Saturday, January 20, 2018

Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay - Review

Bite-sized fun.

My first encounter with Riddick, as I assume most other people, was with the Pitch Black movie. I quite liked that movie, and I quite liked Riddick. He was cool enough without seeming to try too hard and it was very understandable and predictable that someone wanted to make more out of such a promising character that suited Vin Diesel perfectly. So a couple of more movies followed, and some games. Where did Riddick even come from? As far as I know he didn't start out as a comic book character, as one could guess but just sort of got a franchise based on himself from nothing else than that first movie.

Remember these guys?

Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Buther Bay (EfBB), released in 2004 (same year as the second movie in the franchise), unfortunately didn't get on my radar until all my time was absorbed by WoW, so even though it looked interesting I never got around to it for the longest of time. As with many other games I've eventually played, I did see quite a lot of it through it being played by my then boyfriend and I liked what I saw. Especially later, as I realized that sneak'em'ups probably were right up my alley, and I had heard good things about it - it was definitely on my to-do-list. 

Once I finally got to playing it, I realized I still didn't know very much about it. I knew it was about breaking out of a prison (the title sort of gave that one away), I remembered it being very dark and I remembered getting night-vision at some point. Turns out, that pretty much sums up the game as well.

Story-wise it plays out a lot like one of the movies could. All the characters you recognize (Johns and Riddick in my case) are played by their original actors, which of course is a nice, and in Riddicks case absolutely necessary, touch. The premise starts out simple - Riddick has been caught by his bromance bounty hunter not-friend Johns yet again, and is being sold to the notorious prison Butcher Bay. It's not mentioned, but definitely assumed, that this is not a place you get out of alive. Riddick of course has other plans.

Does this have slash fiction?

It never really gets more complicated than that, and I am actually thankful for it. Many games I've played that start out with a simple and straightforward plot sometimes deviate into weirdness and some confusion towards the end (System Shock 2, Thief, every anime running past 100 episodes). This one sticks to its guns and by mixing up the sneaking with some shooting at times it keeps things interesting. In a twist that could be comical or obnoxious, Riddick is recaptured no less than two times and sent to increasingly stronger holdings. Rather than making the game feel silly or repetitive, this allows the game to show off different areas and also perfectly suits the "I don't give a damn"-attitude that Riddick has. Even when he gets sent to cryo-sleep and you think there is just no way he could make his way out of that, the game gives you a fairly reasonable way to manage.

Gameplay-wise it's like a stripped down Deus Ex. Forget about the character management from Deus Ex and remove most of the branching paths and you have EfBB. While this might sound boring, I found the well designed atmosphere, controls and gameplay elements instead gave me a tight and thought-through feeling. Nothing was in there just to bloat the game (not that it is in Deus Ex either!). With a very generous checkpoint system it gives you an intensity and that lovely "just another try"-feeling that doesn't have to cost you many minutes when you fail. For someone like me, with a tight gametime budget, this game suited me perfectly. Rarely can I start up a game, only play for 10-15 minutes and still feel like I accomplished something. EfBB provides you with exactly that opportunity.

Overall the game felt fair and well-balanced in its difficulty too. It can sway widely from crawling through airvents and sneaking up on unsuspecting victims, to going all out spray-and-pray mode against six enemies and a mechawarrior. Nothing feels out of place and nothing feels like it doesn't work. Enemies are not the cleverest, and don't follow you particularly far even though realistically they should seeing as they are prison guards and you're an escaped and very dangerous prisoner, but none of that ruins the fun of the game. I'm a firm believer that good gameplay comes before realism (if and when the choice is necessary), otherwise I wouldn't be playing games in the first place.

I mean, it definitely looks like a prison.

You'd think putting your game in the setting of a dangerous prison is to make it easy for yourself as a game designer. The whole point is to make it look drab, monochrome and cramped up. But it still has to feel believable and make sense within the universe of the game. I feel they definitely succeeded with that. Each area, that becomes increasingly more patrolled and claustrophobic (the containers hanging off the side in the second third of the game felt truly creepy to me), felt like it could actually be a real prison. The color scheme is overwhelmingly dark blue, brown and gray and that makes sense. Everything is made of metal or dirt and there is barely any sun. You won't see any flowers, forests or animals (other than the poisonous moths and murderous beasts) in this prison. It's supposed to be depressing and it manages the atmosphere well. In fact my only question is why they bother keeping people in here at all, and not just kill them and get it over with? Especially someone as dangerous as Riddick, what is the motivation for keeping him alive? And especially especially when he'd foiled your great plan for the third time.

I rarely lost my way, in fact the only time I managed to backtrack on myself was when I found an alternate route from a previous area and accidentally followed it back to where I had already been. Rather than annoy me it only made me more careful to try to pick out these "secret" routes as I went on with the game. As mentioned, even when you make mistakes or fail it rarely costs you more than a couple of minutes, relieving any tediousness you might feel from trying different tactics or paths.

The inmates have formed gangs and ask you to perform tasks for them before they'll help you out, not all of them are needed to progress the story and I found there was little hand-holding in helping you to solve these "quests". They weren't even always beneficial. Overall however this is a linear experience where you rarely have to worry much about whether you've said the right thing to the right person or picked up the right item to progress. In a time when games get increasingly spread out and "open-worldy", trying to pack in as much content as possible, I found this game to be very more-ish without any risk of getting stuck trying to figure out what to do for very long. Maybe because of that, the game isn't very long, it took me just under 9 hours to complete and from what I read that is a comparatively long time. But this game knows what it wants to do, sticks to its guns and gives you a well-designed experience throughout. In that way it's a lot like a really good book - you know where you are and you know where you're heading, but it's one fun ride all the while.

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