The Video Game Critic's
Halloween Review Special
Part 4 of 5Updated 2018/7/11
The Critic's "Fright Factor" ratings:Child's play "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."
Creepy "I see dead people."
Unnerving "That cold ain't the weather. That's death approaching."
Intense "I know you're there Tina. Because I can smell your brains."
Terrifying "It’s Alive! It’s Alive!"
Unbearable "No tears please, it's a waste of good suffering."
Playstation 2 Games
Siren (Sony 2004) D+
Siren is one of those genuinely creepy horror experiences that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. It's a lot like Silent Hill, only set in Japan. The dreary, murky stages tend to take place over rainy countrysides with sparse villages. Unsettling noises and a minimal soundtrack instill feelings of paranoia and isolation. I'd recommend playing Siren in the dark, preferably by candlelight. The character models are some of the best I've seen on the PS2. Their faces look photographic up close, expressing emotions very effectively. Cut-scenes are rendered with the grainy look of old movie footage, making them all the more mysterious. You play the role of various characters as you embark on third-person missions that typically involve solving a puzzle or escorting a young girl to safety. Patrolling the areas are short, gnarled ghouls wearing hoodies or big hats. Many are armed with guns, and some can snipe from a distance. Once they grab hold of you, death is imminent. A stealth approach works best, especially since you have the ability to "mind jack" creatures in the area, allowing you to see the world through their eyes. You do this by holding down the left trigger and aiming the thumbstick their direction. In theory you can wait for snipers to look the other way, but more often than not you can't even tell what the heck they're looking at. A creature's viewpoint is also flashed if you enter his view, and that's your cue to move and lay low. You can consult a map, but the fact that it doesn't indicate your position is just stupid. Avoiding confrontation is recommended because the combat aspect of this game is wretched. Swinging a weapon is clumsy, and the shotgun aiming mechanism is atrocious. After death you'll restart at a distant checkpoint - if you're lucky! The checkpoints seem extra far apart because it takes forever to get from point A to point B. After several deaths you'll be tempted to rush through the stage, leading to a vicious cycle of death and futility. Siren has enough atmosphere to cut with a knife, but I prefer my games to be a little more playable.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)
Silent Hill 2 (Konami 2001) B+
In this chilling sequel to the Playstation classic, you assume the role of a man stuck in a foggy, deserted town, searching for your lost wife while fending off a host of gruesome creatures. With the exception of improved fog and shadowing, the grainy graphics are not a huge step up from the original game, and the gameplay is virtually identical. Fortunately, Silent Hill 2 successfully recreates the same intense, spine-tingling atmosphere that gave me nightmares the first time around. Mainly set in an apartment complex, you'll hold your breath as you explore each new room. Most are pitch dark, and your weak flashlight provides precious little visibility, adding to the tension and uncertainty. A suspenseful but confusing storyline is conveyed via high-quality, frightening cut-scenes. The camera angles are dramatic but often disorienting, forcing you to constantly refer to the map. Thankfully, the helpful map automatically marks locked doors and other items of interest. Like the first game, Silent Hill 2's audio effects are effectively unnerving and occasionally alarming. Control is decent but feels sluggish when it comes to bludgeoning creatures. The worst aspect of the game is the fact that it's very easy to get stuck and not know what to do next. Otherwise Silent Hill 2 is a seriously creepy game that lives up to the lofty standards set by the original.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Silent Hill 3 (Konami 2003) B
Silent Hill 3 kicks off with a stylish music video showing brief glimpses of hellish beasts and a teenage girl in distress. It's a nice preview, and the edgy music is so good that the soundtrack is actually included on a separate CD! It's a terrific bonus, loaded with depressing melodies and freaky, otherworldly beats. Silent Hill 3 plays much like previous Silent Hills, but this time you play a young girl whose trip to a shopping mall turns into a surreal nightmare. The empty shopping mall is creepy in a Dawn of the Dead sort of way, and the haunted amusement park is also fascinating. Other locations like the subway, sewers, and office building are less compelling but still eerie. The graphics look less grainy than Silent Hill 2, making it easy to see details in the scenery. As par for the series, there's not a clean toilet in sight. Like the previous chapters, most doors are locked, and thankfully the map marks them appropriately. Silent Hill 3's gameplay is quite stressful and frightening. Deformed creatures patrol dark hallways, although you can usually dash by them if you know where you're going. In terms of creature design, Konami went a little overboard this time. Most of these shambling freaks look like misshapen hunks of raw meat, although their ear-splitting screams do make them more frightening. The human models are nicely rendered with amazing lifelike faces. On the downside, the dialogue is uneven in quality and the voice acting often sounds stilted. But my main issue with Silent Hill 3 is the clumsy camera. Not only is it hard to see where you're heading, but it's often hard to keep the monsters you fight in view. A shoulder button lets you center the camera behind you, but the transition is slow and disorienting. Regardless, Silent Hill 3 is a great looking game that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Silent Hill Origins (Konami 2008) B+
The original Silent Hill (Playstation, 2000) was a terrifying horror classic that spawned a series of compelling sequels. But as with movies, when a franchise runs low on ideas they fall back on a prequel. Silent Hill Origins rewinds the timeline of the series and harkens back to the feel of the original game. In fact, the opening hospital stage (with psychotic nurses) could have been lifted directly from the first game. Thankfully the action soon moves to more original locations including a theater, butcher shop, motel, and sprawling sanitarium. You can freely roam the streets of town which are shrouded with fog and crawling with freakish monsters. Origins creates an intense atmosphere using the same devices that made previous Silent Hills so unnerving. The graphics are so purposely grainy that I thought there was a problem with my TV! Limited (and sometimes disorienting) camera angles convey a sense of paranoia, and the bizarre creatures move in a jerky, unnatural manner. But the most potent aspect of the game is its audio. I don't know where they came up with these spine-chilling sound effects, but they are genuinely alarming. A selection of freaky new creatures includes giant frozen chickens, shadows with floating head harnesses, and puppets on strings. Yes, puppets are inherently creepy, but these are positively terrifying! You can move between alternate realities via mirrors, but both worlds are pretty dark and twisted. The combat is straightforward, but some of the puzzles are too hard - especially in the early stages. Sometimes a very simple action is required (like flushing a toilet) in order to progress. I also dislike how your character can't run very far without becoming winded and slowing down. It's absolutely critical to obtain a map for each new area, because while there are hundreds of doors, about 90 percent of them are locked! The handy map marks everything for you, and you can bring it up at the touch of a button. Better yet, you can hold an unlimited supply of items, which is good considering you'll need to haul drip stands, typewriters, toasters, and even file cabinets! I didn't find Silent Hill Origins quite as scary as some of the previous games, but that may be because the formula has become so familiar. Even so, this dark adventure is definitely a thrill and the price is right.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, language, suggestive themes, violence)
Fatal Frame (Tecmo 2001) B+
Unlike most survival horror games, which tend to focus on blowing heads off zombies with shotguns, Fatal Frame takes a more traditional approach, featuring an authentic haunted house with real ghosts. There are no giant alligators, no huge demonic monsters, and no insane lab experiments gone awry. I made it a point to play this game alone with the lights out, and let me tell you, it effectively scared the hell out of me. You control an Asian woman searching for her brother in an old, decrepit Japanese mansion. The rooms are pitch black, strewn with antiques and odd contraptions, and the walls and floors are in various stages of decay. Like any good horror movie, Fatal Frame uses odd camera angles, minimal lighting, and jarring sound effects to maximize the paranoia level. The ghosts are transparent apparitions, and are truly frightening to behold. Your only defense is a special camera that lets you neutralize the ghouls by taking pictures of them. Looking through the viewfinder gives you a grainy, first person perspective of things, giving the game a "Blair Witch Project" quality (the game even claims to be "based on a true story", believe it or not). "Shooting" the ghosts can be pretty intense, as they slowly approach as you snap away. The camera can also be used to reveal clues not visible to the naked eye. The storyline is also propelled by audio tapes you find lying around the mansion. I found listening to these tapes to be far more effective than reading pages of text like you do in most survival horror games. Beyond the incredible scare factor, Fatal Frame follows a pretty standard formula of collecting items and solving puzzles, and the control takes some getting used to. The woman's movements are stiff, and the constantly changing camera angles make you disoriented, which is especially stressful when a ghost is bearing down on you. In addition, there could be more save points. At times I found myself frantically searching for the next save spot after playing for an hour straight! Now that's scary! Fatal Frame is an ideal Halloween game. The cool camera feature and terrifying visuals make for an unforgettable gaming experience.
Rating: Teen (blood, gore, violence)
Fatal Frame III: The Tormented (Tecmo 2005) C
If you've watched films like The Ring and The Grudge, you know the Japanese have a penchant for spine-tingling horror. Fatal Frame III conveys an uneasy, ominous atmosphere that pays off with some big scares. With grim environments, unsettling noises, and tension you can cut with the knife, this is meant to be played in the dark. You assume the role of an attractive young woman. Each night she dreams of returning to a snowy, haunted old manor. Fatal Frame III employs various cinematic techniques to good effect. Dream sequences are presented like aged footage with odd camera angles and fleeting glimpses of disturbing sights. Unfortunately this dramatic camera has a tendency to throw off your sense of direction, causing you to lurch back and forth at times. That's not ideal when some twisted, malevolent spirit is bearing down upon you. To fend off ghosts you must snap pictures of them, and the longer you keep them in your viewfinder the more damage you inflict. This presents a terrifying risk/reward dynamic as you frantically search around for their location. The puzzles have a Resident Evil flavor, with keyholes of various shapes and slide-the-block contraptions. The scenery is rendered in muted tones and the wooden walls have an aged, grimy look. Controller vibration is used to indicate supernatural presence and it will put you on edge. You save your progress at blue lamps. The game slowly fleshes out a mystery as you alternate between days at your house and nights at the haunted manor. But there's a problem with Fatal Frame III. Trekking through the same rooms over and over is repetitive and plodding. As new sections open up the expansive mansion becomes overwhelming. It's difficult to make progress when so many doors are sealed by "some strong power". Fatal Frame III: The Tormented is a scary adventure that lives up its name. Unfortunately, that tormented soul is you!
Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Clock Tower 3 (Capcom 2003) B
The first two Clock Tower games, released for the Playstation, were surprisingly effective at conveying suspense and terror despite their limited graphics. Clock Tower 3 (CT3) uses the same techniques that made the first two work so well: isolated environments, creepy monsters, dramatic camera angles, and downright alarming sound effects. You control a schoolgirl searching for her missing mother while fleeing terrifying ghosts and monsters. Of course there's a background story, but it never makes much sense, and it gets more and more bizarre and convoluted as you progress. The game plays somewhat like Resident Evil, thanks to a familiar-looking mansion, "find-the-key" puzzles, and the awkward control scheme. Some of the outdoor sequences feel more like Silent Hill, particularly the one with the falling snowflakes. Clock Tower 3 transports you to numerous locations, including dark city streets, a concert hall, the sewers, and a graveyard. But while it certainly feels derivative at times, the unique "panic meter" gives the game a unique flavor. As frightening things happen around you, your panic meter gradually fills. Once it's full, you movements become frantic and you become susceptible to instant death. Although I've seen far better graphics in other survival horror games, the animation here is fantastic. When the girl stumbles around in fear, she looks truly lifelike. Clock Tower 3 effectively builds drama and suspense thanks to chilling sound effects (including one from the movie Psycho) and music that will make your skin crawl. Sometimes you can hide in places like lockers and phone booths, and it's absolutely nerve-racking to watch your stalker snoop around just outside. Your attackers are slow and dumb but relentless once they get a bead on you. Grabbing a flashing item during a chase will sometimes result in a cut-scene showing the girl temporarily subduing the monster, although it always comes back a few times (in true slasher-movie style). At first, I found Clock Tower 3's gameplay to be pretty intense and genuinely frightening, but as the game wore on the bosses became less scary and the puzzles less interesting. It's definitely not as good as Silent Hill or Resident Evil, but Clock Tower 3 does deliver its share of thrills and excitement.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Castlevania Lament of Innocence (Konami 2003) D
I find it amusing how certain video game magazines are forced to give this mediocre game a high score after shamelessly hyping it for months (serves them right). The Castlevania series has a long, proud 2D tradition, but it has yet to excel in the 3D realm, and Lament continues its descent into mediocrity. Sure, the two Nintendo 64 Castlevania games were in 3D, but those failed to convey the gorgeous visuals and polish that the series was known for. Lament of Innocence looks terrific, but there are more fundamental issues with this long-anticipated game. Let's start with the lengthy, overwrought introduction, along with its awful exposition. I don't know why Konami bothered with the pages and pages of background text, when in fact this is just your standard "rescue the girl" scenario. Of the two main characters, one looks like a chick and the other looks like Michael Jackson! What's up with that? Once the action begins, you'll see a lot of familiar monsters, including puking zombies, lizard men, sword-wielding skeletons, winged demons, and floating eyeballs. The scenery is attractive enough, but no more impressive than anything we've seen in the Devil May Cry games (Capcom). All the traditional moves are at your disposal (including the double-jump), and the auto-aim keeps you locked onto enemies. There's even a portal room that lets you move between different stages. It may sound good on paper, but in terms of fun, Lament doesn't hold a candle to its 2D relatives. For one thing, the camera is completely out of your control. You'll struggle to see certain areas and often find yourself blindsided by off-screen foes. It was easy to strike candles to reveal items in the 2D games, but in this case the candles are scattered around each room, and it's hardly worth the effort to run around to each one. Monsters simply drop out of the ceilings, and then regenerate when you re-enter rooms. In the 2D games, you had no choice but to battle them since they blocked your way, but here you can mostly just run around the whole mob and avoid the aggravation. In addition, the game has a lot of tedious backtracking, and you're forced to use an ill conceived "real time window" to select items in the heat of battle. On a positive note, there are some devastating weapons, and the beautifully-orchestrated, pulse-pounding musical score is extraordinary. But despite its polished presentation, Lament of Innocence's gameplay does not live up to the Castlevania legacy.
Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Devil May Cry (Capcom 2001) B+
From the creators of Resident Evil, this third-person action-adventure offers a nice combination of exploration, puzzle-solving, and hack-n-slash mayhem. A demon warrior named Dante, you will explore an amazing castle, collecting artifacts and battling evil minions featuring wooden puppets and screaming wraiths. The marionettes look especially creepy (where are those strings coming from?). In addition to slashing with your sword, you have a shotgun to pump lead into enemies from a distance. Although Devil May Cry's basic gameplay is straightforward, figuring out where to go next can be frustrating, especially since it's possible to wander back into older areas you don't need to be in. The game's main strength lies in its tremendous visual presentation. The monsters are very imaginative, and the castle scenery is beautiful and sometimes breathtaking. Each room is painstakingly detailed, and some of the outside areas can induce vertigo. The background music is a strange cacophony of sounds, including screams and organ music, creating a surreal atmosphere. As polished as the game looks, the control scheme could use some work. Unlike Resident Evil or Tomb Raider where pushing up always moves you forward, Dante will move on the screen exactly the direction you move the joystick. This wouldn't be a problem if the camera remained in place, but it's constantly changing! Parents should note that this game contains a LOT of gore. Heck, Dante gets impaled even before the game begins - and it won't be the last time! Devil May Cry is a far cry from the Resident Evil games, but the constant action and stellar graphics will captivate most gamers.
Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Devil May Cry 2 (Capcom 2003) B-
Devil May Cry 2 (DMC2) was considered a disappointment by most critics. Apparently the first game set the bar too high, especially in terms of graphics. Instead of a magnificent palace, this sequel is set in a dreary town with towering skyscrapers and uninteresting warehouses. DMC2 ambitiously attempts to broaden the scope of the series, but not without paying a price. The game looks unpolished, and many of the monsters and locations look positively rough. The water in the "harbor" section looks particularly heinous. Still, there are some cool creature designs, like skeletons encased in metal cages, giant orangutans, and a mammoth flaming Minotaur. DMC2 is definitely less cerebral that the first, with more emphasis on action. Heck, you can even hack your way through most of the puzzles! Still, you have to love the combination of sword fighting and shooting. The unlimited ammo and auto-aim makes picking off enemies from a distance quite satisfying. Pressing the "Devil Trigger" (L1) turns you into a flaming demon with a host of power-ups. Besides Dante the "devil slayer", you can play though the game as a hot chick named Lucia (via the second disk). The game is generally fun, but there are a few obvious flaws. Certain areas contain creeps that re-spawn indefinitely, which is bad design in my book. Sometimes a red force field will box you in with a bunch of enemies, and won't disappear until you vanquish them all. Dante is definitely more agile this time, but the new Matrix-inspired moves aren't very useful. In fact, some of the cinematics are such blatant Matrix rip-offs that it made me nauseous. The control problems from the first game are back in full force, although by now I'm practically used to them. Certain parts of the story make no sense, and the concept of demonically possessed tanks and helicopters is downright idiotic. Despite these issues, Devil May Cry 2 has a fun, arcade quality that I enjoy. The constant button mashing eventually caused my hand to cramp, but I still found the game hard to put down.
Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening Special Edition (Capcom 2005) B+
After a lukewarm sequel, Devil May Cry (DMC) returns with a vengeance in this surprisingly fresh third chapter. Many fans regard DMC3 as the best of the series, and they have a good argument. An action-packed adventure that never lets up, Devil May Cry 3 offers excellent control, ferocious monsters, awe-inspiring locations, and even a sense of humor. The combat is a nice combination of frenetic slashing, strategic shooting, and evasive maneuvers. There are plenty of puzzles, but nothing too taxing. Even when things get crazy, the control feels crisp and the camera does a remarkable job of providing the tightest possible shot of the action. Many of the demons you battle are the standard grim reaper types, but there are also a few imaginative ghouls that really caught me off-guard. I love how they disintegrate into dust as you strike them down. The action takes place in a modern city, and you'll actually battle in a bar and nightclub before entering the huge stone tower that suddenly arises from the center of town. Unlike similar games that recycle the same locations, each room feels unique and is meticulously detailed in a distinctive gothic style. You begin the game armed with a sword and pistols, but later collect additional weapons including a shotgun and nun-chucks made of ice. DMC3 maintains a torrid pace with stages broken up into bite-sized chunks. A frenetic techno mix kicks in whenever the action heats up, and it really gets you pumped up. The original version of Devil May Cry 3 was infamous for its steep difficulty, but this special edition offers an easy mode that should minimize the frustration. While it's an impressive game, the main character is a bit of a jerk. Impervious to death and cocky beyond belief, Dante gleefully surfs on missiles and spouts wisecracks as he's being impaled. After a while, you almost wish he would die. Also, the cringe-worthy use of outdated expressions like "let's party" and "dope!" makes you wonder if the dialogue was written in 1988. Still, Devil May Cry 3 avoids the traps of many sequels and offers an engaging adventure every bit as fun as the original.
Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, violence)
Resident Evil Outbreak (Capcom 2003) D
This on-line enabled Resident Evil title places the emphasis on teamwork as you attempt to escape zombies in a series of harrowing scenarios. Outbreak's on-line play was panned by critics, but this review covers the solo experience, which I can assure you is equally shabby. Outbreak does have a few things going for it. The separate chapters offer diverse environments like a bar, hospital, hotel, and underground lab facility. Like the original Resident Evil titles, Outbreak uses pre-rendered scenery which offers a terrific degree of detail. Unfortunately, the camera angles change abruptly as you walk, which is disconcerting and mucks with the directional controls. The characters appear extremely lifelike, especially the shapely females (including Jill, described as a "master of unlocking things"). The game generates a genuine sense of desperation as characters become injured and hobble around - just like a real horror movie! Characters have the ability to heal each other, provide cover, or exchange items. The CPU controls your partners in the one-player mode, and while they tend to wander around directionless most of the time, they magically reappear at critical junctures in the story. Outbreak's promise is dashed by a number of serious issues. I found the controls to be unintuitive and often unresponsive. Just like watching a slasher film, you'll be yelling, "run [expletive] run!" as your character meanders around in a daze, totally out of your control. The item management screens are awkward to navigate, which is especially problematic since the zombies keep coming when you're fiddling with your inventory! The collision detection is lousy (see people walk through each other!), and there's a lot of random, inappropriate dialogue like "What a fool!" and "I don't think so!" A few of the puzzles make no sense to me. Why is it necessary to thaw out a frozen wrench before you can use it? But by far the worst aspect of Outbreak is its excruciating loading screens that kick in whenever you enter a new room. These screens don't even give you anything to look at! Recognizing this glaring flaw, Capcom gives you the option of installing this game to the PS2 hard disk, in case you're one of the three people who own that thing. Last but not least, Outbreak is also prone to lock-up. I can appreciate Capcom wanting to take the Resident Evil series in a new direction, but this is one chapter in the saga you can safely bypass.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence)
Resident Evil Outbreak File 2 (Capcom 2004) C-
Resident Evil Outbreak File 2 is more interesting that the original, but since it's saddled with the same underlying engine, it suffers from the same technical flaws. The best part of the game is how its scenarios are all unlocked from the start, making it feel like you're getting four Resident Evil games for the price of one! The scenarios are far more imaginative this time around, including one that takes place in a zoo full of zombie animals. Wait until you see the rampaging zombie elephant - that thing is like a T-Rex! Exploring the zoo is fun, but you're often hounded by annoying insects and zombie pelicans (now there's something you don't see everyday!). Another interesting chapter features a dilapidated abandoned hospital in the middle of a spooky forest, and another takes place in a subway infested with giant vermin. It's possible to play through several of these in parallel. Otherwise the gameplay is the same, which means you'll need to contend with some seriously atrocious loading times. I generally have a high tolerance for load screens, but I've never seen them this long and frequent. It's really unacceptable. Like the first game, Outbreak 2 allows you to play cooperatively on-line with a bunch of racist 14-year olds. I opted for the solo mode, and I couldn't believe how dumb the CPU-controlled characters are! At one point me and two cohorts safely swam across a pond containing a large crocodile. But while I'm heading for the gate on the other side, what are they doing? Heading back into the water! I also find it amusing how these guys seem to forget they have weapons until everybody's almost dead. The collision detection is lousy, and once you sustain injury, it's hard to escape from the relentless animals. Fortunately there are a good number of typewriters to save your progress. Resident Evil Outbreak 2 has its moments, but sloppy programming and horrible load times make this one hard to enjoy.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Resident Evil Dead Aim (Capcom 2003) B+
The last time Capcom attempted a first-person Resident Evil game (Survivor, PS1), it was a complete disaster. What seemed like a cool concept was marred by poor graphics, shallow gameplay, and no light gun support. Well, apparently Capcom learned a few lessons from Survivor, because Dead Aim is a huge improvement. It's an exciting, highly visceral shooter that's hard to put down. The flimsy backstory is an unlikely tale about someone stealing Umbrella's T-Virus and then hijacking a cruise ship. Having the worst luck in the world, you find yourself onboard this Love Boat of the Dead. Dead Aim is best played with Namco's incredibly accurate Guncon 2 light gun. The control scheme is reasonable, although the directional pad on the back of the gun isn't particularly comfortable. As you wander through the ship, you view the action from behind your character, but once you pull the trigger, the first-person view kicks in. It's great fun blowing away the shambling zombies, which fall back against blood-smeared walls. The zombies look fairly gruesome and move in a very freaky manner. In time, you'll even battle a shapely metallic "terminatrix"-style boss. Dead Aim has its share of scary moments, especially when you get blindsided, or worse, mobbed by zombies. The game made me feel like a character in a George Romero film, although the cruise ship is hardly an appropriate setting. The 3D graphics are rendered on the fly, and while they hardly compare to the pre-rendered GameCube RE graphics, they serve their purpose well. The sparse, low-budget-movie audio effects are chilling, but moments of eerie silence are equally unnerving. You control multiple characters as you play through the game, including a Paul Walker wannabe and a hot Asian chick. Unlike other Resident Evil games, you don't get the "door opening" animations between rooms, and the save points are few and far between. Dead Aim is a nice mix of arcade and adventure, and while not particularly scary, the first person view puts you in the game like no other Resident Evil game can.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Evil Dead Regeneration (THQ 2005) C
This bargain bin title is pretty much what I expected - not great but still worthwhile. As long as you keep your expectations in check, Evil Dead Regeneration will satisfy your craving for a bloody, irreverent beat-em-up. It's perfect for the Halloween season. Of course, it helps if you're a big fan of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies (as I am). Unlike the ill-advised Evil Dead: A FistFul of Boomstick (Xbox, 2003), which placed our hero Ash in a boring little town, Regeneration features a bevy of dark locations, including an asylum, cabin, cemetery, and catacombs. The action is fairly standard as you slice up ghouls with your chainsaw and blast them with your shotgun. A new aiming system makes it very easy to get a bead on moving targets. The finishing moves (initiated by a single button) are mildly amusing, but man, I wish you didn't have finish off every freakin' enemy! A notable new addition is Sam, Ash's diminutive (and butt ugly) sidekick. Since Sam is technically a zombie, you can abuse him in any number of humorous ways, like tossing him into burning oven or kicking him into giant fans. After the gory mess that ensues, Sam reappears no worse for wear (except for his attitude). Regeneration's visuals are fair, but the camera is clumsy and the collision detection could be better. The cut-scenes are fairly elaborate, and many are rendered using the same distinct visual style as the films. The audio track is the highlight of the game, with Bruce Campbell once again lending his voice to supply Ash's clever wisecracks. Evil Dead Regeneration is pretty easy in terms of difficulty, thanks to a generous number of save points. The game doesn't really break new ground, but it's easily the best Evil Dead video game I've played.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Atari 2009) B-
This looks a lot like the Wii edition of Ghostbusters, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. The cartoonish characters are likeable caricatures of the memorable Ghostbusters squad featuring Egon (Harold Ramis), Ray (Dan Aykroyd), Peter (Bill Murray), and the black guy (Ernie Hudson). The original actors lend their voices to the game, and while the dialogue is far from great, it does maintain the lighthearted tone of the films. The stages include some old stomping grounds like the New York public library and the Sedgewick hotel. These environments are not spectacular by any means, but it's great how you can blast nearly every piece of furniture to bits. Ghostbusters is fun on the PS2, but it's not quite up to Wii standards. It's hard to target ghosts with that touchy right joystick, so you'll probably need to adjust the sensitivity via the options menu. When wrangling a ghost, you're prompted to flick the right stick in various directions to "slam" the ghost, and this is quite satisfying. Unfortunately, the PS2 hardware sometimes struggles to keep up with the mayhem, so you'll have to contend with an inconsistent frame-rate. The stages are short and sweet, but the load times border on the extreme. Just to give you an idea, imagine how long eternity is, and then knock off about 10 minutes. Got it? This PS2 edition also has the dubious distinction of locking up on me not once, but twice. Quality control issues aside, the game is very enjoyable. In one bizarre stage you battle pixelated video game characters spawned from arcade machines! Unlike the PS3 version, there are fewer small "minions" to clear out, so you can focus your efforts on the big boys. There are no multiplayer modes. You can find better versions of Ghostbusters: The Video Game, but this PS2 version certainly gets its point across.
Vampire Night (Namco 2001) B-
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It just dawned on me that Vampire Night is essentially House of the Dead for the Playstation 2. If the "Sega" logo didn't give it away, I should have known from hearing villagers shout ridiculous lines like "Don't come! Don't come!" and "Thank you for rescuing me". The game takes place in what appears to be the late 19th century at a castle inhabited by vampires and their minions. Your character smoothly glides over snowy slopes and scenic courtyards as you take aim at ghouls, winged demons, and charging knights. Enemies have health meters but hitting their blue "sweet spot" will cause them to instantly disintegrate. You cannot shoot off their limbs, which makes me very, very sad. Vampire Night supports the Guncon 2, which has got to be the lightest, most comfortable, and most accurate light gun I've ever used. The stages convey spooky atmosphere thanks to sharp graphics, moody lighting, and a haunting soundtrack. The castle looks spectacular bathed in moonlight and the scenes in the snowy woods are just gorgeous. One unique aspect of the game is your ability to "free" infected villagers by shooting the "red octopus" latched onto them. If you hit the villager instead, they transform into a raging werewolf. With no crosshair to guide you, it's almost impossible to hit those octopus dead on. A better strategy is to shoot slightly off to the side and then gradually zone in on your target. Saving people can unlock alternate paths, but since it's hard to do, most playthroughs are the same. You'll always battle the same bosses and these encounters are lengthy and tiresome. The coop action is okay but the constant audio prompts are annoying ("Reload! Reload! Re-Re-Reload!"). The arcade mode is fun but would have been better if you could rank in with a high score. The "special mode" is basically the same as the arcade except you're searching for a particular item hidden in a barrel, crate, or vase. This mode also lets you equip special items, skip stages, or add more credits. Vampire Night is not great, but if you're a House of the Dead fan you'll probably feel compelled to pick this one up. NOTE: This game will not work on an HDTV.
Luigi's Mansion (Nintendo 2001) C
Confession: I enjoyed Luigi's Mansion a lot more before I played the superior sequel, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon (Nintendo 3DS, 2013). Many were critical of this GameCube launch title for its failure to show off the power of the new system. In retrospect the game is technically fine; it's the poor design and wonky controls that prevent it from reaching its potential. Luigi's objective is to rescue Mario in a sprawling haunted mansion, catching ghosts along the way (ala Ghostbusters). The supernatural activity is off the charts, but Luigi can stun ghosts with his flashlight and suck them up with a vacuum. Much like a fishing game, capturing ghouls is done by holding the joystick in the opposite direction as they struggle to escape. The rooms are lushly decorated with interactive furniture, and each offers the challenge of figuring out how to draw ghost(s) out of their hiding places. Luigi's Mansion is a neat little adventure, but there's a learning curve and it's easy to get stuck. In addition, aiming the vacuum with the C stick is incredibly awkward and counterintuitive. The game has some pleasant surprises, like hearing the Super Mario Bros. theme in the music room or discovering a hidden switch only visible from a mirror on the far wall. Other surprises, like fake doors that slam on you, are less amusing. The graphics are inviting thanks to some slick lighting and fog effects. The clammy brick walls in the basement really caught my eye. The audio contains a number of catchy tunes played on a haunting organ. Luigi's Mansion has a terrific premise but it's not as user-friendly as your typical Nintendo title.
Scooby Doo: Unmasked (THQ 2005) C
I got a real kick out of Scooby Doo: Night of 100 Frights (Xbox, 2003), and expected this new edition to deliver the same brand of wacky ghost-chasing mayhem. But Unmasked isn't as good, party because it looks like doggy-doo. These graphics are butt-ugly. Everything looks totally dull, poorly defined, and plain. The hub of the game is a monster museum with creatures fabricated from a magical substance called Mubber. You'll also spend a good amount of time in China Town and its sewers in a sequence of stages that resemble a bad Tomb Raider knock-off. Here you'll witness every platform cliché under the sun, including rising platforms, conveyer belts, trampolines, and gas that shoots out of pipes at regular intervals. You control Scooby throughout the game, only interacting with the other characters to provide them with key items. Scooby is well animated, and he looks really funny when he slides on his butt or climbs hand-over-hand. He can perform Crash Bandicoot-style jumps and spins as he breaks crates and bashes rats and spiders. Occasionally he'll dress up like a Kung Fu fighter, a bat, or Robin Hood, giving him a whole new set of moves. Though not terribly interesting, Unmasked is still quite playable thanks to its responsive controls, forgiving gameplay, and fine camera system. Even when faced with a harrowing set of obstacles, you'll usually whiz right through them without breaking a sweat. Occasionally you're treated to a special stage, including a wild ride down an underground river. The game's voice acting is very good, and pleasant jazzy tunes play in the background. You can save your progress at any time from the pause menu. Scooby Doo Unmasked doesn't do a lot, but if you're looking for a light-hearted, easy platform game, this should do the trick.
Eternal Darkness (Nintendo 2002) A-
Mixing elements of Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, this dark adventure offers some a number of original features including multiple playable characters, spell-casting, finishing moves, and an inventive "sanity meter" that's bound to freak you out. Eternal Darkness unofficially marks the Gamecube's transition to the "mature" demographic. That's right, this is a mature-rated (17+) title from the company who brought you Yoshi. Initially, the game feels like Resident Evil as you guide a woman around her grandfather's mansion to investigate his gruesome death. Her subtle facial expressions are amazing, but her hair looks chunky. While collecting items and solving puzzles, the calm is occasionally shattered by a startling event that will scare the living hell out of you. As it soon becomes apparent, this mansion serves as the "hub" of the game. Certain books and transcripts send you back in time where you play out ancient stories as a Roman soldier, a servant woman, a swashbuckling swordsman, and a colonial American doctor. These stages feel a lot like Tomb Raider, offering a nice blend of traps, puzzles, and hand-to-hand combat. The animated monsters look incredible, and I love how they writhe on the floor after being mortally injured. Characters don't show external injuries, but they do slow down and limp as their life depletes. The audio effects in Eternal Darkness are outstanding. From water trickling in a fountain, to mysterious whispers, to the shambling sound of rotting flesh, a number of effects really caught my ear. The game's unique control scheme lets you target specific body parts, so you can hack off the limbs of approaching creeps. I love it how the skeletons feel for their heads after being decapitated. Finishing moves are also available - very unusual for an adventure game. Unlike many survival horror games, the bosses in Eternal Darkness are few and far between, thank goodness. The spell casting aspect might have been a good idea had it not been so ridiculously complicated. Not only do you need to collect the necessary spells, artifacts, runes, and tablets to create a spell, but then you need to combine everything correctly! The most interesting feature of the game is its bizarre sanity meter which triggers events that blur the line between fantasy and reality. Your character will grow larger, the camera will sway, the title screen will appear, or a message will tell you you're controller isn't connected! While these don't really affect the gameplay, they usually catch you off guard and sometimes freak you out. Scary, quirky, and fun, Eternal Darkness is a good choice for those looking for an original horror title for the GameCube.
Rating: Mature (17+) (Blood and gore, violence)
BloodRayne (Majesco 2002) B
The star of this dark action-adventure is a half-human, half-vampire chick by the name of Rayne who battles mutants, swamp creatures, and - you guessed it - Nazis! Bloodrayne's third-person gameplay consists of seeking out enemies and slicing them up with the huge knives attached to you arms. I enjoyed the dark theme, but technically the game could be better. The graphics are only average, the collision detection is spotty, and the camerawork stinks at times. Still, there are a lot of very cool elements that make Bloodrayne worth checking out. For one thing, the lead character is a hottie of the highest magnitude. With her short red hair, bouncy breasts, and skin-tight leather outfit, she looks more like a dominatrix than a vampire! Better yet, she has a sexy voice and a serious attitude. Upon slicing off a soldier's arm, she'll casually mention "you dropped something" before sauntering away. Oh yeah - that's another thing about this game - the excessive gore. Rayne enjoys hacking her foes into meaty chunks, and the blood flies far and wide. Making the violence even more gratuitous is the ultra-gory "blood rage" mode and the slow-motion "dilated perception" mode. The language is pretty rough too - I think this is the first game I've ever heard the "F" word pronounced so boldly. The first stage is set in the swamps of Louisiana, and these creepy areas incorporate some blood-curdling audio effects. I found the Nazi fortress stages to be fairly "blah" by comparison. In addition to her blades, Rayne has other weapons at her disposal including shotguns and a harpoon to "reel in" bad guys (Scorpion style). The auto-aiming mechanism not only makes it easy to target enemies, but alerts you to their presence. When Rayne's health meter gets low, she can suck blood to regain life - but you already knew that. BloodRayne is has style to burn and enough originality to suck in casual gamers with an appetite for blood. It's a good time, but definitely for mature gamers only.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)
Resident Evil (Capcom 2002) A-
The granddaddy of survival horror has returned to reclaim its crown! The original Resident Evil, released in 1996 for the Playstation, was the first genuinely frightening video game. Trapped in a house full of zombies, traps, and puzzles, you had to brace yourself for each new room. Several sequels expanded the scope of the original, but rarely matched the level of hair-raising thrills. In light of that, remaking the first Resident Evil makes a lot of sense. Even those who played through it the first time around shouldn't hesitate to pick this up. With dramatically improved graphics, a new room layout, relocated monsters, and better puzzles, it's practically a whole new game. For horror movie buffs, it's like the difference between Evil Dead I and II. The cheesy live-action scenes from the first game have been replaced with some jaw-dropping CGI work. The mansion interior is spectacularly detailed and magnificently gothic and ornate. Lightning flashes and shadows from trees reflect realistically on the walls. New areas include a decrepit old graveyard. All the scenery is pre-rendered, which is both good and bad. On the positive side, pre-positioned camera angles allow for some downright creepy cinematography. For example, at the end of one long hallway you may see the faint image of a mysterious figure. On the other hand, you can't adjust your view, and it's occasionally frustrating to obtain a decent camera angle. The music effectively builds tension, and improved voice acting makes the awkward dialog sound halfway credible. Shrill screams and ominous groans will send tingles down your spine. While the graphics and audio are stellar, you still have to deal with a rather clumsy control scheme that really hasn't changed much since 1996. A targeting system makes it easy to locate monsters, but aiming at close range can be maddeningly difficult. As in past Resident Evil games, you'll need to juggle a lot of items, and you're carrying capacity is very limited. It seems like whenever I find a new item I need, I don't have any place to put it! One clever new gameplay element is the "defensive weapon". These special weapons (including a dagger) let you subdue your enemies after they've gotten a hold of you. Just don't confuse the dagger with the knife like I did. Another major change is the ability for some monsters to follow you from room to room. The first time this happens, you'll feel like you've lost what little sense of security you had. And the monsters don't go down as easy as they did in past games. Remember, they aren't dead until the music stops! Resident Evil is an all-time classic, and you're sure to be terrified by this slick, updated two-disk edition.
Rating: Mature (Blood and Gore, Violence)
Resident Evil Zero (Capcom 2002) B+
Gamecube owners are fortunate that these excellent Resident Evil titles are exclusively available on their system. Resident Evil Zero and the original Resident Evil remake released last year (2002) are two of the very best Gamecube titles. Although I didn't find this chapter as terrifying as most, Zero still delivers it share of thrills and is quite enjoyable. Zero is actually a prequel, revealing the backstory of the first Resident Evil. While the narrative is somewhat interesting, the main draw here is the classic gameplay we've come to know and love. Zero features fixed-camera angles and pre-rendered scenery. The level of detail is absolutely stunning, but a major drawback is how you can't adjust the view. These graphics surpass anything I've seen in a survival horror game, with driving rain, aged wood furniture, and subtle lighting effects that are nothing short of spectacular. Even the characters move with a certain grace rarely observed in a video game. The story begins with Star Team member Rebecca Chambers (very cute by the way) in a train full of dead people - an intriguing setting to say the least. Walking down aisles of dead passengers, you know it's just a matter of time before they get up and start shambling around. After the train moves and eventually derails, the action moves to more familiar surroundings - a research center which resembles an old mansion (oh no - not again!). Zero may tread on familiar territory, but at least its puzzles go beyond the standard "find the key and unlock the next door" variety. You often have to examine and combine items, as well as work together with a partner. That's right - Rebecca must join forces with an escaped convict. Having a partner backing you up is comforting, but it reduces the scare factor being isolated. Often your partner fights right along side of you, but occasionally he'll just stand there like an idiot. You can switch between characters on the fly and even exchange items. The helpful map feature not only displays the room layout, but also tracks objects you've found or dropped. One new innovation is how you can now drop an item anywhere - you no longer have to search for a chest. As an unwanted side effect, it's easy to pick up the wrong item when too many are lying around. I don't like how each character only has six item slots, with some weapons taking up two of them! You'll need to do a lot of item juggling to stay well-equipped. Like past RE games, you'll use ribbons and typewriters to save you place, which always provides a feeling of relief. Control is a bit clumsy, and this time there's no auto-aim - you'll need to turn slowly towards your target. But these are minor issues. Resident Evil Zero is like a good book - it's absorbing and hard to put down. I have to confess I didn't feel the same degree of fear as I've felt in past games, perhaps because I've become too familiar with the series. I've seen dogs jump through windows and zombies burst out of closets before - you almost come to expect that kind of thing. Newcomers are in for some surprises however, and long time fans will feel right at home with this well-designed game.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Resident Evil 4 (Capcom 2005) A+
No game is perfect, but Resident Evil 4 (RE4) comes about as close as you can get. I'm starting to think this could be the best video game I've ever played. A masterpiece of great length and substance, RE4 is such a huge leap forward for the series that it doesn't even feel like a Resident Evil game. Perfectly conceived with originality to burn, the game is madly addictive and supremely satisfying. What makes it so compelling? First of all, the rural mountainside setting is pure genius, bringing to mind films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blair Witch, and Night of the Living Dead. The desolate forest is so fully-realized that it's practically a character in and of itself. Although your movements are limited to a predetermined path, you'd never know by the natural-looking surroundings. The dilapidated old houses you stumble upon look authentic and foreboding. You even explore an old church on a hill surrounded by a graveyard - it doesn't get much better than that. The adventure begins on a dark cloudy day, and only gets scarier as night falls and a thunderstorm rages. Resident Evil 4's audio adds to the sense of urgency with harrowing sound effects that seamlessly meld with the haunting musical score. The perfectly balanced gameplay features brisk pacing, extraordinary variety, and a very reasonable difficulty level. The puzzles are interesting but mercifully easy. Don't rest during the cut-scenes, because "quick action events" prompt you to hit certain buttons at critical moments to escape injury. The game constantly keeps you on guard, but you never feel hopelessly stuck. When you die, you always continue close to where you left off. The storyline involves rescuing the President's daughter from a cult, and you'll spend a large portion of the game escorting her to safety. Instead of conventional zombies, RE4 features chanting monks and brainwashed townsfolk armed with pitchforks, torches, and axes. The violence is unflinching, and when a farmwoman freaks out after being shot in the face, it's actually quite disturbing. But nothing strikes more fear in this game than the sound of a chainsaw - it's downright alarming. RE4's control scheme may seem awkward at first due to the lack of a strafe button, but the limited mobility just adds to the tension. The over-the-shoulder view is a nice compromise between a first-person shooter and third-person adventure, and the jumping controls are practically automatic. Your firepower is astounding, and a powered-up shotgun can blow several attackers across a room with a single blast. The game incorporates a surprising amount of sniping action, so before you enter a new area you'll want to weed out as many creatures as you can from a distance. Unlike previous RE games, item management is not tedious at all, and a mysterious cloaked figure appears every so often to buy and sell goods, or upgrade weapons. A testament to RE4's greatness is how many memorable moments are packed into this single game, including a battle with a giant "troll" monster, a wild encounter on a ski lift, a crazy mine cart ride, and a row-boat sequence as thrilling as the movie Jaws. It should be noted that the game is definitely intended for mature audiences, due to excessive violence and gore, along with use of the "S" word. Although it never takes itself too seriously, there are some genuinely intense moments and gruesome images. Resident Evil 4 is one for the ages. The bar for survival horror has now been set very, very high.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence)
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge (Buena Vista Interactive 2004) B
With freaky characters, twisted scenery, and a ghostly chorus The Nightmare Before Christmas exudes Halloween spirit like few other games. Like the film this is a macabre work of art. Its lavish production values include a motion-picture quality intro complete with narration that sounds like something from Lord of the Rings. You play the role of a tall, supernatural stick-figure named Jack, exploring desolate towns, laboratories, pumpkin patches, and graveyards. You'll battle skeletons, ghosts, and trolls using your "soul robber" weapon. In addition to whipping enemies, this stretchy green lasso lets you grab creatures and bang them into each other, much like the chains used by Kratos in God of War (PS2, 2005). With rich storytelling, fluid animation, and lush audio, this occasionally feels more like a movie than a game. My friend Brent couldn't believe this was running on the original Xbox! Force feedback is used to such good effect it's downright startling at times. I've experienced similar graveyard hijinx in Medievil (PS1, 1998) and Maximo: Ghosts to Glory (PS2, 2002) but never with this much style. How many games have boss battles set to Broadway musical showtunes? The one big issue with this game is its forced perspective. You have zero camera control, making it hard to locate small characters or key passageways. It doesn't help that things rendered in grayscale tend to blend into each other. Markers used to indicate places of interest are always the same size, making it hard to tell if they are indicating a spot close or far. There's also a minor targeting problem, as your soul robber tends to latch onto any random target in the area. But these problems only hamper the playability slightly. You'll find a heck of a lot of variety in the stages, including a fun multiple choice quiz! Cinematic, charming, and a little weird, Nightmare Before Christmas is everything you want in a Halloween adventure.
Rating: Everyone 10+
Voodoo Vince (Microsoft 2003) C-
This whimsical 3D platformer is similar to Grabbed by The Ghoulies (Xbox, 2004), but Voodoo Vince wins out with its charming New Orleans scenery and lavish production values. You control an accident-prone voodoo doll who defeats enemies by inflicting pain on himself. When Vince gets the wrong end of a chainsaw, all enemies in the vicinity get sliced in two! The "Big Easy" theme is nicely reflected in the French Quarter architecture, a jazzy musical score, bayou locations, and dark voodoo imagery. Vince appears to be made of fabric, and this was many years before Little Big Planet (Playstation 3, 2008) made that look fashionable. Vince looks funny scampering around but his one-liners fall flat. The platform action is pretty standard as you run around beating up creeps, collecting items, and solving puzzles. Enemies include sparkling frogs, hovering insects, and a T-Rex skeleton boss. The stage objectives are imaginative. In one area you need to blow up some "evil gas pumps" by setting yourself on fire. In another stage you open and close various businesses by adjusting the clock in the town square. The game frequently saves your progress. Voodoo Vince is a polished title but it suffers from the typical nagging 3D platformer issues. Sometimes you don't know what to do, and you'll wander in circles trying to make progress. The city areas have been rocked by earthquakes (apparently), leaving bottomless gorges all over the place. The right stick gives you control of the camera, but it's still hard to judge the edge of walkways. The game's creative moments are offset by some painfully tedious stages. In one where you need to haul a flammable tank up a series of caverns lined with flame mechanisms, and it's less fun than having a tooth extracted. Voodoo Vince has style to burn, but as Vince would say, it's no pain, no gain.
Rating: Teen (mild realistic violence)
Land of the Dead (Groove Media 2005) B
It may not look like much, but if Land of the Dead's purpose is to scare the hell out of the player, it gets the job done. This game didn't seem to garner much attention at the time of release, but it's actually pretty good. It feels decidedly low budget, but then again, a lot of the best horror movies were low budget (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, Blair Witch Project). Graphics-obsessed gamers are likely to dismiss Land of the Dead with its angular zombies, plain scenery, and frame-rate glitches. Even I have to admit that the trees look awful. But underneath that rough surface lies some truly unsettling first-person action. The locations are faithful to the zombie movie genre, and your limited view makes it easy for things to creep up on you. The first stage is set in a farmhouse, and I thought that I was safe after closing my front door. Needless to say I jumped a mile when I saw some rotting ghoul shambling through my living room (and dirtying up my rug). The stage that truly won me over was the cornfield stage. What's more scary that frantically trying to escape a cornfield with decomposing monsters closing in on you? The zombies look scary enough, and while they sometimes stand around clueless, they have a way of lunging at you unexpectedly. The well-designed controls let you run using the left trigger, but over time you'll run short of breath and have to slow down. There's a lot of firepower readily available, but reloading some weapons can be agonizingly slow. Hey, that just adds to the suspense. Land of the Dead won't win any awards, but if you've ever wanted to play a part in a zombie film, it's exactly what you're looking for.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence)
Grabbed By The Ghoulies (Microsoft 2004) D+
Grabbed by the Ghoulies had a lot going for it. First off, it's from Rare - the makers of Donkey Kong Country and Banjo Kazooie (among others). The game has a zany horror theme in the tradition of Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES, 1993), and it's one of the few Xbox titles suitable for kids. The premise revolves around a teenager named Cooper whose girlfriend is abducted and carried into an old mansion. The story is conveyed via comic book-style cells, and it's fun to watch them flash by. Ghoulies makes a fine first impression with its slick production values, fast pacing, and good humor. I really like the dance scene with monsters cutting the rug as a mummy works the turntables. The mansion is expansive, but you'll also venture through surrounding areas including a farm and a lighthouse. Ghoulies looks like a generic platformer on the surface, there's no jumping - just lots of fighting. Upon entering each new room the doors are barred shut until you defeat all the creeps therein. The actual "ghoulies" are comical little demon monsters, but you'll also face zombies, mummies, pirates, and vampire chickens. I love how the pirates repeatedly scream "arrghh" as you pummel them. If you take too long to dispatch the creeps, the grim reaper appears, playing the "Evil Otto" role (Berzerk, Atari 2600). You unleash attacks using the right thumbstick, holding it toward an enemy to unleash a flurry. This ill-advised control scheme feels mushy, inexact, and unsatisfying. It's actually hard to tell when a monster is defeated, so you'll waste a lot of time and energy needlessly pounding on lifeless corpses. Weapons include water guns and fire extinguishers, but these are confusing to use. The more you play Grabbed by the Ghoulies, the less enjoyable it becomes. Advanced stages incorporate arbitrary rules that force you to only attack certain enemies or only use specific weapons. Monsters in advanced stages take too long to beat down, and some are practically impervious to attacks. Even the fun of exploration dissipates as you're forced to backtrack early and often. The camera control is left completely to the player (via the triggers), and it's a real hassle in enclosed areas. Rare dropped the ball with this one. Ill-advised controls and lazy design make Grabbed by the Ghoulies feel like a squandered opportunity.
Haunted Mansion, The (TDK 2003) B+
For those of you that were disgusted by Disney's slow-paced Pirates of the Caribbean game, I can assure you that Haunted Mansion is ten times better. Let me qualify this review by stating that I've been a Haunted Mansion nut since I was a little kid. When I was 6, my parents bought me the Haunted Mansion book and record set, which I cherish to this day (yes, I still have it). I've been on the Haunted Mansion Disney ride (in three of the parks) literally dozens of times. To me, the Haunted Mansion embodies what Halloween should be: scary but fun. Initially, I was worried about this game, because the back of the box shows what looks like a run-of-the-mill 3D platform game, resembling Medi-Evil (PS1) or Maximo (PS2). But Haunted Mansion is a supremely enjoyable game that's really hard to stop playing. Though a little tame by video game standards, it retains the same dark but whimsical tone of the ride. Haunted Mansion is a bit on the easy side, but every room is full of new surprises. Each contains a unique puzzle that's tricky enough to make you think, but not so hard that you'll get stuck. It's truly commendable how the developers came up with so many interesting puzzles that never seem frustrating or tedious. Without giving away too much, I'll give you an example of one that I found to be clever. In one room, you're shrunk down and placed on a pool table where an invisible being starts shooting the cue ball at you. After running for my life for a few minutes, I realized that by standing near other balls, I could get them knocked into the pockets, which solved the puzzle. Besides puzzles, you'll shoot your share of ghosts and giant spiders, some of which are quite frightening. The floating lady ghosts have hair covering their face, reminiscent of the movie The Ring. One flaw is that it can be difficult to shoot spiders that are at your feet. The house itself looks properly gothic and dilapidated, and the otherworldly sound effects are sure to give you the creeps. There are some nice touches that Haunted Mansion fans will appreciate, like busts that turn their heads to follow you around the room, and portraits of decaying corpses. The camera is rarely a problem, and there are numerous opportunities to save. Haunted Mansion isn't completely original, but its thoughtful puzzles, simple gameplay, and excellent presentation make it one of the more enjoyable games I've played on the Xbox. It could have been a bit scarier, but otherwise I am thrilled with this likeable adventure.
Rating: Teen (mild violence)
House of the Dead III (Sega 2002) B+
I consider myself a House of the Dead veteran, having played through both the first House of the Dead (Saturn) and its sequel (Dreamcast). House of the Dead III (HOD3) doesn't offer much innovation, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun. As in most light gun games, your movement is automatic, so all you have to do is blast away at the "undead" ghouls. Sega originally started programming this as a cell-shaded, cartoonish-looking game, and remnants of that style can still be seen. The creatures and gore are too unrealistic and over-the-top to be frightening. When killed, the zombies disappear in a splash of green blood. People in the cut-scenes have freakishly large hands. The sound effects are pretty alarming, and the understated music is effective. HOD3 contains the same bad dialogue we've come to expect (and love) from the series, including gems like "We can't let everyone's death be in vain!" and "G, what happened to the world?" This edition has some new features that add to the fun. You are equipped with a powerful rifle, but that's the only weapon you'll get. Reloading is automatic, so you don't need to shoot off-screen. At certain intervals, you can explicitly choose between multiple routes, although other actions also affect your path through the game. You are now alerted to rescue situations before they happen, so you won't accidentally shoot the innocent. All of the action takes place in a huge factory. It looks great, but unfortunately you can't shoot up the scenery - just a few barrels and boxes. I was really impressed with some of the imaginative scenarios in this game. I love the boss that chases you up the stairs, and the zombies trying to squeeze through the closing elevator doors is reminiscent of a scene from Dawn of the Dead. In one area, you even have to shoot bodies that are falling from above. I've read several reviews that say the regular XBox controller works just as well as the light gun (made by Mad Catz), but I don't agree. While I will admit the controller works better than expected, there's really no substitute for a good light gun. Bonus features include the House of the Dead 2 (arcade perfect) and a surprisingly long preview of the upcoming House of the Dead movie. If you like frenetic arcade shooting action, HOD3 is a good choice. The non-stop carnage is exhilarating at times, and there aren't many titles like this for the XBox. Light Gun Note: For best results, use the Pelican Rifle or the gun by Cypher Games. Beware of the MadCatz Blaster which doesn't work on many TVs.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Evil Dead: A Fistful of Boomstick (THQ 2003) D
I wasn't expecting much for $20, but being a long-time Evil Dead fanatic, I was hoping that Fistful of Boomstick would at least be respectable. I figured I could tolerate some mediocre gameplay as long as it retained that classic over-the-top horror formula I've always loved. Well, you have to be careful what you ask for, because this is certainly mediocre, and I don't think I like it so much. Wandering through town blasting ghouls with your shotgun and dismembering them with a chainsaw is entertaining for a while, but the fun doesn't last. The graphics are below average, with plain-looking, uninteresting scenery. The character models are blocky, although the gratuitous splattering blood and flying limbs do compensate for this somewhat. Our hero Ash is voiced by Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell, who sounds like he's having a swell time. His funny wisecracks include gems like "Yes, you may have another", "Thank you for shopping at ass-whippings R Us," and "I bet you're for gun control now, huh?" The monsters do seem to possess the classic Evil Dead mannerisms, but they look pretty rough for an Xbox game. The stages contain a series puzzles that often defy logic, and you'll find yourself running in circles. Battling zombies in the streets hardly feels like an Evil Dead movie, and it's frustrating not being able enter most buildings. In addition to fighting, you'll also talk to people and collect keys to open new areas. Spells gradually become available, but trying to execute a spell in the heat of battle is hazardous to your health. In later stages medical kits are in short supply and the zombies swarm you from all directions. Fistful of Boomstick was an ill-conceived project, and even Evil Dead fans will find it hard to justify shelling out $20 for it.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Van Helsing (Universal 2004) B-
Unlike most movie-based video games, Van Helsing is a very enjoyable action-adventure. I wasn't thrilled with the film, but I must say that Van Helsing's subject matter is perfectly suited for a video game. All the monsters, stages, and bosses are conveniently provided by the film. Van Helsing is a monster hunter in a trench coat on the trail of the Wolfman, Frankenstein, and Dracula. The characters closely resemble those in the movie, and like the film, the acting and dialogue are pretty bad. The background story is a streamlined version of the movie, but it's of little consequence in a game like this. You'll have a lot of fun exploring the haunted castles, collecting items, and blowing away undead ghouls. The game is played from a third-person perspective, along the lines of Devil May Cry, Ominusha, or Castlevania Lament of Innocence. Van Helsing doesn't innovate on the genre, but it doesn't have to. The dark, gothic European scenery is quite atmospheric - I just wish I had some control of the camera so I could freely examine my surroundings. The castles, towns, and graveyards are meticulously detailed, but I found the annoying cave levels to be far less interesting. I actually had to subtract half a letter grade for getting stuck in those caves (by no fault of my own of course)! Many stages feature pathways that look similar to each other, resulting in a lot of inadvertent backtracking. You'll face a host of cool creatures like flying vampire women, ephemeral ghosts, and shambling skeletons. Unfortunately, you'll also have to deal with some downright boring pests like floating skulls or Dracula's diminutive workers, who look too much like Ewoks. Our hero is armed out with some very effective weapons like spinning blades and a rapid-fire crossbow. As you would expect, you collect new weapons and learn new moves as you progress. Monsters tend to regenerate when you return to previous areas, but you can often dart right past them. Van Helsing is action packed, and the puzzles aren't very hard to figure out. I love how the game is saved often and transparently. Van Helsing doesn't push the envelope, but it serves its purpose very well. Monster movie fans would be wise to give this one a chance.
Rating: Teen (Blood and gore, violence)
The Suffering (Midway 2004) B+
I initially backed off of this prison-themed horror title, mainly because of its subject matter, which I perceived to be both disturbing and gratuitously violent. The guy on the cover is in an electric chair for Pete's sake! But once I heard the sequel was set in my hometown of Baltimore, my curiosity was piqued. Upon further investigation, I was surprised to discover a quality, mature-themed action-adventure with impressive production values. This is definitely a mature title. The main character, a hardened criminal named Torque, is trapped in an island prison where chaos breaks out. The profanity is relentless, but considering the characters are hard-core inmates, it actually seems appropriate. The professional voice acting also helps make the profane dialogue sound halfway believable and less gratuitous. The gore manifests itself in splattering blood and severed limbs, but it's nothing I haven't seen before. The Silent Hill-inspired freaks are pretty nasty. Resembling the subjects of sick experiments, some have syringes for eyes and others have blades for limbs. The action is mainly limited to exploring buildings and killing monsters, but it's a blast! Whether using the first or third person viewpoint, you always have a good angle and the controls are responsive and intuitive. During critical moments, you can transform yourself into a rampaging monster. On your journey you'll have the opportunity to team up with other prisoners, who actually help you dispose of these creeps. I also like how monitors on the walls let you preview upcoming areas - we've seen it before, but it's still effective. A tragic background story is conveyed through a series of unsettling hallucinations, providing bits and pieces of Torque's sordid past. If you'd think running around in a prison facility would be boring, you haven't seen Abbott Maximum Security Penitentiary. The atmosphere is intense, with inhuman sounds, alarming percussion, and eerie lighting that convey a sense of danger and foreboding. It's like walking through a haunted house - perfect for Halloween. The surround sound is so effective that you can even use it to locate the source of noises. I'm glad I didn't miss out on this. If you're over 16 and can stomach the gore, The Suffering can be a pleasurable experience.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language)
The Suffering: Ties That Bind (Midway 2005) B
In the first Suffering game, an anti-hero named Torque blasted his way out of an island prison invaded by the legions of hell. This sequel offers the same brand of limb severing, brain-splattering action, but this time the city of Baltimore has gone to hell (uh... more so). While you might assume the change of venue would lead to a more wide-open brand of chaotic mayhem, that's not really the case. The streets, alleyways, and even rooftop areas tend to be surprisingly closed-in and even claustrophobic in design. Much of the action takes place indoors as well, in some truly disgusting dilapidated buildings. In general, the dark environments are effectively unnerving and extremely well conceived. Likewise, the grotesque monsters with weapons melded to their bloody limbs look absolutely terrific, particularly when combined with the flashes of machinegun fire. I love how they continue to twitch after you pump them full of lead. The Suffering's disturbing locales, regenerating freaks, fantastic lighting effects, and a relentless cacophony of alarming sound effects combine to make Ties That Bind feel like a living nightmare. In addition to its atmosphere, the developers did a lot of other things right as well. The gameplay is fast-paced - almost arcade-like - and the controls never let you down. Although the city is Baltimore by name alone, each new section looks very distinctive and the attention to detail is remarkable. You never feel like you're revisiting similar areas. And instead of forcing to you to view verbose, lengthy cut-scenes (Metal Gear Solid 3 anyone?), the background story is conveyed through brief but effective clips that blur the line between hallucination and reality. The shaky, grainy style of this footage takes its cue from the classic film Seven. While the stages are linear in design, moral decisions you make shape events later in the game. Best of all, The Suffering is easy to play. There's no need to juggle items, because it's all done automatically. You can save at any time, and there's actually an easy difficulty level (good idea!). On the downside, while the voice acting is high quality, I could have done without the gratuitous profanity. Also, while most of the graphics are excellent, the people models look surprisingly angular and stuff. But if you're an adult looking for a shooter than won't make you think very much, Ties That Bind is a satisfying romp. And remember, Baltimore may be the embodiment of hell, but you really can't beat the crab cakes.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)
Silent Hill 4: The Room (Konami 2004) B
With a fresh new premise and the freakiest batch of monsters you'll ever see, Silent Hill 4 delivers the gore, chills, and thrills we've come to expect from this quality horror series. You play a man who wakes up to find himself trapped in his own apartment, which has been tastefully decorated with a huge hole in the bathroom wall and chains draped over the front door. The hole serves a portal to mysterious surreal worlds, with locales that include a prison, subway, and forest. Between trips to these areas, you return to your "room" to save your place and gather clues by peering through windows and peepholes. Despite its innovative design, Silent Hill 4 is surprisingly linear, with key events occurring in a predetermined order. As usual for a Silent Hill game, the story tries to be cerebral but makes no sense at all. Still, the action is intense thanks to interesting scenery and marvelously designed monsters. I have to hand it to the artists - they have really outdone themselves. Grotesque bodies "grow" out of walls and creepy corpses glide around as if being propped up by an unseen force. The baby-faced, two-headed freaks walking on two arms are especially twisted. I was surprised how Silent Hill 4 has moved away from the "flashlight in the dark" approach. Most stages are well lit, and as a result the gameplay feels less edgy and more like Resident Evil. The graphics are top notch, with a stylish, washed-out look which reminded me of the movie Seven. The creature animation is uncanny, but for some reason your man walks like he has a huge pole up his butt! What's that all about? The sound effects are more understated than Silent Hill 3, but still effectively chilling. Silent Hill 4 isn't as terrifying as it could have been, but at least it takes the series in a new direction. Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes)
Fatal Frame 2: Director's Cut (Tecmo 2004) C+
If you're ever in the mood to be scared silly, you really can't go wrong with these Fatal Frame games. An intense third-person adventure, Fatal Frame 2 (FF2) incorporates cinematic techniques like those used in Japanese horror flicks such as The Ring and The Grudge, both of which managed to scare the living [expletive] out of me. FF2 is a story of two young sisters wandering through the woods and stumbling across an abandoned village. According to legend, it was once of place of evil cults and human sacrifices, and its grisly past is gradually revealed through a series of eerie, grainy cut scenes. While FF2's graphics are hardly state of the art, they are sufficiently dark and ambiguous to convey a genuine sense of foreboding. The long shadows and moonlight midst give the forest a Blair Witch flavor, and the tiny rooms are extremely claustrophobic. You'll often catch a glimpse of something in corner of your eye, heightening the sense of paranoia. Like its predecessor, gameplay involves dispelling ghosts by snapping their pictures with a special camera, and timing is key. Normally several "shots" are required, and the ghosts rematerialize in different places each time, creating a sense of alarm as you frantically search around. Few games sent chills down my spine and made my hair stand on end like Fatal Frame 2 - the game is actually distressing at times! The "heartbeat" controller vibration, otherworldly sound effects, and hideous ghosts combine to create an immersive, frightful experience. Adding to the tension are some of the most effective cinematic techniques I've ever witnessed in a video game. Even the "spirit radio" audio clips are unsettling. FF2's difficulty is fair, the save points are copious, and load times are negligible. Unfortunately, the game is marred by design flaws that become increasingly apparent as you progress. With regards to your camera, the game designers took a beautifully simple concept and overcomplicated it beyond all rhyme or reason. With an excessive number of interchangeable parts, upgradeable functions, and customization options, Fatal Frame 2 has the dubious distinction of being the "Gran Turismo" of horror games. You're even forced to perform "combos" with your camera, which is just plain stupid. Another problem is that your movements are severely limited, with invisible walls that often impede your progress. The controls are responsive enough - until you need them the most. During ghost attacks the frame rate suffers and the controls become flakey to say the least. As you encounter more powerful ghouls, successfully executed "fatal frames" are anything but, and you soon learn the concept of instant death. I should also mention that my copy of the game is buggy and requires about 10 minutes to load a saved game! In the final analysis, Fatal Frame 2 is undeniably scary, but lousy design and technical glitches prevent it from taking the series to new heights.
Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without A Pulse (Wideload Games 2005) C-
I absolutely love the premise behind this unique zombie game. In an entertaining twist on the usual theme, you play the zombie, attacking people and eating their brains to sustain your energy. Stubbs the Zombie has style to burn, with hilarious animations, over-the-top gore, outrageous attacks, a killer retro soundtrack, and a wicked sense of humor. Stubbs limps around in that classic zombie manner, cigarette in mouth and organs hanging from the huge gash in his side. Your basic attack involves smacking innocent people into a daze, and then eating their brains as they scream, "Please stop eating me!" As the stages progress, you acquire unconventional new attacks which include releasing poisonous flatulence, tossing organ grenades, "bowling" using your own head, and possessing people with your disembodied hand. It's even possible to rip off a soldier's arm and beat him with it! People you kill soon turn into zombies themselves, providing you with a mini army to invade the next area with. As good as it sounds, Stubbs is crippled by its dull, repetitive stages. The game is supposed to be set in a futuristic town as envisioned during the 1950's, along the lines of Disney's old Tomorrowland. While you might expect this to provide ample comedic material, it really doesn't, and the sterile, spacious environments provide little to see. In fact, some stages are so incredibly boring that you'd think the developers made a concerted effort to make them that way. We're talking about empty parking garages, a maze-like police station, deserted city streets, and shopping malls with no stores! Everyone knows the future is boring, but c'mon now! Half the time you can't even tell where you're supposed to go next! I can't help but think how this game would have really kicked ass with some Resident Evil-quality scenery. Another nagging issue is the excruciating load times, probably the worst I've ever witnessed on the Xbox. It was so bad that a friend asked me if this was an Electronic Arts game (that's bad!). Technically, Stubbs the Zombie is solid, with responsive controls, sharp visuals, and remarkable animations. That shouldn't be surprising considering the game's main claim to fame is its use of the Halo engine. Another notable feature is its cool retro soundtrack, with re-recorded versions of classic songs like Mr. Sandman, Lonesome Town, and My Boyfriend's Back. There's even a hilarious dance bonus stage that plays like the old electronic game Simon. But for all the interesting twists and gimmicks, Stubb's gameplay is somewhat repetitive and boring, although the split-screen two-player cooperative mode does enhance the experience. Some may find Stubbs the Zombie too bizarre to resist, but this is clearly more style that substance.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, crude humor, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)
Scooby Doo: Night of 100 Frights (THQ 2003) B+
The team that produced this game really had their act together. Despite employing every hackneyed platform gaming device known to mankind, Scooby Doo Night of 100 Frights succeeds in a big way. It gets off on the right foot with a quality intro that not only captures the distinctive look of the cartoon series, but even incorporates the catchy original theme song! This game itself is about as close as you can get to an interactive cartoon. The 3D characters are exceptionally well animated and incorporate literally dozens of scary villains from the old series, including the wolf man, ghost diver, the "creeper", and the witch doctor. As you explore a haunted mansion, spooky graveyard, and ghostly pier, you'll collect Scooby snacks, discover hidden areas, and unlock warp gates. Each stage has multiple paths, and some require a specific power-up to enter. These power-ups include a football helmet used to bash in spider webs, and a lampshade to hide from monsters. The game becomes more fun as you acquire more items, and their accompanying animations are very entertaining. The platform action is pretty standard, but the short stages and forgiving difficulty compensate for that. I did encounter a few issues with judging jumps, but that's par for the course with any 3D platformer. What I really love about the game is its attention to detail. In the haunted mansion stages, you might expect every hallway and room to look the same, but instead they're populated with all kinds of interesting antique furniture and spooky portraits. There's even an eerie green glow shining through the windows and onto the floors. The game is loaded with all sorts of things associated with Halloween, including spider webs, graveyards, organ music, and monsters that pop out of the scenery. The audio is absolutely stunning. The background music sounds as if it's lifted directly from the show, and the sounds of creaking doors, fluttering wings, and howling wolves are crisp and clear. Scooby Doo himself has a surprising amount of dialogue, and many of his lines are nothing short of hilarious. Last but not least, the game even has laugh track - how bizarre is that?? Great fun for the whole family, Scooby Doo Night of 100 Frights sometimes feels more like a funhouse ride than a game. Rating: Everyone
Painkiller: Hell Wars (Dreamcatcher 2006) B-
With first-person shooters becoming increasingly more sophisticated (see Bioshock and Halo 3), Painkiller's "shoot-everything-that-moves" gameplay is refreshing and fun. This game was first released for the PC in 2004, and I still recall my friend Scott showing it off and telling me what a great Halloween title it was. He was right! Despite its age, Painkiller still looks great on the Xbox. The game's storyline is conveyed through cut-scenes starring a topless gal named Eve. As you stare intently at her boobs, she blabs away about something or another. Painkiller's early stages are set in spooky graveyards and vast cathedrals, complete with chanting and organ music. Hooded monks approach menacingly but explode into meaty chucks when blasted at close range. Each stage offers a fantastic new environment like a swamp, prison, opera house, town, or asylum. A few stages go a bit overboard with the winding staircases, so much so that the opera house actually made me nauseous! Painkiller is fast and frantic, but despite the occasional hiccup in the frame rate, the action flows smoothly. The game's innovative weapons include a wooden stake gun, a freeze ray, and the "Painkiller", which is best described as a "blender on a stick". Enemies react according to where they're hit, so when an approaching freak takes a wooden stake to the chest, it looks awesome. You'll face a nice variety of monks, knights, bikers, mental patients, demons, and even witches on broomsticks!. They are all nicely rendered and spooky-looking. Unfortunately, there are only two or three enemies per level, and the massive waves of attackers make you feel like you're killing the same guys over and over again! Heavy metal guitar riffs play as you unleash a six-pack of whoop-ass on the undead bastards. Lucky for you, they never seem to realize that those barrels are indeed flammable. Occasionally you'll transform in a demon yourself, becoming invincible as your vision changes to a blurry black-and-white perspective. Once the carnage subsides, you can collect souls and search for ammo, weapons, and hidden areas. It's really annoying how souls take a few seconds to appear, forcing you to wait impatiently for these green clouds to materialize (yes, souls are green!). Gold coins can also be collected and used to purchase tarot cards (power-ups) between stages. Painkiller's colossal bosses are impressive, and some of these towering behemoths reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus (Playstation 2, 2005). I truly enjoyed Painkiller's occult themes and pick-up-and-play quality. If it's close to Halloween and you're feeling more violent than usual, you may even want to bump up the grade to a solid "B". Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity)
Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (Konami 2006) D+
It's like beating a dead horse to say Castlevania has never been very good in 3D. Still, Konami keeps plugging away, hoping one day they'll make a 3D version that comes close to capturing the magic of the popular 2D titles. With Curse of Darkness, you have to wonder how hard they're trying. Darkness basically mimics the lackluster gameplay of Castlevania Lament of Innocence (Playstation 2, 2003), but incorporates more "stuff". The melodramatic, overwrought introduction reveals that upon his death three years before, Dracula unleashed a terrible curse upon the land. You just can't win with this guy! I wasn't too impressed by the androgynous characters and embarrassing prose sprinkled with pretentious words like "thence". The game takes itself far too seriously, with verbose, drawn-out cut-scenes that bored me to tears. The equally uninspired gameplay consists of running down long halls while hacking at monsters that materialize out of thin air. The hallways and rooms tend to be wide-open, probably in an effort to ease camera issues. The camera control could be better, but it's about average for this type of game. Harder to justify is how you can't see very far into the distance - it's like every hallway is shrouded in fog! The gothic scenery is elegant enough, but each section of the castle has a bunch of rooms that look exactly the same, making it easy to get disoriented. Gaudy arrows attempt to keep you moving in the right direction, but their 3D, rotating appearance makes them tough to discern at certain angles. You almost wish they had just labeled the doors "in" and "out". Minions you'll encounter are standard Castlevania fare, including werewolves, skeletons, ghosts, cyclops, and mermen. They look good, but I hate how they spawn arbitrarily, and then respawn when you return to old areas. The controls are crisp and responsive, allowing you to strike down multiple enemies with ease. One notable new feature is your "fairy" sidekick who "evolves" throughout the game. Castlevania's lush orchestrated musical score is well done, but even that gets old after a whole. Curse of Darkness is a step up from Lament, but it's still generic and uninspired. The Castlevania formula just doesn't "work" well in 3D. If you're looking for some real occult fun, try the Devil May Cry series instead. Rating: Mature (blood and violence)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Electronic Arts 2002) B-
Much like the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is better than you might expect! The production values are top-shelf, with genuinely creepy environments, intuitive controls, and intelligent voice dialogue provided by the actors themselves (except for Sarah Michelle Gellar). The game offers a mix of exploration, puzzle-solving, and even sniping, but you'll spend most of your time showing monsters what the wrong end of a karate kick feels like. As a kung-fu hottie of the highest magnitude, Buffy beats down vampires, hellhounds, spiders, shambling zombies, and assorted other supernatural minions. The spiders look pretty gross, and the decomposed zombies keep coming back - even after losing a few limbs. The impressive fighting engine dishes out fluid and surprisingly elaborate attack combinations. Sometimes Buffy can dispose of a foe with a single, well-timed backhanded stab, and it's satisfying to watch a vampire disintegrate into dust. There's no shortage of weapons, including crossbows, flamethrowers, holy water, shovels, and even baseball bats. It's easy to throw enemies, and chances are, there's a sharp piece of wood sticking out somewhere closeby! Tossing vampires in front of moving trains is another enjoyable pastime. Certain locations are inspired by the show, including the high school and the Bronze nightclub. Realistic moonlight, fog, and flame effects convey an eerie atmosphere, and there are some genuinely frightening sights, like a contorted body crammed into a locker. Equally unnerving is the otherworldly music and disturbing sound effects like creaks, growls, and giggles. Locations like the mausoleum border on photo-realistic, but the cemetery feels too maze-like and the industrial areas are downright boring. Fortunately, none of the stages are particularly long. Another issue is the monotonous battles caused by too much monster respawning. She only killed like one or two in each show, yet she plows through them by the dozen here! Through it all Buffy tosses out some great lines like "You want a piece of me?! I'll give you the whole damned pie!" You go girl!! The characters are dead-ringers for the real actors, and their lips even match the dialogue. The controls are simple and responsive, although switching between weapons is a bit of a hassle. The fact that Buffy runs and climbs quickly allows the game to progress at a brisk pace. There's a nifty auto-save mechanism as well. All in all, this is a very well constructed game that I'm sure will become a collector's item, considering the show's cult status. Feel free to bump up the grade by one letter if you're a fan of the show!
Rating: Teen (blood and gore, mild language, suggestive themes)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds (Vivendi Universal Games 2003) D+
When I started playing Chaos Bleeds, I was like, "Wait a minute, this doesn't even look as good as the first Buffy game!" It's true. The environments aren't nearly as detailed or dark, and indoor areas like the Magic Shop look far too spacious and clean. The characters appear more cartoonish and their faces look like dolls. In terms of gameplay, Chaos tries to copy the first game, even taking you to similar locations such as a graveyard, factory, and sewers. The same monsters are back, so expect plenty of those crawling torsos you stomped in the first game! So what's new here? Well, those bat-faced vampires look pretty ugly, and the giant spiders are extra-crispy this time around. There's also an appearance by that creepy ventriloquist dummy (*shudder*). Chaos Bleeds is playable, but it lacks the polish of the first game, and its stages vary drastically in terms of duration and difficulty. Switching weapons is a constant hassle, and I hate how you have to be unarmed in order to perform a throw or use an item. Vampires and zombies respawn continuously, artificially lengthening the game. Buffy has plenty of martial-arts moves, but too often she misses her target and continues out her string of moves at thin air. The repetitive fighting is tiresome, and the puzzles are unimaginative. When I had to locate a handle to close a steam value in a sewer, I asked myself "Didn't I do this in the last game? What's next, a fuse box puzzle?" Sure enough, there was a missing fuse right around the next corner! The camera angles are glitchy, and at one point I could not exit the first-person crossbow view (until I died). Several of the show's actors lent their voices, but not Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) or Alyson Hannigan (Willow). Buffy's replacement is dead-on, but Willow's seems to be overacting. The dialogue lacks the wit and irony of the show, and comes off more like dialogue that's trying to sound like the show. A two-player mode is included, but these games are pathetic! Whether you're collecting bunnies or fighting zombies, random events cause both players to switch characters or worse yet - switch scores. Fans of the Buffster can bump up the grade by a letter, but only because of the fun unlockable videos which include outtakes and interviews with the cast. Note: An astute reader pointed out that this was a cross-platform game that was likely watered down by the PS2.
Rating: Teen (blood and gore, suggestive themes, violence, mild language)
Part 1: Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Intellivision, Odyssey 2, Colecovision, Commodore 64, NES, Atari 7800, Atari XE, Sega Master System
Part 2: Turbografx-16, Genesis, Neo Geo, SNES, Sega CD, Sega 32X, 3DO, Philips CD-i
Part 3: Saturn, Playstation, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast
Part 4: Playstation 2, GameCube, Xbox
Part 5: Xbox 360, Wii, Playstation 3, Wii U, Xbox One, Playstation 4