Let's face it, the Evil Dead franchise hasn't had a very smooth ride into the video game arena. The games based on Sam Raimi's cult horror films have tried to capture the spirit of their celluloid counterparts, but they've invariably failed. As a result, it's fair to say that THQ's upcoming third attempt at releasing a game based on the series, called Evil Dead: Regeneration, is being greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. However, anyone expecting another underwhelming entry in the series is in for a pleasant surprise. Turns out the game's title is actually symbolic of what's going on with the series, as THQ is aiming to renew the series with a change of developer--to veteran studio Cranky Pants--and a new approach that seems to be working out well. We recently had the chance to get our hands on a work-in-progress version of the game to see if the new approach is working.
If the Evil Dead franchise is an unknown for you, we'll fill you in on the key points. The series has followed the misadventures of Ash, a chain-saw-wielding action hero with a knack for wisecracks. The unlikely champion gets pulled into his gig after discovering a book of pure evil, called the Necronomicon, while on a vacation with friends. Unfortunately, a few bloody battles and mystic events later, the budding hero is committed to Sunny Meadows, a hospital for the criminally insane, after its assumed he murdered his camping buddies. But, while a nice rest at an insane asylum would seem like a nice break for most, trouble seems to follow poor Ash, as his doctor discovers the Necronomicon and tries to tap into its powers. For those who haven't messed around with mystic books of pure evil, believe us when we say all hell breaks loose when you do. This turns out to be a good thing, as you'll have all manner of problems to deal with to set things right, which is just what you'd want out of a game.
Evil Dead: Regeneration's gameplay is a mishmash of familiar mechanics seen in games such as Devil May Cry and The Suffering, to name a few. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because if you're going to borrow, it may as well be from the best. The game uses a third-person action structure that's fairly standard. You'll be tasked with making your way to specific points in a level that will trigger cinematics and move the story along. Combat is in the DMC vein, as Ash will have two weapons at his disposal at any given time: his trusty chain saw, conveniently fused to where his cursed hand used to be, and a secondary weapon that can be any number of firearms you'll find. You'll be able to alternate attacking with your saw and gun to create lengthy and impressive combos that let you juggle enemies à la DMC. Once you've doled out enough damage you'll be able to finish them off with flashy kill moves.
However, there's more to combat than simply using Ash to send your foes back to the grave. Evil Dead; Regeneration will give you two other ways to deal with your enemies. The flashiest of the two is Evil Ash, a rage-fueled hulk who works much like the rage forms found in Surreal Software's The Suffering. When you've amassed enough power you can trigger the change to dole out tremendously powerful attacks that cut through your foes like hot butter. As you'd expect, there are limitations on the form, namely a time limit, to ensure you don't plow through the game. Your second, tinier option is Sam, a demonic dwarven sidekick who's big on attitude but too useful to kick to the curb. Once you gain Sam you'll find an additional set of combat and exploration options that revolve around the pint-sized deadite. When fighting you can have him kick at foes to do damage or temporarily restrain them. When exploring you can often have him kick at specific areas to have him help you gain access to them or to collect something. You'll also have the chance to take active control of Sam at certain parts of the game, if the situation warrants it.
The visuals are the best to be seen in an Evil Dead game to date. Cranky Pants' experience with consoles shows through thanks to a solid engine that's big on detail and performance. Character models are detailed, especially Ash, who's a dead ringer for Bruce Campbell's movie alter ego. The environments are equally well done and feature a good deal of character in the form of interactive elements and clean texture work that adds a nice touch of wear and tear to your surroundings.
The audio, which has actually been one of the few highlights in the previous entries in the series (due primarily to the involvement of film star Bruce Campbell, who voices Ash), is shaping up well. You'll hear a solid score that suits the action well, on the whole, and isn't intrusive. The voice is well done and is anchored by Campbell's distinctive voice and pithy quips. The supporting cast, including Ted Raimi as the voice of Sam, appears to hold its own with the veteran film star. Meanwhile, the game's sound effects add to the atmosphere effectively.
Based on what we played, we're hopeful that Evil Dead: Regeneration is headed in a positive direction. Though the game is still in an unfinished state, it already sports a level of polish and playablility that leaves its predecessors in the dust. Once you factor in a solid story and the winning contributions of Bruce Campbell, you have a candidate for the best Evil Dead game to hit the market. If you're a fan of the movies or are looking for a game that offers a winning mix of action, adventure, and a little comedy, you'll do well to keep a lookout for Evil Dead: Regeneration when it ships this fall for the PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox.