Matt Hazard, the fictional video game icon, is fast becoming a non-fictional…fictional…video game hero. Blood Bath and Beyond marks Hazard’s second real video game outing. His debut in Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard was less than dazzling. Funny? Sure, at times. Fun to play? Not so much. Given that the series is a parody of the video game industry, perhaps the change in direction from a third-person shooter to a retro 2D side-scroller is just what the doctor ordered to make Matt a little more endearing to gamers and a little less Hazard-ous to their wallets.
Picking up shortly following the events of Eat Lead, the story of Blood Bath and Beyond sees one of Hazard’s arch enemies, General Neutronov, traveling back in time to kidnap 8-bit Matt. The theory? If General Neutronov deletes 8-bit Matt, current-gen Matt will never have existed. Developer Vicious Cycle Software is well aware of how nonsensical the plot hook is, and pokes fun at that fact right out of the gate, but it serves well to set the stage for the ensuing side-scrolling action as Matt travels back through faux developer Marathon Megasoft’s game archive in an effort to thwart Neutronov’s plan.
Gameplay. This is where Vicious Cycle Software struggled with their initial effort, Eat Lead. Blood Bath and Beyond isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it is considerably more fun to play. If you’re familiar with the Contra or Metal Slug series, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Blood Bath and Beyond in terms of its run-and-gun style action. There are eight stages to play through, all of which pay homage to various video game franchises past and present. The first stage, titled “The Hate Boat,” an obvious play on “The Love Boat,” features level design inspired by BioShock’s Rapture, complete with a Big Daddy enemy type.
The remaining stages give props to the likes of Mirror’s Edge, Team Fortress 2, Elevator Action, Pokémon, Super Mario Bros., and Lunar Lander, just to name a few, and although most are executed well, I still can’t help but feel there were some missed opportunities. For instance, the arsenal of weapons is surprisingly generic. The usual suspects are present, such as machineguns, shotguns, grenade and rocket launchers, but why not go the whole ten yards and incorporate weapons from the games you’re paying tribute to? I guess what I’m saying is, I wish some of the creativity shown in the level design and boss characters had leaked into the weapons.
There are three difficulty settings in Blood Bath and Beyond: ‘Wussy,’ ‘Damn this is Hard,’ and ‘Fuck this Shit.’ Even on the ‘Wussy’ setting the game can be incredibly challenging. In fact, the difficulty setting only changes the amount of damage Matt can sustain, as well as the number of continues players have (‘Fuck this Shit’ is an unforgiving one-shot kill with no continues), so no matter the level you’re playing at you can expect to die…a lot. Sometimes this will be due to the sheer number of enemies or gunfire onscreen; sometimes this will be due to a mistimed jump; and sometimes this will be due to the controls, which can be a little tricky at times. When you’re moving, you can fire in any direction within the foreground. You can also stand still, by holding the left bumper, and fire in any direction within the foreground. You can also fire at enemies in the background by holding the left trigger. With all that, it’s not uncommon – especially during the heat of battle – to fire in the foreground when you meant to fire into the background, and vice versa. The control scheme definitely takes some getting used to.
If you’re having trouble surviving ‘Fuck this Shit,’ and you will, there’s no better time to take advantage of the split-screen co-op that sees Matt’s partner, Dexter Dare, join in on the action. In an interesting twist, from both a competitive and co-operative perspective, players can steal lives from their partner when they run out. Unfortunately there’s no drop-in feature for co-op, nor is there online support. The latter is nothing short of disappointing.
With Blood Bath and Beyond, Vicious Cycle Software has struck a balance between humor and gameplay that was sorely lacking from Hazard’s previous outing. Sure, the game can be quite frustrating at times (then again, Contra was too) and the co-op support is limited to local play, but if you’re looking for a 2D side-scroller with a sense of humor, look no further than Blood Bath and Beyond on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.