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.