It's hard to imagine how anybody could make the Stalin-era Soviet Union less appealing than it was in reality, but You Are Empty sure does the trick. However, it's not the game's setting in an alt-history 1950's USSR "overrun by mutant communists" that pulls off this nifty trick; it's the gameplay itself. This painful exercise in shooter stupidity from Moscow-based Digital Spray Studios is as pleasant as a gulag getaway, an atrocity that will make buyers wish that their wallets had been empty when they took this package up to the cash register.
At first glance, it seems as if the developers are just ripping off the fine folks at Croteam and People Can Fly, who made Serious Sam and Painkiller, respectively. If this game were a Manson cult member, it would have "old-fashioned shooter" carved into its forehead. The concept is certainly dumb enough to fit the bill, with the plot set in a Happy Days-era Moscow right after Uncle Joe started an experiment that turned everything with a pulse into a mutant. You have to crib the above from the box flap, though, because the game itself doesn't make a lick of sense. Translations from the original Russian are atrocious. Crazed coots who look like they were beamed to Russia from the Ozarks rant and rave insanely ("Here you go! Now! Now! Give me your iron piece!"). Cutscenes are so surreal that they seem like shreds of a fever dream. A soldier gets hit by a truck. Crowds mill about in black-and-white video footage. A cute puppy bashes its head against a pet-store window. A little boy grimaces in pain. Concussed third graders could concoct a more coherent story.
Regardless, as usual with arcade shooters, the premise is just a flimsy excuse to throw outrageous monsters at you. Here you get the usual array of freak-show refugees. Giant hens peck and kick like velociraptors. Bug-eyed harridans swing scythes. Pinheaded lunatics in straitjackets poke away with pointy sticks. Axe-wielding firemen glare with smoke-burned eyes. That sort of thing.
But as zany as all of your foes are, there is a lot of monster repetition, and few of the creeps in You Are Empty are the slightest bit original. All of the weirdest creatures have been swiped from other games. Not a level goes by without a couple of "Hey, I remember that guy from Doom/Serious Sam/Painkiller!" moments. Digital Spray has at least been a little creative with its theft, in that it has gone outside the shooter ghetto to steal ideas from the likes of the Silent Hill franchise, but there is still too much of the sincerest form of flattery going on here. Also, a lot of baddies seem to be generic shooter hicks. The scythe-toting women at the collective farm, the jumping galoot in overalls, and the old guy with a grizzly beard, deer-camp hat, and shotgun all look like rejects from Redneck Rampage. Apparently one of the mutation effects turns people into Hee Haw extras.
A tedious pace is an even bigger problem than photocopied creatures. Although both Serious Sam and Painkiller featured the same sort of surreal spooks, they also had a crazy tempo that kept you running and gunning for your life pretty much all the time. A game such as Serious Sam wasn't great because it made you shoot hillbillies with jack-o'-lanterns for heads; it was great because you were shooting dozens of them at the same time. However, here you just trudge along. You can't run at all, and the walking pace is absurdly slow for such an old-fashioned shooter. Not that you need to pick up your feet very often. Attacks generally feature no more than a handful of enemies, all typically moving as slow as you, which gives you lots of time to shoot, backpedal, and reload.
Worse yet, there is no weight to combat, which makes it hard to tell when you're hitting a baddie or when it's hitting you. None of your weapons have any oomph. The Mauser pistol might as well be a pellet gun, and even the shotgun and rail gun have the kick of a pea shooter. Bullets don't slam into enemies as much as they sink into them. Damage that you sustain is equally insubstantial. Mighty blows from the likes of axes and bullets from enemy pistols don't even appear to slow you down, so you need to keep a close eye on your health meter to see if you're actually being hurt during battles. And just to make everything a bit vaguer, enemies can hit you with melee attacks even though you're well out of range. You might be a dozen feet or more away from a miner swinging his pick, yet he can still sometimes smack you in the head with it.
Want more? Okay, but considering that you've already wasted too much of your life reading about You Are Empty, we'll keep this short. Levels are loaded with insipid key hunts and lever pulls. Visuals are all murky grays and blacks, which fits the urban wasteland theme but makes it hard to pick out details such as the aforementioned keys and levers you need to find to open doors. Many textures are totally corrupted, which gives a checkerboard appearance to the sky, many walls, and some doors. Character animations are so awkward and jerky that you find yourself looking for wires. Much of the music isn't half bad if you like B-side Euro techno, although the tunes are nearly ruined by the absurd ugghs and ooghs uttered by the mutants. There is no multiplayer. And finally, the nihilistic name of the game is never explained.
Now move on with your life and try to pretend that games like You Are Empty don't exist.