When you see the word "KISS" in the title and four different retail box designs each spotlighting one of the members of KISS, you might reasonably expect that KISS: Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child would feature wall-to-wall KISS - kind of like this sentence. But oddly enough, KISS: Psycho Circus contains very little of the legendary rockers - some coy song references, snippets from a few hits, and a portrait of Paul Stanley are about as KISS as it gets. As such, faithful members of the KISS Army hoping for the ultimate rock shooter will be particularly disappointed with Psycho Circus, the first game by Third Law Interactive, a development house founded by ex-Ion Storm employees. For everyone else, Third Law's attempt to re-create the frantic action of classic first-person shooters such as Doom is fairly good but ultimately too formulaic.
KISS: Psycho Circus is actually based on the Todd McFarlane comic book of the same name. Unlike the band, the game makes absolutely no attempt to rock - instead, it has a generic techno soundtrack. What's worse, it's a techno version of a KISS song! And if the story in the game is any indication of the quality of storytelling in the comic book, then Third Law might have been better off spending its Todd MacFarlane money on a tanker truck full of Blatz. Let's just say the plot involves a witch speaking - at great length - about some indecipherable mumbo jumbo.
You control the four members of a band that isn't KISS as each one battles through a multipart level picking up pieces of a KISS costume along the way. Once you've completed the four areas, a fifth and final level opens up.
The environments are each quite large and compose a sort of "greatest hits" package of shooter themes. The castles of Unreal, the modern offices of Half-Life, the freak show of Blood, the steel plant of Kingpin, and the hellish pits of Doom all return in spirit in KISS: Psycho Circus. Even the greenish canyons of Daikatana make an appearance. Psycho Circus does have a few original settings, such as a towering 50-story bookcase. The game uses a heavily modified version of the LithTech engine used in Shogo and Blood II, and generally speaking, it does an excellent job. Though often unoriginal, the levels look good.
Psycho Circus is a pure shooter. The challenge lies solely in combating endless waves of enemies as you move from the start to the end of every level. The game throws a lot of monsters at you, sometimes as many as 20 at a time. You haven't seen swarms of monsters this dense in a shooter since the heyday of Doom, and at first, it's exhilarating having so much to shoot. Setting off a jack-in-the-box grenade in the midst of ten creatures is undeniably satisfying. However, like most of the weapons in the game - especially what passes for the rocket launcher - the jack-in-the-box seems underpowered. And unfortunately, once you've played the first ten minutes of Psycho Circus, you might as well have played the first ten hours. Though there's an occasional exception, the same creatures appear throughout the entire game. Some of the enemies are totally forgettable, such as the spiderlike Headless, which appears in virtually every battle in the game. Other monsters in Psycho Circus are more interesting, such as a zombified fat lady who rips chunks of blubber out of her distended belly and tosses them at you. But because the fights aren't particularly tactical or tense, the experience becomes repetitive long before Psycho Circus is over.
There's yet to be a shooter since Quake III and Unreal Tournament that's earned as much praise for its multiplayer gameplay. Psycho Circus doesn't break this trend: it features nothing more than standard deathmatch and team deathmatch. There's also a mode called conquest, but it's just deathmatch with a scoring adjustment. Psycho Circus doesn't have a built-in game finder either, nor does it include Mplayer, Gamespy, or any other third-party matchup service. Worse yet, once you actually locate a server, you might encounter fairly regular crashes back to your desktop.
Aside from its drab multiplayer mode, KISS: Psycho Circus is fairly entertaining. Unfortunately, apart from the fact that the band itself makes too few appearances, the core gameplay is too shallow to sustain the entire game. The firefights are too similar to provide much excitement the tenth time through, much less the hundredth. Ultimately, Psycho Circus is one game you and the boys won't be playing all night.