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Splatterhouse – red-slicked hands-on

Whoa, hey there Splatterhouse, long time no see. What’s it been? Seventeen years? Really? Well then, it may be no surprise if readers have never heard of you. For the uninitiated, Splatterhouse was a fairly shallow, side-scrolling beat-‘em-up originally in the arcade so very long ago, and then it moved on to consoles, spawning two sequels. Now we’re getting yet another “reboot” but this time of a positively ancient series.

Above: Splat

Good thing we here at GR are old folk – old enough to remember playing the original Splatterhouse at our local mini-golf arcade. We always knew the gameplay, even back then, didn’t hold up too well, but the spooky atmosphere and daring gore always drew us over to the good old Splatterhouse machine. Hell, back then you rarely saw blood in a game, let alone a hockey-mask wearing psycho, controlled by the player, grand-slamming zombies with a 2x4 and watching the rotted husks smash into the walls in the background, the undead creatures exploding in graphic chunks of gore. It was a forbidden fruit to be sure.

We actually love the lore behind this series, as despite its very corny B-movie tone, it has always tickled that part of our inner child that still gets creeped out by an old-fashioned, banging-shutters haunted-house. Rick is a cardboard cutout college student, transformed in the latest version into quite the douchey dork, and he’s with his out-of-his-league girlfriend, Jennifer. At the beginning of the game, he’s half-dead, lying on the floor of some godforsaken place, bleeding out. We don’t know how he got there, but he looks over to see a skull-like mask lying near him, and this sentient artifact whispers to him that he can save himself and his girl, if only he puts the mask on.

Donning the mask of course transforms Rick from pipsqueak to sand-kicking juicehead. In the old Splatterhouse games, Rick was portrayed as fairly buff, but in this reboot, he’s practically exploding out of his skin with muscles. We should note here that while the old games had a slightly cartoony art style, the new Splatterhouse goes all out with it, taking on a look similar to Borderlands with cel-shading inspired textures and sharp black outlines around everything. We’re not sure whether we like it. On the one hand, it keeps it from looking like God of War and every other third-person action game, but on the other hand, it prevents the game from truly feeling like Splatterhouse, which always had a dark, dingy tone to it.

Above: Taking a cue from Splatterhouse 3, Rick can transform into a mutated version with bone claws and a freaky appearance

We do like that the Lovecraft-tinged storyline has been taken full-tilt toward the Cthulhu mythos, with speak of Corrupted Ones who wait outside the realm of man to wreak chaos upon the earth. Splatterhouse always had slight nods to Lovecraft, with the villain, Dr. West, a clear reference to Herbert West, Reanimator. The fact is, we never get tired of Lovecraftian games, as his mythos is so deep that no one has mined it dry yet.

On to the gameplay then: the majority of the game is a typical 3D, combo-based combat system with nothing really new to show, at least from what we’ve played. At first the combat feels really, really shallow, but luckily it begins to expand after the first level when you can start buying upgrades and new moves. We do like the health-replenishment system, which requires Rick to build up Necro energy through defeating enemies and then use a “splatter siphon” attack to gobble up blood and regain his life. It means that there is some level of tactics needed – especially since we found that any difficulty above “coward” makes the enemies do horrendous damage.

Staying true to its name, Splatterhouse delivers the blood and gore. So much of it that at first it looks ridiculous, but later on becomes strangely hypnotic. The blood is radioactive-red and sprays so copiously that after a few enemies down, half a room will be covered in scarlet. There are also execution moves, but thankfully they’re not lengthy quick-time events (at least with non-boss enemies, more on that in a bit). Typically an execution requires merely pulling the two analogue sticks in particular directions – always relevant to what horrible act you’re forcing on a creature – and it’s a brief, satisfyingly tactile moment.

Above: The meat cleaver is the true psycho's choice of life-ender. Not proper psycho-style: wallet chain. Ugh

The game has its attempts at humor – some of which work, and some of which don’t. The Terror Mask often taunts Rick, and the dialogue between the two frequently feels like a teenage attempt at being mature (read: saying the F word a lot), but it did make us chuckle a few times. Other elements of humor come from the creative use of gore: one tentacle-armed ogre grabs Rick and rips his arm clean-off. The Terror Mask informs you that if you wait a bit, it can regenerate your arm, and sure enough it does. That’s not the funny part. The funny part comes when you realize your previous arm is still lying on the ground and that you can pick up your own arm and beat monsters to death with it.

There are also classic-style Splatterhouse weapons like a meat cleaver, lead pipe, baseball bat, and 2x4, and each of them mostly lead to one-hit kills. They make the game very easy, but they’re also addictive – plowing through hordes of enemies for brief periods until the weapon breaks changes up the pacing nicely. Another way the game shifts pace is by providing old-school 2D side scrolling sections, which very much resemble the original Splatterhouse games. They aren’t entire stages, but rather short sections of stages, and we’re hoping there’s a lot more of them later in the game because they’re a breezy change from standard combo-heavy third-person brawling.

Above: 2D sections - the more merrier, if we say so

One gripe we have, which can easily be fixed before the game’s release (and here’s hoping they do fix this) is the occasional instant death scenarios that throw you back a bit too far to the last checkpoint. We’re talking some jumps over pits with barely a pixel of wiggle room, and at least one quick-time event during the last part of a boss that when failed, forces you to fight that last part of the boss over again each time. Quick time events have really worn themselves out recently – we were happy when the execution moves on normal enemies only required simple analogue stick inputs, but then those damn QTEs reared their ugly button prompts again.

For the nostalgia factor, Splatterhouse includes all three classic games, which are unlocked after beating certain levels. If you’ve never played them, be prepared for archaic game tropes, but they still pull off that creepy vibe, at least for us. Splatterhouse is set to release on November 23.

Oct 27, 2010

My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.