Saturday, August 31, 2013

Splatter: Just Harder Times Review

Using the adjective "old school" in the description of a game has begun to set off alarm bells in my head. It used to signify a game's attempt to capture the more positive retro elements of its genre, and present them in a modern format. And that was a good thing. But nowadays it seems the moniker is a licence for indie developers to use bad graphics, frustrating gameplay and rehashed ideas. People seem to have forgotten the difference between "inspired by" and "completely ripping off". Not all "old school"-inspired releases suffer from this confusion, but for every decent re-imagining there are lot of poor clones. Splatter: Just Harder Times is one of these clones, and suffers from all of the aforementioned faults.

A top-down shooter set in a somewhat unclear apocalypse featuring zombies, mutants and monsters, the game begins well but, within about 5 seconds, falls flat on its face. Wailing sirens beckon you outside your shoebox house and onward down the suburban street to investigate some mysterious night-time commotion. And for a brief moment, it seems that there may be a worthy story in the offing, with a multidimensional protagonist and, hell, maybe even some decent pacing. But those notions are shattered immediately as you find a pistol and start blasting everything that moves. As you progress quickly through the level, it seems that either the entire city has gone to hell in a handbasket within about 10 minutes of this outbreak, or that your house exists in some kind of temporal warp, immune to the normal passage of time. Roadblocks are up, fortifications are made, cars are abandoned and the streets are pretty much empty, save for the opposing force of mutant/zombie/monsters.

And so begins your linear trawl across the crumbling city, and after helping a kind old gentleman mow down a sizeable population with a minigun mounted on the back of his car, he suggests you head for "The Farm". You obviously follow his instructions unquestionably, because haven't we all learned by now that in a global apocalypse, you can always count on the kindness of strangers? I rolled my eyes so many times playing this game that I almost became dizzy. After trekking through the woods, you reach this illustrious farm which turns out to be safe haven for the survivors fleeing the city. They are attempting to start a new closed community here, free from the threats of the outside world. Now, this is less than 12 hours after you first emerged from your humble abode, and these guys are already starting their own utopian society. Some would say jumping the gun, others might say they're just seizing the opportunity.

The game is spread across 13 chapters, in a variety of locations including some optional side missions. The narrative is progressed by inter-chapter cutscenes that bear more than a passing resemblance to Max Payne. In fact, your character is dressed almost identically to Mr. Payne and dryly recites philosophical musings and pessimistic observations on the state of events in a similar fashion, but replaces the gruff voice acting with bizarre reverse German ramblings that, sadly, are the only scary part of the entire experience.

If you've played anything remotely similar to Splatter: Just Harder Times, then you already know pretty much everything. It's the standard Mouse/WASD control scheme with the standard armaments, each upgradeable and none worth mentioning. Flares are about the only unique item in your arsenal and even they are barely useful. A quick right-click throws a monster-repelling stick of light that buys a few moments of peace and some breathing room, but they are seldom needed. What should be noted is the lack of a melee attack. There are plenty of destructible objects strewn about the levels that may contain weapons or cash, but rather than include a quick knife swipe or punch, that game forces you to expend valuable ammo to uncover such treasures.

The difficulty is wildly inconsistent, as is the pacing of the action. You could find yourself mindlessly powering through a level with hardly any resistance, when all of a sudden the game will stop you in your tracks by ramping up the monster count. And even when facing a large onslaught it's more frustrating than exciting. Aside from the story mode, there are 2 other game modes you can subject yourself to. The first is Survival mode, battling wave after wave of monsters with random weapon drops on a variety of levels. It becomes boring very, very fast. The other is local multiplayer, an option so remarkably obsolete on PC in this day and age that it's a wonder it was included at all.

Splatter makes at least one attempt to implement something new with a light and shadow mechanic and, to be fair, it works quite well. Enemies hide in darkened hallways, closed rooms and behind objects to pounce on the unsuspecting player. Thankfully, the always-equipped torch illuminates threats before you're in trouble. It's about the only source of tension in the entire game, and although the developers nailed the lighting in this regard, it isn't used to its full potential. Apart from this, the graphics aren't up to much. Locations are bland and flat, and make little or no difference to the gameplay. Things aren't much better in the audio department, either; weapon sounds are lacklustre and there is noticeable distortion at times. That the developers overlooked something as basic as this really does not inspire much confidence in the rest of the game.

VERDICT: Splatter: Just Harder Times is an ill-conceived, poorly made game that has almost no redeeming qualities. Everything about the game screams mediocrity, and it's hard to recommend it to even fans of the genre. There are a plethora of predecessors that have done it all before, only much better, and it seems that Dreamworlds Development just outright ignored these and went ahead, making rookie mistakes left, right and centre. The developers are currently trying to get the game Greenlit on Steam, and plan to introduce new features including additional arcade modes and voice acting, but even these won't be enough to save it.

POOR. Games tagged 4/10 will be playable, perhaps even enjoyable, but will be let down by a slew of negative elements that undermine their quality and value. Best avoided by any but hardcore genre fans.
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