When you think of gore in video games, you probably imagine the likes of Resident Evil 7 and the latest DOOM. But blood and guts don't have to be presented in such high fidelity to be memorable. I know this because I just got done playing Butcher, a pixellated side-scrolling shooter developed by Transhuman Design where you take control of a murderous cyborg. And it's pretty good fun, if you know when to put it down.
In Butcher, your mission is to exterminate the last humans alive with a small yet versatile array of weapons. No matter how you dispatch your enemies, you'll be splattering the rooms with all shades of red. But beware; although you resemble a Terminator, you're not half as durable. Be ready to seek shelter wherever possible, and keep an eye out for items. If someone gets close and you're out of ammo, it's time to bust out the chainsaw. It can be tough, but it's also rewarding. And then you will notice a little quirk in the movement, something that becomes a huge problem later on.
But let's back up. Why exactly are you eliminating humanity? Because that just fits with the game's vibe. It's all about being dark and edgy here, in a funny, self-aware way. There's something enamoring about a game that ribs you and drops little sight gags while you're making your way through the most depressing environments imaginable. The pulsating techno-grunge soundtrack provides a suitable backdrop to your rampage, but the sounds of carnage are what will truly stick with you. Each time you burst an enemy open, you'll hear every bit of viscera collide with the floors and walls. And when they're down, they're not always dead yet. Gurgles and screams emit from their twitching red bodies, compelling you to finish the job. It sounds pretty dark, and I suppose it is, but it's offset by that self-awareness. Whether it's a pause screen that says "Real men don't pause" or a bit of grafitti that reads "GTFO," there's a welcome aura of silliness throughout the affair.
It's probably not surprising that a retro-looking side-scroller is challenging, but this one actually comes with a "Casual" difficulty setting, dubbed "'I cry when I die' mode." Whatever you do, don't choose it. Health, armor and ammo pickups restore too much, enemy fire does little harm, and the whole experience feels lopsided by the fact that environmental hazards aren't any easier. Stick with the default setting, "Hard," and although you'll get stuck on a few enemy-swarmed quarantines, you'll manage to pull through in three hours or so. Actually, on "Hard" mode, Butcher is one of the least-irritating in the genre that I have ever played. Yes, you have to restart levels when you're killed, but they're short to begin with, and despite how tiny the on-screen sprites are, it's generally obvious how you screwed up. During a typical level, you're quickly imbued with a sense of steady determination. This is rewarded at the end of each four-level world by the inferno that swallows the environment just as you make your escape.
There are a few interludes that err more on the side of frustration, though. One particularly irksome level is filled with bottomless pits situated right next to the ones you're actually supposed to jump into. I should emphasize, however, that such instances of bad level design are rare, and even this egregious example isn't quite as bad as it sounds. But then you have the real blotch on the package: the controls. When you press a button, it's very responsive, but could've easily been made more so by changing the layout. Movement, for example, is relegated to the left control stick. That's right, in a side-scroller that demands quick reflexes, the only way to move is via a method that necessitates a split-second gap between directions. To cap things off, it's the few commands that don't need to be so instantaneous - such a weapon switching and door panel interaction - that are mapped to the face buttons. In a side-scrolling shooter, where reflexes are this important, it's best to have instantaneous feedback. In stark contrast to everything it gets right, Butcher drops the ball in an easily-avoidable area.
If you think I'm being a little harsh over one issue, please understand that it ultimately afflicts the rest of the game, particularly after you've beaten it on the default "Hard" setting. Higher difficulties introduce the importance of bullet dodging, and the more hectic the action becomes, the more sluggish you feel on your feet. You feel compromised, constantly and unfairly, by a design oversight that forces you into situations where there just isn't any hope of escape. As you approach each room, you're forced to think around the limitations of the controls, often through trial and error. I suppose one could argue that this adds another layer of strategy, but it just isn't any fun. Replay value is severely compromised as a result, even while each level contains a few hidden objects that completionists will get a decent kick out of finding (the speedrun mode is largely tarnished by the obvious ceiling on your ability to improve your style)
While you're making your way through its main story on the default difficulty, Butcher is great. In addition to thoughtful, satisfying gameplay, the whole thing just gives off this impeccable sense of attitude. But when you try out the higher difficulties, its control layout becomes its Achilles' heel. If we look at the game as a whole, it's a combination of high quality and wasted potential. If we only include the stuff that's worth playing, there just isn't enough of it. Either way, Butcher is a middling experience bolstered somewhat by its sense of character.