begins to have horrific visions, and gradually discovers the magician's possible involvement with demonology. While most of the horror elements are a bit on the cliche, predictable side, the FMV adds a lot to the potential scare factor these scenes have to offer. But what has stuck with me over the years is Don's gradual loss of self-control, culminating in a scene in which he rapes Adrienne. Though the scene is not particularly graphic (a "censor" option is included for the squeamish, though it's pretty pointless) and consent in this scene is a bit questionable, it's definitely a haunting scene and bold as hell. Roberta Williams came off of the King's Quest series looking to make a game that was more mature and adult-oriented, and she didn't screw around.

Sadly, the game hasn't aged well. Many of the visual effects involve incredibly dated CGI that may incite laughter, and the slow pacing of the plot makes it feel a little like a Lifetime miniseries. This game isn't as forgiving as a lot of modern adventure games when it comes to solving puzzles, but it does include a hint system in the form of a skull that talks to you as part of the interface. Still, the horror scenes and the novelty of the game certainly make it a staple for any horror and adventure game fan.

A sequel followed in 1996, subtitled Puzzle of the Flesh, but aside from a fantastic portrayal of an openly homosexual character, it failed to live up to the standards of its predecessor.


The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery
Release - June 30, 1995
Purchase - Good Old Games

Jane Jensen's classic series about a writer turned Schattenjaeger has received consistent critical acclaim at every turn, for all three that it had before its retirement. When Sins of the Fathers hit the scene in 1993, it blew us away with its incredible writing (particularly in character development), haunting imagery and, to be sure, solid performances from stars such as Tim Curry, Mark Hamill, Michael Dorn and, interestingly, Leah Remini. It left itself wide open for a sequel, if not a long-running series, but it was hard to imagine how Jensen could top this horror-adventure masterpiece.

Then I saw the trailer for The Beast Within and my heart stopped. Germany? Werewolves? The potential for success was certainly there, but also the potential for failure: Sins of the Fathers dealt with Voodoo mysticism, which is a fairly uncommon theme in the horror genre, but werewolves come with a world of expectations. Further, the decision to move the game into Phantasmagoria's FMV style meant the loss of the iconic voices we'd come to love in favor of unknown actors.

Thankfully, Jensen manages to do for werewolf lore what Anne Rice did for vampires. Knight investigates the murder of a girl who appears to have been killed by a wolf, though villagers claim it to have been the work of werewolves. Incidentally, a wolf is discovered to have escaped from a nearby zoo, offering an all-too-easy explanation. Through analysis of the crime scene and the local zoo exhibit, Knight discovers it couldn't have been the work of a known species of wolf, and decides to take the werewolf angle seriously. He follows a lead to a local hunt club where, suffice it to say, they know a little something about werewolves.

The GK series doesn't rely on scare tactics to sustain its horror, instead working with Hitchcockian techniques to build and maintain suspense, and that really shines through here. One of my favorite of these techniques is what the soundtrack calls "Wolfcam"; we're familiar with cuts to POV shots of stalkers watching whatever their pray does, but here we see these scenes in an infrared style reminiscent of Predator. This comes to the forefront toward the end of the game, where the player is forced to solve a puzzle in the wolfcam visual mode.


The production quality is stellar for the format, and the acting particularly solid, if campy at times. Dean Erickson is a likable Knight, and Joanne Takahashi establishes a strong Grace Nakamura early on, definitely making her one of the most memorable female leads in the genre (compounded by Remini's performance in the previous game). Peter Lucas's Von Glower is incredibly charismatic and his ambiguous status as a suspect in the story is handled beautifully.

The standout feature of the production to me is the incredible soundtrack by Robert Holmes -- from beautiful, sweeping themes like "Main Theme" and "Grace" to the dark, terrorizing "Chase", Holmes lends an incredible atmosphere to the series that perfectly complements the visuals and writing. The script even called for him to write what could pass as Richard Wagner's "lost opera", and other than Parasite Eve and Final Fantasy VI I don't think I've ever seen such use of opera in a video game. That should change.

It's hard to call The Beast Within the best in the series; many people will do that for me, and it definitely feels like the high point. I prefer the Christian mythology prevalent in Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, however the werewolf angle is played incredibly well here. But if I had to recommend one of the games to someone unfamiliar with the series, this would be it.

As an addendum, any fan of Gabriel Knight should definitely check out the recent release Gray Matter, a spiritual successor to the GK series and developed by Jane Jensen. This game focuses on paranormal activity and features an interesting mix of science fiction and gothic elements.



Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (悪魔城ドラキュラX 月下の夜想曲)
Release - Mar 20, 1997
Purchase - PSN, Xbox Live, Amazon.com

The Castlevania series is without question the most recognizable in the horror sidescroller genre, and rightly so; though it has yet to break into 3D as successfully as other series, its classic titles are still played and beloved by video game fans everywhere. This is another series where it's hard to nail which best represents Castlevania's potential, but the fan favorite is certainly Symphony of the Night. While the Belmonts have been established as a whip-wielding cross-bearing clan, playing as Alucard left a lot of potential for the gameplay, and the developers embraced that by giving the game an RPG-style system with multiple weapon types and magic abilities.

The story is particularly deep in Symphony, and the plots in future games would attempt to match that level of depth with only a few successes. The game takes place five years after Richter Belmont defeated Dracula in Rondo of Blood (血の輪廻). Richter has disappeared, and Alucard (half-blood son of Dracula) has sensed Dracula's return. Alucard ends up working in concert with Richter's sister-in-law, Maria, to investigate Richter's disappearance into Dracula's castle, only to find Richter is trying to resurrect Dracula for the sake of his family name. Alucard quickly realizes Richter is not in control of himself, and the player can either choose to kill Richter or spare him. Killing him ends the game; sparing him reveals he was being manipulated by the dark priest Shaft (not to be confused with John Shaft). In a similar style to Ghosts 'N Goblins, Alucard must fight through the entire castle again, this time upside-down, in order to stop Dracula's resurrection. The upside-down castle leads to some mind-bending gameplay and lots of beautiful imagery.

Unlike the earlier Castlevania sequels, Symphony features an entirely original score by Michiru Yamane, and the result is one of the strongest video game soundtracks in the PlayStation library, spanning several different musical styles that really breathe life into the castle. One of the creepiest songs is by far "Enchanted Banquet", which plays during the battle with Succubus. The operatic vocalizing and chaotic dissonance make it an incredible battle theme and certainly memorable. The voice acting is hammy and overdone, but in a strangely charming way. Dracula's voice carries the charisma of his character fairly well, though Alucard's is a bit off.


If you've already beaten Symphony and are looking for more Castlevania, I'd suggest Aria of Sorrow, Rondo of Blood, Super Castlevania IV or Castlevania III.


Stay tuned for Part 2 for the final five!