Escape from Butcher Bay (2004)

Note: This is a review of the Assault on Dark Athena version of Escape from Butcher Bay which features a few gameplay tweaks and an annoying extra layer of graphical shininess.

I am the shadow in the night, the phantom that haunts your dreams, that which the darkness fears. As I slowly descent down the flight of stairs, screwdriver in hand, I anticipate the kill, see the prey, prepare for the lunge. I step into the light and as I prepare for that moment, that blissful moment of ecstasy, the prey turns around.

“I was just, uhh, fixing the light here with my, uhh, screwdriver. What’s that? I can’t have screwdrivers in the prison cell block? What about guns? GAHHH!!! Take that you meatbag! Now why didn’t I just use my assault rifle to begin with?”

Maybe the reason I don’t like Escape from Butcher Bay is my fault as I have this annoying habit of playing stealth in any game that has a stealth mechanic. Butcher Bay gives the illusion of stealth but, in execution, it ends in pure frustration. If you have a gun, use it. Any efforts to play the game smartly, slowly or thoughtfully end in facing a flurry of bullets the second you end up anywhere with a minutia of light.

So just play it like a shooter and get over it. This wouldn’t be nearly as cool if it wasn’t for the fact that the titular character, Riddick, wasn’t such a predatory badass. You want to play the game like Riddick would play it, want to be that badass prowling in the dark and lunging at unexpected enemies. Instead, the game was designed to be that prowling badass until you get a gun. Did they even watch the Riddick movies? Riddick hardly ever uses a gun which is part of why he’s so awesome.

It’s a shame because all the design detail is in the melee combat, the feel of the stealth kills and the visual flair and violence that the game’s most satisfying moments are those moments of unadulterated stealthy goodness. These moments are lost amid the sea of bullets.

A hefty portion of the game is built around this compelling idea of working your way up the prison political tree.  As you do various minor jobs for people and beat up opponents, the game teases at what could be a compelling RPG prison game Instead, they ended up making a rather mediocre action game, but those prison block sequences are memorable and fun.

What goes a long way to making Escape from Butcher Bay a memorable game is some of the unparalleled storytelling elements. The opening sequence is one of the most brilliant, clever and cool ideas I’ve ever seen in a game, playing upon some of the most basic assumptions of gamers. I’m amazed more games haven’t tried it because it’s just that cool.

Likewise, the way they present character, craft the dialogue and shape character interactions makes for an engaging story. It’s nothing sophisticated, but it has a lot of memorable characters and, most importantly, personality. There isn’t another game out there that captures the same tone and spirit of this game (unless you count the sequel).

And a lot of what drives this game is Riddick through the voice of Vin Diesel who played Riddick in Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick films. His gruff voice and monotone ring gives personality to every steady, suspect one liner that Riddick breaths out effortlessly. It’s a rare game where the hero is more self-serving and brutal, aligning more with the typical player mindset the game making a far more memorable character.

Escape from Butcher Bay one of those rare games where it was the story that kept me going instead of the gameplay. And what the story did was simply astounding and something so many games are missing out on by not emulating. The gameplay never quite clicked for me, but the presentation and storytelling were so compelling that I might revisit it at a later date in the hopes that the game design actually clicks. For now it’s a game brought down by its play but almost unparalleled in its storytelling.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing