By Ben Barrett on August 1st, 2013 at 5:00 pm.
Splatter: Just Harder Times, to use its full title, is the tale of a man who one day decides to experiment with using guns instead of hands, luckily coinciding with the start of a zombie-type apocalypse. Opening a door? Shoot it. Looting a crate? Shoot it. Moving a car out of his way? Blam-blam-blam-kabloom. Everything in the top down world is now thankfully malleable with either bullets or words, leaving protagonist Max with an adventure ahead of him. Here’s Wot I Think.
The game’s title is rather telling. “Splatter” suggests a game mostly about explodifying fleshy meat bags, while “Just Harder Times” – implying perhaps an actual plot – is relegated to a subtitle. And that’s the approach the game mostly takes. Within seconds of starting I was blasting away at vaguely humani-form creatures, and rampaging around the city after precious cash to fuel my destruction engine with new upgrades. In theory, I don’t have a problem with this. An action game can be an action game all it likes. But in practice, Splatter needs a little bit more.
That’s not to say it isn’t satisfying. There’s that never-stop-clicking feedback loop: killing enemies to get further through a map to get more loot to ever more effectively kill more enemies. The light smattering of weapons is enjoyable, from a no-frills pistol up through flamethrower, laser rifle and personal favourite, rocket launcher. The last has a delightful trigger mechanism where the rocket hangs in the air for just a moment, before thrusting forwards to a fiery conclusion. Various upgrades are available that are capable, with enough investment, of turning even the default pea-shooter into a multi-bullet spraying hand-cannon of deafening noise. They’re just accessible enough to prevent chosen firearms from growing stale, but tiered at an adequate expense that getting everything is impossible: a fine balance.
Interaction with the environment had me grinning from the off. Crates, tables, doors and all manner of other flimsy objects litter the battlegrounds, scattering themselves explosively at the barest caress of a bullet. This gives the combat areas a real sense of progression. They start pristine, and quickly devolve into messy solutions of bodily fluids, charred flesh and broken scenery. Just as a particular arena or set of circumstances is beginning to dull – though, I think, not quite soon enough – a map will open up into an exploratory segment with multiple winding paths filled with goodies. Alternatively, there’ll be a pause in the action as a new weapon is acquired, or the monsters’ light-aversion is brought to the fore.
This is what elevates Splatter above mediocre territory – variety. The top-down shooter genre has been around for decades but I’ve never seen it implemented this well. Just as the standard shamblers were starting to bore, blind insects that sensed footsteps were introduced, making immobile combat optimal. Once I had a handle on those, their larger, fire-spitting uncles came with them, forcing me to move, and catalysing situations in a way that called to mind Half-Life 2’s ant-lion levels.
This concept is expanded past simple moving and shooting. Having spent the entire game looting as I pleased, I came upon an uninfected man moving between his house and garden, where he had a locked shed. Spotting money inside, I rushed to find the key, foolishly picking it up directly in front of him. He called me out and told me to fuck off, far from the willing accomplice posed by the NPCs of most games. There were life-or-death choices and side-mission branches with entire maps to themselves, well beyond the constraints I was expecting.
A game like Splatter desperately needs something to tie it together. It needs a world to go through, a plot to explore and, basically, a task to do. And it tries, oh by god does it try, but falls significantly short. Maps feel unlinked, like they were constructed first and then jerry-rigged to lead onto one another and clumsily hold the cast. The greatest strength of the violent sections, being random enough to be enjoyable, becomes its greatest weakness as a full game when Max’s actions stop making sense, abandoning the quiet, peaceful survivor town he discovers in favour of the hell-city behind him. Characters show up in illogical places, some how getting way ahead of Max despite him receiving the assistance of automated transport.
The plot – clichéd and stereotypical in the extreme – takes a nose dive once it has to actually explain why there’s terror everywhere. On top of that, it begins to tell itself in the wrong order, Max heading for locations he has no knowledge of in an attempt to find a solution he doesn’t know is there. This goes unhelped by a woeful translation job that haphazardly and continuously makes reference to “not believing in accidents any more” without ever establishing why, or what this is regarding. There’s no English voice acting either, just a series of oddly sped up clips that sound rather like the devil speaking in reverse. Unnerving, certainly, but more amusing in their story-hinging position than anything else.
My eventual playtime clocked in at a little over four hours, so it’s unfortunate that there wasn’t a drive to play it again. For every pleasing, original set piece – like driving a combine harvester through wave after wave of malevolent horde on the world’s most deadly day-trip – there’s the incomprehensible interruption of another badly worded cutscene. Disjointed, oddly first-person dialogue (even for tutorials directly referencing mouse buttons) and nonsensical decisions bracket every sudden kick of brilliant music or subtle lighting effect.
It’s a shame, because if you took all the non-combat stuff out you still wouldn’t have a better game. These elements are needed, but they’re needed done right, or at the very least unobtrusively, and the game’s damned either way if that isn’t made to happen. Still, fair cop, if you’re able to bear (or willing to skip) most of the attempted storytelling, there’s a tarnished diamond of fun in there.