Film Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

Kicking off the summer of big franchise sequels, we have the long awaited return to the wasteland. Set between series highlight The Road Warrior and the marmite Beyond Thunderdome; Mad Max: Fury Road finds our titular hero caught-up in the affairs of a settlement known only as the Citadel. Run with an iron-fist by the tyrannical King Immortan Joe, the Citadel is home to many survivors who worship Immortan as a god for his plentiful supply of water. In terms of the plot, that’s all I’m really going to say, there’s not a huge amount of story on offer here in the traditional sense, but it’s the journey that viewers will find most appeasing.

Having George Miller back at the helm is arguably the film’s greatest strength. Like previous instalments it features all the hallmarks of a Mad Max film, but stands alone as its own entity. Leaning mostly on The Road Warrior, the film marks the return of the mean-streak that was lost in Beyond Thunderdome. There’s violence and tragedy aplenty and the film never shies away from being utterly repulsive when it feels necessary.

Taking the most from The Road Warrior, Fury Road goes for the sand-punk aesthetic with oodles of violence slapped on top. However Fury Road is not above embracing the silliness of Thunderdome, several side-characters are utterly ridiculous and campy, but they all add to the fun. The action scenes are the real selling point, keeping with the series tradition of creative fight sequences and exhilarating car chases, most of which culminate in very large explosions. The good news is that those unfamiliar with the saga will be welcome to the party as previous knowledge isn’t essential to enjoyment.

Gold medals across the board here for acting. Tom Hardy is his usually savvy-self only with added gravel in his throat. Charleze Theron adds an air of class to proceedings, even when she’s smothered in motor-oil and beating people to bloody pulps with a wrench. Nicholas Hault is perhaps the biggest stand-out, taking what could be a forgettable character into someone with actual depth. I found his character’s arc to be the most interesting as it subverts the initial expectations. The rest of the cast clearly understand the material and run a country mile with it.

Fury Road stands tall as one of the best films released this year. Whilst it’s not the most intellectually stimulating film you can find, it offers a genuine adrenalin rush that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. It’s light on the plot, but heavy on visuals and excitement. Unlike most modern action films, there aren’t extended periods of dialogue and exposition, instead it interweaves it all into the huge action sequences. Characters are defined by their actions, not their words.

On the whole, Fury Road is a brutal and bombastic piece of film-making that never slows-down or misfires. It’s a thrill-ride from beginning to end that will satisfy both long-time fans and newcomers.

Video Game Review: Clock Tower: The First Fear

It would seem that the Clock Tower series is going through a period of resurgence. Thanks to YouTuber’s like JonTron and the announcement of a new game by the developers, people seem to be casting their gaze back at this overlooked franchise. If you’ve read my stuff you’ll know that I’m a fan of the series, despite only two titles and a spin-off (of sorts) being officially released here in the UK and I’m a sucker for anything regarded as “cult”. I recently did a review of Haunting Ground, the spiritual successor to the franchise, out of sheer affection and it got me thinking about the Clock Tower games. So with that in mind and this resurrection of interest amongst the gaming populace, let’s take a look back at the entire series, starting off with the original game for the SNES. I will hereby be reffering to this game as The First Fear so to differentiate it from the similarly titled Clock Tower for the Playstation. Kudos to Human Entertainment for the creative naming there…

So, you may ask, what is Clock Tower?

Well Clock Tower tells the story of four orphan girls who are taken to a mansion in the woods by their guardian Mary after being adopted by the wealthy and mysterious Mr. Barrows. On arrival, the mansion appears to be empty, so the girls are told to remain together in the main foyer whilst Mary searches for their new father. After waiting around for a while, our protagonist Jennifer goes off on her own to find Mary but is stopped in her tracks by a blood-curdling scream from foyer. Returning to the foyer, she finds the room in darkness and the other girls missing. Jennifer sets off to find them, unaware of the psychotic killer lurking in the corridors.

Clock Tower is definitely an oddity. To many it would seem unlikely that the SNES would be home to a psychological, point-and-click horror game, but here it is. It would seem even more unlikely for said game to be based on the surreal Italian horror film Phenomena (Great movie by the way), adopting the appearances of its characters and incredibly stylish deaths. Even the game’s plot is similar, although the helper monkey and the protagonist’s telepathic link with insects are missing here. Both of which are vital plot-points in Phenomena, I really should re-visit that movie soon.

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The games visuals are also based on the movie, featuring a contrast of grand, brightly coloured rooms one moment and dark, creepy attic spaces the next. Graphically the game is easy on the eyes and establishes its atmosphere early on, although sometimes doesn’t fully deliver. It’s not a huge complaint, but I feel a lot of the darkness is undercut by a lack of violence and gore. It may seem like a petty complaint, but for a game in which your pursuer wishes to murder you with giant scissors, you’d expect some gruesomeness to seep in. It does on occasion, but never enough for it to have a proper impact. Despite the hardware limitations, the game does however have the occasional spooky moment that will catch you off guard. These can range from your stalker frantically bursting from a nearby shower or be as benign as a window blowing open as you walk down a dimly lit corridor. For a game that’s essentially made out of pixels and sprites, it shows a deep understanding of horror and how to leave an impression on its audience. Pretty impressive for a game that’s almost twenty years old.

Clock Tower works on a simple point-and-click interface, with assigned buttons for running, quick-turns, interacting and halting. Your default walking speed is slow, but you are able to run, it can be unwieldy in tight spots though, much like the quick-turning. Your control over Jennifer is limited, much like in Haunting Ground, so you gain an instant attachment to her and want to keep her alive. You click where you want Jennifer to go and what to interact with, then watch the outcome and react accordingly. There’s an inventory system in which you select an item and click where you want it to be used, it’s not rocket science. Then we have the panic mode, in which you must frantically mash the assigned panic button to stay alive ward off danger. If you fail during these segments, you’re presented with a screen saying “Dead End” and a sinking feeling that you let the poor girl die via scissor impalement. Thankfully you’re warped back to the last place that Jennifer was safe, so you can quickly learn from your mistakes.

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In terms of a HUD, all you get is a portrait of Jennifer’s face with a coloured background. Each colour represents a different mood for Jennifer, blue being calm, red meaning fear and so on. It’s simple and works well for the game. To reduce Jennifer’s panic, you must simply find a safe spot and have Jennifer take a little rest on the floor. Jennifer’s mood can be effected by traps as well as encounters with Scissorman. Whilst panicked, Jennifer can trip over her own feet, leaving her vulnerable or not survive an attack. One of my biggest gripes is that Jennifer’s mood can drop if she runs for too long. Her general walking speed is slow and makes navigating the mansion take far too long. I found myself constantly having to give Jennifer breathers as I’d want to get around the mansion as quickly as possible, but not be in a lower mental state should Scissorman spring out of a nearby cupboard. It’s more of a hindrance to balance her mood than a well implemented game mechanic.

Progress in this game is dependent on experimentation and trial-and-error. There are a lot of variables at play here that have a direct impact on how far you can make it into the game; something as simple as flicking on a light switch can greatly change the course of action. One action will directly affect another, so it is possible to become completely stuck and unable to proceed. This will put off a lot of players as you’ll have to start over several times before you’ll get anywhere. The pacing of the game also varies depending on how much you can figure out. Once you become accustomed to the mansion layout and item placement, you’ll be able to breeze through the earlier sections with relative ease. There’s no mansion map, nor any real indication of where you need to go. This is survival horror in its purest form and it’s pretty damn difficult.

For a SNES game, there’s a surprising amount of plot on offer too. Not many games on the system really went all out to tell a story, but Clock Tower goes above and beyond the call of duty. There are multiple endings, both bad and good (mostly bad) that depend on the aforementioned variables. Your actions have a direct effect on the story, meaning each play through is different, encouraging high replay value. On top of that, the mansion will be slightly different each time you start anew. The placement of items will change, allowing you to take entirely different routes than you did previously and experience the story in a different order, which will change the flow of plot.

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The only enemy you really have here is Scissorman, the homicidal maniac with a fetish for gardening tools. He will spend a lot of the game hunting you down, jumping out of random hiding spots and defying the laws of physics. By that I mean he can seemingly teleport at will, you’ll leave one room only for him to appear in front of you at the next. It gives him an otherworldly quality, but can be irritating when you are desperately trying to evade him so you can get back to finding keys and slices of ham. Seriously, ham is a vital item in this game that can save your life. Scissorman is quite slow, so outrunning him isn’t a problem; it’s getting him to stay gone that proves to be the hard part. There are several one-time use items and evasion points that do the trick, but you can soon run short of these. He will appear at pre-determined points in the game, or burst from random hiding spots, again these will change each time you start a new game.

The music is a definite highlight. The SNES was always a system known for its great sound quality and Clock Tower proudly displays this. Lots of eerie melodies and pulse-raising beats are implemented throughout the game to ramp up the tension. Instantly memorable and genuinely unnerving, it goes to show that all it takes is a sudden key-change to make the hairs on your neck stand on end. Sadly, there isn’t a lot of variety to the music, so you will hear the same songs throughout the entire game. The overall sound design of the game is solid and fitting to the tone, being appropriately calming or startlingly abrasive when the mood calls for it.

By today’s standards, Clock Tower is fairly primitive. That’s not to say it is bad, quite the contrary, it stands as being one the most wildly original games for the Super Nintendo and an integral blueprint for the survival horror genre. It can be slow and tedious, but it’s fun and occasionally spooky, which you can’t say for many horror themed games of the 16-bit era. For a game with such technical limitations, it is commendable what creators Human Entertainment achieved with the resources available. Thick with atmosphere and an entertaining story, Clock Tower sits comfortably alongside the likes of Super Metroid and Earthbound as one of the finest and most innovative games ever made for Super Nintendo.

Video Game Review: Heart of Darkness

Chances are that if you remember Heart of Darkness, you don’t have particularly fond memories of it. One of the few cinematic platformers to grace the Playstation, it is often looked back on for being graphically pleasing and above all else painstakingly difficult. I’m always one for a challenge in video games so I decided to play through this again as I never actually managed to get onto the second disc. I also recall being frightened by this game as a child. So coming away from my recent abusive relationship with Dark Souls I think that my iron will may be enough to withstand the scrutiny this game offers.

You play as Andy, a young boy who’s afraid of the dark. One day during a solar eclipse, his beloved dog Whiskey is abducted by dark forces. Andy then runs home to his treehouse, arms himself with a homemade electro-gun, hops into his spaceship and sets off to find his dog. He arrives on a strange planet called the Darklands, home to the evil Master of Darkness. You adventure across the perilous land to rescue Whiskey and defeat the Master of Darkness, thus saving all of the good inhabitants of the Darklands from his tyranny. It’s all a bit silly, but there’s a semblance of substance to it all.

The opening cinematic shows Andy being forced into a cupboard by an abusive teacher. We see that Andy’s only friend is his dog and that he seems distant from his mother. We see that Andy is a child who life isn’t overly fair to, but at the same time he’s shown to be a master inventor who’s capable of building rudimentary weapons and spaceships. The scientific side of Andy is also never explained, so we don’t get a proper grasp of who he is or how he comes to build such things. This strikes me as odd due to the game’s genre. Cinematic-platformers are meant to be sold upon the idea that you care for your protagonist and want to steer them away from danger. Barring the fact that Andy is a child, we don’t feel much of a connection to him, only that we must save him because child death is in no way pleasant or something that we want to be involved in.

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Gameplay wise, this is your typical cinematic platformer. For those unfamiliar with the genre a cinematic platformer is a game with realistic physics and character animations. Traditionally these games are played through a series of interconnecting screens, each containing different perils you must navigate the protagonist through safely. Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus are probably more recognisable examples of this genre. You don’t get the likes of power-ups in this type of game, you must rely on running, jumping, crouching and sneaking to get by and Heart of Darkness plays by these rules.

You start the game off with a badass electro-gun which is then swiftly taken away from you after a few minutes, because fuck you I guess. From there on you must avoid or outrun enemies whilst scaling cliff-faces, swinging from vines and delaying your inevitable demise. This game is teeth-grindingly difficult from the outset and it keeps a steady pace throughout. Solving each screen requires a great deal of trial-and-error, with checkpoints not being as frequent as you’d like. You are later gifted with a projectile weapon that has a slight charge-up time. This can be a monumental pain in the arse during action heavy sequences. This weapon can also be used to make seeds grow into trees to climb upon during puzzle screens. It’s handy to have it, but its use in combat is somewhat limited, only being able to kill one enemy at a time.

You will die an awful lot in this game and considering that you play as a child, there are some incredibly disturbing ways to shuffle off your mortal coil. I won’t give any of them away, but they definitely got a vocal reaction of me. After a certain amount of deaths the game will give you a hint. It’s almost like a slap in the face most of the time as you will have to suffer several horrific deaths before the game will tell you what you need to do. Even then, the hints will either be completely obvious or the last thing you’d think of.

The controls are the core issue here, there’s a slight delay to each action, making particularly frantic segments all the more challenging. You can certainly adapt to them, but with how fluid the animation is, you’d expect tighter controls to compliment it. The swimming sections are particularly taxing, requiring extreme precision as Andy moves sluggishly through the water, crashing into hazards like nobody’s business. As previously mentioned, checkpoints can be too few and far-between so you’ll have to repeat screens multiple times before getting anywhere.

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There are puzzles here, but nothing that involves a lock and key. The puzzles revolve around finding and clearing the best route to the next screen. They start off quite simple and then become more complex as you progress. Some of them are very intricate and require a lot of studying of the environment. For the most part they’re very enjoyable, but the unrefined controls can hamper this enjoyment as you’ll still be attempting to bypass the section half an hour after you found the solution.

The graphics are bright and colourful, contrasting nicely with the underlying evil at play. I like the look and feel of the Darklands, there’s a sense of natural progression to it that drives you to explore further. One downside though is that a lot of time you can’t tell what you’re supposed to grab onto or climb-up, leading to a lot of situations where you’ll be stumped for a good few minutes before realising that the tree right next to you is your access route. As much as I appreciate the finely drawn backgrounds, some indication of what is usable and what isn’t would be a welcome addition.

Heart of Darkness is fairly decent for the most part; the controls could definitely do with some refinement and the difficulty is gruelling at times, but it’s got its merits. The colourful graphics and tense gameplay make for a unique little platformer that pulls no punches. The enemies and hazards are genuinely intimidating and you will have to re-assess your tactics each time you enter a new screen. It offers enough tension and head-scratchers to be a wholly satisfying experience but its flaws won’t go unnoticed. If you like a challenge and enjoy your dark-fantasy painted over with child-like glee then I suggest you try Heart of Darkness. Some of you will like it, some will hate it, but I’m sure you’ll all agree that it’s one tough nut to crack.

Video Game Review: Dark Souls

The mere whisper of the name Dark Souls is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many gamers. The now infamous soul-crushing, rage inducing, haemorrhage causing, will-breaking, slice of sadism has been with us nearly four years now. So let’s look back at this bloody masterpiece and just how fucking brilliant it is.

I’m a more recent convert to the Souls series. I foolishly followed the crowd (the crowd being my friends) and got myself an Xbox 360. Therefore I missed out on some fantastic exclusives (The Last of Us, Heavy Rain) and had to feign interest in titles like Gears of War. So having neglected Demon’s Souls I was unaware of the series, until around three years ago a friend of mine told me to try a game called Dark Souls. So I did, I played it for roughly thirty minutes and utterly despised it. I found the controls to be sluggish, the enemies far too difficult and story made no bloody sense. I couldn’t understand why this game was remotely popular, never mind deserving of such monumental praise.

Flash forward a few years and I had new friends telling me that the game was brilliant and I should try it again. Eventually I relented out of a mixture of annoyance and pride. I can’t stand the idea of a video game making me its bitch, because fuck that noise. So with renewed interest I went out and bought a copy of Dark Souls. I took it home, put it in my Xbox and the hatred came rushing back to me. It possessed me, making me curse out loud as the opening boss carved me up like a Christmas turkey. Only this time, the rage was different.

Perhaps as I’m slightly more mature now, I didn’t feel the need to throw my controller at the wall every time I died. This rage compelled me to press onward, learning how to get around each enemy encounter, sustaining as little damage as possible and taking extreme delight in sucker-punching those skeletal shit-heads with the sharpest part of my sword. My earlier complaints of sluggish controls were put to rest as I learnt the crucial first lesson of Dark Souls; you can’t button-mash your way through this one. It would seem that tactics had to be employed.

Once I finally beat my way through the skeletal hordes of the first major area, I found myself on a bridge fighting a giant Minotaur who promptly flattened me. Once again frustration turned to motivation; after several attempts and numerous impressions of a used tube of toothpaste, I slayed the foul beast. My time to revel in victory was cut-short however. As I swiftly progressed to the newly opened area, a dragon come out of fucking nowhere and turn me into a pile of undead ashes.

And thus began my painful odyssey into Dark Souls.

Dark Souls

In terms of gameplay, Dark Souls is simple in theory but complex in practice. You must traverse through the vast fantasy world of Lordran and kill anything you come into contact with. Defeating enemies gives you souls which are used to buy items, weapons, spells and upgrade your stats. You pick a starting class, the typical Knight, Thief etc. and then add the necessary trimmings. You’re plonked into the game world and off you go, cutting down anything that gets in your way. You have your primary weapon and your shield, or if you’re playing for strength, you can dual-wield for maximum damage. For HP you have the Estus Flask, a limited supply of health boosts that refill every time you reach a bonfire. Then there’s your light attack, heavy attack and block button, it’s all very standard of the genre. Then there’s the RPG elements, like different armour to wear, magical effects, status effects and all the rest of the standard troupes. It’s very familiar but not as friendly.

There is also an online function in which players can summon each other for aid or outright murder each other. The main use for the online is so that players can leave messages around the game world. These messages will point out hidden walls, reveal the best tactics and be generally helpful. I however do not use Xbox Live, so I played the game without this function. Sadly you won’t be getting an analysis of how that works, but I imagine it’s nice to know you’re not the only person in the room being slaughtered on an endless loop.

Dark Souls is a “Metroidvania” game. For you non-nerds, that means a game set in a large interconnected world that slowly unravels as you meet certain requirements or vanquish certain bosses. A lot of the world is open to you from the start but you’ll need to improve your stats before you can see everything. Sporadic bonfires are placed around the land as checkpoints/levelling-up stations, along with some NPCs that you can choose to engage with. As you progress, you’ll uncover secrets and hidden short-cuts allowing you to bypass some of the more treacherous areas you’ve already traversed, having lost your patience and bone marrow in the process.

The sprawling world of Dark Souls offers many wondrous locations to visit like the Gothic castles of Undead Burg, the luscious yet deadly Darkroot Garden and the hellish pit that is Blighttown. The twisted land of Lordran is crafted to perfection with plenty of imagination and diversity to each location you visit, but keeping in tone with what has preceded. I’m not usually one who’s swayed by graphics, but these visuals are simply stunning.

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As you’ve probably heard, this game is harder than frozen turds. There’s no hand-holding here and the “tutorial” sets the tone perfectly. You’re given some basic equipment and are then set upon by a demon roughly twenty times the size of you. It’s pretty intense for an opening five minutes. You’ll more than likely be flattened by the hulking monstrosity and forced to keep fighting it until you succeed. Essentially, you must prove your worth to Dark Souls before it pulls away the curtain to reveal the buffet of nasties to carve away at. Once you’ve defeated the first boss you’re transported to the oddly peaceful Firelink Shrine. It’s a nice moment of calm after the stressful opening. After a small briefing with a stranger, you’ll be off on your own to paint the land with blood. Most of which will be your own.

Death is inevitable in the world of Dark Souls. Trust me, you’ll die more times than you’ll care to admit, but death is fundamental to the experience. Every time you fall in battle, you will leave a big puddle of blood and a glowing mass of souls. If you can make it back to them without dying you can reclaim your souls and continue on your merry way. If you don’t, those souls are lost forever. This may sound frustrating, but every death is another lesson learnt. You’ll kick yourself for allowing that low-level warrior to land a death blow, but at least you know exactly where you went wrong. To succeed you must fail. It’s harsh, but it’s the only way you’ll learn in this world.

Therein lies the power of Dark Souls, it thrusts pain and despair onto the player from the beginning. You must adapt and exploit the weaknesses you find in the darkness to push on. It’s the moments of retribution and success that make Dark Souls so endearing. The rush of adrenaline and subsequent release of endorphins this game can give you is highly addictive. More often than not this game will force you to the ground but you will prevail eventually if you keep pushing on. The gratification that comes with these achievements is unrivalled by many other games regardless of genre.

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For a game that’s proudly claims to be an RPG, hack-and-slash hybrid, Dark Souls has more in common with the survival horror genre than anything involving Kratos or Bayonetta. The combat is weighty, with a large emphasis on timing and blocking as opposed to the tried-and-tested smash the controller with your palm until everything is dead approach. Your every action is dictated by your stamina bar so careful management is required. Every enemy you encounter in the game is more than capable of throwing a spanner into your works if you don’t approach the situation properly. The zombie you just slaughtered with relative ease could have been distracting you from the rapier wielding knight who is about impale you from behind. The placement of enemies also factors into the gameplay. Some areas will be smaller and more claustrophobic, making you want to lure foes into a wider space to get a more strategic advantage, but alas this can once again prove to be your downfall as the wide-open space could be home to more enemies who will rip you apart with little to no effort.

The enemy placement really shines when you inevitably have to back-track through earlier realms. As you progress into a new area, the placement of enemies seems natural and you can handle them one by one, however on the back-track, you’ll find that their placement proves to be more of a hassle. This time around the group will see you coming and launch an attack, meaning the strategy you had beforehand is now useless. That right there is solid video game design.

Dark Souls can be described perfectly in two words, those being “grim” and “vague”. The beautifully crafted world of Lordran has all the appeal of Western fantasy, but slathered in a thick layer of grime and darkness. It establishes the mood early on and makes you question what must have happened to this once majestic world. That’s where the vagueness comes into the fray. There is a story to Dark Souls, but it’s up to you to discover it for yourself. The only cut-scenes here are boss introductions and environmental shifts, no exposition-heavy dialogue exchanges here. There aren’t any diaries, audio-logs or collectables to tell you either. You must talk to the handful of NPC’s you meet on your travels and study the landscape to put together the bigger picture. The NPCs all have stories of their own you can watch unfold but you are a silent protagonist, shuffling through the decay in search of answers. Even if you do manage to piece it all together, the story is open to interpretation and is a talking point amongst fans.

This is where my earlier comparison to survival horror comes into play. There’s a genuine sense of fear to this game as you explore a new area. You have no map, no indication of what you’ll be fighting or how to defeat it. It can be very overwhelming. The story also factors into this, you know that you must go forth in this mysterious land and kill mythical beasts, but you’ll stop to question why you’re doing it all. You may also question why you start the game in an asylum of the dead? The only way you’ll find out is to uncover the truth for yourself. That perhaps sounds more like Shadow of the Colossus than Silent Hill, but it shares a lot of flesh with latter, placing you in a beautiful but idyllic environment full of grotesque beings that will try to separate your head from your shoulders. You inch your way through the gloom, trying to avoid your inevitable death, only to be defeated and forced to repeat your trudge through the once whimsical sludge.

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One thing a game of this calibre lives-and-dies on is its boss fights. Well, you’ll be glad to know that Dark Souls has some of the most memorable boss fights of recent years. Bar a few cut-and-paste fights toward the end, the multitude of nasties you must kill never fails to impress. There’s some troubling creativity going on at From Software, the Gaping Dragon being one of the more unsettling designs. I obviously don’t want to spoil the surprises, but as you’d imagine, the further in you get, the bigger and more elaborate the bosses become. However your initial fear of them will eventually turn into an almost sadistic need to brutally stomp them all. You’ll be riding on high, feeling invincible as you dispatched the last few bosses with relative ease, then you’ll encounter Ornstein and Smough, which is hands down one of the most unforgiving boss fights you’ll ever play through. On the down-side sadly is the final boss, who is awesome in design but the fight itself is lacklustre. It’s not the epic showdown you’d imagine, just a tedious back and forth of parrying until you whittle his health down to naught. A wholly unsatisfying conclusion if you ask me.

That in mind, there isn’t a lot else you can fault Dark Souls on. Elements such as the difficulty, vague plot and demanding nature would often be highlighted as negatives in other titles, but with Dark Souls it’s different. These are the ingredients that make it so immersive and appealing in the first place. Although there are certain gameplay functions that could be included in the tutorial. You will often find items, be unsure of their purpose and use them willy-nilly, only to discover that these would be vital to later success. In the same vein, certain enemies can seem unbeatable, when in reality all it takes is a simple weapon alternation that the game doesn’t tell you about. I’ll admit that I had to turn to a walk-through several times as I played the game, I’m not proud of it, but I had no choice.

Above all else, the biggest issue with Dark Souls is the frame-rate. Many reviewers have mentioned this before, but it is necessary to highlight it. Once you reach Blighttown the frame-rate will drop significantly, never reaching unplayable levels but it’s very noticeable. I’m sad to say that it broke the atmosphere for me, Blighttown wasn’t so intimidating when everything moved sluggishly towards me. This technical hitch is understandable, with the game world being so vast there’s a lot for the game to process and load at one time. Thankfully it only effects one or two areas of the game. It’s certainly forgiveable, but it will always stand out as the biggest blemish on an otherwise perfect game.

Dark Souls is in fact more than just a game, it’s an experience. The grim fantasy world offers a journey the likes of Skyrim could only dream of. This isn’t a game about meaningless side-quests and the pursuit of treasure. This is a journey through a dying world, trying to piece together what has caused the pestilence that plagues its inhabitants. You need patience, skill and resilience to brave the trek across Lordran. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart or the Call of Duty inclined. Dark Souls will push you to your limits and demand absolute dedication. You will feel a multitude of emotions from white-hot rage, to sadness and even a fleeting sense of tranquillity along the way. It can be physically and mentally exhausting to deal with the constant cycle of death forever weighing down upon you, but that is where Dark Souls truly succeeds. It shows you that suffering is only temporary and that message resonates throughout the game. If you give in to it and get on its wavelength, you’ll find it to be one of most rewarding games you’ll ever play.

Having beaten the game, I can say that I’m not the same person I was when I started.

Video Game Review: Haunting Ground

The survival horror genre seems to have subtly crept back into the mainstream. Recent releases like The Evil Within, Alien: Isolation and the frankly evil P.T. have proven to be top quality games that really deliver in the fear department. Two of the three make you defenceless and forever vulnerable to the dangers around you. Removing a safety net that gamers are used to is sure to provoke a reaction, usually one that involves the bowels and fresh trousers. We’re seeing less guns and more broom closets and this is a good thing. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that any game in which I find ammo round every corner isn’t very scary. I’m not going to fear a scary monster if I’m able to unload an entire clip of ammo into it’s face with little-to-no consequence, but I digress. With this new (if not already tried-and-tested) direction scaring the shit out of everybody, I thought now was the perfect time to look back at another game which embodied the same values but never really got the time of day.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with Haunting Ground. A game that simply slipped through the cracks. Coming out late in the Playstation 2’s life, it received above average reviews but underperformed in sales. It is also a spin-off to the cult survival horror series Clock Tower which never really caught on in this country, so that particular selling point was redundant to us Brits. Haunting Ground was seemingly doomed to fail as gamers were preparing for the next gen consoles and horror gaming was relatively flaccid at this point.

Enough background, let’s get down to business.

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Haunting Ground is a game in which you play as Fiona Belli. A young girl who following a horrific car accident, wakes up to find herself imprisoned in the eerie Belli Castle. As she explores the castle she meets its handful of residents, most of whom are man-made Homunculi who are anything but friendly. Soon after Fiona learns of the “Azoth”, a supernatural power she supposedly possesses that has rebirthing qualities.

Sounds rather cliché doesn’t it?

On the surface it all sounds a bit half-arsed. Haunting Ground however takes many of the familiar troupes of survival-horror and subverts them into a surreal, psychosexual nightmare. Fiona herself is young, naïve and timid, forcing the player to sympathise and want to protect her from the outset. There’s no real weapons to defend yourself here, you must run and hide wherever possible until your pursuer loses the trail. As you explore the beautiful Belli Castle you meet its different inhabitants, or as the game refers to them “stalkers”. Each of them more twisted than the last and they all want to capture Fiona so they can do nefarious things with her body, particularly her uterus which houses the Azoth. Be it impregnate her, abuse her or simply kill her, all their motives derive from a fixation on perversity and vanity. The story here is baffling and takes a few morbid twists and turns; but always focuses on Fiona’s vulnerability and the several ways these people want to exploit her.

To put it bluntly, Haunting Ground is disturbing.

Though disturbing in a way that other games aren’t. The horror here forgoes heavy gore and jump scares in favour of tension and revulsion. The game covers a lot of ground from insanity, mythology, alchemy, Freudian ideology and even rape. Whilst the game is never explicit with the latter, and rightfully so, there’s still a lot to make your skin crawl and stomach turn. Despite its somewhat sexual leanings, the game never comes across as seedy or in bad-taste. The style isn’t gritty; everything on display is very surreal and fantastical, softening the more controversial elements of the game. There’s an air of class to Haunting Ground, its jaw-dropping art-design really raises it above some of its contemporaries and keeps it devoid of gratuitous smut. A few subtle details are present however, like the way Fiona’s breasts jiggle slightly as she moves or the many deaths via penetration you can be subjected to. It’s designed to disturb more than it is to titillate and it definitely succeeds in that area. On the not so subtle side of the things are the game over screens, I don’t want to give them away, but once you’re subjected to them, you won’t be a in hurry to see them again. They still make me feel nauseous to this day.

The enemies in this game are genuinely intimidating and scary in their own ways. The first stalker you encounter is Debilitas, the mentally disabled handyman of Belli Castle. His appearance is akin to Sloth from The Goonies, which only makes him more unsettling as he gleefully hunts you down and squeezes the life out of you. Debilitas is easily outwitted but his hulking physique and child-like fascination with Fiona make him incredibly dangerous. The second stalker comes in the form of Daniella, an insane maid created by her master to be perfect. Daniella however is far from perfect; she cannot breathe, taste or feel pleasure. She is embittered towards Fiona for being a real woman, wanting to rip out her uterus and claim it as her own so she can finally be “perfect”. These two are definitely the most memorable of the stalkers. The creativity seems to be lost in the later portions of the game, boiling down to men in robes pursuing you.

The most novel part of Haunting Ground (and believe me, there’s a lot of novel parts to this game) is the inclusion of a canine sidekick named Hewie. Whilst a strange addition to a psychosexual, giallo influenced horror game he adds a fun twist and helps to alleviate the grim atmosphere and feelings of oppression. It’s comforting knowing that you aren’t alone in this. Hewie is used to find items, solve puzzles, attack stalkers and be generally adorable.

Well, adorable when he wants to be.

Hewie can be unresponsive one minute and Crufts standard the next. Too many times I have found myself repeatedly calling for him whilst being savagely beaten to death, only for Hewie to be in a completely different area of the castle. This does encourage you to really pay attention and treat him like, well, a real dog I guess. There’s also a system of praising and scolding Hewie which can effect his behaviour. You can sort-of “train” him, but my advice is to keep his health topped up, give him regular praise and make sure he follows you into each room to ensure your safety. He may not always listen to you, but you’ll be over the moon when he saves you from the brink of death.

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Speaking of mortality, there are no health bars in Haunting Ground, only a fear meter. That’s right; you have to manage Fiona’s mentality to survive the attacks of your stalkers. Fiona being the timid sort gets frightened quite easily. You can be severely punished for curiously inspecting a cracked wall, only for lots of insects to come flying out. This in turn causing Fiona to go into a panic, start screaming and attract your current stalker. There are also smaller enemies that can alert stalkers to your presence, ineffectual hiding places that never work and traps that cause instant death.

So tread carefully.

The fear meter is dictated by the screen, or what you can’t see of it. Being panicked can cause Fiona to fall over as she’s running or freeze up at a moment’s notice, it also will begin to distort the screen. If a stalker manages to inflict significant damage this triggers a moment of pure terror causing the screen to turn to static and Fiona will begin sprinting. The only control you have over Fiona during these segments is the direction that she turns, which creates some incredibly intense chases. Fiona will however eventually calm down but there are items you can use to reduce her panic just long enough to find a nice wardrobe to hole up in. There’s also a stamina system, which you determine from how quickly Fiona is moving. After long stretches of running she will become tired and slow down, but again there are items for this.

I also feel the need to mention the doors in this game. Which may sound slightly odd, but they can actually be quite useful in more ways than the obvious. The game never really explains this to you though; it’s more something you learn through experimentation. Whilst being chased you can shut doors to slow stalkers down or hide behind doors that are ajar for a quick fix. You can also kick an open door shut as a stalker is entering, dealing some damage and giving you time to flee. It’s the small details that always impress me.

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Haunting Ground also has an early version of a crafting system, which seems to have become the bread and butter of horror games these days. You don’t make weapons as such, just items that can temporarily stun or deal a small amount of damage to your stalker. These items are quite difficult to use and will take some mastery before you can be effective with them. Combining a stunning item with a few bites from Hewie can ensure good damage and enough time for you get two rooms away from your stalker. The crafting system however is one of my least favourite aspects of the game. You have to enter alchemy labs and play an infuriating mini-game in which you must stop rotating colours and match them together to make different items. This requires a lot of precise timing and the game doesn’t initially tell you what combinations make which items. Even when you do make items, you won’t know what they actually do until you use them; some can even be poisonous to both Fiona and Hewie. Arguably this does reinforce the idea of Fiona being unskilled and keeps with the recurring theme of alchemy, but ultimately it’s quite frustrating. You can also make items to reduce panic and increase stamina, but good luck with that.

Graphically the game is stunning for a Playstation 2 title. Capcom really outdid themselves this time, I can’t think of many other titles for the system that look this good. The castle itself is a gorgeous Italian-Gothic labyrinth that frantically alternates between dazzling and terrifying. It’s very charming and atmospheric, often distracting you from the horrors that are following you around every corridor. Everything is dripping with atmosphere, complimented by the game’s score. Electronic droning and distortion is used to great effect here. Capcom’s signature fixed (but also scrolling) camera angles from the Resident Evil series are also present. These voyeuristic viewpoints help to show off the beauty and menace of Belli Castle and often don’t inform you of upcoming dangers. You’ll have to rely on Hewie to do that for you. The camera also flows seamlessly from room to room with no load times, so chase segments are never interrupted. A HD re-master was planned, but never came to fruition. I think we should all take a minute of silence to imagine what could have been.

Haunting Ground

The controls here are solid and easy to get to the grips with. Fiona is fluid and responsive, so evading your stalkers does come down to skill rather than luck. The four commands you give Hewie are mapped to the right analogue stick and easy to remember. The rest of the buttons are your standard interact, crouch, attack and run. No complaints on this front, everything is simple and works beautifully. If you get caught it’s your fault, there’s no blaming the game here.

On the downside of things is the plot. It’s not bad, but on a first play-through can be very confusing and incomprehensible at times. Once you do get your head around it, you’ll find it to be a rather unique and twisted tale. Unlike Capcom’s other games like Resident Evil, there’s not a whole lot of exposition. A lot of conclusions must be drawn from finding memos and various notes scattered throughout the castle. A small understanding of myths and folklore is also recommended, particularly when you have golems, homunculi and alchemy as key focuses of the plot. The same can be said for the game’s puzzles. The survival horror genre usually works in two ways, either “Find door, find key, use key, open door”, or “Find door, find seven unrelated items, tape them together, go to statue, offer object, get key, open door”. Guess which category Haunting Ground falls into?

The puzzles here vary between cryptic and nonsensical half the time. Such as a door that can only be opened with a broken marionette or plucking the right Mandrake from a flower bed. Failure to acquire said Mandrake can result in death or attracting the current stalker. The enigmatic puzzles and run-and-hide gameplay can prove very challenging for those unfamiliar with this sub-genre. As you’re making progress with a puzzle your stalker can appear, throwing you temporarily off track and make getting back to where you were a problem. You’ll need patience and a knack for lateral thinking to make any progress, so it’s definitely to not everyone’s taste. All that coupled with the game’s overt weirdness and sexual undertones will turn a lot of people off before they’ve made it past the first stalker.

With the current climate of survival horror gravitating more toward the slow-burning, stalker and prey type games, Haunting Ground still feels fresh. Its bonkers story, gorgeous (if not unsettling) visuals, memorable characters and Gothic horror leanings should appease most fans of the genre. You won’t find jump scares here, just pure tension and a whole load of ickiness that will repulse even the most hardened of horror fans. It has its weaknesses, particularly the crafting system, but the atmosphere and art design more than make up for any shortcomings. There are multiple endings that encourage replays and extra modes of difficulty for those who love a challenge. It can be fairly pricey these days due to the poor sales business, but I highly recommend this game to anyone who can stomach it. What you’ll encounter is a truly unique experience that will remain beneath your skin long after you’ve finished.

Film Review: Shock Treatment (1981)

Chances are that most of you are familiar with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but how many of you have heard of, or even seen its sequel Shock Treatment? I often find that most people aren’t even aware that it even exists. To me, that’s a crying shame. Shock Treatment is a film that deserves attention and a lot of it. For my money it is one of the most criminally underrated films of all time. Living in the shadow of one of the films that defines the term “cult” can’t be easy. So let’s take a look at this hidden gem of a film.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I feel a slight history lesson is in order.

Before Shock Treatment came to fruition, Richard O’Brien had a very different idea for a sequel. It was to be called Rocky Horror Shows His Heels and carry on from the ending of the previous film, bringing back all the major characters. For a number of reasons, this never materialised so instead O’Brien wrote a different script called The Brad and Janet Show. This script is very similar to Shock Treatment, featuring the same musical score, but was set in different locations around the town of Denton. However, misfortune struck again. An actor’s strike was in place at the time which forbade actors from filming outdoors. O’Brien then had the genius idea of setting the whole film inside the TV studio from the previous script and thus Shock Treatment was born. It was clearly a very difficult film to get made and it does show in the final product.

Anyway, let us move on to the good stuff.

Shock Treatment 4

As a film in itself Shock Treatment is an oddity. Besides being a sequel to one of the biggest cult films of all time, the premise is rather unique, or at least it was in 1981. Set several years after the events of Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment finds our heroes Brad and Janet (This time around played by Cliff DeYoung and Jessica Harper) stuck in a rut. Their marriage is on the rocks, so they decide that going on the marriage-themed game show “Marriage Maze” might be the thing to solve their problems. However this particular game show is housed with the Denton TV Studio, where every small event is filmed and broadcast episodically in front of a live studio audience that never leave their seats. Post game show Brad finds himself locked up inside a psychiatric-hospital drama known as Dentonvale. Meanwhile fame begins to slowly seduce Janet away from him and into the arms of a nefarious fast-food tycoon who is hell-bent on selling mental health to the nation.

It all sounds rather strange doesn’t it?

Well believe me, it is strange. Shock Treatment’s concept was definitely ahead of its time. This film was talking about reality television years before reality television was even a thing. At the time of its release, the idea of a wife selling her husband down the river to pursue a successful television career would have been mostly unheard of. Nowadays that seems like the norm. The idea of an enclosed television studio broadcasting its residents episodically must have also seemed like a bizarre notion. It’s rather scary how much of Shock Treatment seems to have come true. There is something quite eerie about it all, but that only makes me love it more. What one must bear in mind when watching Shock Treatment is that it is a black comedy, a deliberate satire on American culture from a very cynical British viewpoint. Take for example the song “Thank God I’m a Man”, an attack on machoism and the notion of men being in charge. Richard O’Brien doesn’t pull many punches here.

Shock Treatment

Like Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment is a musical and a damn fine one at that. The score is beautifully written, featuring the trademark lyrical wit that O’Brien is known for and the songs are arguably better than those found in Rocky Horror. Whilst the Time Warp and Sweet Transvestite are bona fide classics, the music of Shock Treatment definitely had a lot more thought put into its composition, using a mish-mash of genres that complement the themes of the lyrics. Stand-out examples include the clever “Look What I Did to My Id”, the catchy “Little Black Dress” and the sultry “Looking for Trade”. “Me of Me” on the other hand sounds like a real eighties pop hit, only much more narcissistic in its delivery. The title song “Shock Treatment” is an insanely catchy number that is sure to be stuck in your head long after the film is over and the anthemic opening number “Denton U.S.A.” is a biting satire on American patriotism. With choice lyrics such as “You’ll find happy hearts and smiling faces, and tolerance for the ethnic races” and my personal favourite, “This is the Mecca of America, the Bethlehem of the West!”  that really display O’Brien’s wicked sense of humour.

Visually the film is a treat. Taking its low budget and running a mile with it, the film paints an accurate depiction of an early eighties TV studio. The costumes and sets are particularly garish, adding an air of cheap silliness to the somewhat dubious proceedings. Everything feels so artificial and unnatural that you can’t help but be intrigued by it. This juxtaposes nicely with horrible acts like Brad and Janet being force-fed sedatives and the not-so-implied incest. Bearing in mind this film is rated PG, so these scenes aren’t likely to offend, they just give us a brief glimpse into the darker sides of fame. It’s very reminiscent of the films of David Lynch, particularly something like Blue Velvet, despite this film being made five years previously.

Shock Treatment 3

Whilst fans of Rocky Horror may be disappointed that their dear Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon didn’t reprise their roles, they can put their fears of poor recasting to rest. Both Cliff DeYoung and Jessica Harper take the established formula of the previous film and kick it up a notch. They aren’t playing the same characters we knew in Rocky Horror, by this point Brad and Janet are very different people. Jessica Harper pretty much comes with a cult pedigree, known for her roles in Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Brian De’Palma’s unsung masterpiece The Phantom of the Paradise, she adds a great air of authenticity to the proceedings. Her vocal range is astonishing and she breathes new life into a somewhat timid and frankly boring character. Her performance gives Janet much more depth and she really makes the role her own. Cliff DeYoung on the other hand has a much meatier role to sink his teeth into. Not only playing Brad, he also plays the film’s villain, fast-food tycoon Farley Flavours. DeYoung also possesses a great vocal range, using his voice to distinguish both of the characters; simultaneously channelling Jack Nicholson during any of Farley’s scenes.

Rocky Horror alumni Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn and Little Nell return for this outing and rightly so. There are murmurs that O’Brien does not like this film or his performance as the eccentric Cosmo McKinley. I understand that actors can be dissatisfied with their own work, but O’Brien is wonderfully creepy here and a joy to watch. Patricia Quinn chews the scenery as always and does a fantastic job doing so. Any scene she shares with O’Brien is golden as their comic timing together is always on point. The implied incest between their characters carries through here too, only it’s not as subtle this time around. It’s a shame that Quinn hasn’t been in more as she’s a real scene stealer.

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Little Nell gets about as much screen time as she did in Rocky Horror, but here she’s playing the much lighter, bubblier Nurse Ansalong; the sexy nurse with a voice that could strip paint off walls. She is accompanied by her boyfriend Rest Home Ricky, played by the wonderful Rik Mayal in one of his early film roles. The rest of the film’s cast is rounded off with Charles Grey, the narrator of Rocky Horror, playing a very similar role, although it is heavily implied he’s the same person. Ruby Wax and Barry Humphries also feature in supporting roles. Humphries is especially noteworthy as the blind TV host Bert Shnick who is very reminiscent of the child-catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. A true creep of cinema if there ever was one.

Moving on to the technical side of things, the direction by Jim Sharman is commendable considering the films limitations. All of the musical sequences feel natural and dynamic, making great use of the TV motif the film carries. During the dialogue sections there’s always something going on in the background, be it a crowd of people walking or one of the minor characters grabbing a coffee. This really brings the TV studio to life, making it feel like an actual world as opposed to four concrete walls. The cinematography is strong, with the lighting complimenting the film’s thrift aesthetic perfectly. A lot of the musical numbers here are done with long takes, which always stands out in a musical. The “Lullaby” sequence for example is done in one take, scrolling past each character’s bedroom window as they sing their verse before sleeping. It’s simple but very effective.

On the negative side of things, the plot can be a little bit vague and confusing on a first watch. Not much of the logic behind the TV studio is properly explained, nor how it all works, but repeat viewings grant a deeper understanding of the story. Other than that, there’s only the odd supporting actor whose voice isn’t as strong as the rest, but they barely get any screen time anyway. At times the film can seem a bit slap-dash, but looking at its history, this is easily forgiveable. Overall, I can’t find many faults with this film and I’ve always felt that it’s strengths do outweigh its weaknesses.

Shock Treatment is in no way a bad film. Despite what many critics and Rocky Horror fans would have you believe. In some ways, it is the superior film. A controversial statement, but not said without reason. The music is better written and it  carries a lot more weight in the story department. Where Rocky Horror was a pastiche of Hammer Horror and B-Movies, Shock Treatment is darkly comic take on American television, consumerism and the quest for fame. That doesn’t mean it’s more relevant that its predecessor, but it provides more food for thought than camp thrills. It’s about time the film was given the reappraisal it deserves. Word has it that Richard O’Brien is bringing it to London’s West End at some point in 2015, which might be just the thing it needs to bring in the audience.

To quote Patrica Quinn herself, “Shock Treatment is not a prequel, not a sequel, but an equal to Rocky Horror” and she’s most definitely right. For all of you out there that have not seen Shock Treatment, I highly recommend you seek it out. Rocky Horror may be the king of cult movies, but Shock Treatment is the often overlooked sibling who anxiously awaits their time on the throne.

Video Game Review: Theme Hospital

Ah, Theme Hospital. There is no denying that it is a gaming classic in every sense of the word. It has recently found its way onto Origin’s “On the House” service for a limited time, so I advise you all to take advantage of this offer. Much like how I am taking advantage of it by milking everyone’s nostalgia so that they will read my work and I can be a real writer and make tons and tons of money.

Journalistic integrity be damned!

Sorry, got a little carried away there. On with the review…

As most of you will already know, Theme Hospital is a management game in which you build and run hospitals in different British locales that are in desperate need of good medical practice. Despite these seemingly good intentions, your main objective is not to just treat your patients, but bleed them dry of every penny they have whilst doing so. What sounds like a rather bitter-sweet premise is gleefully undercut by the game’s very British and somewhat absurd sense of humour. Which would become a trademark that Bullfrog would be associated with throughout their short lifespan.

Personally, I think Theme Hospital may be their best in terms of jokes and wit. The illnesses you encounter in this game are not your typical ailments. They vary from the eloquently named The Squits (You can imagine what that entails) to The King Complex. The latter being a mental illness in which patients believe that they are Elvis, even dressing and talking like him. You must then employ a Psychiatrist to convince the poor soul that they are not Elvis, but doing so can result in their death. How you may ask? I have no idea, but it’s absurd and I love it. Other highlights include Bloaty Head, The Uncommon Cold and Slack Tongue. I’ll let you discover those ones by yourself.

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The core gameplay is very typical of the genre. You start with an empty hospital and then build your standard diagnosis and treatment rooms wherever you so desire. These range from simple GP’s Office, to full-scale Wards and Operating Theatres. Once you have the facilities you must employ doctors, nurses, cleaners and receptionists. Later in the game you have to take specialists like Surgeons into consideration for more complex illnesses. The hiring of staff is a simple case of scrolling through CV’s that offer amusing biographies of potential employees, alongside a meter showing how good they are at their job. The worse or better they are, the funnier their description. My favourite positive description is still “Plays a lot of Theme Park”.

Ladies and gentlemen, Bullfrog Productions. Meta before Meta was popular.

From there it’s a case of monitoring what goes on in your hospital and stepping in when necessary. You’ll often find that things are going smoothly, only for a patient to come into the hospital with a type of illness that neither you nor your staff knows anything about. This is where the game gets interesting as you have to make decisions on what to do with such patients. This can be a choice of sending them home, making them wait for new facilities to be built or sending them to a rival hospital who may be better equipped to deal with them. You even have an option to send them to the “Auto-Autopsy Machine” for an instant analysis and full access to the required treatment facilities. Doing this however kills the patient outright and can be damaging to your hospital’s reputation if the public are made aware of your murderous antics.

For such a bright and colourful game it can veer into some rather dark territory, but it all adds to the charm. If you fail in your mission to bleed your patients dry you are treated to a series of low-polygon cut scenes showing a doctor being caught by the paparazzi in a number of incriminating situations like grave-robbing or public masturbation. These scenes are then followed up by your eventual humiliation and your dismissal from your job. Credibility and money are the goals here, curing patients is secondary, so be sure to focus on those bank balances.

For a game made eighteen years ago, I think the graphics are still delightful. You can say that they’re primitive, dated etc. but they’re a perfect fit for the game and don’t need to be anything flashy. They’re bright, bold and colourful. Even when you’re shown unpleasantness such as a patient vomiting or dying, it’s presented in such a cartoonish manner that it doesn’t feel downbeat. A lot of the time it’s quite funny, especially when you have fifty patients in your hospital who have all caught that insidious stomach bug that’s been spread due to your lack of cleanliness. There’s something frustrating, yet oddly charming, about watching all of your potential customers re-decorate your hospital with large quantities of brown gut juice.

Theme Hospital Sick

So are there any bitter pills to swallow here?

There is the odd flaw here and there, but what game doesn’t have those? I’d say the biggest drawback is the tiling system used for constructing rooms. Each room has to fit certain dimensions and can really be troublesome if you’re struggling for space. This does mean that you can’t build your hospital exactly the way you want and it can boil down to an almost Tetris like level of skill trying to fit in that desperately needed treatment room. The game only features eight pieces of background music which are designed to resemble the themes of cheesy hospital dramas. I personally don’t mind them too much as again, it’s all part of the game’s charm. Other players however may find these to be very repetitive and annoying. You do have the option to turn off the music however if this is the case.

One final gripe would be the huge leap in difficulty in the later levels of the game. It’s understandable that the more you succeed the more you should be challenged; but it gets to a point where you can be completely overwhelmed, out of money and rapidly losing credibility. In situations like this there is practically no way out and you must turn away certain patients as you simply can’t handle them. Then just as you think things can’t possibly get any worse, a sickness bug will make its way into the hospital and destroy any hope you had of resolving the issues. I wouldn’t say the game is unfair, it can be punishing if you don’t plan ahead, so you must definitely learn the intricacies of the game before tackling the later levels.

On the whole, Theme Hospital is a brilliant reminder of the joys that come from simplicity. The gameplay here doesn’t depend on the learning of several different commands, hot-keys and mastery of lightning reflexes. All you need is the left-click and a mind to plan ahead. You need to keep your cool under pressure and focus on how to maintain your bank balance and reputation. For a game with such whimsical display, it’s amazing how stressful and challenging it becomes in its later levels. I’ll hold my hands up now and admit that I’ve never actually beaten the game. I can usually get to Level 10 before I end up crying in the shower like the pathetic mess I am.

The biggest point of praise I will put upon Theme Hospital is that it’s endearing. It’s a simple game to pick up, but difficult to master. It carries a level of addictiveness not found in a lot of games these days. With the management genre dwindling in recent years, it’s a very nice reminder of how a simple idea can generate hours and entertainment. Theme Hospital does show its age, but it’s most certainly not dated. I’ve been playing this game since I was a child, here I am as a twenty-two year old man and I’m still playing it. If that’s not a sign of an endearing game, I don’t know what it is.