Featuring an original story by horrormeister Clive Barker, top-of-the-line hi-def graphics, a journey backward in time and six controllable characters, “Jericho” may just be the most ambitious videogame of the year. But publisher Codemasters and developer MercurySteam have bitten off more than they can chew. While it’s full of moments and details that will wow players, particularly those looking for a good scare, “Jericho” is so difficult to control it feels almost hostile to the player. Among the deluge of top-tier action games coming out this fall, this one will have a tough time scaring up boffo business.
Best known to the general public for his “Hellraiser” movies, Barker has a long resume of horror-fantasy novels and even one previous vidgame. He brings his signature aesthetic to “Jericho,” in which a team of paranormal soldiers from the “Dept. of Occult Warfare,” code-named “Jericho,” investigates the mysterious reappearance of an ancient city. As they journey deeper and deeper in search of God’s failed attempt at creating life before human beings, they run into undead soldiers from the past, including World War II, the Crusades and ancient Rome.
Though confusing at first, “Jericho’s” story becomes more and more interesting as it goes along. The visual details, from a path made of corpses to half-human monsters, are just as rich.
However, the members of the Jericho squad, which includes a soothing Cajun priest, a hard-charging Latino gunner and a sarcastic sniper, never move far beyond cliche. Facial animations aren’t nearly as detailed as the environments, and players will quickly get tired of hearing bits from the small catalog of dialogue like “By the grace of God!” and “You guys just got your ass kicked by a girl.”
More thought seems to have gone into the characters’ abilities. Each of the six Jericho members carries two weapons and has two paranormal powers. Some, like the ability to slow down time or tentacles that hold enemies in place, are a great asset. Others, like a flying “fire demon” and astral projection, are so tough to control they prove nearly useless. Without any narrative explanation, some additional powers are unlocked as the game progresses.
“Jericho” lets one player — there’s no multiplayer option — control any character he or she chooses by making the dead squad leader’s soul switch bodies. Though it sounds like an impressive feature, in practice this is the game’s biggest fault. In the heat of battle, remembering what each of the Jericho members’ abilities are and how to control them is too much to handle. It doesn’t help that the artificial intelligence controlling the other characters is utterly clueless, leading them to die so frequently that players will find themselves healing allies more often than fighting enemies.
Game’s interface makes things worse. The action doesn’t pause when players access a menu to switch characters, or while the soul switches bodies, costing valuable seconds that can mean the difference between victory and death. Amid a clutter of onscreen symbols, there’s also no indication of who the player is controlling at the moment.
The overall result of this intensely frustrating game design is that players will find themselves dying over and over not because they don’t know what to do, but because they can’t make the characters do what they want.
It’s tough to appreciate a horror vidgame when the gameplay is more frightening than the story.