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Monday, October 31, 2016

Vampire Hunter D (the Game): D Doesn't "Survive"... Everyone Survives Him!

Hideyuki Kikuchi's Vampire Hunter D is easily going to go down as the man's magnum opus. Considering how iconic & successful the series is, with over 40 novels (& still going), two anime adaptations (one a cult-classic & the other beloved), five audio dramas that covered three stories, a manga adaptation of the novels (which sadly only lasted seven volumes [eight in Japan & France]), an upcoming CG animated series, & even an upcoming five-issue American comic series that was crowdfunded via Kickstarter, you'd think something like video games would be a no-brainer, right? Well, you'd be right by thinking that, but only just. Developed & published by Victor Interactive Software (formerly Pack-In-Video, & now Marvelous Entertainment), the sole Vampire Hunter D video game is a survival horror-influenced affair that was released in Japan on December 9, 1999, just a couple of weeks before (the also vampire-themed) Countdown Vampires saw release, with an international release in 2000 by Jaleco in North America & JVC in Europe. Acting partially as a pre-release tie-in with Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, does this game work as an adaptation of the single-lettered dunpeal hunter's adventures, and is it even a good game in the first place?

Well, the answer to the first question is easy, but the answer to the second is tougher.

When playing on a PS3, the title splash & menu is just a black screen.

A "Noble" vampire named Meier Link has kidnapped a woman named Charlotte in the supposed name of love, and her father wants her back. He has decided to hire the half-vampire dunpeal D to retrieve Charlotte, with D's search ending at the Castle of Chaythe, where Meier & Charlotte are hiding. At the same time, though, the hunter group called the Marcus Brothers have also arrived at the castle, as they've been hired by Charlotte's brother to bring her back. As D searches the castle for Charlotte he slowly comes to the realization that Meier may not have actually "kidnapped" Charlotte, and that the castle hides something truly sinister inside.

Since the story that this game & Bloodlust are both adapting from, Demon Deathchase, doesn't really have a set environment until the last act, the game diverges heavily from both the novel & movie by simply moving the story to the Castle of Chaythe right away, and reworking the story to work within those confines. To be fair, this is really the only possible way to actually tell this story in the framework that the game uses, and since the castle itself is only utilized so much in the original story it also acts as a bit of expansion for the environment itself. Really, the major plot points that the story has to tell are still covered here, even if the only Marcus Brothers to really do anything here wind up being female lead Leila & group leader Borgoff; Nolt & Kyle are dead upon their first appearances, while Grove dies immediately after his debut. At the same time, only Benge & Machida are included from Meier's Barbarois bodyguards, with the shape-shifter Caroline being excised completely. Finally, the story does change up the plot in some ways to accommodate these alterations, like having Benge slice off D's left hand parasite & even staking him, leaving it up to Leila to find & revive D.

Again, I generally suck at grabbing good video game screens.

As I mentioned earlier, the game is heavily inspired by survival horror games like Resident Evil, and that's immediately evident by the way the game plays. D moves via "tank controls" (i.e. up always moves forward, no matter where he faces), the camera is at fixed & cinematic angles, & the environments are all pre-rendered. What the game does, however, is attempt to make it a little more action-packed than the usual survival horror, and item management is completely non-existent due to D having an infinite item menu. When controlling D, you can be in two modes, search & combat. You switch between them with triangle, which sheathes & unsheathes D's longsword, and the main difference between the two is that when in combat mode O becomes primarily the attack button, though it can still be used to pick up items, search the environment when possible, & enter/leave rooms. You can jump with X, though it's only really useful for flying enemies (there's very little platforming), change between walking & running by holding L1, guard with R1, & open up the item menu with Start, leaving L2 & R2 solely for locking-on purposes; L2 turns lock-on on & off, while R2 changes which target to focus on. Sadly, there is no easy way to access the various maps you find, so you have to get to them through the item menu. What is welcome, though, is the fact that you can save at anytime by entering the item menu & then pressing triangle. While it does remove some of the "survival" aspect of the genre the game is in, I can't really think of a way that could have really imitated something like RE's ink ribbons & typewriters.

All that leaves is Square, which is a bit of a context-sensitive button. When a disposable item (potions, limited-use weapons, etc.) is selected D will use it upon button press, but when Left Hand is selected the button has D's parasitic partner use one of three abilities, which can be switched between by pressing Select. The first is Inhale, which has Left Hand inhale a staggered foe; this recovers some of Left Hand's energy meter, which is used for the other two abilities. The second is Recover, which will recover D's HP in exchange for one bar of energy (out of a total three). Finally, there is Attack, which differs depending on how many energy bars are filled up. Left Hand also has a fourth, passive ability, which is reviving D from death if all three energy bars are filled; upon being filled, though, you don't need a full meter to revive. The limited-use weapons have some nice variety, too, with homing wooden stakes to throw, flash bombs to stun enemies momentarily, & grenades to attack a group of foes. For healing purposes, D has two options, potions & blood pills. Both heal HP, but affect VP (Vampire Points) differently. VP controls how effective D's vampire abilities work, like healing via Left Hand, as well as blood pills. Potions are meant for humans, so while they heal D well, they drain VP heavily. Blood pills, on the other hand, heal both HP & VP, but the potency of them depends on how much VP D has at the moment, i.e. more VP means more HP recovery. VP, in turn, is recovered either by taking blood pills or by having D be hit with the blood of his enemies. Sadly, this leads into combat, which is mainly the largest issue the game has.

It's not that combat is terrible or impossible to do, but rather is executed slightly awkwardly due to a few factors. The biggest one is that the game is focused around close-quarters combat, which essentially goes against the basis of survival horror. In every other game in the genre, going in close is a last resort, but in VHD it's your main modus operandi. D can link together up to three sword slashes, and can even do a quick draw by pressing Triangle while running, and is the man way to regain VP. While this works just fine in one-on-one combat, like with boss battles, especially when combined with the lock-on, it becomes more difficult one you start fighting two or more enemies, which is often the case. D's attacks aren't exactly fast affairs, which means that he can be interrupted easily, and you can only pray for a lucky break if you wind up getting caught between multiple enemies & stuck in a seemingly infinite attack loop. This is only compounded by the tank controls the game uses, even with addition of side-stepping, strafing, guarding, & jumping. In fact, the game defaults to having L1 make D walk (i.e. he runs normally) & locking on immediately upon unsheathing the sword. While I didn't have much trouble with the instant lock-on, though I've heard others complain about it, I will say that it's best to make L1 into run instead of walk. Not only does it make maneuvering around enemies easier, but it gives you more control.

While the game has a bit of an awkward feel to it at times, mainly due to the adherence to survival horror while trying to still make it an action game, I still have to say that I kept wanting to play Vampire Hunter D, & overall it's still a lot of fun, especially if you're a fan of the Bloodlust movie or the Demon Deathchase novel. The changes to the story, though making the plot a bit bland for newcomers, are interesting to experience if you already know the original plot, and there are even three different endings (a bad one, one that mimics the movie & novel, & a perfect ending) that depend on your actions at certain points throughout the game; I got the source material accurate ending. The mansion itself is just about the perfect size, and though there is a bit of backtracking, the same can be said of the Resident Evil games (especially the early ones), it's never too much, giving the game a good sense of progression. Also similar to the original RE, VHD can be beaten in about 6 hours, which is just perfect, in my opinion, because any more would likely show off the awkward flaws more than they already are.

The game's end credits don't really say who directed the game or composed the music, but on those two fronts it holds up rather up for a PS1 game. The pre-rendered backgrounds are all very well drawn & capture the Gothic future motif well, and the character models, though really showing off the non-aliased "jaggies" like crazy, look good too; there's some nice detail to be found in the characters & enemies. There are four GC cutscenes in total, which were supervised by Ichiro Itano, and they have arguably aged a fair bit more than the in-game graphics, especially since the two that aren't the opening & ending have this odd stutter in them. This isn't because I played on a PS3, either, as even the trailer for the game on Urban Vision's DVD for the OVA shows the stuttering! There isn't a lot of music in the game, but what is there is actually pretty damn good, even if they aren't more than short tunes that loop; they either deliver an excellent Gothic ambiance or even rock pretty well. While I'll get to the voice work next, there is a bizarre glitch when it comes to the cutscenes that I have to bring up. About half of the lines spoken in the cutscenes have the last second or so cut off at the end, which results in a lot of lines suddenly ending without a proper finish. This also is not due to my PS3, because this happened when I first tested my copy on my PSOne (the mini version); maybe it's just my copy, but it wasn't enough to really bother me too much.

I can't quite tell which was done first in terms of English voice acting, as the game came out roughly a month after the movie had its first screening at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Regardless, the game & the movie differ in terms of cast, though there are three actors who have the same roles. John Rafter Lee (Cid in Final Fantasy XII, Trevor Goodchild in Aeon Flux) plays Meier Link, Wendee Lee voices Charlotte, & Dwight Schultz does Benge, & all deliver more or less the same performances as they do in Bloodlust. The other two actors to be in both productions do so via different roles, with the first being John Demita (D-Boy in Tekkaman Blade II, Count D in Pet Shop of Horrors), who plays a priest & Charlotte's brother Alan in Bloodlust, but in the game voices D & Grove. While it is amusing that Demita has voiced three anime characters known mostly by the letter "D", his take on Kikuchi's dunpeal hunter is actually pretty good, with his main flaw being that he makes D a little too deadpan & unemotional at times, while at other times he nails just the right amount of minor emotion. Left Hand is played by John Hostetter, who played Polk (the guy who sells D a new horse) in Bloodlust & actually just passed away a month ago, and his take on the parasite is probably one of my favorites, honestly; he's more helpful than prodding here, though, unlike his anime portrayals. Leila is performed by Tasia Valenza (Sniper Wolf in Metal Gear Solid, Poison Ivy in the Batman: Arkham games), who actually winds up sounding almost exactly like Pamela Segall, who voices Leila in Bloodlust... At least, I feel that the two's takes on the character sound almost exactly alike. Finally, Bob Papenbrook voices Borgoff & Machira, while Denise Poirier voices Carmilla, and both do good jobs, as well.

On a final note, upon checking online, even the original Japanese version of the game features a completely different voice cast than the Japanese dub for Bloodlust, with the likes of Hiroshi Yanaka (D), Kenichi Morozumi (Meier Link), Minami Takayama (Leila), & Fumihiko Tachiki (Borgoff). In fact, the only person to have the same role between the game & Bloodlust, not to mention every other voiced adaptation of VHD ever made (including the OVA & audio dramas) is Ichiro Nagai as Left Hand; he was simply the perfect voice for the parasite. Sadly, with his passing in 2014 there will need to be a new Japanese voice for Left Hand when the times comes, and whoever gets the role will have big shoes to fill.

Come the year 1999, the survival horror genre was slowly evolving from it's mid-90s roots, and one direction some developers went was by making more action-oriented games, or even simply using the style of the genre in non-horror ways. For example Sugar & Rockets' Chase the Express (Covert Ops: Nuclear Dawn in America) from 2000 relied on the tank controls & fixed camera angles of survival horror, but was most definitely not a horror game. Similarly, Victor Interactive Software's Vampire Hunter D stays more true to the style of survival horror, but also tries to make it somewhat more action-oriented by featuring respawning enemies & focusing on close-combat. Amazingly, while this does result in some akwardness while playing, mainly due to how the genre's standards weren't exactly meant to be action-oriented, the end result is still a surprisingly good game. While the story itself won't exactly be anything special for those unfamiliar with Kikuchi's novels or the two anime adaptations (especially the Bloodlust movie), though the concept is definitely different from others at the time, those who are fans of VHD in general will find a really interesting alternate take on the Demon Deathchase story, and that alone kind of makes it worth playing & owning if you have a PS1 collection of any sort. To be fair, it's not a shining example of survival horror by any means, but I don't think it's as bad as its seeming reputation gives it; there's plenty of room for a better VHD game in the future, though. Luckily, it's not all that expensive to get a hold of today, with a complete package going for $20-$30. Sadly, though, while the game did see some re-releases in Japan up through 2004, with the last two replacing the original cover with the movie's artwork, there hasn't been any sort of digital release on PS3 anywhere; it's physical or bust in this case.

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