ILLBLEED / AIA / Dreamcast

So Illbleed is one of these games that has a cult following that swears it's the greatest thing since whatever and the most underappreciated classic of the Dreamcast library and etc. I've long ago since learned to approach these breathless recommendations with trepidation, as quite often the reason people are raving about games like these is that they've keyed in on one particular element that just really tickles their personal psychological make-up, so much so that they're willfully and effectively blind to all the other flaws the game has.

Illbleed got awful reviews when it came out for a reason. The gameplay is shit - mostly the fault of the combat - and the formula of the game basically requires you to know what's coming next, mandating that you plod through each level several times simply learning where traps and monsters are going to pop out so that you can eventually do a run where you're prepared enough to survive. Some people like that, I guess. I find it a tedious slog, especially considering that each level takes upward of an hour to clear, and save points are few and far between, meaning that when some cheap shit kills you it's often 30 minutes or so of re-playing segments.

The game is the "spiritual successor" to Blue Stinger in that it's a horror game and it's by the same director, but it shares nothing with that one other than some cameo appearances and the general theme of stiff, clunky gameplay. You play as Eriko Christy, who has just finished giving a commencement speech or something about how her fucked-up horror addict dad used to torment her by rigging the house up with traps and automatronic monsters. Just after the speech, Eriko's three best high school buds run up to her with tickets with their names on them, to a new horror-themed amusement park called "Illbleed." Apparently they've been challenged to spend a night at the theme park for a reward of 100 million dollars. Eriko initially refuses to go, but her buds are extremely dense and have no suspicions about getting a bunch of tickets with their names on them out of nowhere along with offers of vast loot, and insist on going. Of course, 3 days later they're still missing, so Eriko heads over there to see if she can retrieve their carcasses or something.

The game's mechanics are pretty unique. There's a hub area at the outset of the park where you can buy items, save, and switch between characters (once you rescue Eriko's schlub friends.) The park is divided into different levels, which take the form of attractions i.e. a haunted house. Each level is kitted out with traps and has a big bad boss beastie that you'll eventually make your way to. You start out by finding a pair of goggles called a Horror Meter, which let you go into first-person view and identify suspicious objects in your field of view. Potential traps can be "marked", which essentially disables them, but doing so takes adrenaline, of which you have only a very finite supply, so you can't just go around marking every object that pops up. To help you differentiate between traps and harmless objects, you have four "sense meters" that are always active at the top of the screen - sight, smell, sound and "sixth sense". When these start going off, you're near a trap.

The trap system isn't a bad idea at all, but there's a few problems in implementation. The biggest one is that the "sense system" just tells you that a trap is near, but really doesn't help differentiate between harmless and harmful objects. You'd think the sense or senses that were currently going off combined with the type of object and environment would give you a clue as to whether an object was harmful (i.e. a toilet that's about to spew shit all over you smelling unusual), but it really doesn't work that way, they seem completely arbitrary for the most part. "Sixth sense" only detects items and enemies, so if that's the only one going off you don't have to worry about marking anything, but if any of the other three are going off, potentially any "object of interest" near you could be a trap. The solution to this unfortunately seems to be just replaying the level multiple times, as most of the traps are always in the same places, with relatively few that are randomized.

You also have to juggle multiple "health" meters that are refreshed by different types of items. You have traditional hit points, depleted by physically damaging traps, and by taking hits in combat. But stuff that hits you also usually cuts you, which starts you bleeding. You have a separate Bleeding meter that goes up too, and if that goes up too high, you're dead. Your heart rate also can't exceed 200 BPM or something like that too, and naturally pop-out frights drive that up. And then adrenaline can be restored by finding injections along the way, and successfully marking a trap also restores some of it. The game has a bit of a Roguelike aspect in that the items you find in levels seem to be randomized from play to play. Unfortunately, the most necessary by far is stuff that stops bleeding, because just about every trap (and every enemy) makes you bleed, but if the game decides to not toss you an adequate amount of band-aids or whatever, you're kind of fucked.

I can deal with the hinkiness in the trap-disarming play. That portion of the game is still not that bad. The problem is that combat is also scattered liberally through each level as well, and the vast majority of these encounters is unavoidable. Combat works like a trap, except only your Sixth Sense goes off, and you can't mark or avoid it. A monster jumps out at you, then you're stuck in a tiny fixed area with them to run around and swing clumsily at each other. Your characters start out completely unarmed, and can only find one weapon per level, usually somewhere around the halfway point. You also only have a clumsy jump and a slow and ineffectual side-step at your disposal, whereas every single enemy you face including the very first ones is some sort of clockwork kung fu killing machine that moves faster than you and is constantly up your ass with complex kick combos and shit. And just wait, it gets better - sometimes more than one attacks you at once! There's supposed to be an escape route out of combat via a helicopter landing sign that appears in the field, if you stand on it for long enough a helicopter will slowly lower a ladder for you. The problem with this is that there's extremely few enemies that are slow enough for this to work on. Standing still for that long usually just gets you gangbanged quickly, especially against two dudes at once or one of the big weapon-wielding dudes, who are the ones it would be really advantageous to get away from. Your chances of survival are often much better just running around trying to clumsily hack it out with the enemies. Combat here shares the Blue Stinger problem of enemies not consistently being stun-locked or knocked down when you hit them with the final blow of your three-hit combo. If you could rely on that, combat would be more strategic and tolerable. If they go into any other animation just before that, however, they can't be knocked out of it, and every now and then they won't be in another animation but still won't fall down anyway.

I dig what Illbleed was trying to do. It wanted to stand apart from the survival horror crowd with unique mechanics and a self-aware sense of humor. Gameplay is the (oft-ignored) foundation upon which all high concepts rest, however; if it doesn't work, the neatness or depth of an idea doesn't really matter all that much (hi Team Ico). It has some neat ideas on display and some good, complex boss encounters, but most of Illbleed is just a tedious and aggravating slog.

Videos :

* Gameplay Video

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