Wednesday, December 26, 2012

#51: Medievil 2: Going Medieval on London

(Spoiler Alert: Both of the Medievil games are up for discussion in this article. You've been warned.)

Last week, I wrote a piece on the original Medievil game from the PlayStation era. As I promised at the end of that article, this week will be dedicated to the game's sequel, which was released two years later in April 2000. Comparing these two games from the same series is rather interesting because when these two games are compared to each other it is possible to draw parallels to the design of sequels to modern games, but that will become more clear once I have finished the comparison. Before we begin, you should know that I expect you to have read my previous article on this first Medievil game or to have played the game for yourself as a point of comparison. Since this is a sequel to one of my favorite games for the original PlayStation, it invites such comparisons. With that in mind...

The premise of Medievil 2 is a little easier to understand than the original game's. After defeating Zarok once and for all, Sir Dan returns to his crypt and finally rests in peace. Fast forward 500 years later, in 1886, Fortesque's remains have been moved to the Medieval exhibit in an old museum in London. At the same time, someone else in the city has managed to acquire Zarok's now-legendary spell book and has begun to use it for his own end, casting the spell of Eternal Night and placing London square in the throws of an age old curse. Once again, Daniel rises from the grave in order to combat this new threat, which is where the player gets involved and the game truly begins. From there he meets the ghost of a ten year old kid who was summoned to guide him to Professor Hamilton Kift, who is an expert in both scientific and magical pursuits. The professor points Dan to the Kensington district of the city in order to look for clues as to who is behind recent events. There, he investigates the site where the spell was cast and finds a few clues to take back to Kift. Before leaving, he sees an anthropomorphic lizard and dog leave the museum, lamenting the inability to enter the tomb in the King Ramses exhibit. This leads Sir Fortesque into the tomb himself (after a few puzzles), where he finds a young mummified woman named Kiya, who was one of King Ramesses II's 200 wives. After Daniel discovers that the villain is an English noble by the name of Lord Palethorn and thwarts a number of his schemes, the Professor receives notice of two sites of psychic disturbance, one in an old mansion and the other in Whitechapel district. Kift suggests having Dan and Kiya split up, but Fortesque argues against it, saying that it is too dangerous for Kiya to go off on her own.

Eventually he concedes, going to the mansion and allowing Kiya to go to Whitechapel. After returning, the Professor tells Daniel that Kiya has yet to return, sending him to go look for her. Unfortunately, Sir Daniel was too late and by the time he arrived, Jack the Ripper (who is a demon in Medievil 2) has just finished draining the soul from her body, leaving her for dead. Rather than fight to avenge her second death, Fortesque falls into a depression and runs away into the sewer system, where he meets a tribe of warriors who make their home down there and worship him as a god because they found a statue of him. They tell him that they need help because a sewer monster kidnapped all of the women of their tribe, which killed their will to live. Being the medieval knight that he is and desperate for a way to prove himself, Sir Dan rescues the women and slays the beast. Along the way, he is given a poster to the Time Machine exhibit in the Museum and safe passage back to the surface, courtesy of the tribe. As he is leaving, the tribe's chief makes a passing mention of the Time Stone that is in their possession. Once back in the professor's lab, Daniel and Kift have a talk where Kift reveals a few things. First, he tells Fortesque that he knew Palethorn was behind the second coming of the Eternal Night and that his time machine only partially works in that it moves through space, but not time.

With this information in hand, Sir Fortesque once again ignores the threat of Palethorn in order to use the Time Machine to rescue Kiya. After returning to the Museum and finding the prerequisite parts, Daniel uses the machine to head back into the sewers. As previously noted, the machine can only travel through space, not time. In order to get it fully functional and return to Whitechapel in the past, Fortesque steals the Time Stone from the sewer tribe and disguises himself as the tribe chieftain to escape and get back to his Time Machine, now in complete working order. Traveling back to the past, Daniel fights Jack the Ripper and kills him before history repeats itself. Once the battle is over, Dan meets the Dan from the past, where they shake hands and fuse together, giving the new merged Dan a new suit of magic armor. Resuming where he left off before Kiya's death threw him into a spiral of stupidi... I mean depression, the Professor has discovered that the final page of Zarok's spell book is located in Cathedral Spires. After braving the horrors of the Cathedral, Sir Dan finds the final page. It gets stolen by Palethorn with the help of a levitation spell he apparently has, and used to summon a powerful demon to begin his subjugation of the world. Successfully goading the demon into attacking Palethorn, Daniel defeats them both and finally saves the day.

Like in the first game, the plot starts off fairly strong. But as the game goes on, the story begins to feel padded out for no reason but to lengthen the game and provide additional levels to explore. For a game that is already short, lasting for about four hours, this is pretty bad. One level that perfectly illustrates what I am talking about is a two part level, the first part called “Dankenstein” and the second part “Iron Slugger.” In one of Palethorn's miscellaneous schemes in the first half of the game, he builds a mechanical monster with the intent to kill Dan, Kiya, and Kift in one fell swoop. To combat this creature, the professor and Kiya devised a plan to create a creature of their own to fight it. Dan's job for the first part of the level, “Dankenstein,” is to head into the London underground in order to collect limbs to use from the results of the professor's previous experiments in creating a superhuman through magic and science. As they are about to finish up and attach the head to it the creature, the professor trips, dropping and destroying it. With no other options, Fortesque affixes his own head to the creature in order to pilot it to fight Palethorn's monster. In the second part of this level, “Iron Slugger,” the creature named Dankenstein (Get it?) fights the Iron Slugger in a boxing match. This level and plot point seems completely out of place because it breaks the (admittedly rather loose) continuity of the game. It does not make sense for these two sides to just take a break from one-upping each other in the search for Zarok's spell book pages to have a boxing match. This not only breaks continuity, but it also inconsistent with the tone of the game. Medievil has always had a bit of comedy to it, but this crosses into the truly ridiculous.

The other example I could point to of the plot being weaker than the first game's is the whole subplot regarding Kiya and Sir Daniel's romantic interest in her. Honestly, aside from her death in Whitechapel which leads to Dan's depression and the whole Time Travel arc, Kiya does not serve much of a purpose in the overarching story. I hesitate to use the label of “sexist” because I find that the label is thrown around far too much, but it is hard to deny the fact that the only female character's major contribution to the plot is to die and postpone the conclusion of the game because Daniel had a romantic interest in her and wanted to act as her chivalrous knight. It does not help that the whole section with the Sewers and the Time Machine contains some of the game's weakest writing, approaching the levels of bad fan-fiction. Even worse is that this whole depression that Fortesque falls into detracts from his development in the original game, where the entire point is to prove himself worthy of being a true hero. It turns out that the moment where humanity needs him the most to save the day, Dan can only think of a girl he just met and how she was killed, damning everything else. I am not kidding in this either. When the professor tries to get him back into the game by saying “If we don't stop Palethorn, he'll take over the world” before he runs into the Sewers, Sir Dan mumbles (He still lacks a jaw) “He can have it, I don't care.” As a child, I just went with it because I did not know any better. As an young man, it infuriates me that they shoehorned in a love interest and completely negated the entire point of the first game.

Before I conclude in my analysis of the plot to Medievil 2, I want to note that I feel that in the designers failed to really utilize the central premise of the game effectively. What I mean by that is that I think it would have been interesting to see a resurrected medieval knight come to grips with the new reality of Victorian London. When Dan comes back to life in this new world, he does not seem to have any questions regarding the technology, society, or anything really. This is a minor point to make, but I think acknowledging and poking fun at the differences between the two societies would be entertaining while staying true to the feeling of the original Medievil, which combined humor and horror quite effectively. As it stands, Daniel has no questions regarding Victorian level technology and instantly understands everything he comes across. For a brief example, the very first ranged weapon Fortesque gains is a pistol, which he instantly knows how to use. This is not necessarily a complaint, but it is something that I feel could have been used effectively by the developers.

Now enough with the plot comparisons, it is high time we went into the gameplay and how it changed from the original. For the most part, it plays very much the same and the controls would feel very familiar to a fan of the original Medievil playing for the first time, but there are a few key differences. The first of these differences is the addition of analog stick support. However, since this was when the pressure sensitive nature of analog inputs were still in their infancy, it was difficult to use the analog stick to just walk around and for the most part it would result in just running everywhere, which made precision platforming difficult at times. While the gameplay was still similar, the level design proved to be much more lethal. Medievil 2 remains as one of the few games that I have been completely unable to beat without the use of cheat codes. (Remember those things?) There were a higher concentration of levels that involved platforming in Medievil 2. Given the health system of the series, which is the exact same system of health bar and Life Bottles from the first game, this means that unless players were willing to exit and replay levels over and over to perfection, they could lose lots of health on platforming. Even worse is that getting health back is harder in Medievil 2. I did not talk about it, but it the original Medievil there were Fountains of Rejuvenation in every level, which healed players and refilled Life Bottles when standing in them until they ran out of health. A popular way to replenish lost health was to replay the first level repeatedly because fountains “respawned” each playthrough of a level. In Medievil 2, they clamped down on that by tracking how much health was taken from each fountain even when players left a level and came back, meaning there was a finite amount of health in the game's world. Paired with the difficult platforming, this could potentially leave players in an unwinnable state without cheating.

Combat also became much more difficult with a reliance on enemies that either become invulnerable during certain attacks or just cannot be killed conventionally. This is especially true of the levels Wolfram Hall, which contain vampires that can only be killed by moving them into sunlight, and the Sewers, which have creatures that possess the tribals and goad them into killing the player. These creatures cannot be slain until they are removed from their host and the tribals themselves can only be dazed. The puzzle element to Medievil 2's gameplay was still at the same level of the original games, but made more interesting. One of the additions that helped keep puzzles fresh was the addition of the Dan-Hand mechanic, where Sir Daniel can put his head on a reanimated, undead hand and control it remotely, separate from his body. Dan can also place his head in many different places in order to help him solve puzzles. It was a refreshing an interesting way to add variety to the game. But as a general rule, while it still plays very much the same, Medievil 2 is a much harder game than its predecessor.

The last returning element from the original game that returned is the Chalice of Souls. Just like in the first game, most of the levels of Medievil 2 contained a Chalice that would fill up with the souls of defeated enemies. Redeeming this Chalice at the professor's lab after completing a level would reward players with a new weapon. The problem with this mechanic is that it seems out of place in Medievil 2. In the original game, the Chalices came from the Hall of Heroes as a challenge for Sir Dan to prove himself. In the sequel, there is no real justification for these magic cups to be scattered throughout the world. They are just lying there waiting for the player to collect and redeem. As for why Fortesque wants to collect them, there is a small reason. The professor asks him to collect magic energy to help power his lab so that he can craft new equipment. Unlike the original game, the Chalices are no longer a central element and seem to be only a vestigial mechanic whose purpose is to make the game a “true” Medievil game. They seem to have no real bearing on the actual story. I say “seem to” because the ending is actually determined by how many of them out of a possible ten the player has collected. The good ending can only be acquired by NOT getting all ten Chalices and beating the game. In that ending, Dan and Kira return to Kira's tomb in the Museum and rest in peace together. Should the player beat the game with all ten Chalices, and thus a full arsenal, they will be treated to the game's bad ending, where Dan and Kira take Kift's time machine back to the past... and land in Zarok's arena in Gallowmere from the first game. They look up and see the giant monster Zarok transformed into at the end of the first game, except Palethorn's head will be there instead of Zarok's, and the screen fades to black. I cannot figure out how the ending could be determined in universe by the number of Chalices collected. The time machine does not need magic energy to work, it already works because there was a whole segment of the game dedicated to fixing it and getting the Time Stone. It just seems like they did it this way because the original games also did it this way, without thinking about the logistics of it.

Back in the year 2000, when Medievil 2 was first released and I was a seven year old playing a game I was eagerly awaiting for a long time, I though that this game was a great game in its own right, even if it was not as good as the original. Now that I have replayed and reflected on both of them, I have to say that this game is pretty lackluster. It had a mediocre story and extremely difficult gameplay. The game shows what happens when designers reuse old mechanics for the sake of reusing them without considering why they were used in the first place and whether or not they still fit. Developers of the game also really failed to properly play test the game since among fans of the franchise, the second game is notoriously harder than the first in an almost unfair way. Lastly, Medievil 2 suffered a major mistake by overwriting key aspects of the protagonist established in the original game's bare-bones (pun intended) plot by forcing elements like a major love interest for no benefit to the overall storyline. Since many major releases from modern gaming often have similar problems in their writing, it is still worth pointing out these kinds of mistakes when they happen. Overall, as a life long fan of this franchise, it is pretty painful for me to say this and when I went back to replay these games that was not my intent. I still hold the original game up as a classic, but I have to rethink where I place the sequel. It is just not as good as I remember.

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