Can you tell that the capture software we use for PS2 games is pretty shitty? If you don't realise this now, this article is going to spell it out to you. Our distinct apologies.
I hate to be 'that guy' (honest) but sometimes you've got to wonder when a game's universally reviled, if it really deserves it. Some games I've come to really like often get lambasted, sometimes unfairly (my favourite example is City Connection, 'cause a lot of people dislike the NES port- it's not that bad, honest!). This was the attitude I went in with when playing Sega/WOW Entertainment's reboot of the Altered Beast franchise for the PS2- aside from this tiny review on GameFAQs (ha ha ha, as if that's a good source), no-one likes this game. No-one. It's been called the worst 3D action game on the PS2. Such is its suckitude, according to the internet, that the game was never released in America, although maybe the awful sales figures for Japan and Europe put them off. However, I'm always wary about this kind of thing. The fact that one of the reviews I saw didn't have any screenshots past the first three areas in the game was extremely suspicious, so I decided to take matters into my own hands, and...
Well... Yeah, it's pretty terrible.
The thing is, it's nearly a good game. Not amazing, but worth trying for an hour or so at least.
It's just got so many problems that the good game nestled beneath all the shit can't claw its way to the surface.
The Ancient Greek trappings of the original Altered Beast are done away with here, replaced with a generic you-can-see-the-plot-twist-coming-from-miles-away sci-fi setting- Foret Town in Northern California is covered in a dense fog known as the Genome Mist which, naturally, mutates anyone who gets near it and even starts resurrecting the dead. The military quarantines the area and sends in Luke Custer, a Genome Cyborg- as well as being immune to the Genome Mist, he can turn into several different beasts using chips implanted into his body. Shame the helicopter sending him in gets destroyed and he loses his memory and all the chips. Whoops! Surviving the crash, Custer has to regain his memory (the entire story is told in flashbacks, honestly), get the chips back, and solve the 'mystery' of the Genome Mist. If you're looking for a compelling story, then play something else, as not only is the story lifeless and boring, but it's like the characters themselves don't want to be there- they're just going through the motions. Shit, the main character probably says less than 50 words throughout the whole game!
Aside from the story, one of the first things to hit you about the game is how butt-ugly it is. Everything looks drab and muddy, and even the blood splatter effects that appear when you damage a lot of enemies at once look lazy. Normally, graphics don't bother me so much, but for Altered Beast, I'm willing to make an exception, because when the enemies look so awful that you actually pity them, then you know the game has problems. Most of the time you'll be fighting variations on the 'short and dumpy' and 'lanky and gaunt' zombie types, with later enemies including ugly voles, ugly owls and ugly horses, and not one of them is remotely interesting. Even the zombies in the House of the Dead series have more personality! The only effort in this game comes in the form of the FMV of Custer transforming into each beast- it's lovely and gory, including his eyes bursting open, his flesh melting away, and even his head exploding. Unfortunately, every time you transform you see a random three-second clip from said FMV, so you'll be seeing them a lot. Sound-wise, the game fares a little better- the music evokes the requisite shitty b-movie horror feel and the sound effects are meaty and appropriate, although the themes for some of the beasts will start to grate after a while.
But hey, you're not here for the story or the aesthetics. You're here for some hot beast-on-mutant action, yeah? Obviously, the core of the game is the beast transformation system, and in adopting several beast forms, the game has a Metroid-esque structure- each beast form you get allows you to access new areas. Starting with the Werewolf (perfect for brawling and jumping), you make your way through each area in the game (conveniently numbered and named so you know what order to do them in), killing enemies and fighting bosses to get the other forms. Eventually, you'll get the Merman (the only beast that can swim), the Wendigo (strong enough to move boulders), the Garuda (the obligatory flying beast), the Minotaur (the only beast that can block) and the Dragon (flight and electricity). Each beast also has a Learning Genome that gives them an extra ability- an ice-block-creation ability for the Wendigo, a dashing charge for the Minotaur, etc.- to open up yet more areas for you. Sounds like a thrilling adventure, am I right?
Unfortunately, the game doesn't quite get it right. Unlike Super Metroid, which constantly taunts you with areas you can't access, Altered Beast doesn't even try to keep you in suspense, so there's no sense of discovery at all. This is probably because the game's quite short, and so doesn't have the time or inclination to 'taunt' you. The best example is in Area 3, where you fight a boss as the Merman. Literally five steps before the boss, you can see a cliff that's too steep to jump up to. Beat the boss and, surprise surprise, you get a Learning Genome that gives the Werewolf a super-jump that lets you get up the cliff and move on to the next area. The game is filled with crap like this- it's like it wants to ape the Metroid school of game structure but can't be bothered with actually setting anything up. Outside one or two mandatory uses (and some interesting uses for the Wendigo's ice block attack) the extra abilities are reserved for accessing secret cachets of Genome Points (used in the combo-upgrade system) which, as we'll soon discover, are completely optional. Totally wasted potential there.
So, OK, let's just say you decide to ignore the slap-dash structure, and try to judge the game on the fighting- that's what you'll be doing most of the time, right? In your human form, you've got a few basic attacks and while you'd probably be able to take on a lone enemy, fighting groups in this form isn't advised. You'll be doing most of the fighting in the beast forms, and as well as a basic combo tree which you can upgrade with Genome Points, each beast has a special attack that's active when your special bar fills up- some of them are purely for doing damage (like the Werewolf's dash), and others have another function (like the Wendigo's ice breath that freezes the enemy). Of course, you can't stay a beast forever, as your spirit gauge is constantly depleting, and when it's gone, it'll start chipping away at your health instead- the only way to get it back is to kill enemies and pick up the green slime they leave behind or change to a human and use the painful-looking 'Killing Blow' technique where Custer sticks his hand into a dying enemy and sucks the life out of them.
Guess what? The combat sucks as well! The combo upgrade system is pointless, because half the moves you unlock with it are useless and aren't any more effective than your standard stuff. You're mostly going to be mashing the Square button here. Some important functions like locking-on to specific enemies and being able to dodge are missing too, but believe me, these omissions are the least of the game's problems. They pale in comparison next to the bloody wretched controls. Simple tasks like turning around and even moving are made frustrating due to the fact that even looking at the analogue stick funny causes your character to throw a wobbly and lurch several feet in one direction. Forget about trying to move with any kind of accuracy, because it's not going to happen in this game. To put this into perspective, you can often find Enemy Data items in hidden areas, and one in particular is perched on a piece of scaffolding. It took me nearly five minutes to pick it up because the controls were so wonky I kept missing the damn thing. The game lazily tries to compensate for this- most areas are relatively open spaces, your attacks have a lot of range for the most part (so you'll hit something, but not necessarily the enemy you want to hit) and you're almost always attacked in crowds, so locking on isn't quite as important. Despite this, combat is still totally awful.
The terrible thing is that at times, you can see the makings of a decent game, and once you get past the beginning, things improve a little. The later beast forms are actually pretty fun to play as- the controls still aren't perfect when using them, but you can wring some entertainment out of them. The Minotaur, for instance, only gets knocked down by really heavy attacks, and anything else doesn't faze him, or just knocks him back only to land on his feet. This makes fighting much less frustrating and, when fighting a mob, actually fun. Some of the later boss fights are also enjoyable as they make you think about how to use each beast's individual strengths to their full potential. A good example is Ose, a giant panther who shows up in Area 12. His main attack is breathing smoke at you from a pillar- you can either block the smoke with the Minotaur and wait for him to come down, or dodge the smoke with the Werewolf and attack him on the pillar, or even use the Garuda to attack from the air. The penultimate boss, Rhinorian (who I swear is a reference to King Neff from the original- they have similar attacks) even requires you to use the human form at times. The problem is that these bosses are all near the end, after you've had to plug away at the game for roughly 8 hours and, if the problems really aggravate you, you've already stopped playing.
This is one of those cases where the concept could work really well- the beast transformations essentially give you ten different characters to play as (counting Custer himself and the three secret beasts) and they've got their unique strengths and weaknesses- but in execution, it's cocked up very badly. Not to the extent where it's completely and utterly unplayable; the beast forms do keep you coming back for a little more, but the problems (the combat and controls mostly) just keep building up and you'll just have to stop playing in despair. If the concept sounds interesting enough that you reckon you could work past the glaring flaws (hope you've got some patience) then there are worse ways to spend an afternoon- by today's standards, it's a relatively short game- but then why would you want to? By no means is this the worst 3D action game on the PS2, but damn, son, there's better out there.
For its neat ideas but utterly lousy execution, Altered Beast is awarded...
In a sentence, Altered Beast is...
Not something that the US should be sad they missed.
Now that your reality has been sufficiently altered in a most beastly fashion, click to go back!