There's an saying, a favorite of stand-up comedians, humor writers, and actors: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” That little nugget of show-biz wisdom has been around forever—it dates back at least as far as George Bernard Shaw—and it's proven true once again by Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond, a perfectly competent side-scroller from developer Vicious Cycle for the PSN and XBLA. Yep, dying—and killing—are pretty easy to pull off. It's the comedy part that trips you up.
Blood Bath and Beyond (get it? even the title is pun!) is a 2D/3D sequel of sorts to 2009's Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, a full price, third-person shooter that attempted to satirize the familiar tropes of video game action titles. Eat Lead was savaged by the critics and ignored by gamers. It's a little surprising, then, that Vicious Cycle has mined the same ore again, albeit in a slightly different genre, but with similar results.
Blood Bath and Beyond's core gameplay is simplicity itself. No fancy weapon or armor upgrades, only a few alternate weapons (including grenades), and no finger-wearying tactics. It's just a pure, side-scrolling platformer (you can shoot into the background a la Shadow Complex) and the first four minutes are pretty much the same as the last four, several hours later. Depending on your tolerance for mindless action, you'll either enjoy this back-to-basics approach or become tired of the unchanging nature of the experience.
While BB&B is a no-brainer in terms of tactics, the game can be an exercise in frustration on the higher difficulty levels. The boss battles, unsurprisingly, are almost always combinations of twitch timing, movement, and pattern recognition and by the fourth or fifth boss, they all begin to feel the same. Playing co-op, the bosses are much easier to negotiate. In fact, the whole game is really better as a co-op shooter.
As we said, though, dying and killing are the easy part. What Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond attempts to do is add a layer of self-referential, ironic humor to the mix, so the game is partly about the critical failure of the original Matt Hazard as well as satirizing many of the iconic games from the past few years. Settings, enemies, and weapons from BioShock, Team Fortress 2, Super Mario Bros., Mirror's Edge, Portal, Monkey Island, Duke Nukem, and Ninja Gaiden—to name just a few—drop in for a cameo, and playing a game of “Catch the Reference” is a lot of fun, at least for a while.
What isn't a lot of fun, though, are the repetitive, leaden 'catch phrases' that Matt Hazard is fond of saying, which point to one of the major issues of the game's comedic emphasis. To be effective, comedy and humor depend on surprise and incongruity. A joke is never as funny the second time, and is especially tiresome the hundredth time. And the self-referential jokes? They sort of miss their mark if the player isn't familiar with the first game. After playing through Blood Bath and Beyond I honestly can't decide if the satire and inside stuff work, or if it's all just a lazy substitute for taking a real creative risk and trying something new. To some extent, it smacks of sour grapes and self-defense, but I'm leaning towards the lazy.
The game looks good, though, no argument there. It has a nice, clean, colorful art style without too much fussy detail, some effective lighting, and the borrowed motifs from other games are easily recognizable and fun to find. There is quite a bit of variety in the level design—or, looked at another way, the game happily and obviously rips off quite a few different level designs from other titles. The audio is relatively low key, with music playing a minor role in the proceedings and voice acting limited to Matt's monotonous bon mots. Ambient sounds and weapon effects get the job done without being particularly remarkable.
At five or so hours, Blood Bath and Beyond is not a long game, but with its stripped-down gameplay and one-note humor, it begins to outstay its welcome some time before the final credits roll. As a $15 download it's certainly a better value than its full-price predecessor. In the end, though, it's that easy/hard dichotomy: it's a lot easier to poke fun at something than to innovate or be truly creative.
Think the comedy in Matt Hazard hits the mark? What kind of games would you like to see referenced? Tell us on Twitter in 140 characters or less @Gamers_Hell and you could win a code for Blood Bath and Beyond. Make sure #ItsHazardTime is in there. Followers and RTers preference in selection.