Review by Sashanan
"Put me down...I only got one leg!"
Released by Monolith in 1997, Claw seems to be a game lost on an unexpected system - a pure platform title on the PC. It tells us the story of Captain Claw, the fearless feline pirate who preys on the ships of - who else? - the Cocker Spaniard empire. In the opening cinematic, a stroke of misfortune causes Claw and his band of merry cats to be boarded and captured by a Spaniard frigate commanded by the evil mongrel Redtail. In his death cell, Claw finds a note left by another prisoner which tells him of the legendary Amulet of Nine Lives, a magical artifact which will grant immortality to its owner. The idea of owning this amulet, as well as the thought of a brand new adventure, revitalizes the disheartened Claw and he breaks out of his cell. And this is where the game begins: through 14 levels and a series of cartoonish cinematics, we follow Claw as he breaks out of prison, escapes his pursuers, and sets out to gather the nine gems that make up the amulet.
Although there are many differences between the game's levels, the basic premise is always the same. Claw needs to fight his way from one end of the level to another, running over platforms, jumping over holes, climbing ladders, swinging ropes, and fighting many different kinds of opponents, most of them dogs. Claw has all the agility you'd expect a cat to have, and with only a few quirks, he is very easy to control. After only a little practice, you'll be dashing, jumping and fighting through the levels at a pace that even Sonic would respect. For most of the game, two consecutive levels are always closely related, looking somewhat similar and featuring different versions of the same opponents. For instance, level 1 is inside the prison of La Roca, and level 2 is just outside that prison. Both levels have similar opponents and backgrounds. In level 3, the scenery changes entirely as we enter the Thieves' Forest, but level 3 and 4 are similar to each other again. This pattern repeats until we pass level 12 - the final two levels are both very unique, and very challenging.
Speaking of challenge, there is plenty of that in Claw, but there is also a very well balanced learning curve. The first levels aren't all that hard to complete, and even somebody who has never played a platform game before will get through them with only a little practice. The difficulty steadily increases, though, and by the time you are halfway the game, every new level seems impossible at first. The last few levels will have even an experienced player sweating, and only the most determined of cats will get through the final stage in one piece. It must be noted that the game does its best to accommodate for players of all skill levels. Every game is loaded with waypoints (each marked by a Jolly Roger flag, but obviously with a feline skull rather than a human one), and you'll be returned to those upon death. Every level also has two save points along the way, and even if you lose all your lives, you'll be allowed to continue from those with all the points and the lives you still had when you first got there. Finally, whenever you complete a level it is marked off, and you're allowed to start a brand new game (without any points, but with all your lives) from any level you have reached before. Since you get no less than seven lives, this means you basically get a shot at completing every level with the full seven lives, and you even have the comfort of those two save points along the way. With all this help, any player will eventually be able to beat the game - and then they still have the challenge waiting of trying to do it from the first level all the way to the end.
A pirate's mind is perpetually set on treasure, and there is plenty to collect in each of the fourteen levels. Many different kinds of treasure exist, from humble coins and gold scepters up to highly valuable jeweled crowns and skulls. You'll find plenty of treasure just by taking the quick path through every level (helpfully indicated by signs scattered everywhere), but the good stuff is usually in out-of-the way, secret and/or dangerous areas. Trying to collect most or all of the treasure in a level is a brand new challenge entirely. It's almost impossible to get everything even in the first level. For those who think they've mastered the game by now, treasure hunting offers even more challenging replay value.
While the levels themselves are all beautifully drawn and lovingly littered with a wide range of challenges - rope swinging, instant death traps like spikes and lava, moving and disappearing platforms, and all the other things we love so much in this kind of game - the denizens are much more notable. In every level, Claw faces off against a host of interesting opponents, and almost all of them almost feel truly alive. From the cocky but wimpy guard dogs of the prison La Roca, to the rude burping bandits in the Thieves' Forest and the peg legged pirates in Pirate's Cove, all of them have distinct personalities which show both in the expressions on their canine faces and in the many funny chat lines they have. Every opponent has lines associated with first spotting you, taunting you during battle, and dying. While some of these get a little repetitive if you've faced a score of those opponents already, many remain funny even after hearing them so often. Whether you are fighting the slow witted but immensely strong sailor dogs (''Uh...has anybody seen my pet rat?''), the arrogant mercats (''Well, I'm no longer among the living, am I...'') or my personal favorites, the peg legged pirates (''Eat lead, will ya!''), it always feels like your enemies have personality. They all take a different approach to be defeated, too, particularly in the later levels where they are typically weak to one particular tactic only.
Claw himself, of course, has the most personality of them all, much like cats in real life when compared to dogs. He's witty and enthusiastic, but also capable of a lot of complaining. As you work your way through hordes of opponents using your sword, your pistol, dynamite and the odd bit of magic, he'll happily taunt his opponents and comment on their cowardice - but when you painstakingly maneuver him through dangerous spots, you'll hear remarks such as ''This looks challenging...'' or ''Whew, that was close...''. Particularly amusing is what happens if you just leave Claw standing in a corner and do nothing. He gets impatient quickly and eventually remarks that if you've gone to the kitchen anyway, you ought to bring him something too.
As I remarked before, Claw is easy to control and fairly responsive to your keyboard commands. There are two quirks with the controls, however, which seem insignificant at first but quickly become a nuisance in the later levels where precision control is the difference between life and death more often than not. First, the down arrow key is used both to make Claw dodge and to scroll the screen down to see what happens below you. While the scrolling doesn't kick in until a second or so after you press the key, you can't dodge for longer than that second before the screen starts scrolling, even if you don't want it to. Frequently, you have to stand on a moving platform and dodge projectiles or a low ceiling, only to get up and jump at the exact right time to catch a ladder or a swinging rope. This becomes exceptionally difficult if the screen decides to start scrolling and you can't see when you are supposed to jump anymore. This problem could have been prevented by just assigning ''look down'' to a different key than dodging, but apparently the playtesters didn't think of it as a big issue. Another problem occurs when Claw has to jump forward while standing still. If you press space just before pressing the appropriate cursor key, he'll jump up and doesn't have enough forward motion to make the jump. Then again, if you press the cursor key first, he'll likely take a step before jumping, and there are many situations in the game where that one step leads straight into a pool of bubbling lava. Pressing the keys simultaneously is what you're supposed to do here, but the timing is awkward and I've frequently lost lives to not getting it right. The game's hard enough if Claw always does what you tell him to - when he doesn't, it only gets that much more frustrating.
These, however, are the only two complaints about the game's controls. 90% of the Claw's challenge comes from the innovative level design, and that's exactly how a platformer should be. Furthermore the game is brimming with replay value and interesting features - such as spectacular boss fights, a level editor which can be downloaded at the official site, a very large of supply of cheat codes to make the game either easier or harder, and various multiplayer options like level racing or treasure hunting - and, last but not least, is presented beautifully. The graphics are gorgeous both in-game and during the cinematics, the dialogue makes Claw and his enemies feel far more alive, and even the box the game comes in is beautiful. With everything Claw has to offer, its relative anonymity both among PC gamers and platform fans in general is astonishing, and probably only the result of Claw simply being the wrong genre of game for the system it comes on.
For those who want something fresh and original for their PC, or for platform gamers looking to add an exciting title to their collection, Claw is an excellent choice. Fondness of cats and vague dreams of being a pirate, both of which I have, are a plus. With only a few problems in the controls, Claw is a game approaching perfection, and is easily one of the most underrated titles in PC gaming history.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 06/25/02, Updated 06/25/02
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