Review by Tom Clark

"This realty really does bite...."

The issue of violence in videogames has become quite a favourite for the media as of late. Should our precious little children really be exposed to such graphic displays of moral ambiguity? Will it turn them into bloodthirsty, ruthless individuals so desensitised to the concept of violence that they torture each other for kicks? As gamers, do we really need blood and guts and adult themes to have a good time? Just how far is too far? But the presence of oh-so-graphic violence in games isn't a new concept – back in the day developers had no qualms about splashing the claret left right and centre. Enter SplatterHouse 2 on the Mega Drive, brutally tearing through all sense of taste and decency with its rusty chainsaw of justice. Because most kids are ruthless and immoral bastards anyway…

SplatterHouse 2 picks up the story some three months after the first game (which was sadly never released on the Mega Drive) – our anti-hero Rick is haunted by dreams of his lost love, who he believes to have died at the satanic dwelling of the title. But as time passes, he feels an ever-stronger pull from the evil hell mask that turned him into a muscling hulk, granting him the super-human strength and insatiable bloodlust that he needed to banish the evil last time around (like a slightly less frightening version of Jim Carrey). The mask calls to him in his dreams, promising him the chance to save his girlfriend from Hell. Unable to resist, Rick returns to the blood-soaked manor house, and puts on the mask once again. Feeling the dark power once more flowing through his veins, he sets out to rescue his girl by visiting a bloody and violent revenge on the forces of darkness that have taken her. But as the power of the mask grows, will Rick's quest come at the expense of his own soul….?

For a scrolling beat-em-up, the plot in SplatterHouse 2 is astonishingly dark. It doesn't matter if you've not played the first game, as the basic ‘wench-in-peril' theme is very accessible, but the fact that in donning the mask, Rick is possessed by an evil just as great as that which he hopes to defeat grants the game with a suitably gloomy edge that really compliments the violence and gore that is to follow, and raises many exciting possibilities. That said, outside of the instruction manual there is very little indication of the plot in the game. After a garbled and frankly slightly confusing opening sequence when we see Rick's beau being dragged into darkness (screaming “Help Me” in a piece of digital speech even more embarrassing than Altered Beast's infamous “Wise From Your Gwave”) and see the evil mask (which looks just like Jason Vorheese's hockey mask) chucking away to itself in a sinister manner, the plot in game is left to some incredibly stilted and brief cutscenes that pretty much only serve to point out where Rick will be headed next. After going to all the trouble of expanding the ‘go-and-rescue-the-gal' storyline into something so fantastically dark and twisted, it seems an incredible waste to see that you literally proceed to quite simply go and, well, rescue the gal. The scrolling beat-em-up is hardly a genre known for its epic storytelling, but it still smacks of lost potential.

If not in plot, though, the theme of violence and darkness is certainly made apparent in the gameplay. The very first level sees you beginning some way away from the house itself, but already the sense of malice is made gloriously apparent. As you stroll from left to right in true beat-em-up style, you will notice the blood-soaked skinless demons in the background, impaled on spikes and yet still twitching in their death throes. A ragged crucifix can be seen in the distance, and as you beat down the more animated demons that head your way, grotesque leech-like creatures arrive to feed on their corpses. As opening stages go it simply can't be faulted for atmosphere, and the unashamed nastiness is well-maintained throughout the game. As with many games your energy is represented by the number of hearts you have. Rather than the standard cute-as-pie love hearts, though, in SplatterHouse you have genuine human hearts, which shows some great attention to detail. The boss fights, too, are suitably repulsive – the first boss, for example, is fought in a small room that is decorated with human entrails, while a later boss fight sees you battling a pair of what appear to be sickeningly-bloated, post-abortion foetuses that hang from nooses in the ceiling. It's genuinely disturbing and unpleasant stuff, but it certainly gives the game a very memorable feel. Few other games since – with the exception of the Silent Hill games - have managed to so effectively create an ambiance of pure evil in a game.

Once the shock value has worn off, though, it becomes apparent that there is nothing really original to get excited about in SplatterHouse 2. The level design itself is fairly uninspired stuff – aside from a few high-octane moments when you are chased by – and then proceed to battle – a large sea-monster while you drive a speedboat, it actually feels a little bit boring. Although the backgrounds may change regularly across the eight levels on offer, the changing environments don't really affect the gameplay a great deal, there's only so many times that you can walk across the screen beating enemies down before you start to crave a little variety, and there is very little on offer here. Despite the fairly large number of different enemies, and the large number of locations you'll visit, it all becomes incredibly samey and uninspiring far too quickly. Although the pace is changed slightly with the occasional moment set in an elevator shaft where the monsters continue to drop in from the sky, a similar scene is included in most games of the genre, and it all feels incredibly familiar.

Another gripe is that Rick moves quite slowly – it does suit his muscle-bound psycho look quite well, but it doesn't lend itself too well to exciting gameplay, as the enemies need to be similarly slow-paced to give you a chance at defeating them. It doesn't help that the animation isn't too great, either – this slow pace really exposes the fact that there aren't too many frames involved in Rick's movement. There are also several moments when Rick's jumping skills will be required (be it to jump over blood-flecked spikes in the ground or pits of hungry demon-larvae), and again the game falls a little flat here. The jumping control feels very foggy and imprecise (and again the jump is quite slow) which can lead to some howlingly frustrating moments as you yet again fail to make it all the way across the obstacle you are trying to avoid, despite seemingly getting as close to the edge as you could before starting your jump – on the second level, for example, it appears that you must actually let Rick's pixels and those of the spikes overlap slightly before you jump in order to safely clear them, which just smacks of shoddy design work. The repertoire of fighting moves is very limited, too – a simple punch, kick and crouching kick doesn't make for a thrilling experience, especially considering that the Streets of Rage games were at the time providing a more varied move set for four separate characters in one game, while SplatterHouse was struggling to come up with moves for just one.

It's not all bad, though – the variety of weapons on offer is very impressive, and all handle differently, meaning that the change isn't simply aesthetic (something that not many scrolling beat-em-ups manage to achieve). The lead pipe in the first stage, for example, is used to send enemies flying like blood-drenched baseballs onto the wall in the background, where they proceed to slowly slide down to the ground leaving a trail of blood, whereas the bone, another club like weapon that could so easily have been just the same but with a different sprite, feels heavier to handle, and is used to pound enemies into the ground. As the game progresses further the weapons become more outlandish and exciting – from a set of rusty garden shears and a meaty chainsaw (which feels incredibly satisfying to use, it must be said) to a powerful shotgun and beyond, there really is a sense of natural progression in the weaponry in the game – each new instrument of death that you pick up feels more violent than the last, and the fact that weapons rarely repeat themselves in the game makes each one feel like almost a set-piece in itself. Unfortunately, though, you drop your weapons each time you enter a new area – again something of a staple of the genre, but irritating and illogical nonetheless.

The punishing difficulty of the game is another plus – although it starts out easy enough it soon becomes very tough indeed, making the whole experience more compelling. The fact that you are granted infinite continues as well as a password save feature surprisingly doesn't detract from this, either, serving instead to provide that crucial ‘one-more-go' factor – you really will believe that you will beat the tricky section that's troubling you if you just try one more time, and this is a real saving grace, as otherwise there's little that would keep you playing. As dull and unimaginative as the levels may be at times, the difficulty level attacks your sense of pride, challenging you to keep going, and without such punishing difficulty, there really would be very little to keep you at your controller for long.

Graphically this game is very impressive. The backgrounds are incredibly well realised, looking extremely atmospheric in their dark, dirty and moody shades of brown, black and red, and blessed at times with an impressive ‘grainy' look that brings to mind the sort of shock gorefest movies of the Seventies that probably inspired Rick's Friday The 13th look. At other times, though, the dank but realistic backgrounds are replaced with some more special-effect led sequences. One point early on in the game sees Rick enter a dark room. Although the floor is visible the backdrop is simply a black screen, which then on occasion becomes populated by a sea of white, anguished faces that wouldn't look out of place in a Japanese horror movie for a brief moment, before fading back into darkness. It's moody and evocative stuff. At times, though, the character sprites seem a little bit too bright for the moody settings – although they look very well detailed on screen, and are satisfyingly large and chunky-looking, they do sometimes stand out just a little too much from the background, lending a cartoon-like look to a game that clearly isn't meant to be cartoon-like at all.

The music has a tendency to sabotage the atmosphere of the game at times, too. It can be just a touch too light-hearted for proceedings, really – most notably in the intro movie – while the mask provides us with a really quite sinister chuckle that sets the tone beautifully, the background music that plays wouldn't seem out of place in an episode of The Munsters. It's a problem that pops up quite frequently in the game, and it's hard to know how to take it really – at times it almost sends the game into a sense of self-parody, with its blood-soaked relentless gore and violence feeling diminished somewhat by the at times almost jovial music. Still, at other times the music suits the mood perfectly, and can at its best really enhance the moment. The sound effects fare much better, with some enemies uttering shrill and chilling cries as they lunge for you, and the sounds made when the weapons connect with your foes at times sounding just as brutal as the graphics.

It's undeniable that a lot of work has gone in to creating the right atmosphere and tone for SplatterHouse 2. It can be a genuinely disturbing and uncomfortable experience at times, with the unrelenting blood and gore being ever-present from the very beginning, and with some genuinely horrific-looking bosses, but it's hard to escape the fact that underneath the atmospheric detail, there really isn't a lot of substance whatsoever. The Mega Drive was never short of scrolling beat-em-ups, and so to stand out from the crowd SplatterHouse 2 would need to have had some really special gameplay, and it just didn't. Despite the superb atmosphere and the shock value lies just another below average brawler. A stylish disappointment, but a disappointment nevertheless.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.0 - Poor

Originally Posted: 02/14/06

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