It’s ironic, really. For a game about battling ghoulish creatures in typically disquieting surroundings, the scariest part about MediEvil 2 was facing up to its many nightmarish foes. I mean that literally, because lining up the broad sword-swings and crossbow bolts of bony protagonist, Sir Daniel Fortesque, with the rotting, uncoordinated corpses that stand in his way is tougher than juggling with pumpkins.
MediEvil 2 was about occult scares and black comedy, and it wore its Britishness on its crooked polygonal visuals with pride. The development team at SCE Cambridge Studio (renamed Guerrilla Cambridge in 2012) had learned a thing or two after the 1998 original, but this sequel was still a product of early game design practices: checkpoints were infrequent, death lay in wait around every other door, destinations were implied not spelt out, and puzzles were trial and error pursuits.
Resurrected and it feels so good
Nevertheless, for those that didn’t have the stomach for Resident Evil 2 or Silent Hill, MediEvil 2 offered a stylistic, if taxing, romp through an alternative Victorian London, overrun with the walking dead. MediEvil’s art direction drew heavily from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. And as with the original, the sequel’s characters worm their way into your head with their humour and haunting designs. The evildoer’s henchman, Mander, is a reptilian creature that still bears his public school accent, while Jack the Ripper, here imagined as a hulking, green-skinned monster with blades for fingers, is a true terror. Meanwhile, the more, er, civil ghouls you encounter – from the Dickensian helper ghost, Winston, to shifty, trench coat-clad weapon merchant, the Spiv – are pantomimic British caricatures with a knowing wink.
The labyrinthine level structure of Cambridge Studio’s stylised Victorian London was just as twisted as the advisories that resided in them. Kensington, Greenwich, Whitechapel and Kew Garden all received a cartoonish spin. The buildings, a patchwork of flaking bricks and jagged metal, leaned over you like monstrous trees. Cobblestone streets curved this way and that, partitioned by steep ridges and archways that seemed odd even by Victorian standards. And the mood was extenuated further by forbidding, yet enchanting, classical themes of Bob & Barn.
MediEvil was always a mechanically handicapped game, in the sense that the camera controls and Fortesque’s move set were fiddly enough to make things troublesome against more than one foe. But the arsenal that the reanimated, one-eyed knight could employ in the PS1 sequel made for mildly visceral instances of low-poly gore. There was the axe, which Fortesque would hurl at targets with the gusto of a javelin thrower before it boomeranged back; the rapid-fire crossbow, which peppered harpies and some of the more nibble creatures with arrows that could also be set on fire. And, when the time came to confront the squishy, skeletal minions of antagonist, Palethorn, there was the trusty collection of broad swords, some of which dealt additional damage if buffed.
Before the arrival of Ratchet & Clank, MediEvil was probably the PlayStation series with the most outlandish firepower – what other series had a character rip off his own arm and use it as club for heaven sake? Or pop his jaw-less skull onto a spidery, severed hand, so it could run about like a critter out of The Munsters or The Addams Family?
Fortesque may rise again… someday
For all my love for MediEvil, the series certainly feels like it belongs to the past. A remake of the original game, titled MediEvil: Resurrection, was released for the PSP in 2005. Despite lots of glorious graphical touch-ups, new gear, a full orchestral score and even the addition of former Doctor Who star, Tom Baker, many of the issues present in the home original console games remained – some were even exacerbated thanks to the handheld’s fewer buttons and lack of a second analog nub.
I’d be as intrigued as the next MediEvil fan to see SCE bring the series back on PS4 (with the series’ former director, Chris Sorrell, or at least someone who shares his ethos for games with dark humour, in the director’s chair), but this is one series that has had its time. Primal, on the other hand, now that’s another Cambridge Studio production that sorely deserves a follow-up.
Still, MediEvil 2 succeeded in capitalising on the stylistic thrust of the original game. Smoothed out and given sharper textures, it’s not hard to see spiritual similarities to some of the weird platforming worlds traversed by Raz, the protagonist of Psychonauts. And this fascination with Gothic Europe has continued with the likes of Level-5’s Professor Layton series and even FromSoftware’s Bloodborne. This PS1 classic may now be a mechanical relic, but its art style and music, well, they’ll live on like Fortesque himself.
For more gaming retrospectives, see my Replay archive.