Retro Review: Illbleed (Sega Dreamcast)

Happy Halloween, RetroCollect! The Dreamcast was home to a fair number of horror games- Resident Evil: Code Veronica (and 2 and 3 too), D2 and launch title Blue Stinger... But none of them are quite as odd as Illbleed.

Developed by Crazy Games (originally Climax Graphics of Blue Stinger fame) and only released in Japan and the USA, Illbleed gets its name from the horror theme park in-game, created by gore-flick director Michael Reynolds. Four teenagers- Eriko Cristy, our defacto main character, and her friends Randy, Michelle and Kevin- are invited to the park with the chance to win $100,000,000 if they finish all the attractions. Eriko's friends go without her... And they don't come back. She heads to the park to rescue them, and finds herself battling giant rotting eggs, solving a murder mystery, and playing the world's deadliest game of jump-rope. Clear all the attractions in one piece, rescue Eriko's friends (and play as them after you've done so), and find the true purpose of this mysterious theme park!

You'd think Illbleed is a survival horror game, but the game's trailer calls it 'a virtual house of horror', which is more accurate. It's also one of those games where if you skip the (easy to miss) tutorial, you'll die on the first level with no idea how to stop it! Each of the game's six attractions- including a haunted hotel, a timberyard full of woodpuppets, and a rip-off of Tremors- is mostly made up of linear paths (with some mazes), very basic puzzles (either find specific items and use them, or figure out key-pad passwords from notes and memos scattered about), monster encounters (we'll get to them) and traps points. Walk too close to them and they'll go off (as seen in first-person- it could be a phone ringing too loudly, a fake Sega console biting you, or a giant plastic rear-end taking a dump on you), scare you, and either damage you (and cause bleeding), raise your pulse, or all three. Lose all your health, let your bleeding get too high (made worse by moving/running), or let your pulse get too high/low, and you'll die. You can keep your health/bleeding/pulse in check with items found either in the level or the shop between stages with money won from attractions (including relaxatiion CDs and everyone's favourite energy drink, Hassy), and finding artificial organs  lets you buy surgery from the theme park's emergency room to improve your character. To get anywhere, though, you really need to get beyond those traps.

Death is your Final Answer

We now come to one of the more unique aspects of Illbleed- you have to 'mark' potential traps with the first-person view Horror Monitor, found early in each attraction. When a trap's nearby, your Sight, Smell or Hearing meter will go off, so get the Horror Monitor open, look for what it could be, and mark it. Although there are many points to mark, not all of them are traps, and marking uses up adrenalin (you'll get some back if a trap's successfully disarmed) so you have to be careful... And some of the traps are randomised through each playthrough! While it can be frustrating the first time you play, and it does make the game a bit of a stop-start affair, it's a really unique element of the game, and makes it feel more like an actual haunted house amusement park installation in places. Anything can be a trap, so you'll find yourself stopping before advancing to new areas, scoping out what could be a trap... Then usually triggering one anyway because you missed it. At least the animations for them are amusing )albeit repeated sometimes). 

The attractions are also populated with monsters to fight, and this is the weakest part of the game- the combat. There's usually a weapon to be found early in a stage- including bats, hatchets and shotguns- but being armed doesn't make fighting any easier. Fights take place on a seperate screen (most can be detected with your Sixth Sense but not all), usually a cramped room or corridor, and you can either fight or try to run away by hailing a helicopter to drop a ladder for you (yes, even indoors). If you stay, you'll need to throw any concept of combat from other games out the window- it's floaty, massively imprecise, frustrating, and even after learning patterns for enemies, it's just not done well enough. Oh, and no healing item-usage mid-battle, which is especially fun in boss fights. There's other aggravations in a lot of areas too- some sectionsare mazes with early ones being OK but the final one being a huge bore, the controls outside combat feel a bit weird, especially jumping (luckily you won't have to do it often, except for one awful jumping puzzle early on), characters other than Eriko need to be built-up a bit via surgery (mostly because they enter battle on the floor most of the time), you need to check the map after battles otherwise you might go the wrong way entirely because it turns you around... It does feel more than a little rough at points.

'Rough' is the best way to describe the game- mechanically, it gets away with it, but it feels very off, and it's easy to dismiss looking at it from that perspective. I decided to stick with it, though- at least partly because each attraction is fairly short- and, while it was massively frustrating in parts (the car-jumping puzzle, that bloody massive morgue maze, almost every enemy encounter), its goofy, bizarre charm just about won me over. Part of it is that the game pretends it's a real theme park, so you often meet people running it behind-the-scenes (as they brag about how expensive the props and monsters are)... Even if this makes absolutely no sense when you think about how dangerous the place is- getting hit by anything causes amazingly over-the-top sreams of blood to gush out your poor character, and almost all traps trigger massive splashes of gore.

The other part is just how weird the attractions get, with traps becoming increasingly bizarre (peaking around Atraction 4), absurd details like signs and advertis littered about, and just the overall off-kilter atmosphere. I ended up playing an attraction a night for a week just so I'd know what the game would throw at me next. Highlights include the killer department store (including Bloody Mary, a cute killer doll, and homicidal cans of coffee), the fake movie posters at the drive-in (my favourite being House of the Lightning), being turned into a giant artist's mannequin and hunted down by lumberjacks, and the final attraction, Toy Hunter: Cork Goes to Hell. It's supposed to be a ride for the kids, but ends up being the most messed-up and horrible of them all, where Cork (absolutely not Woody from Toy Story) ends up on Death Row and later goes to Toy Hell to fight Zodick the Hellhog (he's based on exactly who you think he is). Combine this with the trap-based game mechanics (which are switched around at times- Toy Hunter requires you to not mark some traps) and while there's a lot of problems with Illbleed, I found myself sticking with it just to see how it could possibly end (if the true ending is anything to go by, 'kinda badly' is the answer there).

Gameplay Footage:

... We would share some in-game footage, but we though it'd be funnier to share one of the best bits of Illbleed. 
Fall Down Bear, ladies and gents:

Shocked! Scared! Terrified!

In the end, Illbleed is a fascinating, frustrating little thing. On the one hand, you've got the weird atmosphere and just plain odd stuff that happens in it, and the trap-based gameplay which, I admit, made me jump a few times (it's that musical sting they use, honest... Although I'm not sure the game's scary, as I spent a lot of it laughing). On the other, it can be very frustrating, with combat being the worst (and sadly inevitable) and all the little foibles of the controls getting in the way. For a modern point of comparison, it's a bit like Deadly Premonition- lousy combat and slightly off controls, but a lot of cham and overall oddness in its favour. It's a rough experience, but if you've got some patience and the concept alone sounds like something you'd be interested in, you need to see this one for yourself.

... Oh, and as the instruction manual reminds you, the in-game grand prize has no real-world cash value. Sorry.

Please note: Though we played this on a proper Dreamcast for review, the screenshots come from an emulator, so there may be graphical glitches. Also, while Illbleed was never released in PAL territories, it's easy enough to get a US copy running on a PAL Dreamcast if you know what you're doing.

Last Updated ( 31 October 2013 )  

Tepid Snake

Wait, what do I put in this box again? Oh, it's about me. I like playing weird and unusual games- the sort you're likely to forget about- and I hope you like reading about them because they're what I write about. And game trivia too. Please look forward to it!

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