Have you ever had those memories that blur the lines between recollection and reverie? When your mind races through long forgotten pictures and sounds but suddenly trips, comes to a halt by a particular image and mutters, “D’fuck is this?”
Well, I do, quite often actually, yet the latest incident of this phenomenon was rooted in an old PS1 game that goes by the name of ‘Medievil’. Funny, right? Almost cute. Like Anberlin being a pseudo-abbreviation of Anne Boleyn. But I’m getting obscure again, as there’s a good chance most reading this’ll be wondering what Medievil is, while the others’ll be Googling Anberlin, and I only have enough time to gush on about one unorthodox interest.
Gratefully I’m going to pick the game to talk about, as there may be a few “Ooooh, I think I remember that” when mentioning Medievil. Or there may not be, who knows? Who cares either, ‘cause I’m going to ramble on aboot it anyway.
At a Glance
I say you might remember it because believe it or not, the protagonist last appeared a few years back in Playstation All Stars Battle Royale. Remember that weird sword wielding skeleton that looked like it was kicked out of a Tim Burton casting session? Yeah, that guy. Created in the primal era of 3D adventure games, yet not so prehistoric that it’s insultingly bad (I’m blatantly glaring at you, Bubsy 3D; get out, and don’t even use the door), Medievil was born at a time that the term ‘Hack n’ Slash’ pretty much told you what to expect. You hacked, you slashed, and every now and then, you n’ed.
When I say the game is ‘relatively simple’ you’ll understand what I mean when I tackle certain gameplay aspects. Yet just like Pacman, raw cookie dough and raw alcohol there’s a certain beauty in simplicity, in something being brilliant in its most basic form. I’d compare it poetry, but poetry sucks. Friggin’ writer’s masturbation; to think I spent even a seminar studying that garbage.
…Anyway, that’s more or less my opening point about this game. It has a very pure genius about it and it provides a satisfying sense of entertainment with very little. There isn’t a cornucopia of collectables to root out, there isn’t a whole cast of complex characters, and there isn’t much more to the game beyond the rather A to B story and subtle wit. And yet there’s something special about it, call it an endearing charm but there’s brilliance woven into a seemingly bland piece of tapestry.
I can appreciate a masterpiece when I see it and I can worship those rare creations that come along but a few times in a lifetime, but there’s room in the heart of men for things that don’t require explanation. After all, even Byron, for all his prodigal musings, still kept a friggin’ bear in his room.
So when I said ‘simple’ I wasn’t trying to downplay this game for fear of singing praises about what could be conceived as mediocre. I really meant it. Don’t believe me? Alright, go out and grab a D&D book, open it up to any page and there’s a chance you’ll see something that sounds familiar to this.
Right, it’s the 13th century and there’s this evil wizard guy, okay? He’s like, evil and what not, for little to no adequately explained reason. Maybe he was bullied as a kid for having a cliche evil gigantic pointy chin, or maybe he got into the goth scene but that one hot girl in the group turned him down. I don’t know, the writers neglected to inform us of his motives, he’s just evil, alright? Moving on.
Since this guy’s so damn evil he decides to raise an army of zombies and attack the nearby kingdom, which is bad obviously. I mean, there had been no Dawn of the Dead, World War Z (book, only the book) or Resi games yet, so people were getting freaked out by this undead horde. Thus the king did decree that his own army, led by one Sir Daniel Fortesque, would meet these rotting bastards head on and get shit sorted with swords and crossbows and even bigger swords. Ah, to go to war in those days, could you imagine? “Here, son, take this sword and earn your honour,” like some Elder Scrolls style shit.
Anywho, the battle begins and Sir Daniel leads the charge..only to be shot in the eye by the first arrow. Not exactly the thing of legends, right? Wrong, shut up and listen. The battle was won by the living, breathing army and the king wanted the history books to sing praises of good ol’ Fortesque, so they botched the story and enclosed Sir Danny F in a mausoleum to rest among the other champions of old.
Well 100 years pass and the aforementioned magical bastard pops up, again, abruptly to set things alight with accursed green flames, again, reviving his zombies because hey, why not, what else has he got going on? But by doing so he inadvertently brings back our man Sir Fortexcellent, who we learn has not spent the last century partying in totally-not-Valhalla as per planned. And so he sets out, freshly reanimated as a one eyed, jawless skeleton, in order to finally fight his foe and earn his place as a hero of mythical proportions.
As with any kind of adventure game there’s plenty standing between you and the antagonist, and in this case it’s a mob of tortured and enslaved corpses. Are they aware of their actions? Do they feel pain? Don’t let these moral questions get in your way, especially as you have to mow through them to get from start to finish. It’s not just your standard ‘go over there kill those guys’ kind of game though as unlike, say, Dynasty Warriors you’ve got specific areas, settings and objectives to achieve before continuing your quest.
Well, I say ‘objectives’, it’s more like you have various gates to open. That’s right, it’s a case of ‘the square block goes in the square peg’ kind of deal that hasn’t really been seen in such a basic form since Doom. Or Shadows of the Damned, I guess, but that was just weird. A red key going into a red gate? That’s just crazy enough to work, but a floating eyeball being jammed into a demon baby’s face? Yeah, not quite sure what they were going for there. Anyway, this kind of obstacle may seem like a basic method of stretching gameplay out (alright, it is, but whatever) yet there’s more than just colourful floating tablets to collect; there are all sorts of bric-a-bracs to find.
Take one of the first levels for example. After wandering around a church cutting up random gremlins for a while you come across a ghastly spectre playing the pipe organ which, coincidentally, is the music you’re hearing the whole time. Some exploration will reveal some sheet music hidden in a coffin (what were you planning to be buried with, your clothes? Come on, think outside the box) that, if you bring to the aforementioned apparition, will cause the overlapping tune to change and a path to a hidden item opened.
Speaking about hidden items, there’s an assortment of rewards for those who wander off the beaten path. Tools used to explore extra areas (well, tools in the most rudimentary sense, like clubs used by Neanderthals), potions that save you from a second death (the equivalency of the bottled fairies from Zelda, sans the crippling guilt), and an ever enigmatic chalice (which is filled with the blood of your enemies..sort of). It’s that last point that really improves, and is somewhat the crux of, the game as next to your health bar and ammunition amount, for stuff like throwing knives or crossbow darts, is a percentage that racks up every time you fell an enemy. If it floweth over then that concealed chalice finally spawns somewhere on the map, and when you find it and finish the level you are instantly whisked away to the ‘Hall of Heroes’.
Who says mythology doesn’t play well with others? After all, each belief system has piggy backed each other when it comes to core elements of their stories, and that’s probably what inspired this mysterious area. The Hall of Heroes is a kind of fusion between the setting of Asgard of Norse mythology and the totem worshipping of Christianity, as you walk through hallowed halls speaking to gigantic statues of your old comrades. One by one they exchange a bit of banter with you and your cadence speaking protagonist and supply you with a brand new, shiny ass weapon. Okay, maybe not brand new, I mean, they did virtually hand you down something that’s a century old, but whatever, you get my point.
It’s these new means of slaughtering every hapless henchmen that comes your way that really freshens up the game, and in many cases, immensely helps. Got a boulder in your way? Smash it up with a warhammer! Is that weird stain glass window boss giving you trouble? Rapid fire bolts into their heart! It really makes you want to scour every corner of every area, for that sweet reward that fuelled the kind of relentless ambition for something just that little bit better, that little bit shinier, that games like Borderlands runs on. And this is even more of a driving force for completionists, as collecting everything is the only way to get that sacred final true fo’ real yo’ ending that plagues gamers like me to look under every rock, explore every lead, and play Persona games for a longer amount of time than most people spend raising their children.
Those Finishing Touches
Alright, is Medievil an uncomplicated game? Yes, maybe it is. Is it the kind of straightforward adventure that drives you to play it more times than you’ve eaten a hot meal? Probably not, or at least, I really hope it isn’t for anyone. But is it fun? Fuck yes. Was it an interesting gem at the time? You bet your beautiful behind it was. And given the spooky time of year we’re facing, Medievil certainly seems like an apt game to revisit. After all, that reference to that gothic hack at the beginning of this wasn’t entirely accidental (or just an excuse to belittle a man who often pimps out his wife to, what, his best friend? Seriously, what’s the deal with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton? Does he let him..watch their marital copulation? Does he force him to? I don’t know, I can only recoil at the thought and spread half baked slanderous accusations). It really is reminiscent of shit like Nightmare Before Christmas, what with the almost PG approach to the afterlife and the good natured jokes that light up the script.
You can play it today on the PS Vita, probably even on the PS3/4 thanks to PSN, and it’ll probably have aged as well as a teenage mother ten years after they’d drunk that first bottle of sangria and forgotten what their teachers said about safe sex. But that’s not really the point, is it? When revisiting experiences like this you’ve got to ask about what’s important; technological prowess or rhetorical questions?
Seriously, I’ll stop now, but I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. I mean, the PS1 saw over 2,000 games pass through it, most of which were, let’s face it, total crap fests. Personally I think any game that felt special among thousands, let alone still seemed that way a handful of generations after, deserves some credit due, and Medievil certainly earns that.
By Tom Simpkins