The Video Game Critic's
Halloween Review Special
Part 5 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."
Xbox 360 Games
The Evil Within (Bethesda Softworks 2014) D
I hadn't heard much about The Evil Within but with Halloween approaching I thought it was worth a shot. The game has a lengthy install process, but hey - it could be worse. It could be online. This mind-bending survival horror tale largely takes place in a dilapidated sanitarium, calling to mind The Suffering (Xbox, 2004) and just about every Silent Hill (PS1, 2000) game ever made. There are also dark village areas with crazed townsfolk reminiscent of Resident Evil 4 (GameCube, 2004). The game's atmosphere is ripe for terror. The graphics are rendered in muted tones and a brooding audio track is punctuated by jarring sound effects. The story doesn't make much sense but maybe it's not supposed to. Adding to the tension are dark, claustrophobic camera angles. Between lunging zombies, spider-people, and chainsaw-toting madmen I felt like I was in constant fear for my life. When you do take down a creature it's satisfying to burn its body thanks to some excellent fire effects. But as with other Bethesda titles the game's sordid PC roots show through with touchy controls, framerate hiccups, texture pop-in, and bugs. During one play session the audio cut out completely and I couldn't get it back. Another time my guy got permanently wedged in a doorway. The user interface could use some work. I hate pressing the right stick to bring up items because I always hit it accidentally in the heat of battle. And what's the deal with all these traps? The game is tough enough without accidentally stepping into a bear trap or triggering a trip wire! I think the invisible enemies were the last straw. While undeniably creepy, The Evil Within is more aggravating than fun. Whenever I completed a chapter I was just relieved to save my progress and walk away.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Costume Quest (Double Fine Productions 2010) B-
I rarely download games but my readers know I love Halloween and they applied a considerable amount of peer pressure! They claimed Costume Quest embodied the true spirit of Halloween, and they weren't wrong! You play the role of a little boy trick-or-treating with his sister before she's carried off by a troll! To rescue her he'll need to venture through some really fantastic locations including a graveyard, carnival, mall, and farm. The first area is a quaint suburban neighborhood with each house decorated to the hilt! There are glowing jack-o-lanterns, ghosts hanging from trees, decorative skeletons, ghosts, caskets, scarecrows, and so much more. There's even a bobbing-for-apples mini game! Costume Quest does a wonderful job of recreating the thrill of venturing out on your own on Halloween night (yeah, we used to do that). Each area offers a series of quests, usually along the lines of collecting candy or locating hidden kids. The item collecting aspect is repetitive but the artistic graphics will make you want to explore every inch of real estate. Friends join your party and you'll collect costumes with various powers. Periodically a door will be answered by a troll, thrusting you into an RPG-style battle. I like how during battles you assume exaggerated forms of your costume. For example, your cardboard robot outfit becomes an awesome Transformer! The fights are simplistic (push X now!) but satisfying nonetheless. The dialog is a little corny but good-natured, and there's actually a lot of subtle humor sprinkled throughout the game. Costume Quest is easy and probably limited in replay value. It's also a heck of a lot of fun and a great way to get into the holiday spirit. Bump up the grade by a letter during October!
Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Lollipop Chainsaw (Warner Bros. 2012) B
Lollipop Chainsaw is an outrageous zombie fighter starring a giddy cheerleader named Juliet. Her town has been overrun by undead, but fortunately she hails from a family of zombie hunters. Juliet may come across as a superficial airhead, but her upbeat personality and fluid grace will win you over. She uses a chainsaw to effortlessly slice and dice zombies while saving innocent bystanders. Early in the game Juliet "saves" her boyfriend Nick from zombiehood by slicing off his head and carrying it around on her belt. It's a bizarre twist but provides plenty of material for lighthearted humor. It's great fun to execute crazy combos while vaulting around and beheading multiple zombies at a time. I like the ability to shop for upgrades, but why is everything so expensive?! In addition to hack-n-slash combat, you can fire from a distance with a "chainsaw blaster", although I found the targeting controls frustrating at times. The game makes heavy use of "quick action" scenes where you're prompted to quickly press a series of buttons. These are generally fun but can get tiresome if you need to hit 20 buttons in a row. Still, I enjoyed the torrid pace of the game. The load screens are frequent but give you a chance to catch your breath. The early stages take place at a high school, but later you visit a farm and shopping center. Lollipop Chainsaw has a fun arcade quality, with gory combos accompanied with fireworks and bedazzling effects. Zombies sparkle as they disintegrate and drop gold coins and stars. Pop music classics like "Mickey" and "You Spin Me Round" kick in at opportune times to take the absurdity to a whole new level. The game looks like a million bucks and the comic-book style menus are amazing. I found the irreverent tone refreshing but sometimes the game tries too hard, pushing the envelope with bad language, crude humor, and suggestive themes. Still, Lollipop Chainsaw is just plain fun, and it's hard not to get caught up in its unbridled exuberance.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
DMC: Devil May Cry (Capcom 2013) B+
To be totally honest I wasn't too psyched when I first heard about this continuation of the Devil May Cry (Playstation 2, 2001) franchise. I thought the series had run its course and the title "DMC" struck me as lazy and uninspired. Dante gets a complete makeover in this one, ditching his goth outfit and white hair for a more modern, stylish look. His too-cool-for-school attitude hasn't changed however, retaining the same blase attitude even while disposing of chainsaw-wielding demons on the edge of oblivion. DMC starts with a bang as Dante is awoken from his trailer located next to an amusement park on a pier. As he's swept into a limbo dimension the park transforms into a hellish nightmare with the ground buckling under your feet and demons crawling out of the woodwork. I love how the carnival scenery plays a role, letting you explore a haunted house and use a spinning ride to slice up foes. DMC's over-the-top, visceral style reminds me of Bayonetta (Sega, 2010). The controls are easy to grasp and I like how certain combos incorporate pauses (Ex: YY YYY). The action is so intense it's hard to take your eyes off the screen and remember to blink! Thrash metal kicks in as you execute crazy combos that splatter the screen with blood, torn flesh, and points. There's always a new grotesque demon being introduced, and a sensible upgrade system makes it easy to ramp up your powers. In addition to your default sword, you'll acquire other powerful weapons like a hellish axe and spinning scythe. Your handguns are surprisingly weak and limited in use. There's a healthy dose of platform jumping involved as you forge through streets, factories, prisons, and surreal dimensions. I can deal with double jumps and grapples, but when you need to start linking them with "air boosts" it's a little much. The bosses are quite frightening, especially that giant demonic spider with a head sticking out of its butt. The audio effects are sensational. From crumbling ruins to the dreamlike voices, you'll feel completely immersed in the chaos. I was skeptical about DMC, but it's one of the more thrilling games I've played in recent memory.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Resident Evil 6 (Capcom 2012) D
With this latest entry Capcom has forsaken the qualities that made the franchise great. Resident Evil 6 (RE6) ditches the horror and suspense for gunfights, frantic escapes, and Hollywood-style explosions. Clearly inspired by recent Call of Duty games, the non-stop action proves a poor fit. RE6 is very much geared to coop play, and you always have the option let a human partner join your campaign. The storyline is absolutely incomprehensible as you're whisked between locations like subways, sewers, mines, a jet plane, a college campus, and the streets of China. There are some interesting sights like a gothic cathedral and decrepit graveyard, but you don't get a chance to enjoy them. As in Call of Duty, an omnipresent wayward marker (with distance) keeps you forging ahead. Not only does it undermine any sense of mystery, it renders exploration unnecessary. Frequent button prompts attempt to involve the player in the scripted cut-scenes, and I like the innovative meters. Unfortunately your responses have little bearing on events and much of the time I felt more like a spectator than a player. The best thing I can say about RE6 is that it has a metric ton of content. There are three separate missions, each of which can be played coop (on-line or off). The controls are crisp and the detail in the graphics is amazing. Much emphasis is placed on melee, so you can simply press the right trigger to deliver a roundhouse kick to any nearby zombie. Unfortunately, melee is more of a necessity than a luxury. That's because it's hard to tell what the [expletive] is going on at a given time! The camera pulls in very tight and most areas tend to be pitch dark! If you adjust the brightness as the game suggests, you won't be able to see a damned thing! And if you thought the single-player mode was disorienting, wait until you try the two-player split-screen. Is there a reason why each player gets such a tiny window? I also take issue with the new health system, or as I call it "how to use an herb in 12 easy steps". The needlessly complex menu interface will have you fumbling with the controls in the heat of battle. Normally you could hit pause to check the button mappings, but there's no pause function in this game! It addition to picking up items and ammo, it's necessary to collect "skill points" lying around, which makes no sense. Other irritations include zombies wearing body armor (really?), mandatory "tripping" over bodies (c'mon now), and an unbearable Tomb Raider-style swimming stage (gah!). Some of the chapters are excessively long (over two hours) and I was practically begging for them to end. There's no shortage of action in Resident Evil 6, but there's a serious shortage of fun.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, suggestive themes)
Splatterhouse (Namco Bandai 2010) D-
As a longtime Splatterhouse fan, I find this modern "re-envisioning" to be fairly reprehensible. This game takes the B-movie appeal of the original 2D games and substitutes it with shock value, lewd images, and juvenile humor. The profanity-laced dialogue is embarrassing, and all the gallons of blood washing over the screen can't hide the fact that this is a hack-n-slash title of the lowest caliber. Like the original, the basic gameplay involves moving from room to room while bashing regenerating demons with weapons (or your fists). There are plenty of attacks to mix things up, but it's hard to tell who's taking damage - you or the creatures! The button-mashing gets old in a hurry, and the collision detection is so poor that I once punched a creature and hit the one standing behind him instead. The stages are very inconsistent in terms of graphics and quality, and the first boss would look more at home in a Transformers game. The graphics aren't bad, with plenty of shadowy hallways, plush furniture, and clammy demon skin. The controls are overly complicated and there are too many one-hit deaths. After losing a life you'll need to wait a full minute for the last checkpoint to load, and it feels like an eternity! And just when you thought the game couldn't sink any lower, you find yourself collecting nude photos of your girlfriend. There are a few side-scrolling stages that try to recapture the old 2D magic - in vain. The single saving grace of this disc is the inclusion of three original Splatterhouse games, including the arcade original and the two Genesis sequels. These classic side-scrollers are so good that it's almost worth playing through this miserable, ill-conceived game just to unlock them.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
Shadows of the Damned (Electronic Arts 2011) C
This demon shooter has an unorthodox "grind house" style that's appealing. Its crisp graphics, responsive controls, fast pacing, and over-the-top premise give the game an arcade flavor. The wisecracking anti-hero "Garcia Hotspur" (who resembles a young Benicio del Toro) literally goes to hell to rescue his girlfriend! Hell looks a heck of a lot like Europe with its narrow streets winding through quaint townships. Garcia's sidekick is a flaming skull (with a British accent no less) who can morph into a motorcycle and a variety of weapons. The story is often silly and occasionally profane, but it's a wild ride. There's a lot of satisfaction to be derived from blowing off demon heads with shotguns. Shadows of the Damned doesn't water down the shooting with an auto-aim mechanism which has become all too common in today's shooters. It's tough to execute a headshot, but that makes it extra satisfying when you do so. On the flip side, it's frustratingly easy to miss jumping enemies during shootouts in tight spaces. The game has a lot of fun little quirks, like the fact that your weapons shoot teeth and health is replenished by drinking bottles of booze. There are even old-school collectibles like diamonds and strawberries. The game is linear in design and the save points are frequent. Sadly, Shadows sabotages itself by incorporating a "special type of darkness" which periodically enshrouds the area you're in. It slowly drains your life, and worse yet it drains the fun from the game. To restore the light you'll need to find and shoot a mounted goat's head (no, that's not a typo). Being forced to find light sources adds a puzzle element and a sense of urgency, but it feels contrived and unnecessary. The endless boss battles also left a bitter taste in my mouth (a boss life meter would be helpful). As it is, Shadows of the Damned looks like a great game but doesn't play like one.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
Dead Rising 2 (Capcom 2010) C-
The original Dead Rising gave us survival horror in a zombie-infested mall - an interactive Dawn of the Dead movie. Unfortunately its awesome premise was squandered by the worst save system ever devised. Dead Rising 2 is set in Fortune City, which is clearly modeled after Las Vegas with its glitzy scenery and numerous entertainment attractions. The story kicks off with an interesting "Running Man" intro but then settles into the familiar formula of beating down zombies in a mall while escorting survivors to safety. The zombie hordes tend to congregate in groups so you can often weave through them without confrontation. I like how they shamble slowly in your general direction before suddenly lunging toward you - just like real zombies do! Bludgeoning undead has never been more fun thanks to "combo weapons" that scatter bodies like Sauron from Lord of the Rings. The action can be pretty intense, especially when you need to fight through a mob while low on health. The arrow at the top of the screen keeps you headed in the right direction, and the story would be nicely paced if not for the constant (and lengthy) load screens. The save system is better than the first game, but you can only save in pre-defined places (restrooms), so when you die you typically lose quite a bit of progress. The controls are less than intuitive, and during one battle I accidentally exchanged my baseball bat for one of those foam "#1" hands - not cool! It's necessary to periodically return to the safe house at 7 AM to provide your little girl with "Zombrex", which makes no sense. The escort missions subject you to lots of backtracking and pesky cell phone messages. Sorry, but cell phone calls and schedules are things I play video games to escape from. I was hoping the cooperative mode would be better, but discovered both players had to be on-line, which royally sucks. Dead Rising 2 is an improvement over the original but too often the game feels like a chore to play. Note: Capcom recently released a new version of this game called Dead Rising 2: Off the Record.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, use of alcohol, intense violence, language, sexual themes)
Rise of Nightmares (Sega 2011) B+
Incorporating Kinect body-motion control into a survival horror game was a tall order, but Sega pulled it off. Rise of Nightmares is about as immersive as they come, giving you a harrowing first-person perspective while exploring decrepit environments and fending off zombies. It feels like a virtual haunted house as you travel through forests, graveyards, crypts, and castles in the country of Romania. You control your movements with regard to both direction and speed. Turning your body adjusts your view (which works great) and you walk by stepping forward. Moving while turning can be awkward, but Sega thought ahead and provided an ingenious "auto-move" feature. When you're not being accosted by ghouls you can simply raise your hand and be effortlessly guided to your next objective. Curious gamers however will want to thoroughly explore and collect all the bonus items. Interacting with objects is easy, as you simply move a hand icon over a highlighted item. Rise of Nightmares also requires you to perform realistic motions to open doors, pull switches, swim, duck, climb, or wipe the vomit off your face. Motion controls prove effective when fighting off zombies. Vertical hacks are more potent but horizontal slashes tend to severe more limbs. Weapons include machetes, pipes, electric knuckles, exploding test tubes, and the obligatory chainsaw. The Kinect works well in open areas, but falters when zombies converge, resulting in an annoying "invisible wall" effect. I really love the creature designs which include executioners, cultists, butchers, witches, maids, and super hot nurse zombies (super hot before their flesh started rotting, but I think that's just common sense). There's a faceless woman opera singer with a voice so loud you literally need to cover your ears to prevent taking damage! Some zombies have mechanical body parts, suggesting gruesome experiments are under way. It tired me out but Rise of Nightmares kept me riveted with its fast pacing and short stages. The action gets pretty intense, and my wife actually screamed when she looked into a mirror and saw the image of the main boss. This ominous boss is especially cool because although he can't see through his mask he can still hear you, so you need to remain perfectly still when he's in the area. The game has a bizarre storyline that's unnecessary and a lot of profanity which is even more unnecessary. Still, Rise of Nightmare is an intriguing game that's worth dusting off your Kinect for. It's a little clumsy but it will get you involved like no other horror title can.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes)
Alan Wake (Microsoft 2010) A-
Critics like to focus on its mind-bending storyline, but Alan Wake delivers pure survival horror not unlike Resident Evil and Silent Hill. You'll explore decrepit houses, collect items, solve puzzles, fend off monsters, and never ever relax until the music subsides. The story begins with writer Alan Wake taking his wife on vacation to a sparsely populated island covered with mountains and forests. After she suddenly disappears, Alan finds himself plunged into increasingly bizarre circumstances that have him struggling to grasp reality. This game oozes with atmosphere as you explore shadowy forests, abandoned farms, and creaky cabins. The lighting is effective and the natural (and unnatural) sounds are unsettling. Ethereal madmen frequently materialize out of the darkness armed with hatchets and chainsaws. The ensuing battles are intense as you use a flashlight to keep them at bay and conventional weapons to polish them off. Adding intrigue are poltergeists that toss everything from barrels to freight trains in your direction. Lighted areas are your safe haven, serving both as checkpoints and health stations. It's quite the adrenaline rush as you sprint for the light with several attackers in pursuit. To say Alan Wake maintained my undivided attention would be an understatement! Even so, I disliked being forced to change my flashlight batteries every 10 seconds during combat! It's bad enough I have to reload my weapon every two or three shots! I could also do without those annoying bird encounters. The game is divided into six "episodes", each beginning with a "previously on Alan Wake" recap - like a TV show. These lengthy episodes would keep me up way past my bedtime, but that's just a testament to the riveting gameplay. I often downplay the importance of storylines in a video game, but in this case the gripping narrative made the cut-scenes fun to watch. They feature superb voice acting, realistic facial expressions, likeable characters, and good humor. Sadly, the story eventually goes so far off the deep end that it becomes impossible to completely reconcile the madness. In the end you might find yourself wondering what the hell just happened. Regardless, Alan Wake is a spellbinding, adult-oriented thriller that will have you clutching the controller until your hands cramp in pain. And I mean that in a good way.
Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence, alcohol and tobacco)
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City (Capcom 2012) F
Operation Raccoon City is every bit as bad as advertised. This ill-conceived Resident Evil spin-off is a highly derivative squad-based shooter. Much like Left 4 Dead (Xbox 360, 2008), each member of the four-man team has unique abilities. As in Gears of War, taking cover and reviving fallen teammates is an integral part of the action. In addition to its boldly unoriginal gameplay, you'll forge through the most boring, repetitive environments ever conceived (city hall, laboratory, power plant) while completing by-the-numbers objectives (find doctor, shut down the power grid). And if the unimaginative locations weren't bad enough, they're outfitted with cheap booby traps and invisible walls. Who thought it was a good idea to incorporate suicide-bomber zombies in close quarters? Mowing down zombies results in plenty of gore, but there's nothing scary about this game. Actually, you spend more time fighting special ops forces than monsters! And these guys are so well-armored that you need to shoot them point-blank in the face about 20 times - just to make them flinch! Each mission feels like a chore that you can't wait to end. The game was designed for coop play, yet no split-screen modes are available. I can't recall ever having less fun playing survival horror than Operation Raccoon City. Capcom needs to stop running the Resident Evil name through the mud with garbage like this.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Dead Island (Silver 2011) C
Here's a zombie game you can even enjoy guilt-free in the summer months. Dead Island takes place on a tropical resort with white sands, palm trees, airy bungalows, and breathtaking views. Unfortunately everyone has transformed into a zombie, so you'll need to band together with other survivors to escape. The gameplay seems to boil down to running a series of errands - often in parallel. You'll break into a lifeguard station, save people under attack, and search for critical items. Everybody and their mother wants a favor, so it's easy to get sidetracked. Fortunately a dotted line on your radar keeps you headed in the right direction. The sunny scenery is striking, punctuated by the sound of sea gulls, wind, and distant thunder. Wading through a pool of crystal blue water is relaxing - until someone takes a bite out of you. There are plenty of makeshift weapons like oars, crowbars, and butcher knives. You can also construct your own weapons out of miscellaneous objects, but you need to obtain a blueprint first. Bludgeoning zombies is habit-forming, especially with all the splattering blood, flying limbs, and bloodcurdling screams. The first-person view is disorienting when fighting multiple zombies, but driving around the island running over zombies is one of the simple joys of life. Some first-person games make me a little queasy over time, and Dead Island definitely falls into that category. There are always plenty of suitcases, trashcans, and corpses to search for cash and knickknacks. You might only be finding $5 at a time, but it adds up. You'll need it because it can cost hundreds of dollars to cobble together weapons. The zombies can run like track stars. They tend to approach quickly, often catching you completely by surprise. No question about it - this game will make you jump out of your seat. The user interface could use some work though. The menu system is counter-intuitive and manipulating your inventory is awkward. I was psyched about the four-player co-op, until I discovered it was on-line only. That sucks, but playing solo is enjoyable enough. The auto-save kicks in at a regular basis and the checkpoints are frequent. Dead Island feels like a cookie-cutter effort, but the refreshing scenery and rampant violence makes it worthwhile.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol)
Plants Vs. Zombies (Popcap 2010) A
I was skeptical about this previously-only-available-via-download title, but Plants Vs. Zombies eventually got the best of me. This game makes the hours just melt away. It's a comical, horror-tinged, real-time strategy (RTS) game played on a single screen depicting your back yard. Zombies approach slowly from the right, and your goal is to prevent them from reaching your house. Prior to each wave you select several carnivorous plants, mines, blockades, and special items to use. Once the action begins, you'll strategically place these items to fire pellets at the zombies, slow their progression, swallow them whole, or just blow them up. Your "currency" for planting items is sunlight, generated by sunflowers. You'll generally want to plant these early and often along the far left. Plants Vs. Zombies has a Warcraft vibe as you skillfully manage resources and multitask for maximum destruction. What sets this apart from other RTS titles is its simplicity and short stages. It's instantly gratifying yet endlessly playable. The adventure mode introduces one item at a time, and as your selection grows new strategies emerge. The cartoonish zombie horde features colorful characters including pole-vaulters, football players, and disco dancers. Things begin slowly but it doesn't take long for the fun to kick into overdrive. It's satisfying to watch your minions decimate the undead mob. A row of lawnmowers serves as your last line of defense, activating automatically when touched by a zombie. Plants Vs. Zombies isn't particularly hard, but it's just challenging enough to keep stringing you along. The animations are fun to watch and the moaning voices ("Braaaains...") are just hilarious. So how do you make a superb game like this even better? You add more ways to play, silly rabbit! Extra modes include co-op, survival, puzzle, bonus games, and even a versus mode that lets a friend control the zombies! Now how much would you pay? But wait - you also get two complete puzzle games as a bonus. Peggle is cross between pinball and Pachinko from the Price is Right. You shoot a fixed number of balls at colored pegs, and every peg hit disappears. There's a lot of bouncing around, and some of the most amazing shots are totally unintentional. It's crazy addictive and even my wife was hooked. The second puzzle game is a marble shooter called Zuma. While less compelling than Peggle, it's still fun and boasts rich sound effects and an amazing African soundtrack. All three games save your progress, but there are no local leaderboards. Even so, this is a terrific value considering how these games warp the time continuum and make crack look like a mildly addictive drug. This package sells for under $20, so run out and buy it immediately.
Deathsmiles (Aksys 2010) A-
Wow. This is one of the best 2D shooters I've ever played, and almost certainly the best looking. Several versions of the game come on the disk, including the Japanese arcade original and a 360 edition that leverages the system's HD graphics. Deathsmiles is a potent combination of flashy visuals and old-school fun. You select between four different flying chicks equipped with crazy firepower. Before each game you have the option of watching a brief tutorial that explains the subtle nuances of the controls. There are two fire buttons that let you to shoot either left or right. Enemies converge from all directions, but the game is considerate enough to alert you when danger approaches from behind. You can hold down a fire button to initiate rapid-fire, which has the side effect of slowing your movement. Defeated foes drop "point items", and collecting 1000 points let you temporarily initiate maximum firepower. I love the layered stages with their vivid colors and fine details. There are six to select from including a port, a haunted forest, a murky swamp, a spooky graveyard, and an active volcano. The port stage is not only festively decorated for Halloween (!), but it contains massive pirate ships! That made me giddy as a schoolgirl, and I'm not just saying that because I was playing as one! Your foes include old standards like dragons, grim reapers, cyclops, and hellhounds, but you'll also encounter quirky characters like pigs armed with butcher knives! The bosses range from whimsical "giant cow" to an absolutely hideous face tied down in the graveyard. Unlike most modern shooters, the bosses never wear out their welcome. Deathsmiles may be whimsical in tone, but its shooting action is no joke. Two players can cooperate, and it's actually quite playable despite the added chaos. High scores are saved along with initials, but the confusing interface makes it a little hard to peruse these rankings. The "score attack" mode is only available on-line. Deathsmiles is the kind of game you rarely see for the Xbox 360, and it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Rating: Teen (animated blood, fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes, partial nudity)
Left 4 Dead (Valve 2008) B
If you're looking for a scary game to play around Halloween, this one would be a fine choice. Left 4 Dead is a first-person shooter with a survival horror theme, but its non-stop action and frantic pace takes the genre to a new level of intensity. You'll forge through spooky locations including apartments, woods, subways, and a train station. Four separate scenarios are available, and while each is unique, they often tend to reuse certain areas. Zombies roam everywhere, and your team is composed of four characters who must cooperate for the best chance of survival. Although designed for on-line co-op, a two-player split-screen mode is included, and you can also play solo, with the CPU controlling your teammates. As is the case with many modern zombie flicks, these zombies can run like freakin' Adrian Peterson. Every few minutes all hell breaks loose as a stampeding horde attacks from multiple directions. It's an alarming situation, but it's fun to gun down dozens of creeps at a time. Left 4 Dead has a number of innovative features. The silhouettes of your teammates are visible through walls, making it much easier to keep everybody together. Crouching improves your aim, and painkillers provide temporary health boosts. If you're incapacitated and being revived, you can still aim and shoot - a nice touch! All the weapons are all pretty effective, so you're never stuck with a worthless pea shooter. Between stages you'll take shelter in "safe houses" where you can heal and reload. While stages are loading, stats are displayed that rank players by categories like "least damage taken" and "headhunter". The zombies come in a remarkable variety, and there are a few super-creeps you'll recognize by their distinctive sound effects. A "boomer" is an overweight ghoul that explodes when shot, and a "hunter" can leap from great distances. A "smoker" will reel you in with its extended tongue, and the "tank" is just one big mountain of muscle. But the creature that will strike the most fear into your heart is "the witch". This emaciated female just wants to hide and weep, but if you accidentally stumble upon her, you're in for a serious hurting. You'll hear her weeping sounds accompanied by a haunting refrain when she's in close proximity, and together they will make your blood run cold. Left 4 Dead also features realistic natural sounds like rain and crickets, along with startling creaks and moans. Turn up your surround sound! Does the game have any shortcomings? Well, the environments are not destructible at all. The split-screen mode is hard to set up, and the single-player game offers achievements to unlock, but no scoring. Left 4 Dead does get monotonous after a while, since it's little more than non-stop shooting. It's pretty scary though, and you'll find yourself on edge the entire time. Left 4 Dead is a real treat and a welcome departure from the typical slow, methodical zombie shooters.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve 2009) B
Zombie games are traditionally slow and methodical, but Left 4 Dead carved out its niche with a downright frantic brand of shooting action. This second edition offers more of the same with new weapons (an electric guitar), new creeps (the back-riding "Jockey"), and more ways to play ("realism mode"). Teamwork is key as you forge through a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world, and if four players aren't available, the CPU will fill out the party. In addition to mowing down droves of sprinting zombies, you'll encounter specialized creatures like the "Spitter" who spews toxic green goo or the "Charger" who just plows into you. These super-monsters can be a real pain in the ass, yet it's always satisfying to rescue one of your teammates from one. The weeping "witches" are back, but instead of hiding they tend to be wandering out in the open. Try not to disturb them, because these chicks will go premenstrual on you! Left 4 Dead 2 is a fast-moving game, and when a horde converges there's gunfire in every direction. It's hard to avoid friendly fire and not uncommon to hear someone exclaim, "Stop shooting each other!" The interspersed voice dialogue adds flavor ("this is some crazy [expletive]") and is often informative ("we have some pipe bombs over here!") It's easy to heal your companions, and it's also critical to maximize your chances of reaching the next safe house. Between stages a series of "ranking" screens are displayed that add a competitive element. Technically, Left 4 Dead 2 has some issues. Whether you play split-screen or on-line, the controls are touchy, the collision detection is inexact, and the frame-rate can get a little rough. The graphics are mediocre, and certainly no better than the previous game. It's easy to lose your bearings and rarely obvious what direction you need to go. New locations include a mall, motel, rainy swamp, and carnival, but these are surprisingly bland. I did enjoy the rain effects however, and the New Orleans stage is quite original. If you're looking for some straight-up shooting action, Left 4 Dead 2 brings the heat. New modes include a versus mode where you play against player-controlled zombies, and a "realism" mode which removes all handholding for maximum difficulty. Does it get tiresome mowing down endless waves of rampaging undead? Yeah, but Left 4 Dead 2 has a nice pick-up-and-play quality that's satisfying in short spurts.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia (Southpeak 2007) F
I owned this game for three long years before finally completing a review. Why? Because every time I sit down to play Monster Madness, I have an overwhelming urge not to. Despite its intriguing premise, the game is just a chore to play. It stars four fashionable teenagers including one who talks like Keanu Reeves ("Dude, you're like dead - again!") Monster Madness tries to be a comical monster fighter in the tradition of Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES, 1993). In fact, one kid even exclaims, "Zombies have eaten my neighbors!" The comic-book-style intro gives way to a slightly tilted overhead view as zombies are about to break into your house. Unfortunately the graphics are really muddy and indistinct. Not only is it hard to spot collectable items, even the zombies tend to get lost in the cluttered scenery. You use the two thumbsticks to move and aim, but your character tends to slide around, making it hard to target anything. You press in the right thumbstick to jump, which is ridiculous. Slashing and shooting creatures is unsatisfying because there's no distinct animation or sound effect to punctuate each hit. The monsters just sort of blink and fall over. Invisible walls are everywhere, and zombies tend to get caught on them as much as you do. Up to four players are supported via split-screen, but even coordinating with two people is more trouble than it's worth. On the bright side, the game is constantly introducing fresh new monsters for you to dispose of, including demons, spiders, undead pirates, and giant Bigfoot creatures. There are some freaky bosses including a hideous granny who tries to kiss you! You can use any object as a weapon, and there are vehicle stages as well. The upbeat organ music is decent, but the voice acting is uneven. I can appreciate its irreverent take on the horror genre, but Monster Madness lacks entertainment value. Apparently zombies ate the fun too! Note: A downloadable patch fixes a lot of the game's issues - most notably the controls. It makes the game playable, but not necessarily enjoyable.
Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, tobacco reference, violence)
Dead Rising (Capcom 2006) D+
Obviously inspired by the classic zombie flick "Dawn of the Dead", Dead Rising places you in the role of a "hard edged" photojournalist spending three days in a zombie-infested mall. As you fly into town via helicopter, a semi-interactive stage sets the mood perfectly as you survey the devastation. Upon arriving at the mall, a number of supporting characters are introduced, including a few curvaceous babes. The people are realistically animated, but their faces appear to be full of Botox! They also seem strangely oblivious to the dangers around them. The zombies come in a remarkable variety, and while slow and dumb, they're still dangerous due to their sheer numbers - just like in real life! Exploring the expansive mall is fun, and there's also a scenic park, a grocery store, and outdoor shopping areas. But what's most satisfying is how you can beat zombies into bloody pulps using whatever you can get your hands on, including trash cans, benches, steel racks, baseball bats, chainsaws, flower pots, and baguettes. Locate the katana and you can even slice up those creeps "Kill Bill style". Most objects can be used as projectiles as well. It's a blast to mow down zombies en masse with a lawnmower, or kick a soccer ball into a crowd and watch it ping around. Experimenting is really half the fun. Guns are available as well, but ammo is limited and the aiming mechanism isn't so hot. Dead Rising maintains a clever sense of humor, evident in the ability to don silly items like a dress or a Mega Man mask. But despite its awesome concept, Dead Rising manages to shoot itself in the foot in the most unlikely ways. First and foremost, the save system has been universally hailed as the worst ever devised. There's only one save slot, and you can only save your place in rest rooms, which are not ideally spaced. After you die, you're presented with two options: "Load from Last Save" and "Save Status and Exit". Although the second option might seem reasonable, in fact it forces you to restart the game from the beginning! Someone in Capcom's quality control department didn't do a very good job. I also take issue with the insanely hard "bosses". You'll endlessly pump ammo into these freaks, and then they'll turn around and kill you with one hit! The game also suffers from an excessive number of loading screens, and the font used to display dialogue is incredibly tiny. Finally, the missions can be tedious at times, forcing you to backtrack all over God's creation while your annoying cell phone rings off the hook. Dead Rising is definitely a crowd-pleaser, offering ample eye candy and an unsurpassed degree of instant gratification. But those who play the entire game will almost certainly develop a love/hate relationship with it somewhere along the line.
Silent Hill: Homecoming (Konami 2008) B+
Homecoming ushers Silent Hill into the next generation with style, reinvigorating the franchise with a fresh new look and feel. Previous Silent Hills were consistently scary but tended to be slow, plodding, and difficult. I like how Homecoming picks up the tempo and is generally easier to play. The basic premise is unchanged as you search a foggy, deserted town for some bratty kid while fending off twisted, deformed creatures. Spine-tingling sound effects and limited visibility create an intense atmosphere, but Homecoming eschews the grainy visuals of past Silent Hills and looks crisp and clean by comparison. The unnerving background music ranges from alarming cacophonies to melancholy pianos. The game keeps you on edge as you creep through a cemetery, hotel, police station, and prison. Among the evil hordes are hellhounds, hammerhead goons, and some smoking hot nurses (from the neck down, at least). Some of the more bizarre creatures have heads protruding from their crotches! Isn't that nuts!? Homecoming has its share of memorable moments including a flooded basement encounter and a harrowing elevator ride. Your character is surprisingly mobile, dodging attacks with ease and moving between rooms without having to contend with load screens. Combat is more sophisticated than past Silent Hills but not complicated. Homecoming is well programmed but a few design issues had me scratching my head. The inventory system is confusing, especially when items you just picked up don't show up in your inventory! Certain puzzles don't make much sense, like when you "use" an empty gas can to obtain gas from a truck. The graphics are sharp but uneven in quality. The lighting is terrific and the decrepit graveyard looks properly weathered, but the grass looks flat and standing water looks more like glass. The distribution of health items and save points could also be better. Homecoming could use a bit of polish, but it proves this franchise can still deliver the spooky thrills.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language, sexual themes)
Silent Hill: Downpour (Konami 2012) D+
I've been a huge fan of Silent Hill since day one (Playstation, 2000), but I'm feeling ambivalent about Downpour. The game has a lot of technical glitches and doesn't convey a proper sense of terror or suspense. You play a prisoner on the run after a bus accident, and initially you find yourself in a creepy wooded area reminiscent of Alan Wake (Xbox 360, 2010). It's fun to explore the dilapidated scenery, but the artificial boundaries can be frustrating. You'll spend a lot of time at an abandoned truck stop and in a deep mineshaft before finally arriving in Silent Hill. The town looks much like it did in previous games with foggy streets, trashy alleys, and boarded-up houses. The game is moderately fun as you collect items, solve easy puzzles, and bludgeon monsters. Your enemies include tall, lanky white freaks and psychotic young women straight out of The Grudge or The Ring. The idea of mannequins with invisible spirits probably looked better on paper than it does in the game. Silent Hill is a sprawling place, but the scenery is repetitive. Too often I was less interested in solving the mystery as I was in finding a good save point. If the designers were trying to keep the interface clean, it backfired big time. When you see a "pick up" prompt, you rarely know what the [expletive] you're about to pick up. That's a big deal, because if it's a weapon, you'll automatically swap it out with whatever you're holding. The prompts can be terribly misleading. You'll often see an "unlock" prompt when in fact you can't unlock the door. There's a thrilling mine cart sequence but a slow-moving thumbstick animation belies the fact that you really need to shake that thing like mad. The right trigger is used to throw your current weapon, making it really easy to lose your weapon. One original control is the "look back" button, but who in his right mind would ever want to do that?! The game has some scary moments, like when you see a hideous girl running up the street toward you, but it squanders many opportunities. It seems like when things are genuinely scary, there's no payoff. There are too many verbose documents to read, and the interface for reading them is poor. The game claims to "save" often, but it sometimes lies, leading to disappointment when you resume a game. Other technical issues include an erratic frame-rate and camera angles that can render you blind during a fight. Did anybody play-test this thing? Downpour feels like a by-the-numbers Silent Hill title, and an undercooked one at that.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)
Devil May Cry 4 (Capcom 2007) A-
The first Devil May Cry (PS2, 2001) won over gamers with its frantic hack-n-slash action, hellish creeps, and magnificent gothic scenery. Like a 3D Castlevania, it was easy to play and the eye candy was off the charts. Its first two sequels were uneven, but Devil May Cry 4 (DMC4) really executes the original formula to perfection. The opening sequence features a woman on stage singing a mournful song as our hero Nero lays waste to peg-legged creeps in the streets outside. While poetic, it's also indicative of DMC4's overdone cinematics. The first stage is dominated by two dudes engaging in a mid-air battle so over-the-top that even Matrix fans will be rolling their eyes. Since both fighters have white hair and red coats, it's hard to tell them apart. Oh I see - Dante has a five o'clock shadow! At the fight's conclusion, Dante is impaled against a wall, pulls the sword out of his own chest, and merrily heads off. It's totally dumb but the game still succeeds despite its ridiculous theatrics. The pacing is swift as you move from one location to the next, dishing out stylish combos while laying waste to winged knights and spinning jesters. Some of the more imaginative creeps include shark-like creatures that glide through solid floors, and specters in flowing robes (which are revealed to be scrawny bugs). I really like those spinning "gyro blades" which can be used to both solve puzzles and slice up enemies. The first boss is a massive fiery centaur, and while the battle is epic, the crazy camera makes it hard to tell what's happening. In general however the fighting action is fun and the puzzles are reasonable. I really like the fact that there's an "easy" difficulty option. You can save after each chapter, and the chapters vary wildly in terms of length and difficulty. From coalmines to a sprawling cathedral to a lush forest, the game offers a diverse assortment of really gorgeous locations. The cinematography and art direction is first rate, but the cut scenes often border on cringe-worthy. Nero is unlikable as the cocky pretty-boy who tosses out one-liners under the most dire of circumstances. When a female character in an outrageous outfit enters the fold, expect to see plenty of gratuitous boob and crotch shots. I'm pretty sure a 15-year-old boy directed this! Devil May Cry 4 loses points for its contrived style, but ultimately triumphs thanks to its nonstop action and awe-inspiring visuals.
Rating: Mature (blood, language, sexual themes, violence)
Resident Evil 5 (Capcom 2009) A-
This chapter of the Resident Evil survivor horror saga ditches the dark, gothic scenery of Europe for sunny African locations. The opening chapter takes place in a war-torn urban area with burnt-out buildings and rat-infested shantytowns. Weren't these locations beaten to death in recent games like Metal Gear 4, Call of Duty 4, and every other first-person shooter released in the past two years? Maybe, but when a mob of zombies converges and you're trying to survive long enough for helicopter support to arrive, it's really intense! Resident Evil 5 (RE5) stars Chris Redfield and an exotic babe named Sheva. RE5 is designed for two-player coop, either online or via split-screen. The CPU does a decent job of playing the role of the second character, but the game is more satisfying with a human partner. Besides being able to cover each other and exchange items, you can resuscitate your partner when he's dying. Occasionally you'll become separated, and it's quite a relief when you meet up again. Reunited and it feels so good. Reunited 'cause we understood. In the pitch-dark cave stage, one player lights the way with a lantern as the other blasts zombies. In the swamp area, one player drives a boat as the other picks off monsters on shore. In addition to zombies of all racial backgrounds, you'll face ghouls on motorbikes, masked men with chainsaws, and executioners armed with oversized axes. Impressive bosses include a giant vampire bat, a sea serpent, and a troll reminiscent of the one in RE4. Be sure to keep an eye out for those exploding red barrels - it's one cliche that keeps on giving! RE5's controls are excellent, and you can hold plenty of items. The action does not pause when you access your inventory, and this really adds to the tension. In case you don't stumble upon a critical weapon (like a shotgun) in your travels, you can always purchase and upgrade weapons between chapters. I love RE5's brisk pacing, entertaining cut-scenes, and brief load times. A friend can join in your adventure at any time. The dialogue is nothing to write home about, with Chris constantly bristling about how he "needs to get some answers!" When playing split-screen on a wide-screen display, the two screens are cropped, leaving a lot of empty black space. Couldn't they have at least put the maps in there? Some critics may lament how RE5 lacks the "creepy" factor of past RE games, and seems more like an action movie. Personally, I think the series benefits from the change of pace. Less easy to forgive are the final few stages which come off as generic and occasionally boring. Even so, RE5 is an action-packed thrill ride you'll to want see to through to the end.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad (D3 Publisher 2009) C-
If slashing up zombies with bikini-clad hotties is wrong, then I don't want to be right! Bikini Samurai Squad has a wonderfully absurd premise, but the same low budget quality that makes it appealing is also its downfall. The main character is a chick decked out in some cowboy stripper garb (complete with stockings and heels), and her younger sister dons a schoolgirl outfit. The opening cinematic features a very provocative shower scene - something you won't be seeing in the Wii version! Together these girls kick zombie ass all over town with the help of their swords and martial arts abilities. As zombies emerge from the concrete, you'll employ fierce button combinations to slice them up into tasty morsels. A radar displays shows where they are congregating, and that's helpful because the camera is always pulled very close. The gore meter is through the roof, and it's especially satisfying to plow into a gang and watch the blood wash over the screen. Occasionally you'll transform into a marauding zombie yourself, making the action even more over-the-top (if that's at all possible). The stages include a graveyard, hospital, and parking garage. There's not much to see, and little of the environment is destructible. You'll run up against a lot of arbitrary barriers, causing the message "you can't go here right now" to display. What is this, 1997? The fighting action is mindless fun, but it is certainly monotonous. Sometimes zombies will continuously regenerate in an area, causing you to ask, "when is this going to end?" The bosses include a pair of hideous "poop" monsters - not to be confused with attractive poop monsters. While hacking up the beasts, the game's clipping problems are on full display as sloppy polygons appear and disappear all over the place. Onechanbara's controls aren't very intuitive, but I do prefer this game's button-tapping over waggling the controller in the Wii version. Unlockables includes alternate outfits and a police chick armed with an Uzi and shotgun. I like the premise, but it's hard to recommend something as monotonous as Onechanabara. It takes a certain breed of gamer to appreciate a quirky title like this. You know who you are.
Condemned (Sega 2005) B+
Despite its detrimental effect on my blood pressure, I found myself drawn into Condemned. In this dark, first-person thriller you play the role of a wrongly-accused cop fleeing the law while in pursuit of the "real" killer. The atmosphere maintains an ultra-high level of intensity as you creep through abandoned buildings, collect evidence, and bash the skulls of crazed wandering drugs addicts (who love to sneak up on you). The dark alleys, grungy abandoned buildings, and dank subway corridors look amazing. Don't let anybody tell you that graphics don't matter, because these "next generation" visuals make you feel "in the game" like never before. Condemned's understated soundtrack is sparse but effective. Every creak is jolting, and every shadow is alarming. The game plays like a video game adaptation of the classic movie Seven. I must confess I was initially apprehensive about the whole "evidence collecting" aspect. I feared it would be slow and tedious, but fortunately that's not the case. The game prompts you to use the appropriate device to scan the immediate area, which always reveals some kind of glowing clue. There action is complemented by a compelling storyline and brief cut-scenes that blend in seamlessly. Condemned is relentlessly scary. After one prolonged stage in the dark, I was practically begging for daylight. As for weapons, you'll wield whatever you can get your hands on, including pipes, fire axes, sledgehammers, and sawed-off shotguns. The game even informs you how a newly discovered weapon compares to the one you're currently holding (in terms of damage, range, etc). On the downside, the maze-like environments grow tiresome over time, and sometimes you can't tell where attacks are coming from (especially bullets). But despite these minor issues, Condemned packs a wallop and is truly intense.
Condemned 2: Bloodshot (Sega 2008) C+
When I played the first Condemned (Xbox 360, 2005), I was blown away by its edgy first-person gameplay. While creeping through dark, abandoned buildings there was no telling when some drug-crazed lunatic would leap out at you with a wrench, and the intensity could reach unbearable proportions. Condemned 2 offers a lot of the same but incorporates more sophisticated fighting controls and additional forensic elements. When you enter certain areas, you're prompted to examine evidence and deduce exactly what happened based on subtle visual clues. It plays like a little mini game, and offers a nice respite from the blood-splattering beatings. And lord knows there's plenty of that to go around! When you hear maniacal laughter, rest assured it's just a matter of time before some twisted freak sneaks up on you. In addition to the typical shotguns and baseball bats, there's an assortment of unusual new weapons like prosthetic arms, dolls, and even toilet seats. Speaking of which, why are the bathrooms in these game always so filthy? For once, I'd like to stumble upon a pristine bathroom in a video game! As with the first Condemned, the level of detail in the environments is astonishing - even up close. When looking out one window, I was impressed to see some birds fly by. Unfortunately, the scenery is also very repetitive, and when searching alleys and hotels it's hard to tell if you're exploring a new area or backtracking! Another annoyance is the arbitrary nature of the game. Certain doors won't open until a specific action occurs first, and that makes the game feel scripted. Bits and pieces of the storyline are conveyed via televisions, where you use the right stick to adjust the "rabbit ears" antenna to view parts of newscasts. The game frequently saves your progress automatically, which tends to relieve a great deal of anxiety. Condemned 2 is great on a technical level, but its gameplay becomes tiresome - especially if you've already played the first game. There are plenty of pulse-pounding moments, but after a while you may find yourself growing weary of it all.
Goosebumps Horrorland (Elastic 2008) C+
It may look like bargain bin material, but this kid-friendly Halloween title is surprisingly entertaining. You are a kid exploring a horror-themed amusement park that turns out to be quite expansive. Once you begin unlocking macabre-themed rides and games, it becomes habit-forming. There's a lot of diverse areas to explore from a vampire village to a misty swamp to an Egyptian pyramid. The carnival-style games are mainly of the target-shooting variety, and most range from moderately fun to super lame. Still, there are some highlights like the skee-ball race and putt-putt courses. As with most golf games on the Wii, the swing controls tend to be erratic. The rides are the main attraction - especially the roller coasters. One lets you tilt your cart to the side to avoid hazards, and another lets you shoot ghosts and vampire targets. The illusion of plunging down hills and being whisked around turns is terrific. Likewise the bumper car ride conveys that half-way-out-of-control feeling similar to the real thing. The flume rides would be a lot more fun if you didn't have to paddle your way through them. Despite its rudimentary graphics Horrorland conveys a spooky atmosphere thanks to haunting music and eerie sound effects. The scare factor is low but the floating vampires in the "garlic crusher" game are creepy. The game's sense of progression is terrific. There are five separate areas to unlock, and it's fun to thoroughly explore each area to see what they have in store. Unlocked attractions become available in two-player mode, and I love how both players can ride the rollercoaster at once. Goosebumps Horrorland is one of the better amusement park-themed games I've played, and you can bump up the grade by a letter if it's close to Halloween.
Rating: Everyone 10+
Obscure: The Aftermath (Ignition 2008) D
This low-profile survival horror title begins at a college campus with a party atmosphere and rocking soundtrack. It's a refreshing change, but it quickly transitions into the typical doom and gloom we're all more accustomed to. You control two students at a time, toggling between them as they work as a team. In addition to a deserted college campus you'll explore a creepy forest and nearby hospital. Characters have unique skills like the ability to jump, move heavy objects, or solve puzzles. Obscure does a good job of conveying an ominous, mysterious atmosphere. The buildings look properly aged, the furnishings are lush, and the shadowy lighting is effective. The haunting soundtrack is appropriate but the sound effects are too understated. You probably won't even notice a huge behemoth approaching until it's bearing down on you. Don't be afraid to touch the mysterious plants, because these offer a very non-intuitive way to save your progress! Some of the game's puzzles can be hard to grasp, and invisible walls add to the frustration. You can bash generic monsters with baseball bats and hockey sticks, but the controls are unwieldy. There are constant prompts to "look" or "use" objects, but you don't know what it's referring to! To fire your gun you'll need to hold the Z button, point the Wii-mote at the monster, hold A to lock on, and press B to shoot. Wow - maybe next time they can incorporate a third controller! The roving camera rarely gives you a decent view of the action, and monsters tend to lurk off-screen. Fights tend to be in close quarters or dark areas, so you just flail away and hope for the best. With two-players the camera spins like a carousel, and it made me absolutely nauseous. Save points are unevenly spaced, and there are no checkpoints. Obscure isn't a bad option if you're desperate for something new in the genre, but be prepared for some serious aggravation.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, mild sexual themes, violence)
Haunted House (Atari Interactive 2010) D-
The original Haunted House (Atari 2600, 1981) let you guide a pair of eyeballs around a four-story house to collect pieces of urn while avoiding spiders, bats, and ghosts. A remake was long overdue, but why did they have to make it so boring? This game put me to sleep. In each stage you guide a kid around a maze of rooms while pulling levers, collecting keys, and trying to find the exit. The kid-friendly graphics are decent, and the ethereal ghosts are enhanced with some nifty lighting effects. The furnishings sport a plush, antiquated look appropriate for an old house. There are stone fireplaces, suits of armor, and plenty of big chests to open. Holding in the A button lets you search furniture as a brief progress meter appears - similar to Impossible Mission (Atari 7800, 1989). You'll find a lot of items like matches, coins, keys, and health. Unfortunately these items are so ubiquitous that you get tired of searching for them. Ghosts appear in the form of apparitions and yappy dogs, and frankly they are more annoying than scary. You can usually avoid them, and if they latch onto you, you can shake them off. I like the concept of using light sources to destroy the ghosts, but it's hard to tell if you're dealing damage. The best way to clear a room is to light its fireplaces using a torch, candle, or... a cell phone app?! Haunted House is mind-numbingly repetitive. The rooms all start to look the same after a while, and the stage layouts become more sprawling as you progress. And where are the scares? The creepiest aspect of the game is the occasional cackle, creak, or distant sound of a crying baby (always unnerving for some reason). The game itself is quiet and uneventful. In fact, the original Haunted House is more exciting - and playable - than this.
Rating: Everyone (language, mild blood, mild cartoon violence)
Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop (Capcom 2009) C
Its visuals pale to the original Dead Rising for the 360, but this late-arriving Wii edition has a few things going for it. You play an investigative reporter dropped off at a sprawling mall in the midst of massive zombie outbreak. You soon team up with others and fight to save survivors while unraveling a dark mystery. During search-and-rescue missions you can use whatever objects are lying around as weapons, including bowling balls, baseball bats, circular saws, cash registers, and lawnmowers! Plowing through mobs with a shopping cart is almost as fun as doing it in real life! Experimenting with new weapons is part of the fun as you see how high you can ratchet up the body count. Aiming at the screen places you into an over-the-shoulder shooting mode, where you can experience the joys of making heads explode. The original Dead Rising suffered from unrelenting difficulty and a poor save system, but Chop Till You Drop remedies those flaws. It's not hard to make steady progress thanks to the ubiquitous save points and forgiving gameplay. The Wii motion controls are intuitive but imprecise. Occasionally you'll swing a bat when you don't intend to, or find yourself staring at the ceiling while under attack. The button scheme is a little confusing. Was it really necessary to map the most common action ("examine") to Z+A? The limited processing power of the Wii is also on full display as zombies materialize from thin air as you walk through the mall. The system can't seem to render very many zombies at a time, but wasn't that one of the draws of the original game? Chop Till You Drop is also bogged down with excessive load screens and backtracking. And whose idea was it to incorporate pesky zombie poodles and dive-bombing zombie parrots? C'mon man!! Chop Till You Drop offers a slightly watered down Dead Rising experience, but less frustration means you can enjoy the zombie apocalypse. Finally!
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Konami 2009) D-
Silent Hill is one of my all-time favorite horror franchises, but playing Shattered Memories was truly a nightmare. As in the original Silent Hill (Playstation, 2000), you play the role of a dad searching for his little girl in a deserted town following a car accident. Elements like the drifting snow, diner, and school will be familiar to fans of the series. Motion controls are heavily used, starting with aiming your flashlight with the Wii-mote. The pointer lets you interact with the scenery in clever ways like turning knobs on a security system or sliding bolts to unlock doors. Another neat element is how your Wii-mote doubles as a cell phone, so you hold it up to your ear to hear your calls. The phone also offers a slew of other features including a camera, GPS map, and save game device. Unfortunately, the phone interface is unwieldy and since you need to access it constantly, it becomes a real liability. Shattered Memories lets you explore a city and its outskirts, but your path is always heavily constrained, whether by snow drifts or fences or walls of ice. The game contains some very clever puzzles, most of which require you to pay close attention to details in your surroundings. Periodically reality will slip away and you'll find yourself in an alternate world with dark skies and ice-covered scenery. This is when things get scary. Grotesque, faceless creatures converge as you frantically run towards any door or wall that's glowing blue. There's little sense of geography, so as you flee from room to room you'll often find yourself running in circles! Whenever a freak latches onto you, the game prompts you to swing the controllers to knock them off, but it doesn't do much good! I would be swinging my arms like a [expletive] madman and those things still wouldn't let go! And once two or three pile on, you can forget about it. That's a shame, because these sequences are genuinely frightening. Scary music and effective sound effects also heighten the intensity. One original (but ill-conceived) aspect of the game is how it "psychologically profiles you as you play". This occurs during periodic therapist flashbacks where you're asked a series of personal questions which apparently have some bearing on events. The thing is, some of these questions are sexual in nature! Okay, now that's just creepy. In the final analysis Shattered Memories is a poorly-executed and sometimes embarrassing attempt by Konami to cater to a mature audience.
Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)
Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition (Capcom 2007) B
Originally released for the GameCube in 2004, Resident Evil 4 (RE4) was universally acclaimed and is widely regarded as the greatest survival horror game ever conceived. Set in an isolated European countryside, this imaginative adventure oozes with atmosphere and tosses out surprises at every turn. The game begins in a dilapidated house in a wooded area, calling to mind films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Blair Witch Project. Later you'll explore an old church in a graveyard, engage in a shootout on ski lift, ride a high-speed mine-cart, and have a boat encounter reminiscent of the film Jaws. RE4's pacing and difficulty are dead-on, with frequent checkpoints and strategically-placed typewriters to save your progress. Its controls are a compromise between a first-person and third-person shooting perspective, offering an "over the shoulder" view. Except for a few minor bonus missions, this Wii edition is almost an carbon copy of the GameCube version, with no perceivable graphical or audio upgrades. The only difference is the Wii's motion controls, which have been grafted onto the game in a rather clumsy manner. Especially after experiencing the comfortable controls of Metroid Prime 3, I found RE4's to be awkward and remarkably non-intuitive! Being able to aim directly at the screen is nice, but everything else takes time to grasp. To look around, you hold in the B button on Wii-mote while moving the joystick on the nun-chuck, and I often found myself staring at the sky as some madman was slicing into my flesh. While aiming, the camera "zooms in" a bit, effectively obstructing the left side of the screen with your character's head. Even navigating the map and item screens feels clumsy. I guess Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition serves its purpose as a port of the classic game, but I would hardly regard this as an upgrade. Those who never played the original can bump up the grade by a letter, but those who experienced the GameCube version will find themselves wondering what the point of this is (to make more money, silly rabbit!).
Rating: Mature (17+) blood and gore, intense violence, language
Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles (Capcom 2007) D+
It's amazing how Capcom managed to botch this up. Umbrella Chronicles is basically a light-gun shooter that takes you on a whirlwind tour of older Resident Evil (RE) games beginning from RE0 and leading up to RE4. Consequentially, the game reuses a lot of the code from the GameCube RE remakes. Your character moves automatically as you blast the hell out of zombies, dogs, apes, and other converging creatures. Weapons, ammo, and grenades are scattered about, and can often be revealed by blasting scenery. The crosshair controls are quite responsive, providing excellent aim with minimal lag. You can shake your Wii-mote to repel zombies or wield a knife. At first glance, Umbrella Chronicles seems like a dream come true for Resident Evil fans, with its straightforward gameplay, precision controls, and rich visuals. But the game is not as fun as you would expect, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the first chapter (based on Resident Evil 0) is infested with leaping slugs, whose only purpose seems to be to aggravate the hell out of you. Countless in number and continually cluttering up the screen, these things alone should cost the game a letter grade. Next, monsters can absorb an inordinate number of shots. Even the weakest zombies will keep coming after taking several shots to the face at point-blank range! Don't even get me started about the bosses, who consume bullets like they're Doritos. At one point the game told me to shoot some shapeless boss in the mouth, and I couldn't even tell where its [expletive] mouth was! Unlike Sega's House of the Dead games which offer fast, arcade-style carnage, Chronicles tends to be slow going, and the action is constantly interrupted by load screens, dull cut-scenes, and checkpoints. Dying often forces you to repeat a large chunk of the game. Even the two-player simultaneous mode is lousy. I like the idea of both players sharing a health meter, but it's really easy to get those crosshairs mixed up considering they're both glowing red half of the time! The Umbrella Chronicles should have been a joyride of a game, but it didn't take long for me to grow weary of this.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles (Capcom 2009) C-
Darkside Chronicles is the follow-up to Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles (Capcom, 2007). I've always had a soft spot for light gun shooters, especially those with horror themes like House of the Dead 2 (Dreamcast, 2000). Somehow these Wii games miss their mark despite tighter controls, better graphics, and deeper storylines. Darkside arms you with a crosshair that moves smoothly across the screen for precision aiming. Unfortunately, the developers felt compelled to artificially bump the difficulty and lengthen the game by increasing the number of shots each monster can absorb. Instead of a single head-shot to take down a zombie, you'll need three. And instead of disposing of a boss in twenty shots, it takes 100 (if you're lucky). The graphics are surprisingly detailed but the cut-scenes are so dull and pointless, you'll always skip them. The first stage is a nod to Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360, 2009), set during the day in a small village in South America. As zombies, giant spiders, and frog creatures attack you shoot with the Wii-mote and use your nun-chuck to slash with your knife. The camera is constantly veering all over the place, and while it's meant for dramatic effect it proves detrimental to the gameplay. Not only is it hard to get a bead on enemies, but you might start getting motion sick after a few stages. Starting with stage two the game reuses locations from Resident Evil 2 (Playstation, 1998) with burning cars in the streets, a zombie-infested police department, and a giant alligator in the sewer. I enjoyed revisiting these areas but it struck me how much less scary they were this time around. Being a sucker for toys I purchased this game in a bundle containing the Magnum and knife attachments. These look cool as hell but were clearly designed for form over function. The gun looks cool, but with the Wii-mote in the barrel it's very front-heavy. Your instinct is to support it with your second hand, except that hand is holding the nun-chuck with the foam knife attachment. The triggers on the gun aren't nearly as responsive as using a plain Wii-mote, and shaking the gun to reload is a pain (literally). After extended use my friend Chris complained of getting a stress fracture. Darkside Chronicles had a lot going for it but it turned out to be more tiresome than fun.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
House of the Dead 2 and 3 Return (Sega 2008) A
I knew House of the Dead 2 was great when I played it on the Dreamcast in 1999, but little did I know I was playing the best light-gun game ever! It perfectly combines pulse-pounding zombie shooting action, amazing eye candy, and a unique tongue-in-cheek style. House of the Dead 2 is set in an old city with water canals (not unlike Venice), and its narrow walkways and antiquated buildings provide rich, claustrophobic environments. The memorable cast of creeps includes axe-throwing zombies, overweight chainsaw-toting ghouls, and slimy water creatures. Interesting bosses include a headless knight and a leaping lizard whose chest conveniently opens to expose his beating heart. The shooting action is terrific fun, and it's especially satisfying to blow holes in a zombie's head and chest. There are even alternate paths that branch when you shoot strategic targets. The dialogue is absolutely absurd, but it's also one of the more endearing qualities of the game. Memorable lines include "Suffer like G did?", "Don't come! Don't come!", and "Thank you for rescuing me!" House of the Dead 2 has aged like wine, and this Wii edition is dead-on. You can turn the crosshair on or off, and either option works well. House of the Dead 3 is also a fine game, although it can't quite match its predecessor. Its industrial locations are ho-hum, and the visuals look somewhat cartoonish. There are no weapon upgrades like a machine gun, but the default shotgun is pretty awesome. I like how you only have to aim offscreen to reload - not shoot. If only the original House of the Dead had been included with this package, it might have been an A+.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
House of the Dead Overkill, The (Sega 2009) C
This long-awaited fourth installment of the popular light gun series marks a major stylistic departure. House of the Dead Overkill boasts an outrageous storyline, excessive profanity, and disturbing, grotesque bosses. Its surf-rock music and "buddy" storyline indicates a strong Pulp Fiction influence, but as its name would imply, Overkill doesn't know when to say "when". Once the shock value of hearing non-stop F-bombs subsides, the long-winded dialogue becomes boring, and eventually just plain annoying. The ending is the most disgusting ever seen in a video game, and the less said about that, the better. At its core, Overkill offers classic House of the Dead (HotD) first-person zombie-shooting in a house, train, jail, swamp, hospital, and carnival. You can blow off limbs to slow them down, or go for the fatal head shot. The zombies move at varying speeds, but a few come running at you in an alarming manner! The game's pacing is excellent, and the melon-splattering sound effect of exploding heads is very pleasing to the ears. Shooting special icons kick in slow motion, giving you extra time to zero in on the undead hordes. The traditional HotD "save the civilian" scenes are included, but where are the branching paths? Also, in previous HotD games you could shoot random boxes or pots to discover bonuses, but here your targets are limited to glowing icons, which is lame. The two-player action is fun, but the crosshairs look too similar and are easy to confuse. Overkill features seven chapters, and since each plays like its own movie, there's plenty of replay value here. The highlight of the game is the frightful carnival stage. The clowns are almost as terrifying as they are in real life, and being able to ride through a haunted house is a blast. High scores are recorded after each stage, and continues are available at the cost of you half of your points, which turns out to be a pretty ingenious scheme! You can "buy" new weapons, but I found myself sticking with the default Magnum because the others (including the shotgun) are surprisingly ineffective. Overkill has style to burn but technically it's deficient. Compared to the crisp graphics and pinpoint controls of HotD2, the visuals look muddy and the controls are inexact. There's an option to turn off the cross-hair, but you almost need it to compensate for the lousy collision detection. Worst of all, serious frame-rate issues cause the action to become jerky or even freeze momentarily. Overkill is sure to entertain light gun fans, but its lack of restraint and rampant technical issues prevent it from achieving greatness.
Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers (D3 Publishing 2009) D+
To best describe this game, I'll take a line from ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick: "It is what it is". Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers is a preposterous beat-em-up pitting cute chicks in sexy costumes against legions of zombies. The 360 version of the game is an unapologetic button masher, so naturally this Wii version is an arm-shaker. In case you're wondering what the title means, "Onechan" is Japanese for "big/older sister and "Chanbara" means over-the-top samurai swordplay. Put them together and you get a potent mix of action and eye candy. You select from a stripper wearing some cowboy get-up, or her sister decked out in a schoolgirl uniform. The game begins in a subway station crawling with shambling ghouls. By shaking the Wii-mote repeatedly, you efficiently slice, dice and fillet ghouls as blood splatters and limbs fly. When you tear into a group of zombies, blurry motion effects kick in, and they are both satisfying and mesmerizing. New attacks and combos are unlocked as you progress, but the mindless beatings never end. You hack up one mob, and another sprouts from the ground to take their place. The fact that the instruction book is a paltry three pages in length says a lot about the depth of the gameplay. The graphics are fair, but to be honest, these babes look 100 times better in the Xbox 360 version. The endless shaking of the controllers took its toll on my wrist, but I found that moving my arm at the elbow was just as effective and less painful. A two-player mode is also included, but it's boring and feels tacked-on. Onechanbara is an oddball title, and I'm surprised it's even available stateside. If you're ever in the mood for bikinis, zombies, and slaying, you might find this entertaining in short doses. But you definitely have to be in the mood.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, sexual themes, violence)
Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Atari 2009) B+
Would it be unfair to call this "Ghostbusters Light"? It feels like a simplified version of the PS3 game, with the same storyline but remixed stage layouts, puzzles, and bosses. The good news is, it's every bit as fun! This lighthearted adventure features the zany characters of the original film, and the actors lend their voices to good effect. You'll revisit the New York public library and Sedgewick hotel, and once again face off against the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Just be advised that after putting in this disk you'll sit through no less than eight intro screens before finally reaching the title screen. Wow, that's got to be some kind of record or something. Ghostbuster's graphics lack the lush quality of the PS3 edition, but the clean, well-defined visuals are still appealing. You can still unleash ample destruction with your proton packs, obliterating every piece of furniture in sight. Blasting the books off shelves is particularly satisfying as pages and debris go flying all over the place. The controls are simpler and more comfortable than the PS3 version. You aim your proton pack using the Wii-mote, and when a ghost becomes trapped in your beam, arrow prompts signal you to swing the Wii-mote in various directions. Doing this slams the ghosts into walls and floors, weakening their resistance. Of course, this would never work in real life (the ghosts would pass through the walls), but this is only a video game, so it's all good. I found it interesting how the stages vary from the PS3 version. The library stage is considerably weaker, but the museum stage has better puzzles and a T-Rex boss. In addition to fine control, the Wii version also offers a sweet split-screen mode. I enjoyed Ghostbusting alongside a friend, despite the fact that the screen becomes chaotic during battles and annoying objective text tends to block your view. Perhaps the best aspect of this Ghostbusters game is its short, bite-sized levels. Unlike the never-ending PS3 stages, this game is broken up into manageable 5-15 minute chunks. I'm a run-and-gun kind of guy, but patient gamers can employ the PKE meter to scour each area for artwork and other hidden goodies. The only glitch I noticed was a lock-up during one loading sequence. Ghostbusters for the Wii may seem watered-down compared to the PS3 game, but with its easy-going style, intuitive controls, and brisk pacing, it has a charm of its own.
Playstation 3 Games
Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut (Rising Star Games 2013) B
Deadly Premonition is a wonderfully strange adventure that's both brilliant and awful at the same time. No wonder the critics are so divided! You play an eccentric FBI agent named York Morgan who frequently converses with his imaginary friend "Zach". York is investigating a murder in Greenville, a small town with serene wooded surroundings. The gameplay alternates between survival horror and detective work. After surviving a car wreck on a stormy night York finds himself fending off zombie farmers and eluding ghoulish girls who are literally bending over backwards to get him! After this action-packed opening stage the game becomes a slow-burn psychological mystery. The subject matter is adult in nature, drawing from films like Seven, The Ring, and in particular The Silence of the Lambs. The exposition in the cut scenes is really drawn out (it is a director's cut) but the dialog is rich and there's a surprising amount of humor. York is a film buff and it's hilarious to hear him wax poetic about marginal 80's flicks like Remo Williams, Blue Thunder, and Ladyhawke. While in investigation mode you'll solve puzzles, collect clues, and drive between locations. There are some truly memorable locations include a rickety lumber mill, spacious art gallery, cozy inn, and smoky lounge bar. The game has a lot of atmosphere and I love the the recurring jazz music - even when it feels inappropriate. Deadly Premonition gives the player ample freedom to explore and there's a staggering amount of content. It's a shame certain parts of the game put you on a schedule; I hate the concept of having to "kill time" in a video game. The survival horror elements are clearly inspired by Silent Hill (PS1, 2000), Clock Tower (PS1, 1997), and Alan Wake (Xbox 360, 2010). Glowing icons, floating medals, goofy health items, and big "go here" arrows give a game a bit of an arcade flavor. The controls could be better. As one of only a few games to support the Move controllers, I decided to give them a shot. Using motion to pan the camera is clumsy but I enjoyed aiming my gun by pointing at the screen. Eventually I was forced to switch to a normal controller when the game prompted me to jiggle the right thumbstick which is not present on the Move controllers. In general the game feels over-engineered. Is it really necessary to maintain both sleep and hunger meters in addition to your health? I still don't fully understand the inventory system. The game suffers from frequent audio/video hiccups and some outrageous glitches. I witnessed a guy in a sitting position floating next to his car as it drove down the street. Less amusing was how the controls went haywire during one critical boss encounter. These glaring issues would sink most games, yet Deadly Premonition hooked me for over 18 hours. With an engrossing story, well-developed characters, and plot twists galore, this is one adventure you'll savor till the very end.
Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, partial nudity, suggestive themes)
Wii U Games
Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Atari 2009) B+
Leveraging the actors from the original films and boasting sky-high production values, Ghostbusters: The Video Game perfectly embodies the humor and tone of the films. The voices and likenesses of the original actors are used effectively, as is the playful musical score and distinctive sound effects. Hell, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis even wrote the damn story! I'm not normally a big proponent of elaborate storylines and cut-scenes in video games, but these held my attention. The stiff, animated characters can't deliver lines with perfect comedic timing, but some of the dialogue will make you smile. In many ways, this feels like a sequel to the films. All the memorable locations have been recreated including the converted firehouse, the Sedgewick hotel, and public library. There's a new graveyard stage that looks utterly spectacular. The characters resemble the original actors but are rendered in a stylized manner so they don't look too freaky. The detail in the environments is amazing, and nearly everything is destructible. Destroying furniture and leveling tombstones with your proton pack is a joy. You can upgrade your arsenal with new weapons as you progress, including one that sprays green slime. Each ghost has its own backstory, and they are so intricately rendered that there were times when I wished I could pause the action and examine them up close. When scouting a new location, you're prompted to equip your Ecto-goggles which provide infrared vision and highlight supernatural activity. Once you've rooted the spooks out, the battle begins as you unleash your proto stream. After wearing the ghosts down, you must wrangle them over an open trap as they slowly get sucked in. It's especially fun and satisfying to see them desperately try to claw their way out. Less fun is hosing down the endless, swarming minions in the form of flying books, floating skulls, and spiders. You'll fight alongside all the original Ghostbusters including "the black guy" (everyone's favorite), but in this game you are the "go-to" guy. I like how the characters can revive each other - it adds a nice teamwork element. Ghostbusters is a very linear game that clocks in at around 5-7 hours. That may sound short, but there's a lot less filler than most adventures, and it's one heck of a ride! What's not to like? Well, the installation process takes so long (a few days I think), I feared that Ghostbuster logo would be permanently burned into my plasma TV. Whenever you fire the game up, prepare to sift through an unprecedented number of animated logos (enough already!). While fighting ghosts, you're often blindsided because the ghouls tend to reappear all over the place. The game is not glitch free, and I actually had to restart it at one point. The game saves frequently, but I never spotted an indicator, which made me extremely nervous about quitting a partway through a level. How hard is it to display "saving" on the screen anyway?? The game has a multi-player mode, but it's on-line only (boo!). I can nitpick, but at its core the game succeeds in fleshing out the Ghostbusters world and immersing you in it. Movie-licensed games don't have the best track record, but Ghostbusters: The Video Game is consistently enjoyable.
Rating: Teen (comic mischief, fantasy violence, mild language)
Wii U Games
Zombi U (Ubisoft 2012) B
I've learned to be skeptical of third-party launch titles, but Zombi U is high in quality and genuinely scary. You view the action from a first-person perspective and the slow, deliberate pace allows suspense to properly build (Capcom should take note). I'm tempted to say Zombi U puts the "horror" back into "survival horror", but come to think of it, it puts the survival back in too! The game creates a sense of isolation and desperation, and you'll need to be resourceful to stay alive. You begin in a "safe house" in a London subway, gradually exploring your surrounding areas before eventually winding up in Buckingham Palace. The dark, post-apocalyptic streets and underground passages will make you paranoid. You never know what's lurking in the shadows, and the sound of knocks, screeches, and moans are downright alarming. The zombies amble around in a slow, old-school way, but they can lunge quickly. The game has a flair for the dramatic, so that lifeless body you walk past might spring to life, making you jump out of your seat. The combat is gory and intense as you bash a zombie's head with a cricket bat until there's nothing left. Zombi U is heavy on exploration and looting is just as fun as it is in real life (very!). You can close doors behind you and even barricade them shut. The idea of continuity between lives is brilliant, but the frequent reloading and retracing of steps can be time consuming. The GamePad is utilized in a number of ways. It's your map by default and a radar button indicates locations of nearby zombies. Your guide talks through the controller's speaker, offering guidance and some funny one-liners. The pad also functions as a scanner that you hold up and move around with your arms. Zombi U does an admirable job of leveraging the pad, but occasionally it's hard to tell what you're supposed to being looking at - the TV or the pad. The multiplayer mode is pretty worthless but the single-player campaign is riveting. Zombi U is so intense that I could almost forgive a nasty lock-up incident and the fact that the game asks for your consent to having Ubisoft collecting your play data. [Expletive] no, but thanks for asking. Nice game, by the way.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Resident Evil: Revelations (Capcom 2013) B
Resident Evil: Revelations provided superb survival horror for the Nintendo 3DS, and it looks even better on the big screen. In many ways it's a throwback to the original Resident Evil trilogy that appeared on the Playstation in the late 90's. The story is cheesy, the dialogue is ridiculous, the puzzles are familiar, and the controls are stiff. The game also happens to be a heck of a lot of fun, and its slow, deliberate pace allows suspense to properly build. Despite having previously played the 3DS version, Revelations still scared the living [expletive] out of me. The story takes place at sea on a luxurious abandoned ocean liner with a lot of narrow hallways, lush cabins, and dark service areas. The story makes no sense but it doesn't even matter. Freaky white zombies come out of the woodwork and you'll reduce them to goo with knives, shotguns, and decoy bombs. The main heroine Jill Valentine is a knockout in high definition (and low for that matter), but these graphics aren't exactly state of the art. The audio has problems with lip-syncing, and certain sound effects are just plain wrong. In one "flashback" mission you trudge through snowy mountains yet it sounds like you're stepping on clanking metal. This Wii U version feels rushed. There's no manual and the control pad isn't integrated very well. It's nice to have a map at your fingertips, but when you hit "menu" you're directed to the television to do the rest. In addition, the overly sensitive analog stick controls have an annoying all-or-nothing quality. The act of aiming a gun or adjusting the camera feels clumsy, and you can't even tweak the sensitivity via the options menu. Even so, this game is too good to be ruined by some wonky controls. It feels like classic Resident Evil except with all the modern bells and whistles like high definition graphics and the ability to save at any time. I have a soft spot for the 3DS edition, but once you begin playing Revelations on the Wii U, it's hard to stop!
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Xbox One Games
Dead Rising 3 (Capcom 2013) B
In the spirit of the classic George Romero zombie films, Dead Rising 3 conveys that sense of desperation you experience when a zombie epidemic strikes your town. In the unnerving opening sequence you find yourself in a pitch-dark containment facility surrounded by cages bursting at the seams with growling, hissing, screeching undead about to break loose. Eventually your team up with a band of survivors and seek cover in a garage. From there you'll embark on a series of frantic missions with the goal of getting an airplane into working condition. As with previous Dead Rising games, you can use any object as a weapon, from a chainsaw to a guitar to a freakin' watermelon. Blueprints let you combine items into super weapons like an electrified hammer or a rake of swords. Dismembering and bludgeoning zombies is easy and fun. Yes, as progressive as our society purports to be, zombie bashing remains quite acceptable. Slow and easy to shake off, you can charge into a mob and often emerge no worse for wear. One awesome aspect of the game is the vehicles. Whether you're driving an SUV, motorcycle, or steamroller (!), plowing through the undead hordes is crazy fun. I also like the game's sense of progression. The storyline may be linear but events unfold in an organic way and there are oodles of optional side quests. Dead Rising 3 lacks the suspense like a zombie film but I did jump out of my seat a few times. The town is an interesting place to explore, and I appreciate the diversity of zombies in various states of decay. My main beef is with the controls. When multiple items are close together, it's hard to pick up the right one, and sometimes the buttons feel unresponsive. The mechanism for switching weapons is clumsy, and since it doesn't pause the action you'll take damage while fumbling through your inventory. The camera behaves itself when driving forward, but once you put the gear in reverse, it's all over the place. In addition to occasional autosaves, you can save your progress at latrines. Dead Rising 3 doesn't take itself too seriously, sometimes to its detriment. When I accidentally put on that giant Lego head, I couldn't get it off, and it took me forever to find something a little less ridiculous to replace it with. As you can imagine, that really took the edge off the cut-scenes! I wouldn't regard Dead Rising 3 a must-have game, but it's one of the stronger titles for the Xbox One.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual content, strong language, use of alcohol)
Playstation 4 Games
Night Trap 25th Anniversary Edition (Limited Run Games 2017) B+
Night Trap (Sega CD, 1992) remains one of the most controversial video games of all time, but it wasn't intended to be that way. A groundbreaking CD title, it was the first to allow interaction with real characters in actual video footage. The game quickly found itself in hot water during the 1993 congressional hearings on video game violence, where it was falsely accused of advocating violence towards women. Along with Mortal Kombat (Genesis, 1992), Night Trap inadvertently gave birth to the original video game ratings system. Like most other full-motion video (FMV) titles of its time, Night Trap never garnered much respect as a game. Its story involves a group of girls having a slumber party in a lake house hosted by a family who begin to exhibit vampire-like qualities. Switching on-the-fly between eight security cameras, you can actually follow the characters from room to room as the story unfolds. As shambling black "augers" infiltrate the house, you must activate traps to dispatch them and protect the girls. Switching between cameras and trapping creeps is undeniably fun. It feels good to catapult an auger off the roof or drop him through a trap door. And that edgy guitar music really adds to the atmosphere. When it comes to pure novelty value, Night Trap is off the charts with 80's culture, music, and fashion on full display. One big draw of this 25th anniversary edition is its clear video. The original release was constrained by low resolution and a limited color palette, giving the footage a pixelated, grainy look. This newly remastered version isn't high definition (the original 35mm film was lost) but it is DVD quality. I noticed a lot of new details like the boat next to the driveway. The game has an extended intro I had never seen before, and there's also a new "enhanced mode". This mode features animated room icons, allowing you to detect activity without even switching cameras. This makes the game easier but it's still remarkably tough to make progress. I feel like the developers missed a lot of opportunities. It would be nice if you could play through the entire game without worrying about your squad leader suddenly pulling the plug when you fall behind. Then you could enjoy the whole story and play for points. Like the original, when the game abruptly ends it doesn't even display your score. And how about an option to turn off those annoying trap color codes? There is a new "survival mode" focused on trapping goons in quick rounds for high score, but without a story it's not compelling. It does however give you a chance to check out some previously-unused footage. I had a few of my younger friends try Night Trap 25th Anniversary Edition and was surprised how much they enjoyed it. Brent called it "the second best game he's played on the PS4" next to Rocket League (Psyonix, 2016). When I showed him the included documentaries with footage of the congressional hearings, he looked on in disbelief ("is this real?!") I would have done a few things differently with this Night Trap 25th Anniversary Edition, but it's still a remarkable trip back in time.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Capcom 2017) C+
The first hour of Resident Evil 7 is extraordinary. Searching for your long lost girlfriend in a remote Louisiana bayou, you find yourself trapped in a derelict house where you are held prisoner and brutally tortured by a demented family. Upon escaping, you find yourself hunted by individual family members. Sound like fun? More like disturbing. Using a new first-person perspective the game puts you right smack in your own personal nightmare. The game is clearly influenced by a laundry list of horror flicks including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blair Witch Project, and Evil Dead 2. The fact that everything looks so realistic really immerses you in a world of decay and squalor, with all sorts of makeshift rooms and passageways. It's like being in a virtual haunted house, with lighting so effective even your shadow will make you jump. The surround sound audio effects are equally unsettling, and they scared the hell out of my cat Willow. RE7 oozes with atmosphere, particularly in the dark, marshy outdoor areas. One drawback to its cinematic approach is that the action feels contrived. It's a pretty helpless feeling as you're being swarmed by insects and stalked by family members impervious to your attacks. They usually come barging in when you least expect it, much like Nemesis in Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (PS1, 1999). It was almost a relief when I encountered a slime monster I could actually kill. The game gradually reverts to the standard Resident Evil conventions, reprising well-worn cliches like turning cranks, locating a lost fuse for a generator, and collecting keys of various shapes. I like how pressing the touch pad brings up the map. When you feel stuck you're probably just one item away from unlocking a new area. The game falters badly in terms of its inventory system, which somehow manages to be inferior to the one in the original Resident Evil (PS1, 1996)! The items are so tiny you can't make them out, and the interface for manipulating them is clumsy and confusing. During one boss encounter I couldn't grab a chainsaw because my inventory was full (a common occurrence). Why can't I drop my shotgun? Why can't I combine my bullets with the handgun? The action doesn't pause while accessing your inventory, so I was getting slaughtered while frantically struggling to make room. Likewise the antiquated save system encourages you to constantly backtrack to the nearest tape recorder. You'd expect fast loading from a game with a mandatory install, yet this has got the longest load times I've ever experienced in my entire life! Resident Evil 7 is not for the faint of heart. It may be the scariest Resident Evil, but it's also the most painful. Bump up the grade by a letter around Halloween.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Until Dawn (Sony 2015) A-
Not since Night Trap (Sega CD, 1992) has there been a game I'd describe as an interactive horror movie, but Until Dawn absolutely nails it. The premise revolves around a group of teenagers that return to a ski lodge one year after a tragedy took place. Until Dawn borrows liberally from every horror movie and video game including Evil Dead, The Shining, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Alan Wake, Saw, Scream, Heavy Rain, and I Know What you Did Last Summer. The results are spectacular. The game looks like a million bucks, featuring remarkably lifelike characters with a full range of facial expressions. My friends actually recognized the real actors who were digitized for the game! The atmosphere is moody as all hell thanks to excellent cinematography and clever camerawork. Disturbing sound effects and a brooding musical score keep you on the edge of your seat. You control each of the characters in various scenes. Sometimes you wander around investigating flashing objects. When the action heats up you must respond to rapid button prompts, and that's exciting! Periodically you're required to make a decision. This might decide a course of action (safe route or shortcut) or determine how you relate to characters. I love the idea of a branching storyline, but it's not always clear your actions are having much impact. Often your two choices are only slightly different ("shut up" versus "dismissive") and the replay value is suspect. Until Dawn definitely strings you along but it's refreshing not having to conserve ammo, scrounge for health, or restart from the same spot over and over. Until Dawn takes full advantage of the PS4 controller. You'll slide your finger across the touch screen to light a match or browse a smart phone. You'll need to keep the controller perfectly still during certain scenes to avoid detection. Like Alan Wake (Xbox 360, 2010) the game is broken into chapters, each beginning with a recap of the story so far. Yes, there are plenty of horror cliches (all of them, I think) in the form of cheap scares, raunchy jokes, and people investigating noises when they should be running in the other direction. But I knew the game was something special when I found myself face to face with a psychologist questioning me about my actions in the game! Whoa. A series of bonus videos include a Blair Witch-style "documentary". If you're the kind of person who allows themselves to be afraid and enjoys the feeling, Until Dawn may be the ultimate horror experience.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)
Bloodborne (Sony 2015) D
Probably the most anticipated Playstation 4 game to date, Bloodborne looks like a work of art. Its decrepit towns boast amazing gothic architecture with soaring spires and blood red sunsets. Each stone building, horse-drawn carriage, and cast iron gate is meticulously detailed and properly aged. As you explore the wet, misty streets, creeps lurk in shadowy corners, waiting to lunge out. You encounter grotesque lanky figures that often gather to form lynch mobs. There are hooded maniacs with pitchforks, masked men with torches, mangy werewolves, and shotgun-toting goons wearing top hats. Had its gameplay been half as good as its graphics, Bloodborne would be an instant classic. Instead it's a nightmare. The interface is user-hostile and the complete lack of instructions is mystifying. The control scheme is so counter-intuitive it requires a substantial time investment just to learn basic concepts like equipping a weapon or throwing an object. The upgrade system makes no sense and the "gesture" controls are incomprehensible. Your character's movements are skittish and the controls are touchy. Close camera angles provide plenty of scare opportunities but you never know when someone is about to clock you over the head. There are smashable crates and barrels all over the place, but why are they all empty?! The combat is clumsy. Unless you're targeting something your shotgun fires directly into the ground. The collision detection is atrocious. You can't shoot through a fence yet the mobs can easily swing their weapons right through it. You attack with wide, sweeping combinations that leave you in a vulnerable state. That's a problem, because unlike your foes which sustain multiple deep gashes, one good hit does you in. Upon death you're treated to a lengthy loading screen, followed by the realization that you need to completely restart that long, treacherous stretch you've been toiling through. I must have attempted Central Yharnam 100 times, employing every tactic imaginable. Did anyone test this game? Why does it place creatures in your path that you're not nearly powerful enough to handle? There's a difference between hard and flat-out unfair. The lack of a difficulty select or pause feature is an unfortunate side effect of the game's unnecessary online functionality. Bloodborne should have been a game for the ages but it's a disappointment for the ages. It's a shame because I suspect there are some extraordinary sights and sounds here that will largely go unseen.
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, violence)
Alien Isolation (Sega 2014) B+
The thing that made the original Alien movie such a cinematic masterpiece was how it conveyed the sheer terror of being stalked by a horrifying creature. Alien Isolation tries to recapture that feeling and nails it. If you don't think Alien Isolation is scary, you're not doing it right. Play it in the dark with no one else around, preferably with surround sound. I normally enjoy scary games, but Isolation pushed me out of my comfort zone. The intro and load screens feature grainy, VHS-quality footage of space ships, and the effect is as creepy as it is nostalgic. You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver's character in the films. As I roamed the deserted space freighter I was in awe of the circa-1979 space architecture. The monochrome computer screens, interesting levers, and mechanical contraptions make today's touchscreens seem mundane by comparison. The corridors are remarkably creepy due to erratic lighting, steam from pressure valves, pulse-pounding music, and sudden, jolting noises. You're equipped with a handy movement tracker that "spins up" through your controller's speaker (awesome). This device not only alerts you to life forms but also keeps you headed the right direction. The alien's approaching footsteps are alarming, so be prepared to duck into a nearby locker. This game is nerve wracking! The sight of the creature will make your blood run cold with its clammy skin and slithery movements. The first time I was able to observe it from a safe place, I was awestruck. You can't kill it so you need to be resourceful, collecting items to create survival equipment like medical kits, flares, and noise makers. I tend to be jaded when it comes to crafting and stealth, but these elements are a natural fit. As much as I admire Alien Isolation, a few flaws compromise the fun factor. Objectives can be confusing, and I don't recall having to restore so much power and find so many key cards since Resident Evil 1! The otherwise polished graphics are marred by frequent clipping problems. But my biggest beef is with the manual save system. You can make a ton of progress, watch a cut-scene, finish a mission, earn a trophy, sit through a load screen, and then die only to have to do it all over again! At the very least it could auto-save during cut-scenes, since many dump you into emergency situations. Still, Alien Isolation is one heart-stopping adventure that should be experienced. It may not be the best scary game I've ever played but it is the most terrifying.
Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)
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