Republished on Thursday, 4th December 2014: We're bringing this review back from the archives to celebrate the PSone's big 20th Anniversary this week. The original text follows.
Originally published on Saturday, 19th October 2013: It can be a tough life being a PSone retro game. After all, you were fresh and modern once, but the heartlessness of time can corrode a once dashing new title into decay and disintegration. It took 100 years following a battle against an evil sorcerer called Zarok to wither and erode our hero knight, Sir Daniel Fortesque, into rattling bones, complete with an empty eye socket. Sadly, the ticking clock only needed fifteen years for MediEvil to mirror Dan’s plight, not just in its visual presentation, but with antiquated gameplay mechanics, frustrating controls, and a frightful camera.
The cruellest part of this is that it’s not always the fault of the game, but with each year’s technological advancements and the fine-tuning of game design, our expectations as gamers grow loftier. With an October release in time for Hallowe'en 1998, during a similar calendar schedule to Metal Gear Solid and Tomb Raider III, MediEvil was well received by Electronic Gaming Monthly. It also achieved consistently solid reviews from less well-known magazines, like Total Control. Chris Sorrell, who was in charge of MediEvil’s direction and game concepts, has noted that alongside James Pond 2: Codename RoboCod, he is most proud of MediEvil.
There’s still much to celebrate about MediEvil, as you hack-and-slash through 20 main levels of a third-person action adventure, and search for an assortment of secrets. The world that SCE Cambridge Studio created has character, presented through humour, plus a Tim Burton-like fantasy and cartoon horror aesthetic. However, even in 1998 all was not rosy in its grave peppered garden, as Alex Huhtala from CVG observed that this single-player only game was “too repetitive and tedious to be recommended”.
There is an argument that the polygon graphics in some 32-bit games that depicted 3D environments have not aged well, and that it’s the 2D sprite titles, like Rayman and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which have endured and excelled through the visual tests of time. MediEvil provides support to this viewpoint. Sony’s Cambridge Studio made a justifiable use of a setting where Zarok casts the land of Gallowmere into darkness, so avoided the use of fog, by implementing the blackness of night to improve the game’s draw distance.
This works well within the context of the game, but it means that a significant portion of Dan’s journey, including his crypt, the jungles of the enchanted earth, and the haunted ruins of a castle, are displayed using a dull grey palette, or murky greens and browns. The Gothic art style is effective, and the quest conveys each location as an interesting place to explore, but it’s the areas with a liberal dash of colour that impress the most. For example, the deep-black water surrounding a lake has a memorable scene where a whirlpool freezes and Dan slides down into a beautiful blue ice tunnel. The bright addition of gems in the crystal caves, and the light that shines through stained glass windows in the hilltop mausoleum, are examples of the game benefiting from colour. Similarly, this area has a fantastic luminosity to its Glass Demon boss, but while watching zombies shuffling out of rising coffins will initially draw a comparison to a 3D Ghosts ’n Goblins, the quirky creature design is offset by basic character models.
Alongside 2D sprite games, it’s the cartoon PSone titles that brandish bold primary colours, like Jumping Flash!, which partially avoid this graphical ageing process. MediEvil’s game engine has more festering problems, however, as a juddering frame-rate is manageable, but the putrid camera is a game breaker. If you remember the section of Crash Bandicoot where the viewpoint is set in front of Crash, as he runs out-of-the-screen, then MediEvil consistently displays the game from a similar camera angle, except here it’s not a design choice. You spend the entire game battling the camera, and being shot by enemies like poisonous frogs, which you can’t even see. If the camera is not stuck in front of Dan, it’s above him, or stranded behind a wall, and the viewpoints for tight indoor environments are even worse.
The core gameplay mechanics are similarly antiquated, as MediEvil falls into the trap of sending the player on repeated collect-a-thon missions. This was a game-lengthening trend from the late-nineties, which also blighted Nintendo 64 titles like Jet Force Gemini and Donkey Kong 64. The nitty-gritty of MediEvil consists of thoroughly searching for a rune to open a gate, or unearthing an artefact, which is then held in Dan’s inventory, to discover a secret. The trouble is, while it has talking gargoyle skulls on walls to provide tips, their hints are so incomprehensibly cryptic that you can easily miss many important trinkets. In the sleeping village level, if you can fathom exactly how the Blacksmith’s house relates to a statue from the Troll’s Head pub and a church crucifix, then it’s nice to meet you Mr. Hawking. Yet, it’s vital for progression that you find the Shadow Artefact.
The greatest advice Push Square can give gamers embarking on a MediEvil quest is to remember and pay serious attention to the words ‘Found Life Bottle’. A fountain of rejuvenation, or an energy vial may refill you’re health meter, but a life bottle is the equivalent of an extra life. Life bottles are not easily accessible or discovered by chance, and progress through the game is far more frustrating with less lives. Relying upon hair-pulling perseverance with just three or four extra life bottles will result in Dan hitting numerous brick wall difficulty spikes, especially when you reach the ghost ship. MediEvil can be completed in eight hours, if you collect approximately six spare life bottles. However, if you rush through without excavating for extra lives, the repetitive nature of being forced to restart a stage can almost double that completion time.
The game has no real intricacy to the mix of weak primary and strong secondary attacks in the core hack-and-slash combat, beyond a slow and unresponsive ducking defensive shield manoeuvre, and a handy daring dash option for when Dan needs to run away from aggressive enemies. There is a variety of puzzle elements to MediEvil’s gameplay, an entire level set in a maze in the asylum grounds is built around it, but puzzle tasks are often confusing and mind-bogglingly vague. The controls even struggle during puzzle moments, as Dan must whack stone slabs so they face in the same direction, but it’s exasperating when his sword scuppers this by repeatedly striking two stones at once.
MediEvil is not close to being Sony’s spiritual 3D heir to the Ghouls ‘n Ghosts throne, a more worthy successor was Capcom’s own Maximo: Ghosts to Glory on PS2 in 2002. The unwieldy control of Dan’s movement, between running with the analogue stick, and tiptoeing with the D-pad, means that MediEvil should never have placed such an emphasis on fussy platforming sections. The number of instant death chasms and deep pits of doom, which snatch an entire life bottle, are exasperating. It turns out that water is the greatest enemy of a cowardly un-dead skeleton, not Zarok. Alarm bells ring when the most fun is found inside the asylum level, which feels like a hack-and-slash version of Smash TV, with wave attack rooms. It’s a relief not to worry about plummeting to your doom here, even if it predominantly involves button mashing sword attacks.
The hit-detection is also messy, Dan may be swinging his weapon recklessly without connecting with an enemy, but a zombie or skeleton pirate can graze him by walking close-by, to deplete his life bar. MediEvil often feels cheap with its difficulty spikes, with mean-spirited design choices such as no mid-level checkpoints, and you need the patience of a saint to battle tougher enemies like Shadow Demons. The game is obsessed with finding 20 chalices, one on each of the main levels, and it forces players to grind to destroy as many enemies as possible to fill each chalice, which becomes a chore. However, gathering as many chalices as possible is a necessity for unlocking stronger weapons in the Hall of Heroes, like a magic sword, gold shield, and a magic longbow projectile attack. The backtracking focus of its structure is too messy to be considered a Metroidvania game, even if it has a framework of collecting gold to buy ammo, and upgrading new weapons or skills, like the fire resistant dragon armour.
Despite persistent drawbacks, MediEvil still retains a strong sense of identity, with the clattering bone character design and deep Mr. Bean-esque mumbles of Sir Daniel Fortesque making him an easily identifiable PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale combatant. The bizarre world of Gallowmere is spookily well-realised, which is apparent in its Super Mario World-like overhead map, where Dan can replay earlier levels to wreak havoc using stronger upgrades. The final twentieth main level is a highlight, set around Zarok’s manipulation of clocks and time, based on the evil sorcerer’s interest in science. Even following this, after you defeat Zarok in the lair of his boss-stage, it’s also worth returning to discover an earlier level with a witch in a forest. This uncovers a secret area, which shrinks Dan to the size of an insect to explore an ant cave.
It’s also worth noting that the audio work in MediEvil is excellent throughout, and the eerie original soundtrack by Andrew Barnabas and Paul Arnold accomplishes an extraordinary sense of atmosphere for its Gothic setting. MediEvil received a sequel on PSone, and a resurrection remake on PSP, but Push Square believe that just because the original PSone game has become tainted from a fifteen year old ageing process, it’s still a first-party franchise that we would like to see reanimated on PS4. Rise from your grave, Sir Dan.
If you’ve nostalgia from its original October 1998 release, especially in the context of Hallowe'en, gnawing at the bones of MediEvil’s shortcomings may seem nightmarish. Sadly, time spent in the PSone graveyard hasn't been kind to this game. You’ll find battling the camera and controls less enjoyable than clashing with zombies and demons, particularly during platforming sections, which unfairly plunge Dan into an instant-death abyss. A hunt for 20 chalices is a necessary chore for progression, but it feels horrifying when it revolves around confusing puzzles and repetitive backtracking. Yet, the atmosphere Studio Cambridge has infused into the mysterious and spooky world of Gallowmere, with its eerily exquisite soundtrack, means that we hope for another chance to feast on this franchise. The MediEvil series has too much potential to become worm food.