It’s six months before October, which is the furthest you can get from Halloween. You have to wonder why QUByte Interactive would package up a game called ‘Savage Halloween’ for release now. Well, having played it through, Savage Halloween has zero interest in spooking or unsettling, and instead wants you to get your Contra and Mega Man rocks on.
There’s an opening title scrawl about vampires getting bored of clubbing and wanting to take over the world, but then you’re choosing your number of players, as well as your difficulty – Normal or Difficult – and your character. James the Pumpkin King is your all-rounder, Lulu the werewolf is the Tank, and Dominika the vampire is the Princess Peach of the bunch, able to hover for a beat or two, but taking more damage as a trade-off.
With your choice made, you are dumped into the first of six different worlds, which is in turn broken up into six levels, culminating in a boss. The fascination with the number six is appropriately Halloween-y, we suppose. These levels largely play out as you’d expect from the genre, as you aim to get to the end while being confronted with enemies blindly walking and bouncing about, while others fire or lob projectiles. You have a gun and several bullet types, which helps in clearing them out.
We say that the levels largely play out this way, because Savage Halloween mixes things up sporadically. It chucks in endless runner-style levels where you fly on ghosts or ride on snowboards, while other levels mix it up by turning into things like swimming sections, Crash Bandicoot-style boulder runs, or chasing a fuse before the level is up. Of all the games to compare to, Savage Halloween felt a lot like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES, and occasionally Battletoads, in the way that it gets bored and chucks a different genre in to liven up the shooting. It even has an annoying swimming level, just like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Savage Halloween gets the basics right. The controls are tight, with responsiveness and hit-boxes all on point. The Contra-like controls are appreciated, as you can lock yourself into a static position and use the analogue sticks to solely control the guns. Killing a spider that’s 45 degrees from where you’re standing becomes trivial, where other games have stumbled at this simple task. There’s some random jankiness around ladders, with the character hugging rungs rather than jumping as you’d want them to, but ladders don’t appear often, as if the developers knew they had this problem.
To mix up the shooting, Savage Halloween lets you cycle through a choice of bullet types using LB and RB. We found these to be a thoroughly odd bunch: a mixture of effects that were either overpowered or so situational that they were borderline useless. Into the overpowered camp goes bat bullets, which fire in a shotgun spray in front of you, and do huge amounts of damage if you’re standing near the enemy. Boomeranging ghost bullets are also the business. But chicken bullets, which are effectively sticky grenades, are useless: they take an age to explode, and enemies have a habit of approaching for a vicious cuddle while you wait. A Smart Weapon is also limited but pretty terrible, doing minimal damage to bosses. Rule of thumb is that, as long as you have the ammo, and generally you will, you will find the bullet you like and stick to it.
The difficulty level skews towards the easy, until it doesn’t. Savage Halloween’s biggest problem is that the more unusual levels are prone to the biggest control issues and difficulty spikes. The flying level chucks enemies behind you, but can’t quite differentiate between aiming backwards and retreating from an enemy that is arriving from the front, so you’re often facing the wrong way to take on an enemy. The snowboarding level doesn’t register jumps fast enough. The swimming levels require pixel-perfect precision, yet pressing A to float does a huge, arcing manoeuvre that is very hard to keep under control. Altogether, it feels like the conventional levels have been given the greatest attention, which makes sense, but the stunt-y, weirdo levels have all been left under-baked.
Bosses are pretty good, if a little on the bullet-sponge side. They have a broad range of attacks and multiple ways of taking them on, particularly when you factor in the bullet types. Often what makes them difficult and a tad frustrating is the way Savage Halloween handles death. Should you reach the end of your lives and continues, you are dumped to the start of the world to take the six levels on from the start. When the boss is the most likely of all levels to kill you, it feels like too harsh a punishment, as you need to complete five levels to get to them. Regardless, on the Normal difficulty, with its three lives and three continues, it makes this less of a bother.
It’s hard to say whether an attached co-op mode makes things easier or harder. The enemies are certainly easier to take down in pairs, but there is a bizarre rule that stepping off-screen kills you, taking up one of your lives. So, get ahead of your partner or drop off the screen, and one of the lives gets scratched off, which is a ridiculously steep price to pay. We gave up at one point, when you needed to chase a fuse down a vertical level at speed: there were too many long mineshafts, and it was easy to leave a friend behind.
Coming to Savage Halloween, we were a touch apprehensive, as 2021 has been absolutely chock-full of games that are similar to it. Perhaps it has something to do with lockdown, and the brands of games that are easy to make remotely, but action platformers are everywhere, and we’ve reviewed more than we can count.
But when placed in a line-up, Savage Halloween does actually stand out. It’s partly because of the cheesy Halloween theme, with every enemy being a potential costume, from ghosts to vampires to werewolves; with bosses that are similarly characterful, like huge puppeteers, voodoo shamans and the BioShock-baiting Big Daddy. The levels, too, take a bold horror theme, like circuses and Dr Frankenstein’s Castle. It’s chunky and colourful: a far cry from the usual camo-wearing troops.
The gameplay is satisfying if not revelatory, and there’s strategy in there, with the differing character types and bullets. It’s varied, as you’ll get into a string of samey levels and then – boom – suddenly you’re firing out of an old station wagon. While there are holes in the costume, most notably in the difficulty spikes, you can patch over them by playing on the Normal difficulty, which we’d recommend simply because the failure states are little too unfriendly and time-consuming.
A modest success, Savage Halloween on the Xbox slaps a spooky mask on a Mega Man run-and-gunner and chucks in some Battletoads-style racing levels for good measure. What it lacks in surprise, it makes up for in charm, and there’s some challenging moments to overcome. It’s more trick than treat, then, and for £4.19 it’s barely more than a family-sized pack of Haribo.