A few years ago I was stopped in the street by one of those pretty but menacingly indiscriminate charity collectors. You know the ones: wide, innocent eyes hiding their SAS training in accosting, guilt-tripping and relieving passers-by of their direct debit details with one deft flick of a blonde curl and a practised flirt. Except she wasn't a charity collector; rather a market researcher offering me a ten pounds to come and answer questions about whether Japan was cool or not. Being a destitute videogames journalist I answered yes to the money and, being a destitute videogame geek, yes to all the others too. Since then Japan's kawaii chic has flooded western consciousness; everything from 3G's leftfield advertising to Powerpuff Girl's ADHD kung-fuing has been given the Nipponese cute-but-slightly-scary treatment. Raze's Hell turns the tables on this phenomenon by demonstrating that Japanese super cute is actually kind of super creepy and, in doing so, makes the saccharine the subject of your ugly protagonist's subjugation.
The game opens storybook-style with the Princess of Kewtopia decreeing her Kewlett subjects are to bring joy, happiness, and freedom to the sad creatures that live outside their idyllic kingdom. That freedom quickly transpires to be a kind of sweetness-cloaked genocide meted out as the Kewlett disciples look to extend the grasp of their cheery dominion across the world by killing anyone that doesn't look like them. So far so Rumsfeld.
Your character, Raze, and his people, designed in the style of Oddworld's Abe, don't look like Kewletts and as such are under attack. As you return home to find your village torn asunder by the diminutive adorables, you have the motive and, following a chance encounter with a power-augmenting demon, the means to fight back against the syrupy onslaught. You could infer all sorts of political commentary/satire from this scenario, especially as the Kewletts throw in a fair few phrases bandied about of late by the American military, but really, it's all just an excuse for you to tear some cute little pieces of Japanimation limb from furry limb. Ever wanted to tear Princess Peach's silky smooth throat out for getting herself kidnapped a-bloody-gain by King Bowser? Now's your chance... er... well... kind of...
It's a joke that will probably make you giggle the first time you launch yourself towards a Kewlett, lining up their endearing face before firing off a clip of ammunition and reshuffling its features snub nose for squiffy, twitching eye. You might chuckle the first time you get within splatting distance of a Kewlett, hit the melee attack button and leave a pile of Jack Thompson-baiting quivering giblets glinting in the sunlight. You just might snigger as you click the L trigger in and Hoover up these entrails straight into your mouth to replenish your lifebar in an act of delightfully unsavoury and clearly unhygienic game design. But quickly the punchline fades from view and your unlikely enemies become just like any others in any other shooter: recurring targets that need to be got before they get you. Remove the novelty of the object of your assault and you're left with an extremely derivative third-person perspective shooting game.
The game looks good, but once the initial short-lived thrills depart, its problems snap into awkwardly clear focus. Most obviously, your guns are uncomfortable to manage, almost as if to force the player to put more emphasis on melee attacks. As the game progresses a large number of new weapons become available but each must irritatingly and inexplicably have its ammo replenished from a matching colour-coded flower. By destroying the bloom you scoop up any resulting ammo, numbers of which are fairly limited. Additionally while the rumble kickback from each gun is substantial, the guns aren't nearly as effective at stopping enemies as in most run-and-gun type games. This is fine when you're one-on-one with a Kewlett, as you can fire away while charging towards them in order to get in your powerful one-hit-one-kill melee attack but as soon as the levels open up and you're being attacked from all directions it quickly becomes frustrating and overwhelming.
The aforementioned health replenishing system requires you to reduce all enemies to their disparate bloody parts before being able to suck up their life bonus, something that can only be achieved by melee-attacking dead bodies. In the midst of a sprawling firefight it's too much to be shooting enemies dead, lining up melee attacks on their limp bodies before grabbing the health-restoring entrails all the while dodging bullets. This isn't helped by an awkward weapon-switching system which can leave you contorting fingers in an effort to select the best gun for the particular job. The combined effect of these cumulative niggles is a game that is overly difficult through negligence rather than design.
The gameplay is gently spiced with some stealth elements and very easygoing puzzles, but neither feels integral to its design. Indeed, like so many games where its influence is bolted on, the stealth move usually works against you through shoddy implementation. The main flow of gameplay is fast and furious but utterly derivative. You have a roll move but frustratingly no jump button, making evasive defensive tactics even harder to employ and quickly you will have seen most the main game has to offer.
Psychonauts-style conversations between Kewletts can be eavesdropped upon, and, as their helium-stretched voices discuss the ridiculousness of dying from a foot wound or the toll this war has taken on their health, you'll find yourself listening in to see if the scriptwriters ever hit comedy platinum. So eager for you to hear the Kewlett's incidental commentary, the developers seem to have neglected to include a depth of sound field, meaning it's often extremely difficult to pick out how far away an enemy is when you can hear them chattering away but not see them: the voices always sound like they're three feet away.
Outside of the main game there are a number of bonuses on offer. A co-op mode is included but sadly there are no tag team moves or special bonuses for playing the game through like this. Xbox Live support provides the usual Deathmatch and King of the Hill modes that any Xbox player will have played out twenty million times over the last four years. The core gameplay isn't strong enough in this area to lift the game above the competition, which leaves the inventive Super Monkey Ball-esque mini-games, which similarly include an excellent mini-golf style diversion, to deliver the remaining fun.
Unusually of note is the price. THQ is letting it go for around the Ł14.99 mark in the UK, and with that taken into consideration it offers a surprisingly rounded package and some pretty generous banging for your buck. Reviewing holistically, this alone raises the game's score from average to ‘of interest to genre fans'. The game lacks the precision of a professional-level shooter to satiate the genre's dedicated players and its whole concept is undeniably more attractive on paper than in polygon. But nevertheless, its inventiveness, hit-and-miss humour, price point and fluffy toy defiling counterpoint to gaming's identikit scenario writing deserves confident praise.