Despite resembling videogame all-star Gordon Freeman, Rick Taylor is a bit of a sad-sack. Putting his girlfriend Jennifer and a sweet Mastodon T-shirt to one side, he doesn’t have a whole lot going on. So it’s understandable that when Jen is snatched away by the insane Dr West and Rick’s sweet tee is ruined by a somewhat ferocious and unprovoked stabbing, he’s keen for revenge via a bit o’ the ol’ ultra-violence.
Trouble is, the hole in his T-shirt somehow exactly matches the one in his chest, and as such, Rick is suffering from a mild case of what the medical community probably term “pre-onset corpsism”. Just when all seems lost, hope arrives in the form of a satanic mask which cuts Rick a deal: His wounds healed in exchange for blood, lots of blood.
Seconds later, Rick is transformed from nerd to the hulk and thus begins a delicate and nuanced tale of one man’s grapple with the nature of morality and the forbidden love in this quiet and reflective piece by Namco.
But I jest, of course. Namco included liquid dynamics in the game engine, no doubt to ensure the blood would splash in a realistic fashion. Whatever the case; splash, gush and soak it does as you dismember your way through a ten-hour parade of demons and deformities.
There is so much blood being shed at any one time that often you can’t see what’s happening as viscera coats the camera. And the giblets! My word, the giblets. It’s like a Cannibal Corpse song in game form; the kind of brutal spectacle that shocks parents and thrills young teens in equal measure.
A reimagining of an ‘80s side-scrolling slasher, Splatterhouse plays mostly as a simple third-person brawler (with occasional forays into 2D side-scrolling as a homage to its source material), and as Rick you have a strong attack, wide attack, jumping attacks, a grab attack and weapons to utilise. You can also sprint short distances, dive roll and block. The last you will use precisely zero times as it requires you to stand absolutely still - a tactical error that will see you flanked and torn to shreds in seconds. On that matter, a decent combo from even the weakest opponent in the game ends you quickly, so Splatterhouse is constantly compels you forward as look to shed more blood and regenerate your health.
Blood is also your currency in Splatterhouse, and you can unlock stronger combo moves and health boosts the more demons you kill. The messier these deaths, the more blood you earn, and that’s where ‘splatterkills’ come in handy.
Triggered by a quick time event when an enemy is low on health, these moves resemble 3D Mortal Kombat fatalities: The screen darkens, the cameras zooms in, and Rick performs some ghastly act of artful deconstruction on his unlucky target. They are graphic yet rarely anything more than silly (you can pull a demon’s lungs out through its throat, for example), their cartoonishness is accentuated by the cel-shading of the character models. Only one splatterkill is truly gross – in that instance Rick could have at least used a little lube is all I’ll say.
Soak in enough blood and you’ll be able to enter berserk mode wherein Rick becomes temporarily invincible and has an array of souped-up attacks at his disposal. This mode is handy for dispatching both bosses and large mobs of demons, and tends to leave their extremities strewn about the place which you can then use as weapons.
This all sounds great on paper and in fits and starts Splatterhouse satisfying, but a lack of attention to detail derails the overall experience. Many aspects of the game feel unfinished, as if it was rushed through the second half of production. A change of developers can’t have helped either.
The visuals are a case in point. Splatterhouse looks good, particularly when you engage berserk mode and everything goes monochrome except the blood. But some animation is flat-out missing from cut scenes, and the occasional texture looks more work print than finished product. There are also a proliferation of invisible walls and snags about the place, despite the environments being oddly flat. Sprite collision is particularly dodgy during boss battles and in the side-scrolling sections, so you’ll die unnecessarily more than a handful of times.
The game’s engine just doesn’t seem to be developed for precision movement and the frustration is compounded by a long wait to restart after each death – a solid 30 seconds of the most irritating loading screen ever, sometimes more depending on where you carc it. Speaking of waiting, there is also a strange bug present after any brief cut-scene or when you fail a splatterkill: The game hangs for a second or so and everyone just stands around as if they have temporarily forgotten where they are and what they were doing. It sounds like inconsequential but really takes you out of your rhythm.
The camera is also pretty poor, particularly in the earlier, tighter levels. You control it with the right stick, but a tight viewing angle and slow tracking mean it is frequently pointing away from the action. It also catches on scenery sometimes, leading to some humorously restricted views. You’ll expend as much energy corralling it into place as you do guiding Rick through the waves of ghoulies. On the upside, you’ll become expert at timing punches to hit offscreen enemies.
Sound also follows the good-but-flawed formula. On the whole the effects are satisfyingly sickening and yet sometimes strangely absent, such as when you impale demons onto spikes protruding from walls - an oddly silent affair. The soundtrack is good, veering from spooky to thrash metal by the likes of The Haunted, Lamb of God and Goatwhore when the action ramps up.
This undermines any atmosphere the game builds, but suits the carnage onscreen in a bad-action-movie way. As is so often the case, the audio is really let down in the voice acting department. Your companion mask is a chatty fellow, but is unconvincing as a fount of evil, and churns out some truly groan-worthy dialogue. ‘Childish’ is perhaps the best description of his sense of humour. The characterisation of Rick isn’t much better, as he alternates between paralysing fear and dumb one-liners.
To be fair, though, characterisation and story are not the primary reasons people play a game called Splatterhouse. They play it to flay, decapitate and eviscerate. Before a lack of enemy variety kills the thrill about two-thirds of the way through, by this standard Splatterhouse is a flawed yet intermittently enjoyable bloodfest with some nice touches but too little polish.
When the difficulty ramps up in the final stages and the cheap deaths accumulate, it becomes harder to justify persisting through the same bosses again and again just to unlock a different mask for another playthrough though. By this stage you will have unlocked the first three iterations of the Splatterhouse franchise though (all of which are pretty unplayable), as well as extra horde mode maps and a few topless photos of your girlfriend (yes, really) so you can visit those to wring the most out of your purchase I suppose.
But all told, Splatterhouse is a one-night hire for the morbidly curious only.