Monster House Review

Excellent atmosphere notwithstanding, this third-person action game is hobbled by tedious combat and a number of dubious design problems.

There's no denying that Monster House for the PlayStation 2 and the GameCube does a good job of duplicating the atmosphere of the movie it's based on. Every key scene from the movie is represented in some fashion, and the game's spooky musical score is on par with Hollywood's best. Unfortunately, while the game is a joy to sit back and take in, it isn't much fun to interact with. The movie has been transformed into a third-person action game that mainly involves fighting the same cookie-cutter enemies over and over again in the same cramped environments. To make matters worse, various other dubious design decisions bring about fits of frustration along the way that really shouldn't be in a game that only takes about four hours to complete.

Mainly, you'll be shooting at haunted chairs and televisions with a pump-action squirt gun.
Mainly, you'll be shooting at haunted chairs and televisions with a pump-action squirt gun.

On the upside, the game's overall structure and its atmosphere are very faithful to the movie. In the movie, three friends named DJ, Chowder, and Jenny get swallowed by a haunted house and are forced to fight their way out using ingenuity and their squirt guns. In the game, players must alternate control between the three characters and squirt possessed furniture to "death" throughout the course of nine chapters. The visuals don't push the machine to its fullest in the technical sense, but they're generally crisp and smooth. Artistically, though, everything from the characters to what's inside the house looks exactly like it did on the big screen. Audio is generally excellent, particularly the soundtrack, which is haunting and makes ample use of stereo and surround-sound capabilities. If you crank the speakers, you'll hear faint creaks and moans in the background, and you'll be able to hear where enemies are coming from. There's also quite a bit of spoken dialogue as well. The three protagonists are voiced by the movie's actors, while supporting characters are voiced by believable soundalikes.

Considering the source material and going by what the packaging and manual say, you'd assume the game would be a joy to play. Conceptually, the basic design is sound. This is an action game where the primary goal is to shoot anything that moves. There are a few "find the key" and "push the box"-type puzzles here and there, but gunplay is, by and large, what the game is about. All but one of the nine chapters are loosely structured such that you'll end up controlling each of the three kids while wandering some portion of the house. Every room and hallway is furnished with tables, chairs, and the usual decorations, which frequently come to life and attack the poor kid you're controlling. The controls are easy to pick up. There's one button each for shoot, reload, special weapon, melee attack, and duck. While the three kids control the same, they do have their own unique traits. DJ can use his squirt gun like a hose and stun enemies with his camera. Chowder's squirt gun functions like a high-powered shotgun and he can toss water balloons to dole out even greater damage. Last, but not least, Jenny's squirt gun fires quickly and across long distances, and she can assail enemies and locks by launching marbles with her slingshot. Much of the time, you'll fend of the half-dozen or so furniture monsters in each room using the squirt gun. The game automatically targets the nearest enemy, so shooting is primarily a function of how rapidly you can tap the button.

Sadly, everything starts to unravel the moment you get your hands on the controller. First, there are the technical issues, like the unresponsive lock-on targeting system, which makes it tough to keep track of enemies, and the fish-eye camera aspect, which induces a physical feeling of nausea if you move the viewpoint side to side too much. The third-person viewpoint is normally perfect for a game like this, but, thanks to the unreliable targeting and warped graphics, it's easy to lose track of enemies and where you're going.

Along with those technical issues, numerous aspects of the game's design will just make you want to shake your head. With the exception of the occasional boss, there are, perhaps, eight unique cookie-cutter enemies that are recycled constantly throughout the entire game, and they're all nondescript things like chairs, heaters, and televisions. Environments are recycled frequently, too. By the end of the game, you'll have traveled through every hallway and room in the house at least three times. Combat pretty much turns tedious from the get-go, since you're always seeing the same enemies and rooms over and over again. Besides the infrequent item-based puzzle, the only other break in the monotony comes from the surprise button-press sequences that occur whenever a possessed tree punches through a window or floor. During these sequences, you have to quickly push the button indicated on the screen or your character will be squashed flat, forcing you to restart from the previous save point. About halfway through the game, the span between save points is such that you'll have to retrace a good 10 minutes' worth of play if you fail one of these quick-response sequences. Players that don't know the PS2 or GameCube button layout by heart are punished, basically.

Every key scene from the movie is replicated.
Every key scene from the movie is replicated.

Ironically, even though the combat is mind numbing, and even with all of the backtracking and retraced steps due to unexpected deaths, the whole game only takes about four hours to complete. Lucky players with supreme reflexes can probably get through it in three. After that, you can play again to collect the hidden monkey toys you missed, which unlock additional gallery pictures, or you can kill time playing Thou Art Dead. Thou Art Dead is a simple retro-themed side-scroller roughly on par in all aspects to 1980's classics like Rastan or Castlevania. This is a nice bonus, but hardly compensation for how crummy and short-lived the main mode is.

Ultimately, it all boils down to whether or not someone wants to spend the money to rent or purchase a tedious and flawed game that hardly lasts longer than the movie it's based on. Common sense would suggest not.

The Good

  • Replicates every key event from the movie
  • Squirt gun controls are easy to learn
  • Good use of surround-sound audio
  • Spooky music

The Bad

  • Recycled enemies and environments make combat a bore
  • Unreliable targeting adds unnecessary frustration
  • Camera has a constant fish-eye effect that can induce nausea
  • Quick-button events punish casual players
  • Entire game easily completed in under four hours

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