Last year’s Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard didn’t turn out too well, despite the assistance of great voice actors like Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris. Not surprisingly, sales were relatively low so Vicious Cycle and D3 Publisher decided to take a new direction with another installment. Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond is a downloadable title available on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Marketplace and thankfully, it’s a much better option. Instead of the standard third-person mechanic in a modern format like 2009’s effort, this one adopts a classic 2D side-scrolling style that’s most reminiscent of old-school stuff like Contra . The control is a little off and the difficulty is a little too high in my opinion, but it remains entertaining; the format includes some genuinely funny humor, diverse (and recognizable) level settings, and plenty of nonstop action.
Downloadable games are looking better and better these days and Blood Bath and Beyond is no exception. Perhaps it’s because my brain is automatically comparing it to those old-fashioned 2D side-scrollers but this game is quite pretty. The detailing is impressive for the perspective, it’s both colorful and appealing, the level designs are both intricate and simple at the same time, and the animations are highly fluid. There’s plenty of sharpness and clarity and the entire presentation looks exactly like an old-school adventure remade with next-gen technology. Granted, there are a few drawbacks – I’m not the biggest fan of some of the backgrounds and the bigger enemies/bosses weren’t quite up to snuff – but it’s still well worth viewing. You really won’t have many complaints concerning the visuals, and that’s the bottom line.
The sound loses a bit due to a lack of voice acting, some repetitive sound effects and a soundtrack that begins to grate after a while. It probably isn’t fair of me to dub the effects “repetitive,” though, considering the type of game we’re examining. Just about everything concerning these side-scrollers was repetitive in some way, right? Anyway, while the music fits the zany, over-the-top atmosphere, I keep hoping we’ll hear more in the way of inspired, diverse soundtracks. Still, I do like the uber-lame one-liners peppered throughout the gameplay and there’s something to be said for a few understated cries of woe to go along with the bloody carnage. It creates an interesting contrast, really. Basically, it’s all about pushing forward through a hail of bullets and other ammunition – including throwing stars, arrows, missiles, bombs, and more – and the sound is well-balanced. It’s not amazing, but as I just said, it fits.
The gameplay isn’t hard to explain: you move forward, firing with the Square button, jumping with the X button, and tossing grenades with the R2 button. But here’s the kicker: the developers institute a very interesting new feature that involves a dynamic background. Enemies and other obstacles come flying at you from what used to be nothing more than the landscape; now, it plays a role. When you hold the L2 button, Matt turns and fires at the background, which means you can’t just watch the “forescreen.” This works fairly well but I think that trading your focus between the front and rear of the action sort of tosses a wrench into the fluidity of the game; I just found it difficult to deal with. Perhaps some will have more success in concentrating on both perspectives but for me, it was a little too frustrating and whenever I died, it was almost always because a bullet came from the perspective I wasn’t watching.
The control is a little iffy as well. Jumping is a little slow and the length of a leap is too exaggerated, and the biggest problem is targeting enemies at high angles. You can aim with the left analog stick but for some reason, many foes seemed to be in positions that defied your aiming attempts. It’s almost as if Matt couldn’t shoot accurately in every direction and this posed a serious problem in some of the more difficult levels. But the more you play, the more you get used to these eccentricities and the more you begin to appreciate the style and fast-paced insanity that will remind you of the good ol’ days. It’s really quite fun to watch this flashier version of the 2D shooters we used to play on the classic 16-bit machines, and yes, it’s every bit as challenging. Ammo is flying at you from just about everywhere and while Matt isn’t quite agile enough to avoid it all, you can get all inventive with your dexterous movements.
There was also a minor issue involving environmental objects: many, like wooden crates, should’ve been breakable but they just sit there and often get in the way. Lastly, the balance between weapons is a little off; you normally don’t want enemies anywhere near you but the shotgun has very little range. The good news is that you upgrade the same way you do in those old-school shooters, as power-ups will pop out of dead bodies and the longer you stay alive, the more firepower you’ll have. It really is fun for quite some time and the level design is a definite bonus. I particularly liked the Mario-based throwback level, complete with question mark blocks and pipes. Oh, and there’s a co-op option that works nicely and you can choose between the regular Story Mode and the Quick Play, so it’s probably worth the $15 if you like this kind of stuff.
The minor issues may make you think twice, though. It’s pretty funny and everything but you really have to be into this style. All in all, Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond is certainly a better option than the $60 title that released last year; at least this one is somewhat solid and can be entertaining for a few hours. By now, you know what to expect; it’s just that there are other downloadable games that might be more worth your money.