If I've learned one thing in my five-plus years as a film and game critic, it's that a lot of us are way too serious. It's an occupational hazard—the very term "critic" comes pre-loaded with a lot of negative baggage and expectations. The critic is supposed to be hard on things, to nitpick, to find the flaws, and to generally point out every little imperfection they can find. Therefore, critics have this almost sacred duty to uphold the standards that come with the title—and the end result is often that we lose sight of the simple pleasures of our chosen field. It often doesn't matter if something's fun or not, because if the critic has seen it before, or if it doesn't execute in a flawless fashion, it doesn't matter—it's getting marked down.
It may seem like I have a cynical view of my profession—and I do. My favorite critics remain those who can still get excited about something that's not perfect—the people who can occasionally look past the flaws of a film or game and see that the whole experience, despite the problems, still brings something interesting to the table. It's easy to become the stereotypical jaded cynic critic; it's much more challenging to retain a love of the subject matter that shines through even in the darkest reviews.
One of the ways I've always tried to keep myself from falling into the jaded trap is by having guilty pleasures—games and films that are certainly flawed in any number of technical ways, yet offer something up aesthetically that pleases the viewer's sensibilities in spite of the shortcomings. I have a voluminous list of guilty pleasure films, and at long last, I've started one for games as well. One of the first entries on the games' list is none other than White Wolf's Hunter: The Reckoning series.
The first title, simply entitled Hunter: The Reckoning, appeared a short while back on the Xbox and GameCube. Set in the occult-tinged world of the White Wolf pen-and-paper role-playing games, the videogame dropped most of the RPG elements in favor of a hack-and-slash interface that kept things simple. Gameplay amounted to "see a bunch of undead ghouls, go hack them up."
While the original title may have had its flaws, it apparently sold well enough to spawn not one, but two sequels. Hunter: The Reckoning—Redeemer is the recently released Xbox title, while the PlayStation 2 (PS2) (which didn't get a version of the original Hunter title) gets its own exclusive game in Hunter: The Reckoning—Wayward.
Wayward is a direct sequel to the first game in the series, which is interesting since PS2 owners never had access to the title. Undaunted, developer High Voltage picks up the story two years after the events in the first game. The evil that our four original hunters appeared to have vanquished in the town of Ashcroft seems to have come back for more. Not only will they have to return to the scene of the original game to thwart the evil, they'll also be called upon to rescue two other hunters who've gone missing in the hellish town. One of these hunters is a wayward—hence the game's subtitle.
Hunter's first appearance on the PS2 is something of a mixed bag. While the core gameplay (flaws and all) of the original remains largely unchanged, I couldn't help but find myself playing on compulsively anyway. I know that Wayward is a flawed experience, but I can't help but dig the story and the recurring characters. While none of them are as fleshed-out and unique as I wish they were, there's something almost intangible about the experience that keeps me coming back for more. Perhaps it's the hint that High Voltage could do so much more with this license if they truly applied themselves—or perhaps I'm just nuts. You make the call.
At any rate, I found myself enjoying Wayward in spite of the nagging critic's voice at the back of my head that kept whispering things like "the gameplay is monotonousthe graphics are muddy and not very detailedthe game still features loads of artificial barriers that you should be able to jump over"
Everything my critical brain mentioned is true—the gameplay is monotonous, the graphics are pretty ugly, and those corny fake barriers to keep people from moving off the straight and narrow path are all present and accounted for (meaning there'll be lots of instances where you can jump over car A, but not car B because that leads to an area where the developers don't want you to go). And yet, in spite of the problems, the game's still sort of fun in a mindless way—it doesn't require any brain cells to hack and blast through the hordes of undead that wander around Ashcroft; and the story, while sort of Grand Guignol in its design, isn't all that complex either.
However, there are at least a few flaws that are so heinous they can't be entirely overcome.
First, the clunky camera from the original is back, essentially unchanged. This is particularly problematic since it's one of the more glaring flaws in the original game as well. One would hope the developers might have addressed the issue, but it seems they didn't.
The game's camera is largely self-contained—it spins and changes perspective of its own volition, meaning players will often find themselves fighting or exploring with the worst possible view. It's incredibly easy to get turned around in a stage and wander all the way back to beginning because the camera has changed perspective in the middle of battle, and the player didn't notice it. At any rate, the camera system needs radical improvement in future installments.
High Voltage did apparently listen to at least one of the complaints lobbed at the first game, and worked on the control interface for the sequel. Unfortunately, the new control scheme does a nice job of addressing the problem with the first game (in that it was too hard to cycle amongst weapons and spells), but in the process has created an entirely new one—all attacks and jumps are done with the shoulder buttons on the Dual Shock 2 controller. For a game comprised almost entirely of hacking and slashing, using the shoulder buttons instead of the face ones is a huge design flaw. It's awkward, uncomfortable, and annoying.
Finally, the last problem is another one that returns from the first game. Wayward is at least somewhat unbalanced in terms of difficulty. Players who opt for the Defender character class will march through the game with a lot less difficulty than those who choose the Martyr, Avenger, or Judge class. Luckily, this evens out a bit at the nightmare difficulty level—just having the Defender there guarantees the player nothing.
And yet, despite the list of flaws, I had a good time with Hunter: The Reckoning—Wayward. While I certainly find myself wishing the developers would fix the problems with the game and incorporate more of the pen-and-paper game's RPG elements, it's still a game that I look back on with more fond memories than bad ones. In this regard, the game truly is a guilty pleasure of mine, and so the critical side of my brain will just have to live with it.