As children of the '80s learned at a young age from The Smurfs and The Care Bears, cute and cuddly creatures can always win the day against forces of darkness with little more than some pluck and their indomitable spirit. Raze's Hell asserts that the cute and cuddlies are actually much more sinister than the hideous monsters they are so quick to demonize and that it's completely reasonable to exterminate them with extreme prejudice. The game banks big on the inherent satisfaction of brutally destroying creatures too sunny and happy to live in the first place, and that dark sense of humor helps turn Raze's Hell into something greater than the rather average third-person shooter it would otherwise be.
What's most surprising about Raze's Hell is how it uses this anti-cute sentiment as cover fire for some fairly biting satire. At the beginning, the game is pure storybook, as the Princess of Kewtopia decrees that her warm and fuzzy Kewlett disciples are to bring joy, happiness, and freedom to the ugly, sad, and pathetic creatures that live outside their idyllic kingdom. It soon becomes apparent that "freedom" actually translates into genocide, and all the Kewletts really want is to extend the suffocating grasp of their unnaturally cheery kingdom. As Raze, one of the creatures the Kewletts want to exterminate, you happen upon an ancient and powerful relic that turns you into a vengeance-seeking badass who, coincidentally, looks kind of like Frank, the big, evil rabbit from Donnie Darko. Throwing around turns of phrase like "shock and awe" and regarding the Kewletts' efforts as a preemptive expansionist war, Raze's Hell is not subtle in its scathing indictment of the recent war in Iraq. The story starts out quite strong, though after the first few hours, it quickly slips back into fairly standard sci-fi fantasy rhythms.
Aside from lots of tongue-in-cheek social commentary, Raze's Hell is a pretty standard third-person shooter. Don't expect a lot of puzzle-solving or extracurricular item-collecting; the focus of the gameplay is to bring bloody death to an evil army of walking, talking merchandising opportunities. Each level is essentially a series of intense firefights, and they can be quite challenging, even on the normal difficulty setting. You have some basic melee attacks for when you're up close with an enemy, but mostly you'll be using a cache of gunlike weapons. Within the context of the game, your ammo consists of fruit that you pick from really, really weird trees. In practice they're more akin to modern hardware like shotguns, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles, though there are exceptions, such as the Dig-Dug-inspired inflator weapon. On the surface, the weapons seem extremely punishing, but most enemies can take an almost inordinate amount of punishment before going down, and when given the option, we found the massive blade that juts out of Raze's left hand to be far more effective.
Aside from serving as a satisfying finishing move, melee attacks are important for replenishing your health. The levels aren't stocked with health-restoring boxes or bubbles or whatever with a red cross on them; instead, your life bar is restored by cutting open enemies you've killed and sucking up the giblets--an agreeably morbid move, given the rest of the game's tone. Raze can also perform some rudimentary stealth moves, though sneaking rarely proves to be effective. If you're in a hurry, you can also curl up into a ball, Metroid-style, and simply roll right over your enemies, though you will usually take a bit of damage in the process.
The weapons and the various setups for your battles help keep the game engaging for the 10 or so hours it'll take to finish, but Raze's Hell doesn't stop there. The game also has a handful of appropriately silly and violent minigames, a co-op mode, and Xbox Live support. The Xbox Live support is nice, but it almost seems compulsory at this point, with mostly predictable modes like deathmatch, king of the hill, and so on. We appreciate the gesture, but at this point the market is so saturated with high-grade online shooters, it's hard to get excited about it. But still, for a game that's hitting shelves for just $19.99 right out of the gate, Raze's Hell offers a pretty great value, without seeming like a value-priced game.
The game doesn't look bad from a technical standpoint, with good-sized levels and dramatic lighting and particle effects, though the frame rate can get a little rocky. The art style compensates nicely for any technical inconsistency, presenting a darkly inspired vision of a cute but decidedly evil army of what are essentially stuffed animals armed with laser-firing jack-in-the-boxes and rocket launchers that fire explosive bunnies. This blend of adorability and grim warfare goes a long way, though Raze's own design and the other sympathizing "monsters" are a little drab by comparison.
Some of the funniest moments in Raze's Hell can be had by eavesdropping on enemy troops as they talk about the hell they've seen during the war, as though they were hardened Vietnam War vets with squeaky, high-pitched voices. You'll also hear a lot of amusing dialogue during battle as the enemies comment on everything from the absurdity of dying from a foot wound to the game's budget price. The various weapon reports and explosions pack a pretty good punch, and the music, though not particularly memorable after the fact, does a good enough job of enhancing the action. Overall, the game sounds pretty good, though we did run into some bothersome problems with the mixing of the sound levels, which made it difficult to locate enemies based on their chatter--you can hear them, but you can't get any sense of how far away they are or which direction.
Raze's Hell is the video game equivalent of burning all the hair off your sister's Barbie dolls. It's not about outmatching cunning opponents or solving complex puzzles. It's a game that scratches an itch that is so base and so primal that you can't help but smile as you eviscerate your saccharine enemies only to gorge yourself on their bloody entrails. If such ideas don't immediately appeal to you, take a pass on Raze's Hell. Otherwise, you should check it out.