Monday, October 24, 2016

A Month of Horror Games - Hellnight

"None of it seems real, like it shouldn't be happening..."

Hellnight (known as Dark Messiah in Japan) feels like a bad dream come to life. The crude, lo-fi graphics give the impression of some cursed VHS tape you found abandoned in the gutter. The soundtrack is eerie, minimal and super effective, consisting almost entirely of 2-4 second loops interspersed with foreboding stretches of silence. Despite this the music never gets annoying or repetitive in a bad way; the mood is set perfectly by it.

Great atmosphere, bad proofreading

Even though the world of the game is ostensibly populated by other characters, you never actually see them in the "flesh". Rather than depicting characters as 3D models in-game, when you run across a character they appear as a 2D graphic overlaid on screen, to off-putting effect. Though this approach was probably taken due to technical limitations on the part of the developer, it ultimately succeeds in creating the surreal feeling of a lifeless world--even with other NPCs present.

The premise of Hellnight drew me in right away: below the streets of Tokyo is another, darker world--the Tokyo Mesh. Built during World War II, this subterranean labyrinth was meant to be a base of operations for the Japanese army. Now it is home to outcasts and criminals, people who are unable or unwilling to coexist with the outside world.

The unnamed protagonist finds himself in the Mesh after being chased into a subway car by a group of cultists calling themselves the Holy Ring. A man appears in the middle of the tracks and the subway crashes--soon after, the man mutates into a monstrous humanoid creature and begins killing passengers. The player escapes with a high school student named Naomi and the pair find their way into the underworld, and then the shit really hits the fan.

What is at the bottom of the Tokyo Mesh? Where did the creature come from and what does it want? And how is Holy Ring involved in the whole mess? Having recently beaten the game I can guarantee that wherever you think the plot is going, you're wrong.

Basic gameplay involves escaping the creature's pursuit while trying to find a way back to the surface. This involves dealing with the odd and often disturbed citizens of the Mesh; generally involving a series of fetch quests or light puzzles. In classic RPG style, fulfilling an NPC's request usually results in a clue or item that brings you a step closer to finding an escape from the underground.

The monster cannot be killed. If it's close enough for you to hear it breathing, it's time to run! The Tokyo Mesh is full of dead ends, blind corners and locked doors so awareness of your surroundings (and frequent map checking) is critical.

It's also critical that you keep Naomi alive; if the monster touches you, your partner will die. If it touches you again it's game over. Other partner characters can be met throughout the game, but Naomi is the only one with extra-sensory perception! It doesn't work all the time, but if you're lucky the monster's location will be shown on the map when it draws near. Take care of Naomi, for real.

Things get very surreal as you get deeper underground.

Hellnight was released on PS1 in Summer 1998 in Japan, and hit Europe a few days before the end of 1999. And that's it--no North American release whatsoever, making the game somewhat attainable (the PAL version is in English, French and German) but off the radar of many western gamers for years.


Talk about a blog long in the making! I was trying to get my hands on this game for two years before I found a copy affordable enough for me to take the plunge (still expensive). I'm fortunate enough to have a modded PS2 so playing it on real hardware is an option for me. For everyone else that isn't in Europe I STRONGLY recommend giving it a try via emulation! The atmosphere is truly one of a kind and I believe this is gonna be one of those legendary horror game gems in the future.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Month of Horror Games - Silent Hill Shattered Memories

Developed as a 'reimagining' of the first Silent Hill game, Shattered Memories retains the names of characters, the "dark world" mechanic, and series composer Akira Yamaoka. Everything else is so far removed from the franchise as a whole that it might as well have a different title altogether.

This isn't to say I don't like it! the atmosphere, gameplay and visual style of Shattered Memories was super god damn refreshing in a series that, through familiarity and repetition, has gone from "revolutionary" to "expected". Like the original Silent Hill, the town is shrouded in fog and snow. However, Shattered Memories' visual style replaces the usual "dark world" blood and rust theme with ice. Once things start to freeze over(in a totally awesome effect) it's party time.

Combat is off the table this time around; similar to Clock Tower, your only recourse is to run and hide. Unlike Clock Tower there's no downtime during these segments though! the enemy is always on your heels (or jumping out from in front of you), leading to some seriously anxiety-inducing escape sequences.

As effective as the chase sequences are, they are the only part of the game where you can be harmed; the sense of surprise from other SH games is gone because you know you're completely safe when you're not in a chase scene. These are the story sections, and as atmospheric  as they can sometimes be, the lack of any sense of danger is very unlike silent hill and unfortunately lends the game an episodic feel.

Ah, the seldom implemented (because it's useless) "look behind you" mechanic. I'll just assume there's ALWAYS something behind me when monsters are about, thanks

I won't recount the plot here; suffice to say that what starts similarly to the original Silent Hill (Harry Mason searching for his daughter Cheryl after a car crash) goes in an entirely different direction. It's not the most unique plot I've ever seen, but there is enough weirdness to keep it interesting. This is not even mentioning the novel, if flawed, "psychology system" that changes story and gameplay elements by recording your choices throughout the game.

Overall, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a creative experiment in game making that we just don't  see much of. The lonely atmosphere is spot on (the game seriously feels cold) and the music, as always, is excellent.  A few snags in presentation and pacing hurt the overall package, though, and the disparate approach it takes to the Silent Hill formula gives me the feeling that it has been left in the dustbin when one takes the SH franchise as a whole. This is a shame. If Shattered Memories had left the name Silent Hill off of that title screen I believe it would be more fondly remembered.

I will give this game a try once it thaws out

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Month of Horror Games - Clock Tower

 "Who will survive this game of murder?"

As amusingly dated as it looks now (and let's be real; the game looked like fried dog shit in 1996 too), this PS1 point-and-click horror game actually got my heart pounding back in high school!

What western gamers knew back then as Clock Tower was called Clock Tower: The Second Fear in Japan. (the original was released a little over a year before on Nintendo's Super Famicom). This somewhat explains the sequel's straight-up baffling intro cutscene, which opens with the climax of the previous game, in which the protagonist Jennifer Simpson escapes an enormous mutant baby before blowing it up.

The point-and-click interface between the two games is similar. The switch from the original's moody, thoughtfully constructed pixel art to full 3D, though...

fried dog shit

The general flow of the game is described thusly: players control one of several characters as they travel around through interminable story sequences, talking to NPCs and making seemingly innocuous decisions that determine which of five endings they will reach. Eventually we get to the main event, in which the character finds his or herself alone and pursued by the Scissorman, a mysterious and seemingly unstoppable masked killer. Players must collect items and solve puzzles to escape, all the while ensuring that they aren't cornered and perforated by our boy.

All screenshots were taken from the first stage. Sue me, I've got a lot of posts to write this month
The developers were obvious fans of classic horror (at this point can we call 80's slasher movies classic?), as evidenced in many of the action beats during chase sequences. Scissorman can seemingly come out of anywhere--restroom stalls, under beds, through the floorboards, and god knows where else. Each encounter is randomized to keep you on your toes.

Speaking of variety, if you have the patience for multiple playthroughs there are 10 endings to uncover depending on your actions during both the story and escape sequences. Many of these are quite cryptic, but hidden "hint files" around the game can give the player...hints. Just use GameFAQs.

Pictured: Me, Hiding Under That Couch
Crude as Clock Tower's presentation is, this part got me good; I was examining lockers in this hallway when I just happened to check one that Scissorman was hiding in. He leaped out with a classic horror soundtrack stinger and I hauled balls to the nearest office, where I hid under a couch like a coward until he lost my trail.


The number one reason this game still works is its minimal but excellent soundtrack. There are only a few pieces, with only the sound of the player's footsteps comprising the bulk of the gameplay. During horror beats the silence is broken by a low, foreboding drone. And when shit gets for really real we're treated to the awesome chase theme, usually accompanied by the instantly iconic sound of Scissorman's shears opening and closing with every step. Just awesome. Here's a great scene that illustrates the flow of the escape stages:

I love Clock Tower. The characters and script are dumb. The gameplay is ponderous and the premise strains credulity to the limit. But damn it, I still get scared. Give it a try!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Month of Horror Games - Bio-Hazard Battle

"Who can say that a similar crisis will never occur again?"

Biohazard it a stretch to call this one horror? I'll allow it. The bio-mechanical designs are reminiscent of R-Type and the music definitely fits the bill:

The story is appropriately dark as well. The "First Global Bio-War" ends up being the last, as one side unleashes a powerful retrovirus that devastates the globe, rendering it uninhabitable. The remainders of humanity retreat to an orbiting space station to be placed in cryo-sleep until the world becomes livable again. Also in suspended animation are four living weapons used in the Bio-War, organic aircraft with the ability to change their genetic structure depending on powerups they collect.

Centuries pass, and the station's computers awaken the biowarriors when the atmosphere is deemed livable enough for humans. The only problem now are the creatures infesting every inch of the planet ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

This game is cruelly difficult. Some fresh hell is crawling around every corner and it's not particularly interested whether you're powered up enough to deal with it. The graphics are dark and full of detail; they particularly shine in the dense forested levels, though thematically speaking I really liked the stages showing the crumbling ruins of human society, teeming with gross weirdos. The odd, muted soundtrack is excellent at evoking a sense of dread, particularly the boss theme.

Up there's the Stage 3 boss (who apparently made an impression on the designer of the Genesis cover art), a skull-headed snake creature that emerges from what appears to be the dessicated remains of a gigantic humanoid figure. I'm not sure what exactly it's supposed to be but the story implications are pretty upsetting.

Near the end you find a mothership (either the same ship or similar to the one that dropped you off in the first stage) that has become infected by the biomonsters and must be dealt with. Bummer. Are they sure this planet is ready for prime time?

The Japanese version of Bio-Hazard Battle is known as Crying: Biological War. Odd as the title is, I like how it suggests the eco-horror tragedy of people making their own world inhospitable towards them. What's really inhospitable is how Crying doesn't have autofire--because of this I assume the Japanese version is just fucking impossible. Bio-Hazard Battle had autofire added in and it's still too damn hard.

Is it good? The game is fairly affordable online, but I'd only give it a light recommend; the atmosphere created by the graphics, the dark, bass-heavy soundtrack, and the bleak backstory is great. On the other hand the gameplay is a little underwhelming and overly difficult while lacking that intangible "It Factor" you get with some shooters. Most of the problem lies in the difficulty of positioning the player's Gradius-style option when enemies attack from behind.

I'd say emulate it first, and if it's your thing, then Bio-Hazard Battle is an attractive part of any Genesis/Megadrive collection.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Month of Horror Games - Shadow Tower

"Darkness swallowed all, and closed a gate"

Here's a game that is near and dear to my heart: Shadow Tower, released on the Playstation in summer 1998 by From Software.

If you count yourself a Dark Souls/Demon's Souls/Bloodborne fan you seriously need to get off your ass and look at the games that started it all. You'll often hear that King's Field is the grandfather of the Souls series, but I'd argue for Shadow Tower--the game's weapon degradation system, lack of music, use of "Soul Points" to level up and overall dark and more oppressive atmosphere bears an even stronger resemblance to the franchise that brought From Software to the mainstream.

Shadow Tower is dense, dark, unfriendly and scary as hell. Visibility is often limited if you don't have a torch. The claustrophobic locale and downright bizarre enemy designs lean heavily toward the horror fantasy genre, and if you're afraid of the dark, giant insects, hanging skeletons, or losing half of your HP to one mistake you should stay away. Shadow Tower doesn't care if you make it through or not.

Though there are a few NPCs scattered throughout, this is one of the loneliest games I've played

hell yea

Here's a wonderfully From Software part that I love, and it has no bearing on the gameplay; just some unobtrusive hints at story. Reaching this room will present the player with a useless, instant-death pit. Wait a bit and you'll see the occasional corpse fall through a hole in the ceiling and into the pit. Someone or something is dumping bodies down here for no explained reason. Nice.

Unlike Dark Souls, Shadow Tower doesn't sport the same responsive and intuitive controls or physics. Even back in the PS1 days playing it was a bit of a chore, so visiting it now may prove to be an absolute god damned nightmare for those unfamiliar with From Software's admittedly rough early catalogue.

This bozo nearly made me drop the controller

Though the creature designs are imaginative and often nightmarish, this game does NOT look like it came from 1998, and that's not a compliment. If you can appreciate the inherent creepiness of the low res, low draw distance graphics indicative of the early days of 3D games there's a lot to appreciate. It's very blocky, very corridor-ey, and ultimately very confusing if you aren't working with a map or paying close attention to landmarks.

I was going to compare it to King's Field until I remembered how terrible King's Field looked. The graphics are improved over its predecessor, but not as much as you would expect with three years between the games! A review of the Shadow Tower from 1998 supports my claim that this game was  rough even by the standards of the day.

If you can get over the initial difficulty curve and manage to collect a few spells and a pile of useful weapons, the game becomes somewhat more forgiving. You will definitely still get lost, and you will probably get caught with your pants down by a weapon breaking mid-fight, but if you have the patience and nerve you'll find a creepy, atmospheric history lesson for Souls fans.

In conclusion, Shadow Tower is so dense and confusing that if you're going to attempt it, the best approach would be with the aim of exploration.* The labyrinth is lousy with illusory walls, full of dead ends, double-backs and shortcuts--not to mention ambushes everywhere. It's quite the experience to go into blind. If you want to go really method, hardcore dungeon crawler with it you could even draw a map as you go! A certain type of player could get a lot out of this game.

Please give it a try if you can, or better yet get a PS2 emulator and track down the English translated copy of its sequel, Shadow Tower Abyss! Everything good about the original is preserved and everything bad is improved upon, making Abyss the most playable and fun pre-Souls dungeon crawler that From Software ever developed.

*or use a walkthrough because this game is hard as balls