The second release in Vicious Cycle and D3Publisher’s underappreciated Matt Hazard series is now available as a digital-only release. Some harsh criticism and perhaps worse than expected – or deserved – retail performance of Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard last year were undoubtedly the motivators behind the decision to lead the series into smaller, cheaper productions, but the fact that the creators have chosen to continue at all is the bigger surprise. But it’s a pleasant surprise no less, as Matt Hazard, the walking cliché that he is, is an interesting assessment of early ‘90s gaming.
Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond reflects on videogaming’s yesteryear just as its’ predecessor did, but as a 2D Side-Scrolling Shooter it’s perhaps better placed to offer commentary on the mechanics of two decades ago. Although most of its’ references could be applied to earlier titles, it’s clearly the 16-bit era that has influenced both the style of play and the fun-poking. Moving from left-to-right for most of the game, players will encounter hordes of enemies teeming onto the screen from all directions, including the foreground and background. The latter of which introduces an updated mechanic for the genre: by holding the L Trigger players will be able to shoot or throw grenades into the background – eliminating distant enemies before they reach the battlefield.
Players will always fire in the direction they are facing (except when using the aforementioned background-aiming technique), and when not moving can control their arc of fire by holding the LB or RB and angling the Left Analogue Stick in a specific direction. An assortment of different weapons are available to be picked-up, each having a limited amount of shots – obviously, the more powerful a weapon is, the less shots you’ll be able to make before having to resort to your basic, infinite ammo pistol. There is a Platforming element to the game, but the challenge is really negligible, especially for the 20-something experienced gamer target audience. The boss fights however, while remaining the typical pattern-learning archetype, do present some unique and inviting challenges.
Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond has been the subject to a lot of comparison to Shadow Complex, but making such a comparison with the likes of B.O.B., Contra or Cybernator would be far more justified. Shadow Complex eyes-up the early releases in the Metroid franchise – a thinking gamer’s adventure that happens to benefit from a Science-Fiction setting – while Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond is an homage to early 90’s Side-Scrolling Shooters, with the only real similarity to Epic Games’ surprise Xbox LIVE Arcade release being that of the high-definition lick-of-paint to an old but cherished style of gameplay. Perhaps most closely representing the Metal Slug series, though not quite as charmingly presented, Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond is an all guts-n’-guns Side-Scrolling Shooter, with a straight-cut linear progression and an incredible amount of bullets to dodge along the way. There’s the occasional concealed route for those questing to find all of the game’s hidden collectables, but beyond unlocking Achievements and concept art they hold little real value.
In terms of longevity, Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond’s diminutive package is actually quite misleading. A third difficulty setting is available to those skilful enough to unlock it and co-operative gameplay certainly adds a great deal of replay value. The Achievements are well placed too, adding some incentive to return to specific levels for the full 200 GamerScore available.
Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond is a good looking game. While it may not line-up with the Xbox LIVE Arcade elite, it certainly provides some varied and interesting backdrops for the persistent carnage. The boss fights, while interesting from a gameplay perspective, are the most lifeless aspect of the game, consisting solely of large machines that rarely do more than move in-and-out of a hiding spot until the later levels. The soundtrack is interesting for it’s pseudo 8-bit presentation, but the minimal amount of voice-acting – although, as Hazard himself notes in the opening moments, devoid of any high-profile talent this time around – is perhaps just as well delivered as that in last year’s full retail-packaged product.
While there are some that may bemoan Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond’s simplistic gameplay and lack of originality, these players are not the audience Vicious Cycle is targeting. It’s those gamers that will find such limitation endearing that Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond hopes to charm, and few who earned their stripes with the likes of Gunstar Heroes or Cyborg Hunter will find reason to complain. Knowing, self-referential humour exists throughout Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond, and if any game were to ever directly carve it’s own cult following based upon appealing to 20-something gamers, the Matt Hazard series is certainly the one to do it..