Very few people can claim to love BloodRayne as a franchise, and there's a reason for that. The original titles were critically derided, the series of Uwe Boll movies are particularly grotesque, and the comic books are obscure as Hell. However, when someone's looking for fans of BloodRayne, they need look no further than myself.
So, when news of a new BloodRayne game dropped, I was beyond excited. The fact that it appeared to be taking its cues from Castlevania was an added bonus, and the stage was set for a game that would finally make BloodRayne a respectable series as opposed to an eternally guilty pleasure.
However, this game's name -- Betrayal -- is stunningly appropriate, because I feel like I've been stabbed in the back.
BloodRayne: Betrayal (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
BloodRayne: Betrayal is a sidescrolling platform/beat 'em up game that aims to take the old school approach to difficulty in games. Unfortunately, the "old school approach" means taking gameplay from a time when challenge wasn't about tight design and strategy, but about using broken mechanics to artificially inflate the danger, while lazily throwing as much crap at the player as possible. If that was WayForward's goal, then it passed with flying colors.
The biggest problem with Betrayal is that its controls are entirely too sloppy for a game that requires very precise commands. A big part of this problem lies in the art style. Games that take a hand-drawn visual style often feel "floaty" due to the indulgently animated characters and lack of distinct attack boundaries. There's a lacking sense of tactility to the fighting when compared to something that uses sprites or polygons, and if Betrayal's combat was insistent on being such a chaotic mess, it really ought to have sacrificed the pretty comic book aesthetic in order to take a graphical approach that complimented, rather than directly hindered, the gameplay.
This problem is exacerbated due to the fact that Rayne controls like garbage. For a start, she can't simply walk, instead breaking into a full sprint the moment you nudge the D-Pad (and you have to use the D-Pad, because analog sticks confuse her). She also cannot stop running without a lengthy "skid" animation, which makes her utterly useless for the game's myriad, ridiculously punishing platform sections. To give us a character that can't move without sprinting and can't stop without skidding, then throwing her into platform sections where moving ledges are thinner than she is, seems almost to satirize the problems inherent in games that put style over substance.
Betrayal's awful lack of appreciable control is carried over into the combat, which can quite accurately be described as a cluster of the purest fuck. There's a fairly predictable formula to the game, with each level splitting itself evenly between platform sections and miniature "arena" areas where a pre-set number of enemies spawn. I'm having a hard time deciding which section is the least fun.
As stated earlier, WayForward took the Battletoads approach to game design, where a developer feels it can just throw a ton of enemies around and exploit broken design elements in order to call itself tough. For starters, Rayne can't block attacks, and her only means of defense is a worthless dash move that propels her a pathetically short distance and usually just throws her into fresh trouble. Whenever Rayne gets knocked down, she takes too long to get back up, allowing the half-dozen enemies on-screen to ready a new attack. It's not uncommon to get knocked down, then get knocked down again as soon as Rayne recovers. In fact, this can happen repeatedly, all because WayForward thought a lengthy recovery animation was more important than creating a protagonist that was halfway useful.
Rayne is laggy due to the extra hand-drawn animations, unresponsive for reasons unknown to me, and seems willing to fight the player's commands to her own detriment. Even something as simple as turning around to face an enemy behind you seems impossible to do in a swift and efficient manner. She has some contextual attacks that usually just get her hurt -- for instance, she'll stomp on a downed enemy, which is rather useless when you want to attack the opponent that's still standing up and happens to be stood next to the grounded one. Rayne can hit an enemy, then hold a button to suck its blood for health, but if the potential victim is stood next to a creature that cannot be drained, Rayne invariably attempts to grab the one that blocks her attacks, which opens her up to a counter-move from the foe player's really wanted. Don't even get me started on the random attacks that have forward moment even when Rayne's stood still, which is great for sending her off ledges and toward her doom.
There's not even a lot of depth to the game. Combat is only slightly more advanced than Streets of Rage (and half as tight), and despite taking some cues from Castlevania, it lacks anything that made Konami's games so great. There are no real upgrades or level gains (outside of the option to boost your gun ammo or health with every five hidden skulls collected), the expertly designed maps are replaced by dull left-to-right levels, and the precise controls are replaced by something far too watery to deserve a place among the sidescrolling greats.
The only things that Betrayal copies verbatim from Castlevania are a range of small, annoying enemies that bob up and down while traveling across the screen. Yes, of all the things to steal from Castlevania, BloodRayne: Betrayal decided to steal Medusa Head enemies -- universally considered among the worst enemies in gaming history. The fact that WayForward had such a rich variety of excellent games to draw from, and came away with only Medusa Heads under its arm, confirms to me that the developers were far more eager to create an unfair, frustrating trainwreck of a game above all else.
I will at least say that some of the boss fights, as hard as they are, actually approach something resembling conscious gameplay design. They're pretty tough, and often just as chaotic as regular combat, but the addition of appreciable patterns and worthwhile tactics make for a brief respite from the absolute garbage circus that makes up the rest of the game. Defeating the boss monsters actually manages to feel satisfying, which is about the only time BloodRayne ever deigns to encourage positive emotions.
The final straw came for me in Chapter 13 of 15, a level already considered by many to be the point where Betrayal crosses a very real line. Rayne has to fight ghosts while head-stomping on a bunch of respawning flies. One false move and she falls to her death. These ghosts can apparently attack without requiring attack animations, and the laggy controls means that it's incredibly difficult to transition from attacking the ghosts to stomping on the flies. Not to mention, you get hit just once and you'll die. Add that to the already worthless control scheme and it becomes the point where I decided Betrayal had thieved enough of my time, and I bid adieu to what is, without a doubt, one of the most deeply unpleasant and miserable experiences of my gaming life.
I have no regrets. I'm sure there'd be some twisted, prurient sense of pride in completing the game, but it's not worth it, especially with the brutal scoring system that docks points for everything and delights in slapping an "F" grade on anybody but the most practiced and perfect of players. It's quite fitting that an already mean spirited game would go out of its way to discourage players and tell them that, even though they just finally beat a difficult level and should rejoice, they still technically failed because they didn't beat it quick enough. Some gamers will celebrate such a harsh and punishing game, but the less perverse among us do not believe that fun is measured by how much of your time and energy is thoroughly wasted on busted, lazy gameplay.
All of this is punctuated by the complete lack of personality that BloodRayne features. The game certainly looks gorgeous and there's plenty of blood, but the gore seems a cynical and shallow mockery of the sassy silliness that made the series what it was. Rayne's original personality is completely gone, replaced by a flat and featureless character. The story barely exists and tells a rather boring story about a man who turns into a bird, and there's just no raunchy, ridiculous humor to any of it. It's a po-faced, bland affair, and the beautiful graphics only serve to contrast the ugliness apparent in everything else.
I've had my ass kicked by many games over the years. Sometimes, such as with Demon's Souls or Metal Arms: Glitch in the System, I loved it. Other times, as with many of those crippled "old school" games, I've not been a fan. However, BloodRayne: Betrayal is the only game I've played where I've actively been put in a lasting bad mood. Betrayal is a game that actively alters my disposition, to the point where I don't feel happy for quite some time afterwards. It's an obnoxious experience that goes out of its way to make players feel bad, proudly reveling in the kind of gameplay that's considered old fashioned for a very good reason.
There are those out there that will join Betrayal in its revelry -- the kind of people who claim Battletoads isn't difficult and expect adoration for their gaming prowess. The kind of people who think that members of their preferred gender will find them intensely attractive because they find Ninja Gaiden to be so easy. Those people are a dying breed, and BloodRayne: Betrayal is a vestigial relic from an ignorant age, despite its graphics attempting to make one think otherwise. Its gameplay is ripped straight from the NES era, and it's high time everybody recognized that 95% of the NES' games were shit. If Betrayal was released in the eighties, it would not be in the rarer 5%.
Awful design, a counter-intuitive art style, and an obscenely cheap approach to difficulty makes BloodRayne: Betrayal a game that should be avoided by all but the most masochistic and deranged of gamers. The deep revulsion that this game inspires within me cannot accurately be described, but it is measured only by the intense, burning disappointment I feel as a fan of the series. WayForward can do so much better, and better is what BloodRayne needed.
THE VERDICT - BloodRayne: Betrayal
Reviewed by Jim Sterling
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