Genre : Action/Horror
Developer: VIS Entertainment
Release Date: May 21, 2003
Buy 'EVIL DEAD: A Fistful of Boomstick': PlayStation 2
At first blush, the Evil Dead series would seem to lend itself extraordinarily well to video games. You have all the ingredients: a square-jawed, occasionally self-parodying hero; entire armies of the undead for him to fight; he comes preequipped with a variety of weaponry, from a shovel to an axe to his trusty chainsaw; he has a doppelganger, the infamous Evil Ash, for his archnemesis; and occasionally, he gets thrown through time and space for very little reason.
Evil Dead 2, and its sequel Army of Darkness, have both had a fairly substantial impact on American game design, what with Duke Nukem and all; Ash is essentially the model for every first- or third-person shooter protagonist in existence, with the possible exceptions of the ones that don't talk. With all that in mind, it's hard to believe that no one thought to pick up the Evil Dead license until late 2000.
Further, it's nearly impossible to believe that they botched the job so badly. Heavy Iron's Evil Dead: Hail to the King was fairly faithful to the movies, and Bruce Campbell even reprised his role as Ash. It was still about as much fun as slamming your genitals in a car door.
Three years later, we've got A Fistful of Boomstick, courtesy of VIS Entertainment, who also brought us State of Emergency and Tom and Jerry: War of the Whiskers (uh-oh), and it's essentially a third-person, 3D beat-'em-up. This is a genre that's yet to really have an A-list title, although it does contain a few of the worst games to come out in the last decade (Fighting Force 2, for example), and while A Fistful of Boomstick isn't going to buck that trend, it's still sort of fun for a while.
The game's set in Dearborn, Michigan. One night, Ash is drinking in his favorite bar and watching a locally-produced television show about paranormal investigation. (I wonder where Jenny went?) Naturally, the topic at hand is the Necronomicon di Morti, and of course, they play the books-on-tape version on the air.
Natural selection, sadly, does not immediately ensue.
Ash, who has conveniently dressed for the day exactly how he looked near the end of Evil Dead 2, right down to the torn shirt and makeshift shotgun holster, and who has misplaced his steel hand from Army of Darkness, heads into Dearborn's streets. The city's being overrun with Deadites, and naturally, Ash, chainsaw roaring and shotgun blazing, is going to have to beat them back. Again.
The gameplay here is pretty standard stuff, particularly in earlier stages. See a Deadite, kill a Deadite, repeat literally ad infinitum.
Ash's goto weapons are, as ever, his double-barreled shotgun and chainsaw, the latter of which he doesn't start with, but which you find early on. The chainsaw has unlimited gasoline, while shotgun shells are frequently dropped by slain Deadites. Ammo conservation isn't much of an issue. As you progress through the game, you can also find a shovel, a revolver, a spraypump that spews gasoline everywhere, sticks of dynamite, a dynamite launcher, Molotov cocktails, a sickle, a sword, and a Gatling gun. Unlike a few other beat-'em-ups in recent memory, such as Primal, there's a lot of variety.
Each Deadite you kill also acts to refill Ash's mana meter. That's right; because it worked so well for him in Army of Darkness, and because the city of Dearborn is so rich in mysticism that ancient spell scrolls are just lying around everywhere, Ash has decided to take up magic. The spell list is interesting and varied, but anyone who's played more than a couple of levels of Eternal Darkness is entitled to a slow look of realization here. Ash's spellbook has a few unique tricks, but the "summon/control monsters" thing seems incredibly familiar for some reason.
In combat, Ash can simply hack away with his chainsaw, or lock on with L1 and blast Deadites to bits; if the Deadite in question is behind him, Ash performs a remarkably stylish behind-the-back shot. For added points, you can impale Deadites on the chainsaw, then follow up with a shot from whatever weapon Ash has in his left hand. Granted, the controller motion for the impalement—slash once, then hit X again and hold it down—is a little too finicky to do under the best of circumstances, and has a bad habit of coming out whenever Ash is surrounded, but it's cool nonetheless. Ash also has a roundhouse chainsaw swing that dices anything within a couple of scale feet of him, but it has to be charged by holding down X, which means it's useless except as an ambush tactic. Once again, I suppose it's the thought that counts.
The combat, as one might expect, is the best part of A Fistful of Boomstick. Ash can fire off one-liners with the touch of the Triangle button, and once you get a feel for the peculiar rhythm of the chainsaw's swings, combat is pretty smooth. There's no slowdown to speak of, even when Ash is taking on about a dozen enemies at once.
The game is broken up into a series of missions, the tasks in which are indicated by Ash's handy to-do list. These are the usual fare for adventure games: key-finding (why, I don't know, when Ash spends most of the game carrying not only a running chainsaw but six dozen sticks of dynamite), scrounging up items, destroying various strategic locations, and solving the occasional puzzle. It's the same kind of thing that most of us have seen a dozen times before, but this time, it's with Ash.
I think that statement, in total, defines my problems with A Fistful of Boomstick. It's an entirely unexciting action-adventure title that's supposedly lifted above the pack by the presence of Bruce Campbell and the Evil Dead license. Even then, with the obvious advantages—a recognizeable cult hero, a good actor voicing that hero, etc.—the game seems to feel content to rehash the content of the movies. Sure, unlike Hail to the King, this plotline is mostly original, involving the unfortunate occult history of the town of Dearborn, but Ash himself isn't really doing anything besides doing what he spent Army of Darkness doing, to such an extent that many of his best lines are paraphrases of lines from that film. (To Campbell's credit, whenever he says one of those paraphrases, they're muttered and rushed, like he's trying to get them over with.) Now, admittedly, the dialogue gets better as you progress through the game, but the abuse of the movies' catchphrases really has to go.
(Oh, and if the dialogue team from VIS should ever happen to read this: mostly decent job, guys. Really. But one of you thought it would be "funny" to throw in a reference to "Ice Ice Baby."
(It is not "funny." It is, in fact, horrible, and you must be stopped. Just because you're writing the script to a game about Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time doesn't mean it's okay to bring Vanilla Ice into the picture.
Further, the game itself doesn't have a hell of a lot to set it apart. For one thing, it makes the mistake of putting its least interesting level first, when Ash runs amok in the Deadite-choked streets of Dearborn. Dearborn's interesting, really, if only for the fact that the city consists of one church, one university, one museum, one bar, one park, a lumber yard, and fifteen thousand strip clubs and hardware stores. This may be the programmers' excuse for why every random Deadite you run into on the streets is either: a) a fat guy in flannel, or b) a skinny girl in lingerie.
Your time in Dearborn consists of running through this strangely generic streets, shooting and shredding Deadites, while you run a seemingly-endless series of fetch quests which largely involve luckily running across some guy you have to talk to who wasn't there before, who wants something in exchange for giving you a key or a quest item. The game helpfully lets you know when you're going in the right direction by hitting you with a swarm of Deadites, in the time-honored adventure game tradition.
That's another small problem I've got with the game. Ash is more than a match for four Deadites or so at a time, but once they start piling on by the dozen, you're in trouble. Naturally, that kind of lynch-mob tactic is used every time you're absolutely required to kill some Deadites to progress; if they're carrying a quest item, threatening an important character, or waiting to ambush you as you pass through a crucial door, then you can more or less count on there being at least eight of 'em, some of which are hiding just offscreen. Sure, if you see them coming, it's not difficult to take them out, but that doesn't always happen. More frequently, you'll hear the sound of masonry getting pulverized, and the next thing you know, you're crowd-surfing.
It's not so much that I keep getting mobbed by zombies, really. It's that I have a spin move, which one would think would be ideal for this kind of thing, which is almost designed to be useless. It annoyed me in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it still annoys me now.
Even better, A Fistful of Boomstick is dark. Like, Silent Hill without the flashlight dark. Do not attempt to play this game during the day, as it's almost impossible to see what you're doing. It gets a bit brighter in the second and third stages, but once Ash starts time-traveling, in the fourth stage, it's like playing a Kefka novel. You don't know where you are, you don't know where you're going, and you don't know what's killing you. It's like the parallel-universe evil duplicate of fun. It has a goatee. It's no good.
A few reviewers have made note of the fact that A Fistful of Boomstick is an extraordinary game, given its price: twenty dollars. I'll grant that point, as budget-label console games are usually the closest thing we have today to medieval torture. That said, A Fistful of Boomstick is a mediocre beat-'em-up with a decent license slapped on top, and twenty bucks spent on this game means sixteen of them were wasted. It's worth a rental, especially if you're an Evil Dead fan (and, really, who isn't?), but that's it.