RE:Play BloodThe Dark Herald
“I live. Again.”
That won’t last, Caleb.
Well, it’s September, and these days that means it is Halloween season(?). Fine, I’ll roll with it. Time for a RE:Play that is holiday appropriate: Blood.
All of the great Build engine FPS games of the 1990s were the product of eighties pop culture. Shadow Warrior was based on Hong Kong action movies that had suddenly gone mainstream in America thanks to video rentals. Plus, a lot of anime tropes. Did you know the human body contains over twenty-five gallons of blood? Anime sure did, and so did Shadow Warrior.
Duke Nukem 3D was clearly and obviously the product of eighties over-the-top, roided-up blast-flick action movies starring Arnold, Sly and to a much lesser extent JVD. Although Duke stole his appearance and the most famous line from John Carpenter’s They Live. I’ll cover that one later.
Blood, on the other hand, is a product of the horror genre. It owes a lot to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, more in general feel than in plot or art design. Although there are some deliberate shoutouts that are pretty easy to find. When Caleb is attacked by a bunch of disembodied hands that are all chirping, “I’ll swallow your soul!” Or when Caleb announces, “Good. Bad. I’m the one with the gun.”
Eighties horror is absolutely its own thing. Not a surprise because horror always speaks to the underlying zeitgeist of any milieu. You may say you’re scared of nuclear war with the Soviets but your brain wasn’t designed to comprehend that. Your deeper fear is of something great and terrible that you can’t harm in the least. Lovecraft, made a comeback in the Eighties and his influence wasn’t too hard to see in horror films like The Gate, Prince of Darkness, The Thing, and the aforementioned Evil Dead movies. The thing is, Generation X, being the way we are, liked some laughs with our scares. Comedy-horror was a big part of the Eighties pop culture.
So, you find a lot of humor in Blood as well as some Lovecraftian themes. But let’s be clear, it’s black humor. Truthfully, it isn’t really a horror game. It’s more macabre than scary.
Blood actually had a little bit more plot than the average Build engine game. The opening cut scene begins with Caleb and the Chosen reporting to their demonic master *Chernobog. The Chosen are a vicious but deadly gang of three that is loyal to Caleb, Ophelia is his lover. Things seem reasonably cordial at first, then out of the blue Chernobog declares them to all be traitors. The two male Chosen and killed on the spot. Ophelia is kidnapped and Caleb is helpless to save her. Their dark god taunts Caleb before throwing him into a grave.
The game opens with Caleb emerging from his tomb declaring he is alive again. It’s never quite made clear whether he is a revenant or if his condition is genuinely mortal. It doesn’t matter because he is about to start dying a lot.
In my opinion, Blood is probably the toughest of the Build engine games. I’ve never been able to beat it on anything higher than medium difficulty and I’m not a bad player. Critics didn’t like it because there was no Journalism Mode. Even on easy Blood is pretty hard. No, actually it isn’t hard. Blood is brutal. Brutal but fair.
The gameplay was about the best that the Build engine ever managed. The weapons all worked just like they were supposed to, (rare in a 90s FPS). There were even some features that were quite a bit ahead of their time. Explosions didn’t just gib opponents, they would be pushed around by the force of the blast. Even if they didn’t die, they would still be tossed a few feet. That was very new stuff in its day. No one had ever seen it before. The dynamite’s physics remains superb. The explosions were great, although the Build engine was always good at those, the way the POV shakes while the lights go off is always very satisfying.
Other weapons: The double barrel shotgun may have been the best in the 90s. Even the pistol has something going for it. Pistols have sucked since Doom but in this game, you get a flair gun. As usual, it didn’t do too much damage, but it did set low level enemies on fire and they would run around screaming before collapsing.
The level design was fantastic. In a good FPS, the game is like a guided story. Kind of analogous to a three-act play. Introduction, rising tension, and then the climax. It would draw you into places it needed to show you. After you finish the quest, then and only then do you get a cut scene. I’ll be honest, the CG was not good in its day and hasn’t held up since then. But the story it told was good enough and it was performed with economy. In the first end scene, Caleb is shown gently mourning his lost Ophelia (spoiler warning). In the next Caleb is tenderly eating the heart of one of his fallen friends?!? WTF? This game was pretty metal for its day.
The music did its job of setting and helping to maintain the tone of the game and tone was critically important. This was very much a macabre revenge story and Caleb was not at all a good guy.
Caleb’s actor was Stephan Weyte. He made Caleb probably the best character of the 1990s shooters. Lo Wang was, let’s face facts, a funny ethnic caricature. Duke Nukem was an over-the-top action hero caricature. Doom Guy, and BJ Blaskowitz had literally no character at all and that was the point of them. But thanks to Weyte, Caleb had some depth. You couldn’t even say he was a good monster. After he kills Chernobog one of the slaves is praising him and he guns him down for being annoying, but there were moments when you could sympathize with him. And he would have been easy to ruin. An over-the-top edge lord was not what was needed in this game. Ash from Evil Dead would have been worse, but Weyte with his slightly rough voice, brought the goods as an only mildly insane, out-of-control, Western gunslinger. It wouldn’t have been the same without him.
The art design was great, maintaining as it did the macabre aesthetic of 80s horror. There was lots of gore, but it wasn’t excessive even by the standards of the 1990s PC gaming culture. My favorite was the carnival of horrors. The sound design was literally pitch perfect. You could tell by the sounds that the various sprites made that they were either in a pain state and would come after you again or if you had planted them. The gun sounds were great. The explosions were great. Everything was great.
It was a game that demanded a sequel.
*long tired sigh*
Sadly, it got one.
Monolith Productions is a gaming studio so old that they had to make sure their name had eight or less characters because of DOS restrictions on file names. Blood was their very first title, but they have had a bunch since then: Shogo, The Operative, F.E.A.R, Shadow of Mordor and a bunch of others. But they never mention Blood 2. It’s nowhere on their website. They don’t even show the first Blood.
Blood 2 was a disaster and it wasn’t one of Monolith’s making. It began as a project on their new Lithtech engine. Frankly, there were some teething problems but nothing you wouldn’t expect. The project was progressing, however, it was going to be over budget. What Monolith had so far was extremely promising. The game wasn’t finished but it was playable. It needed a little more work before it was ready for prime time. More polish than anything else. It was the usual stuff of minor weapons malfunction, clipping, and the like. They needed some professional voice actors. Nothing unfixable.
Monolith went to their publisher GT Interactive, pointed out the problems with the game, and asked for more money to finish it.
GT Interactive told them, fuck you, we’re shipping it.
GT did generously allow Monolith to finish it with their own money but they wouldn’t be compensated in any way, shape, or form for it. Monolith considered a few things. Shogo was basically done, they could ship it themselves with their own money or they could trust GT again (ha). Blood II would have to be sacrificed. The Blood brand would be ruined when they shipped an unfinished game but there were no good decisions available to them.
Blood II was awful in every way available to it, and the sad thing is, you can still see the seed of something that could have been great.
Monolith eventually got bought up by Warner Brothers and became their in-house gaming studio, producing hits that would rival or even exceed Lucas Arts. For its part GT Interactive became Atari?!?! Anyway, they filed for bankruptcy in 2013, and today seems to spend a lot of time getting sued. What a surprise.
Blood was a great and ambitious game from a daring studio. It still holds up pretty well today.
Okay, I’m done here.
*Chernobog is an actual devil creature in Slavic mythology. Frequently shown as an evil god of misfortune in Western fiction. Not a trickster, he just loves being evil.