Playing the Lame Vol. 19

Y’know, I’d love to pretend there’s some sort of synchronicity here, like I PLANNED to take two months off and review a Dreamcast game during the Dreamcast feature, but nope. I’m just lazy and it took me a while to actually get my hands on a copy of our target game today.

The truth is that I’ve been busy, between work, school and doing things for the site behind the scenes, but you couldn’t give a shit less about any of that, so I’ll spare you the details.

Oh, and once again, THANKS KENNEDY.

PLAYING THE LAME, VOLUME 19.

Name of the offending title: Evil Dead: Hail to the King.
What system was this forced upon: We’re looking at the Dreamcast version here. The game was also released on the Playstation and, oddly enough, the PC.
Who was responsible for this crap: THQ, publishers of all sorts of horrid games, published this bad boy. Heavy Iron Studios developed it, and it was apparently their first game ever. It shows.
Date this abomination was foisted upon us: December 17th, 2000.

A BRIEF LAYOUT OF “EVIL DEAD: HAIL TO THE KING“:

We all hear about how much money actors make. Admittedly, some earn more for a single job than the GNP of some small countries, but I would like to offer a little perspective. Let’s say that you starred in and co-produced Army of Darkness. This was the second sequel, and by all accounts, you are entitled to earn a little moolah for your efforts. Just to pick a figure out of the air, let’s start with $500,000. A King’s ransom! Now get your calculators out, and stay with me. First thing you do is subtract 25% of that amount to cover agents and managers. $125,000. That leaves you with a whopping $375,000. Okay, before you buy that big house, slice that figure in half. Between federal and state taxes, all at the highest rate, and someone to prepare a more complex tax return, you’re left with $187,500. That was fast, wasn’t it? But wait, there’s more! You had been divorced just prior to Army, your ex would be entitled to half of the take from that film. After taxes, that’s $93,750, and that leaves you with the same amount. You’re thinking, “Ëœthat’s still some serious coin!’ I couldn’t agree more. But between a long production schedule and studio squabbling, Army took two years to complete. So crunch those numbers again, and divide by two. That leaves you with $46,875 a year.

You too can become a rich movie star.“ – Bruce Campbell, If Chins Could Kill.

Poor Bruce Campbell.

It sure looks like Bruce has had an awesome life from the outside, doesn’t it? He’s been a major part of the major cult classic franchise Evil Dead, he’s got a resume of awesome works a mile long, he’s had a cameo in practically every Sam Raimi film ever, he’s got a steady gig with Burn Notice, and he’s even managed to convince someone to publish his own biography. Compared to someone like you or me… well, I don’t know who you are, so compared to someone like me, anyway… he’s essentially a golden god, lording his majesty over us as he sees fit. But reading over his biography and looking over his life, it’s not hard to see that the man’s gone through some tough spots. The first Evil Dead was essentially an amateur project that didn’t make him much, the second film wasn’t much better, and while Army of Darkness made some decent cash for the man, as he described it in his biography (as noted above), it wasn’t all that much when taken in context. He’s spent years and years working on low-paying B-movies, scraping and saving and living in squalor, and the fact that he’s actually doing decently NOW doesn’t change the fact that he’s had to attach himself to some truly horrid projects to pay the rent.

This, as you’d expect, is one of those horrid projects.

Now, the urban legend goes that Mr. Campbell actually apologized for being involved in the production of this game at some convention he attended shortly after its release, which, if that’s indeed true, would be incredibly damning against the game (and while the odds are against it, it’s still kind of nice to pretend, even if it is bullshit). But the fact of the matter is that, in all honesty, the man has nothing to apologize for. We all know what it’s like to be in a position where we needed money, I think, and in the grand scheme of things, providing a voice for a terrible game is less problematic than, say, beating someone to death with their own shoes, unless the game is Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust.

THQ, on the other hand, should really be apologizing for a lot.

See, the thing is that, while Evil Dead is not what one would call a “big money” intellectual property, it IS one that has a loyal fanbase, and announcing a game would have pretty much sold them on the game sight-unseen, because it had been well over a decade between the release of Army of Darkness and the game. Making a good game on your first go would have been great for everyone; THQ would have made money from the sales and hype, the fans would have been crying to the heavens about how awesome the game was, and there quite possibly might have been enough interest in the franchise generated to inspire Sam Raimi to make another film back when Bruce was young enough to pull it off convincingly.

Instead, we got a shitpile that THQ apparently made enough money on to merit two sequels, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Now, we’ve said plenty about the game as it stands; in the Thirty-Two Worst Horror Games countdown, the game took the number two position, and ML Kennedy himself assisted in savaging the product. Readers with a long memory will also note that he’s the assclown who recommended I play this game for the column, so he apparently has a fixation on it. I dunno. But the fact of the matter is that the game sucks out loud, not only because it shit all over a good franchise, not only because it was essentially a piss-poor Resident Evil knock-off, but also because frankly, it simply is NOT VERY GOOD AT ALL. Virtually everything about the game is broken, from start to finish, there’s little to no joy to be had with the game to speak of, and it’s a horrid experience no matter what your tastes in games.

Why this is, well, is a lot more involved than you’d think.

WHY THIS GAME SUCKS:

So, under normal circumstances, Playing the Lame is primarily concerned with the bad elements of a game, but occasionally, games that we cover in this column do, in fact, have some merit to them. Evil Dead: Hail to the King is one of those games, as the story, if absolutely nothing else, is actually pretty cool if you happen to be both a fan of Evil Dead and H.P. Lovecraft. Now, this isn’t to say that it doesn’t have a ton of flaws, errors and generally stupid problems in it; Ash would likely be unable to speak the same language as someone living in Damascus, for instance, and the whole “Ash’s evil twin comes back” gimmick, though understandable in the sense that we need a final boss and whatnot, is cheesy when you realized that HE ALREADY DIED IN ARMY OF DARKNESS, but whatever. Errors and annoyances aside, the story is, astonishingly, not bad. Basically, Ashley “Ash” Williams returns to the cabin some eight years after the events of Army of Darkness with his new girlfriend Jenny in tow, and the Deadites show up in full force about thirty seconds in, kidnapping Jenny and forcing Ash to strap on the chainsaw one more time. There are a few additional environments aside from “inside the cabin”, which are okay enough, and eventually you end up in Damascus, where the game introduces you to the Mad Poet, Abdul Azeez, who translated the Necronomicon ex Mortus. This is actually a neat little gimmick here; the Necronomicon, as H.P. Lovecraft created it, was written by Abdul Alhazred, the “Mad Arab” who lived in Damascus and died around 700 AD, so the writers of the game, knowing that they’re not quite using the same book, opted to write up not quite the same back story for the book. The game also brings back Annie from Evil Dead II as a Deadite, in a nice nod back to that film, and if the game itself were actually playable, little things like these would have made it a fantastic treat for fans of the series.

It’s also kind of unfair to dump on Evil Dead: Hail to the King for being ugly at this point. Granted, the game looks terrible nowadays, between the angular characters, the lack of animation in cutscenes, and the primitive “high quality” cinematics that pop up every so often, but at the time the game came out, this was kind of standard. On the other hand, it’s essentially an upscaled PS1 game, and THAT’S certainly worth mocking, as is the fact that the upscaled version of Resident Evil 2 that was released on the console was better looking than this, despite suffering from the same issues and despite being based off of a several year old game at that point. It’s ALSO worth noting that most of the monsters in the game are boring looking, and with the exception of a couple bosses, nothing is in any way impressive or interesting in the slightest, and that includes the “Evil Ash” character in any and all of his appearances… which is kind of a problem, as he’s, y’know, THE FINAL BOSS and whatnot.

I can’t say much bad about the audio, both because the game music is generally acceptable and because most of the voice acting is tolerable at worst, and hey, BRUCE CAMPBELL. Bruce might not be a master thespian, exactly, but his voice is quite expressive and he’s ON in the game, at the very least. On the other hand, the monster sound effects are boring as hell and Bruce repeats himself constantly, because variety is for losers, so there are some audio issues, to be certain, but by and large, the audio is… okay, shall we say. It doesn’t merit much frothy rage, and Bruce Campbell is awesome.

And so, we have come to the end of the “good” things that can be said about the game. I hope you have enjoyed it.

Now, a whole lot of people bag on the crap controls of the older games in the Resident Evil series, and at this point, it’s true: the tank controls the games used until about Resident Evil 4 were not very good, to put it charitably. For those who avoided the series in its entirety or are too young to remember, when I say “tank controls”, I mean “pressing up moves forward, down moves backward, and left and right make the character turn left and right” as opposed to the more logical “press a direction to move in that direction” controls you’d expect. This was kind of a staple of survival horror games in the nineties for whatever reason, and the Resident Evil series is pretty much considered the progenitor of this unintuitive control style. But the games were certainly playable enough, tank controls or no, for a number of reasons, and as the series progressed, the developers specifically added more and more control mechanics to the games that allowed them to remain playable until they were simply to archaic to be of any use. The problem is that most developers simply didn’t understand that you couldn’t just stick these controls and some item-fetching quests into your game and say “HAY LOOK GUYZ I R RE 2!” because nobody WANTED to use the tank controls in the first place, Resident Evil just made them tolerable. Now, in an ideal world, a smart developer would either eschew the tank controls completely or figure out how to make them functional, either by adding in the same mechanics Resident Evil did or something similar that also made the controls simpler, or at least more tolerable.

Evil Dead: Hail to the King does not do this.

Right off the bat, within the first twenty seconds of gameplay, you pretty much know that the game is going to be a miserable experience because of the controls. The tank controls are stiffer than Robert Pattonson’s acting, Ash is only marginally responsive to your directions, and simply moving around is a frustrating and borderline offensive affair. Ash makes incredibly wide turns when he’s running, as if the player were driving him around like a car instead of running from the undead, and moving him to an object so he can access it can occasionally require error correction to make certain he’s facing at what you want him to face. This, on its own, is annoying, but when combined with trying to avoid hostile forces that are NOT restricted by such issues, the game becomes hair-rendingly obscene in its frustration. You can control Ash with either the D-pad or the analog stick, but both methods suck, and in an ironic twist, one of the control mechanics that the PS1 version of the game features, the ability to side-step by holding a button, has been excised from the DC version entirely, because whyever would we need THAT?

Then there’s the combat mechanics, and HOO BOY are they a pile. So, you’re given two attack buttons, to use Ash’s left and right hands. Ash’s right hand is pretty much always going to be some sort of chainsaw, and if I need to explain why then you need to go see the films, mmkay? His left hand SHOULD always be a shotgun of some type of another, because that’s kind of how the films work, but instead Ash’s left hand will be brandishing whatever you happen to turn up. You start off with an axe and a pistol, and OF COURSE you’ll end up spending most of your time using the axe, because the developers hate you. Most of your fights amount to you standing as close to the enemy as you can and holding up while whaming on the two attack buttons until the enemy bites it, which, aside from meaning you’re going to take a few hits, is incredibly boring after the tenth time you do it. Now, the game offers you the ability to rev the chainsaw to deal more damage at the cost of its gas supply, because I NEED TO COLLECT MORE THINGS, and if you stun the enemy you can hit them with the saw, then finish them off with a melee attack. It should be noted that the game also has a taunt button, and while throughout the vast majority of the game it’s essentially useless, in these circumstances you can press it to taunt the enemy after finishing them off to potentially earn a better drop for defeating them than you would otherwise be able to earn.

Think about this for a second. You have a button mapped to your controller that is mostly useless except in certain circumstances in battle. IF, while hitting the enemy, they go into a stunned state, and IF you notice this and use the chainsaw to finish them, and you then use the taunt while you finish them off, THEN MAYBE you might get a better item than you’d normally get. So, instead of simply saying “If the player manages the finishing strike while they’ve impaled the enemy on the chainsaw, they may get a bonus” or asking the player to press a button that, I don’t know, DOES SOMETHING ELSE, the developers devoted an ENTIRE BUTTON to playing samples of Bruce Campbell talking instead of anything, y’know, MEANINGFUL, when the entire mechanic that this button supports could have been eliminated in about six different ways and allowed for this button to be devoted to that strafe mechanic the PS1 game features. The ONLY reason this button ACTUALLY exists is because the developers knew going in that the game was a fetid shitpile, and they figured being able to press a button to make Bruce say “Groovy” would appease the fanbase, because it’s easier to program a button to make the main character talk than it is to make a good game, obviously.

Now, since you’re going to be spending an inordinately large amount of time face-to-face with enemies, lumping the crap out of them, it’s great to note that more often than not, Ash will take significant damage in these encounters, and two or three battles will leave him near death, if not dead entirely. This becomes even more awesome when you find out that enemies respawn. “Oh,” you’re saying, “that’s not so bad. I’ve played plenty of games where the enemies respawn after I leave the screen.” Yeah, I have too, but Evil Dead: Hail to the King apparently decided that this was a lame and inefficient way of doing things, because it simply respawns enemies any time you pass a spawning point, even if an enemy JUST spawned from that location. Now, the term “spawning point” probably indicates a location in the environment that looks like a hive of evil or something, but no, you’ll just be wandering along and a ghost will spawn out of the ground for no adequately explained reason, and if you back up a little and then move forward again ANOTHER ghost will spawn from the same location while you’re fighting the first one. Thus, since you’re ALWAYS fighting enemies, and you’ll be fighting them in groups more often than not, death is not only possible, but common, and I am not at all ashamed to admit that I died five minutes after leaving the cabin for the first time, because this game fucking sucks and I’ve played Tiger Electronics handhelds with more responsive controls.

The game attempts to alleviate this by making eighty percent of all the enemies you fight drop health power-ups, as well as by allowing you to use an item called the Converter (once Ash finds the notes on how to do so) to make mushrooms, moonshine and other things into health power-ups and gasoline for the chainsaw, which is a lot like stopping the blood loss from a gunshot wound in the foot by amputating the leg; while it technically resolves the specified issue, it doesn’t actually resolve the real problem. In this case, the specified problem is “the player dies a lot”, so the solution is “give them lots of health powerups”, which kind-of sort-of resolves the issue, but in a way that takes terrible combat mechanics, forces you to use them constantly because running from battle is tantamount to suicide, and THEN breaks up the pacing of these mechanics by making you heal every two minutes, instead of actually FIXING the mechanics in the first place.

And it’s not even like the combat is even fun or anything, either. Fighting enemies in melee combat amounts to, again, spamming the two attack buttons back and forth while the enemy lumps on you occasionally, and the gun combat is no better, as Ash can’t even lock on to enemies, making hitting anything at a reasonable distance as much a matter of luck as it is a matter of skill. Again, most of the earlier Resident Evil titles alleviated this nonsense by allowing the player to automatically lock on to an enemy with a press of the lock-on button, but Evil Dead: Hail to the King offers no such option, making combat in general a matter of, seriously, running up to get as close to an enemy as possible before smacking them around with the uninteresting combat mechanics. The developers had apparently never heard of auto lock-on, or one hundred and eighty degree turns, or functional controls before they started developing this, instead choosing to take all of the BAD parts of the Resident Evil gameplay mechanics without trying to implement any of the improvements or workarounds developers had come up with, and the resulting gameplay is, frankly, broken and underwhelming.

The worst part of the whole endeavor isn’t even the busted controls, or the fact that the game is blatantly ripping off the Resident Evil franchise in the most embarrassing ways imaginable. It’s not the fact that the game is one long series of band-aids, patching up problems in haphazard and often asinine ways when simply investing some effort in really fixing the problem would have rectified the matter from the get-go. The worst part doesn’t have anything to do with the boring combat, the broken gameplay, the tedious respawning of enemies you’ll be tired of fighting about ten minutes into the game, or the even more tedious fetch quests the game makes you do over and over again because “RESIDENT EVIL DID IT LULZ”. Hey, I’ll even be charitable here and say that the worst part of the game isn’t even the fact that, in three hours of play I got stuck in the environment twice, once so bad that I actually had to turn the game off because I couldn’t escape.

No, the worst part of the game is that for all of the personality of the game that screams, “THIS IS EVIL DEAD BABY” the game itself kind of meekly whimpers, “No it isn’t”.

Evil Dead, as a franchise, is equal parts slapstick comedy, sarcastic humor and shocking scares with a solid amount of action thrown in. The movies generally don’t take themselves too seriously (well, the second and third don’t, anyway) and kind of revel in their somewhat farcical nature. The game tries to do this, and in some respects it succeeds, but the gameplay is entirely wrong for the sort of game Evil Dead: Hail to the King should be. It’s slow, clumsy, boring, and entirely too focused on hammering on one enemy for ten minutes to be fun and enjoyable in any way. Evil Dead: Regeneration, though a mediocre game, is leaps and bounds above Evil Dead: Hail to the King in terms of understanding what it’s supposed to be. I mean, come on! I’m playing as a dude with a shotgun and a chansaw for a hand here. This is not difficult. I should not be spending hours hunting for the three key items needed to open the door to the next location. Fetch quests are right out. Just let me waste things! Put in some slapstick goofiness when fighting monsters, a few bosses with patterns, nothing overly extravagant, and call it a day. Why am I searching the forest for the pages of the Necronomicon, or looking for a ceremonial dagger, or searching for mushrooms I can convert into gas for my chainsaw, or fighting the same monsters over and over again for two and three minutes at a time because they’re constantly respawning RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, you have done something wrong here, okay?

Just… just let it go, guys. Okay? Just give it up. You’ve killed it. It’s dead. The two follow-up games were tolerable, yeah, but the magic is gone. Heavy Iron Studios broke it. Just leave us with out memories and let the franchise die with what little dignity it has left.

CLOSING COMMENTS:

Well, all things considered, Evil Dead: Hail to the King isn’t the worst game out there; despite some truly wretched gameplay mechanics, broken collision detection, and a whole fuck-ton of bad ideas, the story is kind of interesting, the game wasn’t hideous when it came out, and Bruce Campbell’s great performance generally save it enough to say that it is simply, as they say in France, “Merde”, and no more. I mean, I never want to play it again or anything, but I don’t want to play lots of games and that doesn’t make them the worst ever.

Sorry Kennedy.

Anyway, in two weeks I’m apparently discussing Deadly Towers. I know nothing about the game save that it’s terrible, but some brief rooting through my box o’ NES games in the closet tells me that I do, in fact, own a copy. Why I know that the NES version of Empire Strikes Back is a pile of offal but didn’t know Deadly Towers was is a mystery to me, but in two weeks I’ll be certain to have lots of profanity stored up for you.

Anyway, until next time, I’m Mark B and you’re not, which means you’re not going to spend the next two weeks studying for certifications. Be thankful for that. Toodles an’ shit!

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