Wednesday, December 19, 2012

#50: Medievil: When Being Goth Meant Something Completely Different

(You probably don't care, but there are spoilers for Medievil, an old PS1 game. I guess you've been warned.)

A few weeks back, I went ahead and purchased PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale. I am still having a great time playing the game and reconnecting with old characters from games past. One of the characters in that game was my good old friend Sir Daniel Fortesque from the Medievil franchise. As a child, I adored these games and loved playing them. It got to a point to where I was able to play through the original Medievil from start to finish in a four-hour long play session. Anyway, seeing Sir Dan make a return made gave me the excuse to go back and replay the two games in this old franchise. While they still hold up relatively well to the test of time, they also serve to demonstrate the necessity of many of the conventions that became popular in both this console generation and the last. I think this retrospective will serve as a good lesson for both gamers and developers.

First off, what is Medievil? Medievil is a old Gothic-themed platformer released for the original PlayStation in 1998. It takes place in the fictional kingdom of Gallowmere in the late 14th century. The actual story begins in the century prior. In the year 1286, Gallowmere was in the midst of an era of peace and its citizens were quite prosperous. During this period, the court wizard Zarok was caught doing heinous experiments in resurrecting the undead and was sentenced to exile. As vengeful as he was, Zarok began to wage war upon Gallowmere, summoning an army of shadow demons to begin the onslaught. The King of the nation responded by sending his army to fight the sorcerer head on, led by Sir Daniel Fortesque, who received his title by spinning interesting stories for the King to hear (it was an honorary position as no one seriously expected to go to war). Sir Dan ran head on into enemy forces... and died in the first wave by being shot in eye with an arrow. The army fought on without him and Zarok's body was never found. Knowing the truth would cause unrest with the people, King Peregrin altered the history books to give Dan the title of Hero of Gallowmere for dying valiantly after slaughtering Zarok. Peace returned for 100 years, until Zarok was finished nursing his hatred and began his revenge. He successfully cast a very powerful spell, cursing the land to Eternal Night, robbing the townsfolk of their free will, and resurrecting the undead for his new army. Unfortunately for him, his spell brought old Sir Dan back from the dead as well. Hoping to redeem himself of his past mistakes, Daniel takes this chance to save the land of Gallowmere from Zarok for true and become the hero in undeath that he could never be in life, finally taking his place in the Hall of Heroes, where dead heroes gather to boast, feast, and arm wrestle for all eternity.

As the description above might show, this is a game that is equal parts horror and humor, and it uses both to great effect. Playing this game in my childhood, many of the enemies in the game, from the Stained Glass Demon trapped in the Hilltop Mausoleum to the Shadow Demons in the Enchanted Earth, and even minor enemies like the scarecrows in the aptly named Scarecrow Fields filled me with a mixture of dread and excitement. Seeing a monster formed of stained glass be released from his prison to terrorize me was horrifying in a compelling sense. It is a hard feeling to explain as it has been so long since I felt that way. As an young replaying the game for the first time in years, it is only now how funny that game was. Medievil has humor on both a small and large scale. Small little gestures like Sir Dan removing cobwebs from his empty eye-hole when waking up are very good moments. Other larger, repeating gags are the constant mockery of our would-be hero. Throughout the game, players can visit the Hall of Heroes to pay homage to the heroes there and earn rewards. Nearly all of them bear a grudge against Fortesque and/or mock him constantly, saying the they do not think he can succeed and will likely not be the hero. The gargoyles scattered around, who serve as the tip dispensers for the game, also constantly chastise Daniel. The other recurring gag is Sir Dan's missing jaw, which fell off in the 100 year time span since his death. This is repeatedly acknowledged and lampshaded throughout the whole game, and Daniel speaks in mumblings with subtitles helping the playing understand him.

The game also had very interesting and varied level designs. Despite taking place in a decidedly Medievil (pun intended) setting, they used more than the usual fare when designing the game. The game has many different levels including a graveyard, a mausoleum, an enchanted forest, an hedge maze, a cursed medieval village, an insane asylum, and flooded battlefield, a pumpkin patch, and a pirate ship. These areas are more varied than in just their backdrops. Each area also tends to emphasize one of Medievil's three different styles of play: Puzzles, Platforming, and Combat (much like other 3D platforming games of the time). For example, in the hedge maze level, the theme of that level is puzzle solving. The maze is ruled by a unique gargoyle named Jack of the Green. He will only allow the player to exit when they answer four of his riddles by searching the maze for the answers. While he thinks his riddles are so clever that no one can solve them, the game acknowledges that they are not hard at all and lampshades it quite effectively. The challenge comes not from answering the riddles, but from discovering what task the player has to perform to complete the riddle through Jack's growing irritation. It is pretty intuitive though, so most players will not have trouble. This puzzle heavy level leads to the asylum, which is a combat heavy level in the form of a gauntlet where players have to kill all the enemies in a room before proceeding. Lastly, there are platforming levels like the pirate ship, where the emphasis is on timed jumps and making it from the beginning to the end of the level. Each level is well planned to fit its theme, giving players much appreciated variety.

All of these levels have one thing in common, though. In every stage, there exists a Chalice of Souls from the Hall of Heroes. While defeating Zarok is certainly the primary goal of the game, the secondary goal for Sir Daniel is to prove himself capable of being a hero. To this end, the champions of the Hall of Heroes have issued a challenge: To gain standing in the Hall and prove his worth, Dan must collect the complete set of Chalices and then defeat Zarok. While every level contains one of these Chalices, Fortesque cannot simply collect them. They are powered by the energy contained within malicious souls. In order to materialize the Chalice of a given level, it is necessary to dispatch enough enemies to fill the Chalice to 100% capacity. Once that happens, the Chalice can be collected. There are also stages where the Chalice starts off partially filled. This is both a blessing and a curse. While it means that players have a kill fewer enemies, it also means that there are innocent souls in the stage. Should an innocent person die on Dan's watch, their energy will reduce the level at which the Chalice is filled. This can make it impossible to collect the Chalice in most cases. Again, this makes sense because Dan is trying to prove his worth as a hero, so letting people die is directly opposed to that. Completing a stage with Chalice in hand grants the player an aforementioned trip to the Hall of Heroes, where they can pay homage to one of the great warriors of the past. While few respect Fortesque and fewer still among the greats in the hall even like him, they all will offer him aid on his quest. This aid can come in the form of money, health, a Life Bottle (which can be use as an extra life), or most likely a new weapon which can make the player's life easier going forward. Also, the good ending where Daniel ascends to the Hall of Heroes can only be obtained by completing the game with every Chalice in hand. I liked this whole system of collecting the Chalices and still do because it encourages players to stand their ground and fight all of the enemies in a level instead of rushing to complete the game, which is entirely possible in most levels.

As much as I loved this old game though, it has a problem: A major problem. As with many platformers of the era, the camera practically conspires to kill the player at every turn. Replaying the game from my modern perspective, there were more than a few instances where the platforming of the game was made unnecessarily difficult by the camera putting itself in odd positions that made it difficult to perceive distance between Sir Dan and the platform he needs to jump to. The combat is also worsened by the camera's tendency to move around mid-fight and force players to adapt to a new perspective while enemies are beating on them. This different perspective often reoriented the directional controls, which further complicates what should be a simple confrontation. Also, the game was created before Ape Escape on the original PlayStation made dual analog sticks standard for most control schemes, so the camera was awkwardly controlled by the shoulder buttons and it does not work quite as well as the “left stick controls movement, right stick controls camera” style most games utilize today. This lack of dual sticks also makes platforming itself unnecessarily difficult. The directional buttons do not allow for the same level of precision that analog sticks can provide, so certain jumps are made harder because of technological limitations. This is even more painful since Medievil comes from the era where all game protagonists were completely unable to swim in water and drowned instantly, even if it makes more sense for this to affect a skeletal knight in heavy armor. I am willing to forgive it for these issues, often brought on by growing pains and worsened by the camera, simply because 3D platforming was still just starting to take off at the time. Your enjoyment of this is largely, but not entirely, dependent on your willingness to forgive the rather archaic (by modern standards) control scheme. The rest of the game has aged rather well by comparison.

Medievil was a great game and a fantastic case study for the use of Gothic architecture and themes in video games, combined with a healthy sense of humor. Few games since then have re-imagined this period of history in the same way. Luckily for everyone in North American (and I think Europe), the game is available for download and use on the PSN store for the PS3 and the PSP. It only costs around $6, so it may be worth trying out (and the PC crowd among you could probably just pirate it and use a PS1 emulator). Next week, I intend to go over the sequel*, as it has a list of pros and cons that are related, but altogether different from the original. This is a series I adore and Sir Daniel is one of my favorite protagonists in video games. I hope that one day it can see a another sequel, taking the elements that made the first one and its sequel so great, but re-imagining them using conventions and systems brought on my developments in modern game design. While still not as well known as other PS1 games, Medievil still has a huge cult following and it would be worth revisiting.
*This statement is subject to change.

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