Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Drive-In of Terror: Onechanbara: Z2 Chaos (PS4)

Every now and then a movie is released with a concept so ridiculous, one has to wonder what the creators were thinking when they came up with this idea.  Look no further than the Syfy Channel's Sharknado series for proof that it's possible to take a far-fetched scenario and not only make it a reality, but also a success.  In contrast, video games and their fantastical premises such as a plumber jumping on sentient mushrooms and turtles or a space marine fighting aliens are relatively tame when compared to what the film industry offers.  On rare occasions, though, a game comes along with such a ludicrous se-up that it can't help but attract the attention of the gaming community, such is the case with Onechanbara Z2: Chaos.  The premise: a group of scantily-clad women work together to fight the undead.

Throughout the history of mankind, there have been two warring factions: the Baneful and the Vampirics.  The two have frequently fought against each other to see which race will come out on top, but there has been no clear victor, as of yet.  In modern times, the Baneful faction consists of the sisters Aya and Saki, and the Vampirics consist of Kagura and Saaya.  The four are fighting it out with each other when a mysterious woman named Evangeline shows up, causing them to stop fighting momentarily.  Then, the floor beneath them crumbles, causing the group to be separated from each other.  After being split up, all four reunite and meet with Anna of the Z.P.F., Zombie Punitive Force, who informs the women that numerous zombie outbreaks have been reported around the world and must be dealt with before things get worse.  Therefore, Aya, Saki, Kagura, and Saaya head out to stop the forces of evil while uncovering Evangeline's plans for global domination.

Though it has a complex backstory, in actuality, Onechanbara's story is a campy and nonsensical narrative.  As this is a sequel to Onechanbara Z: Kagura, which was never released in the U.S., the game assumes players are familiar with the events of the prior entry and it doesn't do much to explain who these characters are and why they are initially hostile towards each other.  Worse, as the game progresses, story becomes an afterthought, so events are hastily wrapped up without much build-up, yet what saves the narrative from being a total mess is the game's style and writing.  There is much creativity present in regards to the world this game establishes and the four girls are entertaining protagonists.  Although the concept might not be everyone's cup of tea, the tongue-in-cheek writing serves as a firm reminder not to take things seriously, which is reinforced by the exchangeable banter of the girls heard during each mission.

Onechanbara: Z2 Chaos' gameplay will feel familiar to those who have played a Dynasty/Samurai Warriors game, or Sengoku Basara, as the formula is similar to those titles, but its pacing and mechanics keep it from being a total copycat.  Each stage sees the player controlling one of the four heroines as they run around slashing up zombies, werewolves, and other monsters with an assortment of weapons and attacks.  Whereas other titles of this genre only let you control one protagonist throughout the campaign, Onechanbara allows players to swap freely between any of the four girls at any time, and each one has their own moves and special traits to prevent any similarity.  For example, when controlling either Aya or Saki, the two are capable of performing a counterattack when the dodge button is pressed at the right moment.  As enemies are killed, blood will fill up on their weapons, and if too much gets on there, then they can get stuck in foes; fortunately, blood can easily be sheathed off by pressing the R1 button.

Additionally, killing bad guys with the currently selected character fills up the ecstasy gauge; when filled, this allows an ecstasy combination to be released, which is a devastating area-of-effect attack.  Certain enemies, such as the mud-men, can only be hurt by ecstasy attacks, meaning players will have to make sure some energy is available if these foes show up.  There's also the stain gauge, which fills up as foes are slaughtered.  Once full, it can cause one of the girls to transform into their berserker form that's capable of annihilating anything and everything caught in their path.  The catch is that health gradually degrades over time, albeit very slowly, but there are special items that can be obtained to regain lost health or decrease the amount of blood currently in the stain gauge.

Performing well in combat and defeating bad guys will net yellow orbs, which can be used to unlock new moves, weapons, and items at goddess statues strewn about each level.  Onechanbara: Z2 Chaos is loaded to the brim with content, featuring many goods to unlock such as costumes, concept art, etc., as well as multiple modes to keep yourself busy with.  After beating the story, a higher difficulty option is unlocked to test your mettle with, and mission mode, which is the game's challenge mode, sees you completing different goals under certain parameters.

As much as Onechanbara: Z2 Chaos is a lot of fun to play, there are several glaring issues, the biggest of which is its repetitive nature.  Though the combat is entertaining, the non-stop slaughtering starts to become very routine as you progress through the story mode; also, it's easy.  While the selection of enemies is inventive and unique, most of them can be taken down with relative ease, especially when a character's berserker state is active.  The only foes that might give you some trouble are the boss fights, but even they tend to lack challenge, although the game does utilize quick-time-events rather well during these encounters, as the player is required to swipe the touch pad of the PlayStation 4 in different directions in order for the girls to turn them into Swiss cheese.

Onechanbara's sense of energy carries over into the graphics, with bright, colorful visuals and inventive character and creature designs, and the framerate stays smooth at all times, even when there is much onscreen activity.  Yet, it goes without saying that the game's blatant and shameless fan-service will not appeal to everyone.  Many of the selectable outfits are quite provocative, and with dialogue including such lines as "Stop dragging your tits around," this is one of those titles where you have to be willing to accept its bad taste, similar to House of the Dead: Overkill.  Speaking of which, the voice acting is deliberately cheesy and more the better because of it, and the music, while heavy on the techno, is quite energetic.

In many regards, Onechanbara: Z2 Chaos is similar to the likes of the Earth Defense Force series, Saints Row, and House of the Dead: Overkill in that it knows what it is and gladly relishes in its absurdity.  The game is far from perfect, as evidenced by its convoluted story and repetitious gameplay, but its frenetic, stylistic energy that permeates throughout keeps this title consistently entertaining, and the amount of content to unlock will keep you busy for quite some time.

Final Score: 7/10

Monday, October 24, 2016

Drive-In of Terror: Evil Dead II (1987)

Taking different genres and merging them together is something that normally results in success.  Horror is no stranger to this idea, and examples are plentiful, from the tension-fueled action of James Cameron's Aliens to the comical and zany anarchy of Joe Dante's Gremlins, these films and others have proven you can take a scary concept and make it acceptable to the public.  At the top of this mound lies Evil Dead II, a sequel that moves away from the gritty, shocking nature of the original and into slapstick-inspired, adrenaline-fueled terror.

Initially beginning with an abridged retelling of The Evil Dead's events, without the presence of Scotty, Shelly, or Cheryl though, Evil Dead II's actual story picks up at the ending of the first movie, with the demonic presence coming after Ash (Bruce Campbell) and sending him flying through the woods before crashing into a tree and collapsing.  He is initially possessed but the presence of sunlight immediately frees Ash from their control.  Ash tries to flee, but the bridge him and Linda (Denise Bixler) took has been destroyed, so he heads back to the cabin to try and wait it out.  Meanwhile, Professor Knowby's daughter Annie (Sarah Berry), along with her colleague Ed (Richard Domeier), are traveling to her father's cabins with missing pages from the Book of the Dead, now called Necronomicon ex Mortis.  When they arrive at the bridge, a local (Dan Hicks) and his girlfriend (Kassie DePalva) are putting roadblocks up, but the man agrees to take them to the cabin via a hiking trail, so long as the two pay him well afterwards.

In the midst of all of this, Ash is dealing with the evil spirits, who have been taunting and torturing him through various means, one of which involves his dead girlfriend Linda.  At one point, she comes back to life, with her severed head biting Ash's right hand.  After cutting her decomposed body apart, his hand starts to attack him, forcing Ash to cut it off with a chainsaw.  Soon, the group arrives during one of Ash's paranoid freak-outs, and they decide to throw him in the cellar after seeing the bloody chainsaw, which Annie believes he used to kill her parents.  Ed finds Knowby's tape recorder and plays it, and Knowby reveals in his logs that after killing his possessed wife Henrietta, he buried her in the basement, which Ash is currently locked in.

With its abridged retelling that acts as a means to transition into the real meat of the movie, Evil Dead II can be watched by those unfamiliar with the prior film and still enjoy the picture for what it is, an hour-and thirty-minutes nonstop-reel of exaggerated but slapstick-heavy violence, dramatic tension, and enough moments of pure insanity to make the viewer think that they are stuck in a mental asylum.  If there was an example to the definition of insanity, it's Ash Williams when he's being mercilessly tortured by the demons.  The movie doesn't get under your skin like how The Evil Dead did; rather, it goes straight for the jugular, with ludicrous sequences of madness that leave both the main character and the audience constantly questioning the perception of reality.

On that note, the character of Ash Williams receives much more development in this follow-up.  In the original, he was an everyday guy who found himself trying to survive against a demonic presence that was gradually possessing his friends, and while he starts off on similar footing in the sequel, as the film progresses, he gradually transitions from avoiding responsibility to taking it.  As the evil spirits try to consume the ones who arrived at the Knowby cabin, Ash realizes he has to step up and take initiative, especially when the missing pages brought by Annie end up in the cellar with Henrietta, and they are the only way the demons can be expelled from the woods.  Therefore, with the help of Knowby's daughter, Ash gears up with two weapons that help made his character the icon he is today, a chainsaw where his right hand used to be, and a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun to deliver the pain.

Besides further expanding the role of the main protagonist, Evil Dead II is also an improvement on its predecessor when it comes to storytelling and technical prowess.  Though the set-up is the same and the movie does follow similar beats to the original, it's a more focused affair and doesn't suffer from any pacing issues like The Evil Dead did, it's also not as scary.  As alluded to earlier, there is a stronger presence of comedy in the sequel compared to the first, while it was there in the original, it was more subdued and dark since it stemmed from the constant laughing and taunts spouted by the demons.  There are many moments that feel like they were ripped straight from The Three Stooges.  When Ash's right hand is throwing and beating him around, one can't help but think that if sound effects were added in, then it would be a very violent, but hilarious Three Stooges tribute.  Towards the end, Evil Dead II completely transforms into an action-fantasy spectacle, with Ash fighting not just the monstrous form of Henrietta, but also contending with the true form of evil itself as Annie tries to finish reading the passages.

Technically, the movie looks more refined and polished than the first, even though the budget was still quite low for this endeavor, costing around three million dollars to make.  Still, what director Sam Raimi and the effects artists create is imaginative and inventive.  The make-up for the possessed is more fleshed-out, with elongated faces and razor-sharp hands indicating that someone has been taken over.  The camera-work is equally strong, with plenty of point-of-view sequences and other techniques present throughout; additionally, the higher budget means that there aren't as many noticeable slip-ups or goofs, not to say that they are completely gone, but they aren't as easy to spot as in the first one.

Evil Dead II is one of those sequels that is not only better than the original, but it is also capable of standing on its own as a great experience.  The stronger writing and presence of humor create a manic sense of energy that permeates through the film, combine that with great performances and inventive effects, and you have an imaginative but thrilling experience.

Final Score: 9/10

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Drive-In of Terror: House of the Dead: Overkill (Wii)

Re-invention is a method capable of breathing new life into an established series.  It offers the chance for the developer or filmmakers to try something different, while still keeping what works intact.  The horror genre, both the film and gaming representation of it, are no stranger to this idea.  Whether it was resurrecting Jason Voorhees as an indestructible super-zombie in Friday the 13th: Part VI or having Freddy Krueger trying to break out of his film world and into reality in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, experimentation with untapped concepts is a great way to keep a franchise fresh.  Enter House of the Dead: Overkill, which takes a series known for intense, on-rail shooter action, and spins it into a product seemingly rife for late-night showing at a local drive-in.

Set before the first game, Overkill follows series protagonist Agent G on his first assignment in the fictional Bayou County.  He's been paired up with foul-mouthed cop Isaac Washington to stop the criminal kingpin Papa Caesar, who has gotten his hands on a top-secret government chemical.  Said chemical is capable of mutating humans into violent individuals; in advanced stages, it turns them into beings of grotesque form.  Along the way, the pair encounter a woman named Varla Guns, who's seeking revenge against Caesar for using her brother Jasper in his research, as well as for a sacrifice he made, in which he injected himself with the chemical in order to try and stop the criminal mastermind.

From the opening sequence that begins with an explanation of the word "overkill", to the cutscenes featuring an overly-dramatic narrator telling the player what to expect in the upcoming stage, House of the Dead: Overkill is a game brimming with style.  Taking great inspiration from drive-in B-pictures and Quentin Taratino flicks, the title, in many regards, feels like a video game representation of such works.  This is a game both ridiculous and shocking, with dialogue frequently interspersed with profanity and a late-game plot twist that reveals Caesar wasn't the mastermind, but someone else, someone with disturbing motivations.  Besides featuring a delightful narrative, the game also features two entertaining protagonists in the form of Agent G and Isaac Washington; the two are a classic buddy-cop pair, with Isaac being the loud-mouthed, shoot-em-up hothead, and G taking the position of the law-abiding individual.  Their back-and-forth banter heard during each level is great, even if most of it should never be quoted out in public.

This fifth installment in the long-running series doesn't deviate too much from its roots as an on-rails shooter.  Throughout the game's seven levels, you'll shoot mutants and other nasties in various locations including a theme park gone haywire, the swamps, and an abandoned hospital.  Additional goals, such as saving civilians and shooting golden brains, provide a way to increase your score.  Also, more points can be obtained by chaining together kills, which increases your score multiplier, with the highly coveted "Goregasm" multiplier making every kill add a thousand points.  At the end of a stage, players receive a rank based on these factors and others, as well as cash for their efforts.  The money received can be used at a shop to unlock firearms and upgrade ones currently available; initially starting off with a handgun, before long, the arsenal will grow to include the likes of shotguns, assault rifles, and a powerful magnum obtainable in an unlockable mode.

Gunplay is very satisfying, with each shot feeling impactful and suitably meaty, and ammo is never an issue as all guns have infinite ammo.  However, the diverse selection of enemies will keep gamers on their toes.  Besides regular mutants, there are ones capable of throwing knives or have been equipped with a form of defense such as a riot shield or football equipment.  Then there are the charger types, foes capable of charging and grabbing the player in order to deal damage, but a quick waggle of the remote easily shakes them off.  Although House of the Dead: Overkill is very entertaining, it is fairly easy; generally, most of the bad-guys that one will encounter can be killed with ease, and even the bosses, as freakish as they look, aren't real pushovers as their weaknesses are highlighted every time they try to attack.  Should you die at any point, you can continue, albeit at the cost of half of your current score.

Besides lacking challenge, the title is quite short.  Completing all of the stage will only take two to three hours, but there is plenty of replay value through additional modes and because the game itself is fun.  After beating the main story, Director's Cut is unlocked; the major difference between this mode and the original campaign is that each level features alternate routes the characters take, and you have three lives that are lost whenever you lose all health.  Additionally, three fun, if novel, mini-games are available to play for up to four players.

Technically, the game looks solid but what really makes the visuals shine is its overall style.  Aping the grindhouse flicks it takes great inspiration from, a grainy filter is present throughout, and during cutscenes, little touches such as missing reels, continuity errors, and the spontaneous disappearance and reappearance of characters adds to the feeling that you're experiencing low-rent schlock.  However, the lighting of some levels can make it hard to tell where enemies are, and the brief but noticeable instances of lag during gameplay are very distracting.  Sound is great, the voice acting is intentionally campy, nonsensical, and frequently vulgar, with expletives that are used as a paintbrush to make the dialogue more colorful, and the music is a fantastic mixture of old-school funk, rock, even having a dash of country mixed in.

Equal parts manic, shocking, and creative, House of the Dead: Overkill is a title that gladly revels in what it is and has no shame for doing so.  The story and dialogue will leave you laughing and your jaw simultaneously dropped, and though the gameplay is simple and the title itself is a general breeze, it is nevertheless a delightful experience.

Final Score: 8/10

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Drive-In of Terror: The Evil Dead (1981)

Welcome to the first year of Drive-In of Terror, with the man behind the projector, William Lowery.  Tonight, I present a movie which would kick start a series that became both a household name in both the horror genre and pop culture: The Evil Dead.  Prior to watching these three films, the only two things I knew the series for were Bruce Campbell, and Bruce Campbell.  To figure out what makes these films tick, I start from where it all began thirty-five years ago, with the low-budget terror that kicked off this madness.

In a remote part of Michigan, a group of friends is travelling up to the mountains for the weekend.  The group consists of Scotty (Hal Delrich), his girlfriend Shelly (Sarah York), Ashly "Ash" Williams (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), and Ash's sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), who have picked a remote cabin as their primary destination.  When they arrive, things seem perfectly fine, but Cheryl starts to exhibit strange behavior not long after unpacking.  As they have dinner later that night, the cellar door mysteriously flies open, so Scotty and Ash head down to investigate, only to find a mysterious book, a tape recorder, and an equally ominous dagger.  After setting it up, the recorder is played revealing that a professor named Raymond Knowby and his wife travelled up to the cabin so he could investigate the book he found, referred to as Noctura Demanto, the Book of the Dead.  Although some decide the tape should be stopped there, Scotty insists they should continue.

As the recording plays on, Knowby chants phrases translated from the book, and unbeknownst to the ones listening, this awakens an evil from within the woods.  Sometime after the recording is played, Cheryl is drawn out into the forest by a mysterious voice, and as she looks around, the woods come to life and attack her, but she escapes, only to be chased by an unseen force.  Fortunately, Ash opens the door in the nick of time and pulls her in, wondering what happened to her, but Cheryl insists that they must leave.  Unfortunately, the bridge they crossed over has been destroyed; worse, when Ash and his sister return, she is possessed by the demons, who tell the others that one by one they shall all be consumed by the evil, but for Scotty and the others, the break of dawn is the only chance they have of escaping, that is, if they all survive.

Whereas the series is generally known for the sequels and their over-the-top, manic energy, The Evil Dead is a more subdued and serious film with intentions of getting under your skin rather than straight-up jolting you.  From its choice of setting to multiple sequences designed to create tension, the movie utilizes isolation and psychological fear as a means to invoke a strong feeling of terror.  The story and characters are reliant on many familiar tropes that were most prevalent in the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th, but it more than makes up for its feeling of familiarity through decent characters and solid direction.

In the beginning, we get a good grasp of the friendship these people have, which we know will be tore down once the demonic presence shows up, and when it does, it becomes more about survival.  The unpredictable nature of events means you never know which person the demons might take next, and the situation also brings up a huge morality issue these individuals must face.  In order to cleanse a possessed being, he or she must be dismembered limb from limb, and though this does mean there are sequences of brutal violence, it also makes them face the facts that they must kill those they know and love, in spite of what their current state is.  However, the evil does not play fair, in one scene, Ash comes close to chopping up Linda only to stop once she is seen crying and begging him not to do it, but soon after, it's show that the demons are just messing with him, and she remains under their grasp.

There are many ways The Evil Dead makes the audience feel uncomfortable, usually displayed onscreen full-force by the creative practical effects, but there are other means utilized by the filmmakers, one of which is through build-up.  Throughout the film, the audience is treated to long, drawn-out sequences in which all that happens is the characters investigate their surroundings; although this method is a double-edged sword, it nevertheless provides a way of creating tension, knowing that there will be something to surprise the audience.

This technique is best represented later in the film, in which the only individual not possessed is Ash, who is currently avoiding the likes of the now-consumed Scotty and Cheryl.  He heads into the basement to see if they are there, and what we're treated to is nearly ten minutes of sheer uneasiness.  Both the viewer and Ash don't know who or what is down there, but instead of finding one or both, he is instead treated to a series of mind-games in which pipes burst blood onto his face and a film projector starts to drip blood after turning on by itself.

This sequence is one of the highlights, but there are times when it comes off as mere padding, especially during the introduction.  While quite thrilling, The Evil Dead is not without its problems, most of which stem from its low-budget root.  In spite of being made with a $425,000 budget, there is much creativity displayed onscreen through both the effects and camera work, but one will notice quite a few mistakes.  These aren't intentional more as they are unintentional, from the occasional glimpse of a crew member to Scotty referring to Ash as Bruce in one line of dialogue, there are goofs prevalent throughout, yet some of them are quite unique.  My personal favorite involves any close-up shots of the possessed getting hit or coming at the camera.  If one looks closely, you can tell that it's not the original actor in make-up but someone else entirely, which I find endearingly charming.

Charming is a word which best summarizes the effects.  They are a testament to the fact that no matter what budget you have, there's a way to make your vision happen.  Such is the case with the macabre and splatter-filled violence which takes place onscreen, as the movie is filled with large amounts of fake blood, body parts, and guts, but the real star of The Evil Dead is the camera.  Featuring extensive point-of-view shots, Dutch angles, and other different perspectives and styles, it's an impressive sight to witness and one can see how Sam Raimi, director of this movie and its sequels, eventually developed this into his own style he would utilize in his future projects.

Though not without its faults, The Evil Dead is both an enjoyable time and an important part of film history.  It's not for the faint of heart, as this is a very violent picture, and occasionally, there are moments designed to shock the audience, one of which misses the point entirely and comes off as tasteless, but for those willing to watch it, it's a ferocious, deviant experience.

Final Score: 7/10