I've played worse.
I know it's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but Curse: The Eye of Isis doesn't really deserve much else. It's a budget-label survival-horror game from Dreamcatcher, where twenty bucks buys you four to seven hours of being chased around the Victorian era by zombies, mummies, mysterious clouds of hazardous gas, and the occasional giant mutated animal.
The point should probably be made, here, that I'm a survival-horror fanboy. While I'll be the first guy to tell you all about all the genre's flaws, in loving and intricate detail, I'm also going to be the first in line for just about any horror game out there.
That was the case here. Curse caught my eye at E3 2003, because it was a survival-horror game, and because it has a solid start to it. A lot of games start from a very splatterpunk, mid-'80s point in history, with lots of blood and maybe a chainsaw. Curse takes its inspiration from pulp-adventure stories of the early twentieth century, complete with musty old tombs and a trip to Egypt.
Set in 1890, Curse begins when the infamous cat burglar, Le Chat, tries to swipe the statuette known as the Eye of Isis from the Museum of Great Britain. Instead, he unleashes the statuette's curse: a cloud of mysterious smoke that raises the dead, and twists the living into clawed, murderous abominations.
Darien Dane comes to the museum a little bit later, to find it crawling with scared policemen. He's there to see his old friend, Victoria Sutton, but she's trapped inside somewhere. Darien, whose father Stanley discovered the Eye of Isis and brought it to Britain, immediately evades the police and goes inside.
He runs into an old friend of his father's, Abdul Wahid. To hear Wahid tell it, Stanley Dane died because of the curse of the Eye of Isis, which turned him into something inhuman before he died. Now, that curse has been passed on to Darien. To lift it, and to prevent the Eye from leaving a trail of reanimated corpses across the world, Darien and Victoria have to steal it back from Le Chat, and the goons working for Le Chat's employer.
That's the first obvious difference between Curse and most other survival-horror games: human antagonists. You're as likely to be fighting trenchcoated morons with shotguns as you are mummies or zombies. Further, most of your ammo and health pickups will be at the expense of said nimrods; you will not inexplicably find sacks of bullets in places where they do not belong. Instead, you will find them in the pockets of some Cro-Magnon goon that you were just regrettably forced to kill.
An added complication is that every thug you kill will probably have to be killed again at some later date. The Eye of Isis's characteristic yellow smoke has a habit of coming out of nowhere, and can latch onto just about anything in the area. Most often, that'll be a dead man, who'll jump back up in a frisky, open-chested sort of way, stabbing at whoever's handy with some kind of giant tongue projectile. Curse loves to sic five or six thugs on you, which'll then resurrect as monsters the moment smoke wends its plot-triggered way into the room.
The smoke can also reactivate machinery, serve as an impassible "wall," mutate the contents of a display case, or turn the parts of a statue into a twenty-foot-tall killing machine. It's a decent multipurpose horror device, and really can do just about anything if it'd involve trying to kill you.
In theory, that should be creepy. Curse has got all the ingredients to be a top-shelf horror title: an antagonist that, while not unstoppable, is definitely hard to kill; a series of colorful villains; a clearly motivated plotline; and a decent multipurpose plot macguffin that can keep the monsters coming after you. It's even set someplace new, as opposed to yet another abandoned American suburb.
The graphics never quite rise above serviceable (although there are occasional grace notes, like the wisps of smoke rising from the barrel of your revolver), the music's pretty tame, and the sound effects are only about as good as they have to be, but those are aesthetic concerns, and are easily forgivable if the game's decent.
Curse isn't. Not really.
First off, let's talk about these monsters. Creepy? Yeah. They come out of nowhere, and there's something about having to kill a guy twice that gets me. However, they've got the AI of something out of the 8-bit era.
Darien and Victoria have more combat options than most horror protagonists. They can lock onto the nearest target, and, if they're standing still, make sure they'll hit by finding their aim. With the Y button, you can even opt to go for a headshot (although I'm not sure why you would, since headshots don't do appreciably more damage than body shots). While your gun's readied, you can also circle-strafe.
You can beat almost any opponent in the game by circle-strafing around somebody until they lunge. Now, lock onto their head and shoot them. Repeat until they stay dead.
This works on humans, mummies, zombies, and even a couple of the bosses. Hell, it works with the truncheon. Once you realize that, Curse turns into a bug hunt almost instantly. It doesn't help that the most powerful weapon in the game, the flamethrower, has theoretically infinite ammunition as long as you remember where a paraffin tank is.
There's also a lot of ammo in Curse, and your melee weapon, the truncheon, is actually very powerful. It's got more hit power than your revolver. This is a necessity in a game where you spend most of your time killing people and/or monsters to get at the contents of their pockets (usually keys or quest items), but it makes it insanely easy to stockpile ammunition.
Imagine, if you will, playing Eternal Darkness if every monster you killed dropped health items or ammo, and you'll get an idea of how Curse can play. It does occasionally strip your items and weapons from you somehow, but that's usually only a mild setback. Curse--owing to the aforementioned muddy graphics, tinny music, and mediocre sound--is pretty lousy at establishing a properly horrific atmosphere to begin with. It doesn't help that all that the power of this terrifying, millennia-old curse can do is manifest stupid, slow, predictable zombies who can be beaten stupid by a grad student with a stick.
On the other side of the survival-horror equation, the portion of Curse that could be labeled "adventure" is somewhat anemic. You'll spend most of your time hunting for keys, with the occasional time-out for an environmentally-activated obstacle of sorts. Unfortunately, it's usually something along the lines of a stuck gear, or a character wanting a specific item, which you'll then find somewhere in the immediate area.
The game then proceeds to repeat several of these dumber puzzles, right down to making you hunt for the same items; just as in the museum, when you reach the cargo ship, you'll need to hunt down a spanner to open a stuck valve.
These are just the largest problems. Curse is full of little details that would've been easy to address, but weren't. There are constant collision problems, so characters frequently pass partially through walls or fall into stairs. Your map is totally worthless, and the environments are huge, so a lot of playtime will be spent running around hallways trying to remember where to go. The flamethrower is theoretically your big gun, and is in fact a plotline goal at one point, but because of its short range and its inability to inflict any sort of "stun" damage (and that it doesn't kill mummies as quickly as you might be led to believe), it's often easier and less painful to just use the rifle. Several plot points make no real sense, such as your character seemingly being afraid of a hunchbacked old man when he or she has just singlehandedly killed virtually all of the younger, stronger men working for him. (You could cut the entire cargo ship portion of the game short if, at its outset, as Darien, you were able to simply walk into Bupo's cabin and jam your rifle in his ear.) Every single time you find a revolver or a truncheon, you'll get the same description of it, leading the observer to conclude that in 1890, the only existing revolvers in London or Egypt were well-used Army-issue .40-cals. Much of the spoken dialogue consists of the sort of one-sided monologue you get in Japanese RPGs with a silent protagonist. Wahib appears to exist entirely to save your game, collect excess inventory, and tell you things you already know. To move the plot forward, you'll be going on the same damn key hunt we've seen in every single adventure game on console, and half the action games, for the last ten years.
Curse: The Eye of Isis is, in short, exactly what you'd expect from a twenty-dollar budget game: certainly playable, but unbelievably flawed. It's got a few features that every survival-horror game should have, like being able to target specific parts of your enemies and circle-strafing, but those alone don't make it worth picking up.
You might have some fun with Curse over the course of an afternoon, since the simple gameplay won't keep you busy for more than seven hours or so, but after that, it's a paperweight. I really want to recommend the game, as it's not totally irredeemable--hunting mummies with a flamethrower is still pretty fun--but unless you're as ridiculously fanatical about survival horror as I can be sometimes, I can't.