Back in the 80s, a video game hero could stomp on turtles and eat mushrooms and that was pretty much accepted. No one questioned what was going on in older games, even if it was completely nonsensical. These days, a bit of context can go a long way. At least, that was the thought going through my head as I butchered my way through Bloodrayne: Betrayal.
I was asking myself why I was killing these enemies, and what any of them had to do with each other. Was I breaking up some club for mutated misfits? What was my motivation?
There is, of course, the loose premise of stopping evil. There's the inclusion of a second hero, a pale anime man that can turn into a bird. Then, there's the betrayal, as advertised. There's certainly some plot points beyond “save the princess,” yet I constantly found myself searching for some kind of context.
The game begins with a lot of promise: an inky-black graveyard, a group of soldiers, an attack by a mob of pretty-boy vampires, and then the arrival of series' protagonist, Rayne, who drops from the sky in a black metal-inspired space coffin. The double bass and wailing guitars kick in, and you take control, skewering everything in sight.
The first thing to notice about Bloodrayne: Betrayal is the slick animation, bolstered by strikingly high resolution sprites. Yes, sprites—this new BloodRayne is a 2D side-scroller. Developer WayForward smartly distanced themselves from the third-person perspective of the older BloodRayne titles, sticking to what they do best, which is old school 2D action games.
About the only thing they brought from the old games is Rayne herself. She's much less of a sex object in Betrayal, but that doesn't make her any less fun to look at. Her repertoire of moves is an impressive ballet of death, a ballet that goes beyond combat and into some deathtrap-laden platforming.
This is where the game first started to lose me. Bottomless pits, acid baths, and spinning saw blades are all navigated via Rayne's jumps and lunge attacks. Using your attacks as double jumps never stops being a little weird, and a bit too unreliable. Imagine hopping over a pit using Ryu's dragon punch and you might have an idea of how this can go wrong.
In theory it's not a bad idea—the player uses the same tools to fight enemies as they do to navigate the world. Elegant, right? But when the platforming sections become overly punitive (and eventually just plain cheap), I found myself begging for a simple double jump. A few too many blind jumps a bit too far away from the last checkpoint had me cursing whatever level designer thought this would be fun (corpse-in-the-acid-pit-at-the-end-of-chapter-15-guy, I'm talking to you).
The combat can be similarly unfair. Animation priority, the bane of every character-action game, is the culprit here. The game is so enthused with its smooth artwork that you lose tiny fractions of control in the process. The result? You'll have to anticipate counterattacks a lot sooner than you'd like, cutting the more effective combos short or risking a cheap shot from across the room. Even worse, getting knocked down in a crowd of enemies is often a death sentence, as the enemies continue to attack, knocking you back on your ass repeatedly before you can even consider getting back up.
Those are some serious issues, but the combat has a funny way of remaining enjoyable, at least most of the time. There are moments of brilliance, where carefully timed dashes and a mix of air combos will turn a screen-filling mob of enemies into gallons of blood. It's in these moments where the game shines.
This is especially true when the camera pulls in a bit more, giving you a better grasp of the action and an appreciation for the character animations. Honestly, if this had been a straight-up close-quarters beat-em-up, I'd have been much happier overall. It was in those moments where I had the most fun.
Which brings me back to the issue that nagged at me throughout the experience. This is clearly a game fashioned after the old school, so why was I so concerned with context? I didn't have my answer until I'd played several chapters, fighting my way through what was probably miles of repetitive, gothic architecture. BloodRayne: Betrayal's environments, while well-drawn, were so lacking in atmosphere that it left me feeling empty.
The game lacks one of the greatest strengths of game design: the ability to tell a story through the environment. The world you traverse, even in the original Mario, tells a story. Yes, that story is completely nuts, but that's why the game sparked our imaginations.
A friend of mine popped in while I was playing. “This kind of looks like an indie game,” he said. As immediately as I sensed it, he too, knew something was off. This was not the work of amateurs, yet there was a fundamental flatness to the world—a mistake seen more often in indie games. The world of BloodRayne is little more than wallpaper – static and fake.
BloodRayne: Betrayal is a game about gameplay. Without a compelling world, the game is little more than an entertaining exercise in skillful button pressing. That the button pressing doesn't feel as tight as it should more or less puts the game six feet under. Still, I feel like there are some who will find the challenge invigorating, and others, like me, who are easily entertained by a cheesy metal soundtrack.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]