Version tested: Xbox 360
"A city soaked in darkness, rain and terror," booms the back of the box, faking its best Marlboro Man/Carlsberg movie trailer voice.
So it's B-movie survival-horror schlock, with a hefty dollop of Splinter Cell stealth? It sounds great, in the deliberately hammy way that made Resident Evil so appealing. What could go wrong? It's got superfast 'Nightwalker' vampires that want to feast on your face, ridiculously tense stealth, a conspiracy-laden plot, unintentionally funny voice acting with the immortal line "have a bite of peach" in it. Surely it's a cult hit waiting to happen?
Well, yes, no, no, no and no. There are moments when you're playing Vampire Rain when you can squint and convince yourself that this is definitely a Good Game and - once you know The Rules - worth all the pain. At times it's really atmospheric and genuinely tense getting through yet another tough assignment by the skin of your teeth, and a game that's never actually as difficult as it appears to be. I can quite imagine this game building up a vociferous audience keen to evangelise its hidden charms. It's that sort of game: play by its rules, and suddenly all becomes clear.
If the rain comes, they run and hide their heads
At best, the combination of stealth and horror works really well, but we're talking about maybe 20, 30 per cent of the game. To ignore the really annoying fundamentals of the game would probably make you the biggest apologist the world has ever seen, and to paper over the cracks would make me a pretty irresponsible reviewer. But while being forgiving in life can be a good trait to have, there's a limit; Vampire Rain has so many moments of soul-crushingly bad design, it's likely to push even the most pathologically forgiving gamer to psychotic rage. If you need to reside in a happy place during your free time, this really isn't the game for you.
The principle idea of Vampire Rain is pretty straightforward: stealthily manoeuvre anti-Nightwalker team-member John Lloyd from one part of this rainy West Coast US city to another without getting killed. The tasks are reasonably mundane, such as making your way to a transmission tower to destroy it, heading to a switch that over-rides a security system, or picking up a cache of weapons. In many ways, it looks like it should play like Splinter Cell, given that it sure as hell looks just like it at first glance, and has many of the same moves. Trying to play it like a Sam Fisher adventure, though, is an instant ticket to the Game Over screen.
The thing you'll have rammed down your throat repeatedly is that the Nightwalkers are officially the hardest of hard bastards. The kind of hard bastards that will kill you on sight. In about three seconds. In one bite. Some might call them 'hard'. I'd just call them "really badly designed" - especially when later in the game you get three weapons which can kill them in a single hit. Talk about going from one extreme to the other.
They might as well be dead
For the first few hours, at least, the odds are 100 per cent against you. No amount of shooting them with your pistol or machinegun will help - they're onto you faster than you can blink, and will alert any other Nightwalkers in the vicinity. Even if you do manage to kill one of them (a feat in itself), there'll be another one leaping onto your face long before you've had time to reload and aim at them. So useless are your main default guns, it's pointlessly misleading to even give them to the player.
After an ungodly number of repeat failures, the unsympathetic check-pointing might start to chip away at your resolve at the 22nd time of having to climb up a platform, shimmy across a ledge, watch two cut-scenes, jump across a roof, ascend some stairs, run across a roof and climb down a pipe to get to that point where the two psychic Nightwalkers are patrolling. Once you realise that this, in fact, isn't even the right route you need to take, that there's no need to try and dodge their patrol, it's not actually that hard at all. The tough part of Vampire Rain is discovering which specific route is the right one, otherwise you'll end up being tripped up endlessly by the Nightwalkers' unerring capacity to spot you even when their vision cone (as displayed on your mini-map) suggests you're absolutely safe.
So much time spent getting to grips with Vampire Rain is wasted on attempting things which would be fine in any other third-person action-adventure, such as giving a patrol with his back to you the slip. Time after time you'll wrongly assume that all you have to do is watch carefully and time your run correctly, but you'd be mistaken. For reasons best known to Artoon, the Japanese developer felt the need to reduce the choice available to the player, and arbitrarily shoehorn them down predetermined paths when other options appear to be just as viable. By making elementary parts of the game disproportionately difficult, you'll quickly lose any goodwill you might have had for the game, and most likely give up on about level three. Despite the presence of multiple tutorials interspersed between main missions, these ludicrously easy lessons don't ever really prepare the player in any way. Only repeat trial and incessant error will do that for you.
When it rains and shines, it's just a state of mind
But like the emotionally battered partner in an abusive relationship, you might well return for more punishment against your better judgement. Certainly, for at least the first four or five hours, the learning curve is so exasperatingly steep that we wouldn't blame any sane gamer for throwing their chips in and going off to find something more fun to do. However, when it's your job to plough through games like this, occasionally you break through the pain barrier and start to see things slightly differently. In a curious way, we started to (whisper it) quite like Vampire Rain once we began to learn how the game wanted us to play it.
As some kind of twisted, perverted reward, Artoon even starts to give you the kind of weapons you wanted at the very beginning - like a sniper rifle, a shotgun, and little UV knives that allow you to pull off one-hit-kill sneak attacks. As grateful as you'll be at finally being able to dish out some punishment to the Nightwalkers, you'll want to beat the Artoon team about the face and neck for being so god-damned bloody-minded. From about the seventh level onwards, having the occasional ability to snipe, stab or blast the slavering horde to death makes the game instantly about 300 times more fun than it was when you were only allowed to creep around in the pouring night time rain. But even then, ammo is in such short supply that you can't exactly go gung-ho. Even the long-awaited first boss encounter is a hilarious conservation project requiring 100 per cent accuracy. Fortunately by that stage you're well schooled in the need to save every bullet.
Getting to a stage where the game feels enjoyable is a long, dark, painful road. I haven't felt this much brutality meted out by a game in the name of fun since Call of Cthulhu. Unfortunately, Vampire Rain falls a fair way short of joining that overlooked gem in the Cult Horror Classics camp by virtue of its dreadful storyline, voice acting so bad it's mesmerising, and the fact that this is clearly an Xbox 1 title held over for a belated 360 release with literally no next-gen polish to speak of.
Can you hear me?
At times you'll really believe that the script and voice-overs must be some sort of knowing nod to bad B-movies, but that's just being generous. More likely, it's yet another case of a Japanese developer getting lost in translation and employing the 'special' cast that seem to have a knack of inflecting in a way only heard in horror videogames over the past 12 years. Bless 'em.
Regarding the technical shortcomings, Vampire Rain has the look and feel of a game whose origins date back to the early part of the decade. Literally nothing you'll see in the game would trouble the PS2, never mind the Xbox, and upscaled onto the 360 it looks alarmingly bland at times. Although the comparisons to Splinter Cell are undoubtedly on the money, you'd only have to boot up Pandora Tomorrow on a 360 to realise that Vampire Rain doesn't even come close to matching it for visual opulence. Sure, Vampire Rain is being released at a lower-than-usual price, but that doesn't excuse shoddy Operation Winback-esque animation and uninspired artwork. Even online this is being sold for GBP 29.99, when I'd have trouble being convinced to part with a tenner if I'm honest - even as a massive fan of the genre.
Some have highlighted the eight-player Xbox Live options as surprisingly enjoyable. That's as may be, but online gaming presupposes that there are other people in the world also playing it, and on that score Vampire Rain is likely to fail miserably. For the record, there are four main modes with team variations of each. You've got Deathmatch, Death or Nightwalker, Destroy (Domination by another name, where you have to head for an object and stand in its proximity to score points) and Capture the Flame (bet you can't guess what this one's like). Cynicism aside, the four maps included are nicely designed, and the online modes finally give the previously useless weapons in the single-player game a purpose. In the grand scheme of things, though, few people are going to be giving Vampire Rain's online modes any airtime in preference to the mighty alternatives out there, and the promise of downloadable content is highly unlikely to make any difference.
Like many of Artoon's games down the years. Vampire Rain had the potential to be something special, but ended up crippled by some hugely questionable design errors. We say 'errors' rather than 'decisions', because at no point does it make sense to routinely make the player suffer at every turn. Nor does it make sense to design an open-ended map and then make it nigh-on impossible to succeed unless you choose the path the designers want you to. Factor in the utterly broken combat, hilarious dialogue, repetitive music and uninspired visuals and it's a major surprise that Microsoft would even want to publish the game at all. Unless you've got an unusually forgiving nature and reservoirs of dogged determination, then Vampire Rain is a game best avoided.
As the back of the box says: Identify (that the game's a bit rubbish). Eliminate (it off your shopping list). Survive (with your dignity intact).
3 / 10