It's five years since Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino released their cult vampire B-movie "From Dusk Till Dawn", featuring the exploits of Seth Gecko and his psychotic brother. Escaping from a hold-up gone wrong, they take a family hostage and head for Mexico, only to end up fighting for their lives against a horde of vampires in a dusk 'til dawn bar called the Titty Twister.
"Your Record Looks Like A Tarantino Movie"
Rather than simply recreating the film in blood-splattering interactive form though, Hubert Chardot and his team have developed the game as a sequel, set several years after the events of the movie. Seth is now on death row aboard a prison barge heading for New Orleans, but as the game begins his voyage to the gas chamber is interrupted by a group of vampires trying to rescue one of the other prisoners. Which is where you come in.
Emerging from your cell at the end of the introductory cutscene you find the prison in ruins, bodies scattered all around, blood dripping down the walls, and flames rising from amongst the debris. Over the next few hours you must battle your way through the ship rescuing other survivors, eventually taking on the vampire leader mano-a-mano on the bridge as the sun rises outside.
"These Guys Don't Look So Cool"
The game certainly has style and atmosphere by the bucket-load, and although the graphics are far from state-of-the-art the level design is generally very detailed. Although the whole thing takes place on the prison barge, Gamesquad have allowed their imaginations to run free. As such you will find not only the expected prison cells, medical bays, canteens and engine rooms on the ship, but also a small cinema, a grocery store and a bar, complete with strippers and a rather unconventional band.
There is also a fairly wide range of vampires available to destroy. Some are armed with shotguns, assault rifles, flamethrowers or grenade launchers, some can spit poison, and some simply run up to you and beat you around the head or try to take a chunk out of your neck. Luckily for Seth bites are far less serious than they were in the movie, and you can take a surprising amount of damage before dying. Health kits are also available scattered throughout the game, allowing you to patch yourself up if things get serious.
Sadly this means that the vampires are somewhat less menacing in practice than they may appear. Most of them are also let down by poor AI and the kind of plodding movement that you would expect from zombies rather than vampires. It's far too easy to sneak up behind them, and they rarely react unless you are in their line of sight or directly firing at them, which means you can sometimes pick off one monster while another one stands stationary at the other side of the room examining his manicure. They also have a nasty habit of running around in circles if they can't find a route to you or get badly injured but can't run away.
Often you are accompanied by other survivors or have to escort a character through a level, but they can be equally gormless because much of their behaviour is pre-scripted. Sometimes you will see people standing passively as they get ripped apart by vampires, and at other times they can get stuck on the wrong side of a door or run off in an unexpected direction and get killed before you can find them again. Some of these people are central to the game's plot, so that can mean "Game Over".
"You Aren't Man Enough, You Pack Of Idiots"
By contrast a lot of attention has obviously gone into the boss encounters, some of which are positively inspired. In one you face an invisible vampire in a shower block, only able to tell where she is by the splashes her feet make in the water on the tiled floor. Another vampire runs so fast that he becomes a motion-blurred streak as you struggle to aim your gun at him, and the special effects involved are truly impressive.
There's even a table dancing nurse who wriggles around erotically for a few seconds before leaping across the room to land on another desk or mainframe stack. It's just a pity that these rare battles put the rest of the game and its menagerie of vampires to shame. There is little real sense of horror or fright much of the time, despite the brooding sense of menace created by the atmospheric graphics and level design. The combat is far too routine for the most part, and the sound effects lack the punch to immerse you in the game.
Seth Gecko adds his own thoughts to the proceedings from time to time, but he only seems to have about a dozen catchphrases that he repeats over and over again. The sheer number of enemies you will face during the course of the game also means that, despite the reasonable variety of vampires on offer, things can still get a little repetitive at times.
"I Am Not A Happy Camper"
The biggest problem with the game though is that you don't feel in control of your character all of the time, something which is obviously vital in a third person action game. The camera and controls feel a bit soggy, and it doesn't help that every time you use your flashlight the game's frame rate seems to slow to a crawl.
You also lose control of your character entirely at times, which no doubt seemed like a good idea on the drawing board but just tends to frustrate in practice. Seth comes to a complete halt for about a second every time he switches weapons, which can prove fatal if you run out of ammo half way through a fight, and sometimes if you are getting peppered with lead you will be unable to react for a moment as Seth staggers in pain. Again, this is obviously the worst possible time for you to lose control of your character.
Allowing players to drive a stake into a fallen enemy's heart to finish him off is a lovely touch, especially as you gain a little health from doing it. But this is let down by the fact that the fighting carries on around you as normal, while you are stuck watching Seth doing the business from a dramatic camera angle. A dramatic camera angle which sometimes ends up staring at the back side of a wall if you're in a small room or narrow corridor...
Like Devil Inside, Gamesquad's last big title, Dusk Till Dawn could really have used more time for polishing. It's been in development for less than a year, and sadly it shows. The game took me about eight hours to finish, and during that period it crashed several times. Meanwhile the menu interface is too clever for its own good and seems to be possessed, the cursor sometimes leaping across the screen by itself to highlight a button which you really didn't want to press. Spooky...
There are some nice ideas in there and the design is excellent in places, but the whole thing lacks cohesion and .. well, horror. So sadly this is another flawed effort from Hubert and the boys that fails to live up to its initial promise, despite occasional glimmers of brilliance.