Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and Army of Darkness are some of the finest B movies ever made. Particularly in the latter films, Director Sam Raimi's reworking of the splatterfest horror genre is a hilarious thrill ride, thanks to the irreverent scripts and Bruce Campbell's winning performance as the fall guy/hero of the series. Anyone who's seen the films will never be able to forget Ash, the smart-assed protagonist, who's either serving as a whipping boy for the undead in uproarious pratfall scenes or cutting the undead to shreds with the chain saw he wears in place of his lopped-off right hand. Inspired by the trilogy of movies, Evil Dead: Hail to the King unfortunately offers little of the appeal of its source material, as everything about the game is derivative, boring, or just plain bad. The entire game seems to have been developed around the misguided notion that any game with a cool lead character like Ash (whose one-liners in the movies were so good that 3D Realms used a number of them verbatim in Duke Nukem 3D) has to be a good one. The designers were apparently so caught up in re-using trademark Ash-isms that they failed to notice that the gameplay was a jumble of dated elements that were handled much better in Capcom's original Resident Evil back in 1996.
Visual flaws practically slap you in the face as soon as Ash appears onscreen, reminiscing about his struggles with the undead that began way back in 1982. For a few moments, you'll think that he's taken your computer back 19 years with him. In fairness, that's a bit of an exaggeration--but it's no stretch to say that the graphics throughout the game are more than a few years past their prime. The maximum resolution is a blocky 640x480, and even with Direct3D support, that's unacceptable for a PC game today. Of all the characters and monsters present in the game, only Ash himself is even remotely presentable. The rest are either drawn or animated poorly. It's hard to be impressed or scared by ghouls and ghosts that lumber about like they'd just blown disks in their lower backs.
Poor background visuals reveal Evil Dead's roots as a console game. These prerendered 2D backdrops possess all the depth of a painted sheet of plywood and, as such, have no power to draw you into what's supposed to be a spooky setting. Muddy colors and blurry textures further remove Ash and his decomposing adversaries from the environment. Blood glows and jiggles on the ground like radioactive Jell-O. The lone saving grace is a suitably ominous treatment of light sources and shadow. While they're few and far between, a few scenes can actually send a shiver down your spine because of these qualities. But most screens are so dark and nondescript that you'll need to engage in tedious pixel hunts to find objects and resources needed to progress. Complicating these searches--and just about everything else--are the game's consistently awkward camera angles. The third-person view is rarely where you'd like it to be. Combat is often difficult because you're either too far away from Ash or you're looking down on a battle from such a weird vantage point that you can't tell where your enemy is really located.
The audio is just as unimpressive. The musical score is tinny and repetitive, and the ambient noises don't convey any sense of the midnight world surrounding Ash. Nor do the sound effects punch up the action and give that necessary oomph to shotgun blasts punching through zombies or to the chain saw cutting into them. Even Bruce Campbell's voice talent proves disappointing. The actor's staccato delivery has been dialed down so far that it sounds like some comments were recorded while he wasn't really paying attention to what was going on. It's as if he recorded his lines over the telephone while flipping through the morning paper. If Ash's lines had sounded this weak in the movies, Duke Nukem wouldn't have bothered ripping them off.
The gameplay in Evil Dead is typical of any number of games that have borrowed from Resident Evil in the last five years. Along with his new wife, Ash has returned to the lonely cottage, where it all began, to work out a little problem he's been having with nightmares. However, confronting his fears just gets his lovely bride kidnapped by the forces of evil in the opening cutscene, and he spends the remainder of the game trying to find the missing pages of a black magic book (the necronomicon ex mortis from the films makes yet another appearance) needed to rescue her. That's a little different from the "just get out alive" theme prevalent in Capcom's horror-themed games, but that doesn't make it any different to play. You still search for clues and keys, slaughter bad guys, and collect weapons, ammo, items, and various power-ups with the aid of an awkward inventory system, just as though you were in Resident Evil's Raccoon City. Aside from the way that Ash saves his progress with an audiotape reel instead of a typewriter ribbon (you can't save on demand), the games are actually quite similar.
Still, there are some key differences. The primary one is a dreary pacing of Evil Dead. Ash's weapons are weak, and even the chain saw requires seven or eight clean swipes to send a foe to the afterlife. Creatures also respawn, so the game's interminable, repetitive combat can be found on virtually every screen. This design does successfully manage to lengthen the game, albeit at a cost of putting you to sleep. You don't even get the satisfaction of carving up a ghoul or two with the chain saw when you do score the required number of hits. Although Ash will occasionally go into a frenzy with the weapon--cutting into a monster with a real blood-spewing relish--it's not nearly as over-the-top as fans of the movies would expect. And much of this limited gore is obscured by the substandard camera angles. The game seems sedate--at times, you'll have to remind yourself that it's supposed to be an Evil Dead game.
Unfortunately, a control scheme that's limited to mouse and keyboard support makes progressing through the game even more exhausting. While the "read me" file mentions gamepad support, "keyboard" is the only option to choose on the options screen. Repeated attempts to get Evil Dead to recognize a Microsoft Sidewinder and a Logitech Wingman Rumble Pad met with failure. It's exceedingly odd that the designers didn't make a gamepad as the default control option, especially since the game was first developed for consoles.
Evil Dead: Hail to the King raises a lot of questions, not the least of which is an enduring fascination with why THQ is publishing it. Irresistible source material aside, it's a little late to be jumping on the survival-horror bandwagon--especially with such a lackluster rip-off as Evil Dead: Hail to the King. If you're a fan of the movies, you'd be better off spending the same amount of money on the collector's edition of Army of Darkness on DVD instead. You'll enjoy it a lot more than playing Evil Dead: Hail to the King, which will wear out its welcome in a much shorter span than the 96-minute running time of the film.