Buffy the Vampire Slayer Review
Developer: The Collective
Reviewed on Xbox
Vampires were once the bogeymen of Europe, and myths based on their existence have sprung up in cultures throughout the globe. These days, the rest of the world has little to fear, as evil has taken up residence in Sunnydale, California. Where do vampires go to hang out? Sunnydale. Where do demons gather to open the gates of hell and bring their brethren streaming into the mortal world? Sunnydale, California.
It just so happens, that Buffy Summers, seventeen-year old and "chosen one" also moved to Sunnydale. As the Slayer, the one woman in each generation empowered to combat evil, Buffy is humanity's best hope against the foul machinations of the undead and demonkind. Of course, Buffy's nemesis, The Master, has returned from the dead to attempt once more to permanently break down the boundaries between Hell and earth. Buffy has killed The Master once before, but he's managed to take down Buffy once, himself. This time, The Master is aided by the three Dreamer Demons: Urd, Skuld and Verdandi, making Buffy's task all the more difficult. For Buffy, this match against the master is for the "best two out of three."
I didn't have high expectations for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer title when I first heard that work on this game was underway. Then I saw a late build of the game, and was impressed. It seemed to have everything – a sophisticated combat system, great graphics and sound, all while maintaining the feel of the television series upon which the title is based. The final product absolutely validates that impression. Buffy is nearly everything you could hope for, and is a great play experience, with few serious problems.
The centerpiece of the game is battling evil. Buffy slays vampires (along with assorted ghouls, demons and nasties). Using a very simple control scheme, players can pull off sophisticated battles with undead foes. Best of all, the combat makes you feel like you are thoroughly in control, killing demons by virtue of your tremendous skill, no matter whether you mash buttons or carefully coordinate your blows. The controls are simple: One button is assigned to each of punch, kick and jump. A fourth button serves both as a "use" command and to deliver the final killing blow to enemies (such as a stake through the heart).
Unfortunately, vampires don't die easily. They either must have their heads cut off, or have a stake driven through their hearts. At the most basic level, you punch and kick a vampire until he is out of health, then drive a stake through his heart to finish the fight. This lends a great dynamic to combat, as you don't just have to deal catastrophic damage – you also have to land the appropriate killing stroke. This goes for Buffy, as well. She doesn't always die just because she is out of health – vampires need to end her life by embracing her and drinking the remnants of her vital essence (sometimes they resort to more casual methods, like crushing her skull or snapping her neck). Buffy, as the Chosen One, has a certain amount of Slayer Power. She can use this to execute devastating combinations of blows, and all manner of special attacks (more of which become available later in the game).
The addition of weapons makes fighting even more complex. The simple stake is useful enough for finishing off a vampire, but is not otherwise a useful tool. Buffy gains access to a variety of tools, such as a modified Super-Soaker water rifle that holds holy water and liquid hellfire. As Buffy says to herself, "Who would have thought hellfire wouldn't melt plastic?" Other items litter the landscape, such as the shovel, one end of which can decapitate a foe, and the shaft of which can pierce a vampire's heart after he's been beaten to the ground. The environment itself is a key weapon. The world is full of sharp and dangerous objects, such as planks at construction sites or exploding barrels. Careful maneuvering will often allow you to throw or punch enemies, sending them flying so that they land, impaled, on a stick, ending that vampire's unlife. Even pools of sunlight can be used to your advantage. Of course if you miss your target when throwing an enemy, tables, chairs and boxes will shatter, often creating convenient stakes to complete your carnage. Sometimes there are even innocents to protect, and if you can save them in time they'll thank you with whatever they have on hand.
Life gets more difficult when there are multiple enemies, as they will work to surround you. This is particularly inconvenient, as punches from one enemy will interrupt your attacks on another. This can spell doom for Buffy, so more skill is required in such areas. In these situations, it is essential to have more than button-mashing skill, and to cleverly use the environmental hazards on hand. The animations in and out of combat look superb, as well. The fluid movement of the fights looks good, and allows you to time Buffy's attacks and blocks to be as effective as possible. By watching carefully, you can dodge at the right moment, or interrupt an enemy attack. In fact, you only really notice Buffy snapping to a different position and breaking the smooth animation when she is struck in the middle of an attack by a second enemy. The only problem with combat is that the camera sometimes acts as a handicap. While you can ordinarily control the camera freely, it will sometimes shift to an awkward angle during fights that, while more cinematic, also obscures parts of the fight, particularly when there is more than one opponent.
A decent variety of foes, all with exceptional designs, populate Sunnydale. Vampires range from teenage (seeming) hoodlums in letterman jackets to leather-clad, Goth-fashion mavens. Demonic dogs, zombies, vampiric spiders and huge mutant vampires are joined by the hideous, female, water-dwelling demons with nasty tentacles and scaled skin, and an assortment of nasty gargoyle looking things. While there are quite a few types of enemies, the game is all about combat, so you will face wave after wave of identical vampires, each with the same appearance and voice. This may lead you to suspect that some sort of high-tech, demonic cloning conglomerate is headquartered in Sunnydale.
Fans of the television show will be grateful to know that many of the game's characters such as Giles and Willow are voiced by the actors from the television series. Fortunately, although Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn't provide Buffy's voice in the game, the impersonator does a remarkable job. Of course, I always liked Kristy Swanson (of the original movie) better. The witty banter from the show, and Buffy's one liners that she spews as she puts vampires out of our misery, are scattered throughout. These are a nice touch, but they are limited in variety. Buffy says one of a few lines every time she kills something, and she kills a lot, so you hear the same lines over and over. Some are funny the first time, but all are tiresome by the end of the game. The same goes for Buffy's enemies. Each has one or two lines of dialog you hear repeatedly. The dialog does capture the same feel as the show, but the game needs more unique lines like Buffy's "Ooooooooo! Shiny buttons and switches! Look Important! Must press." Those are great, but you'll get tired of hearing Buffy complain about locked doors.
Buffy looks great. (The game, that is – we're not talking about the actress.) Human and vampire animations are smooth, zombies are jerky, and the environments are moody and detailed. Best of all are the supernatural effects. Watching a vampire dissolve around the stake through his heart is amazing. The bosses are particularly well conceived, with the dreamer demons looking like some botched fusion of warped biology and cruelly hand-wrought iron. Boss monsters are also a source of complaint. In many games, boss battles are lacking an accompanying indicator of health, making it difficult to tell how much more effort (and resources) are required to win the fight. In this game, you know exactly how much health the boss has remaining, but it's not always clear how to deliver the final killing blow, so some bosses will remain on the cusp of a final death, wearing Buffy down bit by bit. Scylla, a transforming vampire, and the final dreamer demon, are particular problems in this regard.
Much of the game flows smoothly, with fights presenting just enough difficulty to provide a sense of accomplishment as you move through the levels, making the game seem like one continuous action movie. In certain areas, though, the absence of frequent save points seems like a dire mistake. When the game falls into a heavy platformer formula, complete with jumping puzzles and moving platforms, it can become a session of irritating repetition. Particularly the Sunken Church tunnels and the Islands in the Dreamers' Realm give you difficult jumps or "gotcha" moments at the end of the level. Those jumps are, of course, fatal if you fail. That means trying again requires playing through the whole opening of the level – repeatedly. This seems like an artificial way of making the game longer, and takes the player out of the exciting flow that the rest of the game maintains. Also, many enemies are particularly vulnerable to certain weapons, so if it takes you a while to figure out that weakness, or you have used up that item, you may be in for excessive repetition. Fortunately, these problems are confined to a small number of areas.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a thrilling, deep fighting game, occasionally heavy on platformer elements, wrapped in the trappings of the very popular TV series. There's enough skill and excitement in combat that the game has considerable replayability, despite its minor flaws. As Giles says, "Evil lingers... fortunately there is always a Slayer to combat it."