When a new gaming platform is introduced to the public, the first title customarily released for it is, fittingly, a platform game. The SNES had Mario. The Genesis had Sonic. The side-scrolling shooter has long been a favorite genre of video gamers around the world for many reasons. The playability in such games is usually quite well rounded. They're almost always instant "kid hits" and perhaps most importantly, the player-character is guaranteed to become a cultural icon. While this has been the case for video game consoles, the same does not hold true for PC games. In fact, believe it or not, there have been only two or three truly successful side-scrolling, pick-up-the-treasure-and-kill-the-bad-guys platform games made exclusively for the PC. Monolith Productions hopes to add to that number with Claw.
Claw follows the adventures of Captain Nathaniel J. Claw, a swashbuckling tabby cat whose life's work has been the defeat of the Cocker Spaniard Armada. (OK, so the premise it a trifle cutesy, but rest assured, that's where its annoyances end.) As the animated intro scene opens, we find Claw and his band of fearless felines engaged in mortal combat with the Spaniards. The cats are defeated and Claw is thrown into a dark dungeon to await his execution. While incarcerated, he happens upon a loose stone in the wall that, when removed, reveals a note written by one of the dungeon's former denizens. The note tells of the legendary Amulet of Nine Lives and a map that will locate it and its nine powerful gems. The note's author implores Claw to take the attached piece of the map and to track down the other pieces, the gems, and the amulet before they are discovered by the evil King's minions. So the adventure begins.
The gameplay is, as expected, derivative of every platform game ever released. You run. You jump. You kill bad guys. You get treasure. Never in the history of PC gaming, however, has this tried-and-true style been executed with such polish. The levels are straightforward if anything. There's nothing to confuse you here, but there are quite a few divergent pathways and an abundance of fun tricks of the terrain unique to each level. In the first few, as Claw escapes the dungeon and makes his way through the woods and into a bustling seaside town, you encounter many different types of bad guys as well as ladders, swinging vines, pits lined with spikes, and the obligatory moving and vanishing platforms. Some of the gimmicks in later levels include pools of water with man-eating (or cat-eating, as the case may be) fish, jets of steam to ride, and flowing lava to dodge, just to name a few. The most prominent feature of the levels, though, is the profusion of treasure to be plundered. You can't swing a dead cat (pun intended) without hitting a pile of gold bars, a crown, a chalice, a gilded crucifix, or one of the other forms of loot. The sheer amount of gold in this game puts the old standard, Montezuma's Revenge, to shame.
Claw himself also has quite a repertoire of maneuvers to wield. He begins his quest with a pirate's sword, a loaded musket, a few sticks of dynamite, and a couple uses of his Magic Claw power. These weapons can be replenished along the way, and his sword can be upgraded for short periods of time to shoot fire, ice, and lightening bolts. There are also caches of catnip (what else?) hidden throughout the levels which enable Claw to dispatch his enemies faster and jump much higher. In addition to his abilities to shoot his enemies, skewer them, Magic Claw them, and drop dynamite on them, Claw can throw objects or even other enemies at them. Believe me, all of these tactics are necessary. It's amazing how ingenious one need be to kill some of the game's forty different bad guys.
As you progress through the game's 14 levels, the enemies as well as the puzzles and traps become increasingly difficult, and the difficulty curve is practically flawless. The first couple levels will take an average player anywhere from ten to twenty minutes to complete, including battling the boss. Towards the end of Claw's journey, though, expect to spend close to an hour trying and retrying the puzzles in each level. This can become a bit frustrating at times due to the fact that the extra lives are few and far between. Each level, however, does have two waypoints that automatically register when you pass them. Should you perish (and you will), you return to the last one reached. This way, saving your game is not a concern. As the levels become nearly impossible toward the end, though, dying can mean sacrificing the last twenty minutes of puzzle solving. Fortunately, there is a well-publicized "God code" for the game. Type in MPKFA during play (no doubt a Doom homage) and you've got infinite health, lives, ammo, and magic. Strangely, playing in God mode doesn't take away much of the fun. Sure, you're immune to enemy attacks, but you still have the puzzles to contend with and that's most of the challenge. Of course I, being the consummate gamer, didn't play that way, but...
All gameplay aside, though, Claw is aesthetically gorgeous. Each of the quest's many locales is more dazzling than the last. The scenery is a mixture of lush hand-illustrated backgrounds, beautifully rendered play areas, and a depth-lending foreground layer. The sound is better still. The music is straight out of an Errol Flynn movie, the sound effects are dead-on, and the ambient sounds and character banter actually add to the gameplay for a change. The guys at Monolith, as in their last hit, Blood, didn't scrimp on the humor. Some of the baddies, when dispatched, utter fun, suitably piratesque phrases while others are downright comical. ("Hmmm. I seem to have become deceased!" is my favorite.) The whole feel of the game is light and amusing. The first time you head for the fridge to grab a midlevel snack and hear Claw say dryly, "At least bring me back something from the kitchen!" you'll know what I mean.
Claw is a game with almost too many things going for it. The levels are brilliant. The gameplay is first-rate. The control (thanks to Microsoft DirectInput) is near perfect. The animated cutscenes are worthy of anything on Saturday mornings. There's even multiplayer support! "What?" you say, "Multiplayer support in a side scroller?!" Yep. Up to 64 players can go at it, either racing through the levels to score the fastest time or trying to gather up the most booty. They've even incorporated Claw Curses, which enable those in multiplayer mode to affect each other detrimentally. It's actually quite fun, if you can find people to play with you. Until support for the multiplayer mode gets into full swing on Engage Games Online (Claw's exclusive multiplayer site), getting 64 players in a game will be a task similar to getting a bunch of nuns to play tackle football, but it's worth it. So is the game itself, easily the finest modern side scroller available for the PC.