Vicious Cycle may have overreached with the predecessor, Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, a 3D action game panned for derivative level design and rote gameplay. Can they do justice to their prefab hero with a 2D-side scroller, as he goes off to rescue his 8-bit self from the past?
2D-Plus: Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond throws a nice twist into the side-scrolling platform genre. Holding the left trigger allows Matt to aim into the background and take out enemies either rushing into the scene or sniping at him from there. It's a nifty way to take the game beyond its linear constraints. Also, holding the right bumper fixes Matt's position and allows you to aim in a 180-degree head-to-toe path. The level design shrewdly requires use of both mechanics and I found them to be a strong extension of very familiar genre.
Clever Levels: Vicious Cycle deserves some applause for eight themed levels replete with colorful design, changing physics and challenging and in many cases humorous foes. The pirate ship level I thought showed the greatest mix of design and visuals. You'll go from below decks where loose cannons slide to and fro to knock you out, to topside of a ship tossing back and forth on massive swells. Another level in which Matt pursues his target into a satirical take on Pokémon and ninjas was a delight, ditto the construction-site chase that devolved into a Super Mario Bros. sendup. For what is really a big goof on the games development biz, Matt Hazard's best moments come without expository dialogue. Making this another tour of aborted or failed video game projects really does set the perfect tone of mayhem and irony, adding a little purpose to what would otherwise be a mindless shootout.
I'm a Little Tender, or It's a Little Tough: This is a minor quibble because, as a platformer, this game is supposed to be hard. It's a legitimate throwback to the teeth-gnashing difficulty of games like Contra or Battletoads, and it's definitely made for the hardcore set who want a challenge. But if you're chugging through it for laughs or to see the conclusion, you'll have to do it on "Wussy." The "Damn This is Hard" mode only gives you three continues and your health bar doesn't last as long. "Fuck This Shit" absolutely lives up to its name, as everything's a one-hit kill and you get zero continues. Anyone who beats this game on this mode deserves a giant belt buckle commemorating the feat. This isn't a complaint as much as it is an explanation of what you'll be up against, and a lamentation of the fact that, yes, I am a wussy.
Vicious Cycle made numerous references to the bad reviews given to Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, so it probably expects nose-in-the-air critics to hate this game. And I fully expected to loathe it. But Blood Bath and Beyond is a very good title. It's not an exceptional game overall, but it is in certain qualities and production values. Its predecessor was ripped pretty good, but it was a full retail disc game. This is a much better environment for this character concept, a downloadable title returning Matt to his implied home turf, an old school platformer. I'd look forward to sequel.
The game is simply what it is: a great diversion, a playful poke at the industry, and a challenge that earns its hardcore platform bonafides. Yeah, you can put it on Wussy mode and just chew through it, but if that's all you intend to do with the game, then you're spending $15 for a couple hours at best. But fans of old-school platform challenges will easily find this to be a justifiable purchase.
Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond was developed by Vicious Cycle and published by D3 Publisher for Xbox Live Arcade on Jan. 6 and PlayStation Network on Jan. 7. Retails for $14.99 USD (PSN) or 1200 Microsoft Points. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Completed the game on "Wussy" difficulty. Played "Fuck This Shit" and got my shit fucked after about half a level.
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