*Warning: In order to pick apart certain story problems, I’m going to have to spoil some parts of it. Not that you’ll ultimately care about…well…anything in this story, but I just wanted to mention that.*
If there’s one thing I can assuredly say about this mess of a game it’s that Ride to Hell: Retribution (RtH) is quite an experience. Not in the sense that the term “experience” is usually given to art games that act like you may have been in the presence of intelligent, possibly ostentatious, company but rather akin to being trapped in a tightly enclosed area with a group of malodourous vagabonds: it’s more than bad, it’s unpleasant in a hostile way. What once was presented as an original idea and then left in development hell for years, Eutechnyx and Deep Silver have now brought us what could only be considered a new classic in awful; a game so willing to undermine gamers’ preconceptions of what story, sound design, graphics, voice acting, artistic integrity, and gameplay should be in this modern age to the point that all of those aspects will sometimes feel completely irrelevant.
If there’s ever one time to show an audience everything that your game is about it’s in the beginning, and by George does RtH’s egregious in medias res opening certainly accomplish that: a quick clip of the mullet-donning protagonist riding his motorbike while anachronistic music disguising itself as “roaring 60’s” tunes is played in the background, then an awkward jump to a turret section—which actually has now overthrown Dark Souls’ previous award for ‘quickest death into a game’ for me because I had no idea what was going on, then rapidly dropped into a dull QTE fight with some fat fellow, next a scene of the playable character executing someone, and finally ending with a clip of the main character jumping over a helicopter in a ravine.
Within these first few minutes, RtH has just shown almost everything you need to know about the game: it’s a shooter, brawler, bike-riding affair with no context to give you an understanding of what’s actually happening. Granted, there actually is some sort of narrative framework, but it doesn’t take long to see one that was non-existent would’ve shredded some its infamy.
After that confusing beginning is settled there’s finally something given to players in order understand the basic story behind our protagonist, Jake Conway. After returning home to New Arivada (okay, they don’t bother with a specific setting) from the war, Jake seems eager to get away from the horrors he’s seen in Vietnam and settle down again with his uncle and younger brother. After a quick run-in with a gang known as The Devil’s Hand, Jake witnesses his brother’s execution, is shot then left for dead, and somehow gets resurrected in order to exact revenge. For the next ten hours or so of this shoddy idea of a revenge drama, Jake sets out to extirpate this gang, shag practically every woman in his way, and do just about anything else to make RtH’s view of masculinity look as juvenile as possible—removed of any sense of parody.
I suppose it’s best to start off in stating that this story is really, really bad if I haven't made that clear already. Despite the length of the game running up to double digit hours, the way in which you get from point to point is just so lazily told. Since Jake’s after every ranked officer of this gang, he constantly has to acquire some help in order to get into their stronghold. Almost every time, this results in performing some random ‘point A to point B’ fetch quest in order to keep moving on and on just so that the next important gang member can tell you where the next boss is located. It all blurs together; it’s just that the names and activities you do to progress forward are just shuffled around. Dozens of supposedly important characters are just thrown in on a whim and almost every revelation it’s trying to set up holds no weight, or is just laughable in its execution.
And then there are the “sex scenes.”
The logic of the very first encounter with this still slays me. While hunting his first target, a prostitute asks Conway if he’s interested in having sex. After reneging due to his oh so important mission, he then incidentally runs into a hefty man telling another woman he deserves sex; upon which, Jake can decide to kill him and then be awarded with sex from that same woman who was being harassed. A high-pitched electric guitar riff then opens up to the witness of these two lovebirds rock the casbah while still fully-clothed (though admittedly, Jake does sometimes have the courtesy to take his jacket off during some of these scenes) and then ending with Jake being dropped back into the mission like nothing ever occurred. From there on out, it only gets creepier and creepier when locations and context for these collectibles (they are literally considered that in the completion spreadsheet) start to feel like a teenager just chalked up some perverse ideas of manliness on a notepad after isolating himself from any other human interaction in order to watch cheesy action films and porn for several months.
Yet in comparison to the motif of violence and PTSD present, RtH's sex scenes are probably closer to hitting the mark in their execution of interpreting the difficulty a never-nude couple must endure to be intimate with each other. Beginning after that disjointed mess of a beginning is the first time it’s understood the heavy topic of PTSD is going to be touched upon: Jake’s staring blankly ahead in a quiet room while sounds of gunfire and orders are rattling about in his head. So far, it’s pretty simple; but after that, any of those moments in which his war-fighting is brought up it’s just pushed under the rug again in a hurried fashion. Even the one mission that’s dedicated to this backstory is done so terribly. Towards the end of the game, Jake takes an opportunity to speak with another shell-shocked soldier who's been doing drugs. After a typical palaver by Jake talking to this wrecked individual about getting out of crime and what not, the next scene shows The Devil’s Hand just drive up, brutally massacre that solider who now wanted to get back on the right path, and then the entire scene is brushed off like nothing even happened. This example is (currently) the most awkward handling of something as serious as an anxiety disorder I’ve ever witnessed in games.
If there wasn’t an ending to this game there’d assuredly be a never-ending slew of problems to level against such an example of this aggressively horrid story and storytelling. Whether it’s the awkward languor that hangs in the air of the quiet cutscenes, the awful logic Jake sometimes has in order to progress forward, or just the unconscionable idea of Jake being pitted against cops at certain moments and the context providing nothing in the way of differentiating them to this evil gang—they’re just another group of people in the way, really. There’s no idea here which doesn’t reek.
[Segway: Since I brought up the cop-killing part, I feel the need to just place a quick digression here as well. I don’t want to make any insinuations against the people at Eutechnyx, but I honestly can’t help but wonder who in their right mind would’ve thought it was okay to have the drop-rate of drugs be equal among both slain gang members and slain cops.]
It’s sad for me to actually consider the terrible graphics the best part of this package. For one, the tawny color saturation painted across this world filled with the same four exaggerated character models that are just wearing different clothes starts to wear out its welcome about a half-hour into the game; and unless you decide to fully install the game, you’ll get the privilege of seeing textures constantly take seconds to load between many scene transitions. In fact, for a game that’s technical design shows that it was sold in the starting phase rather than nearing completion, it’s amazing to see just how successful the team was at stitching this thing together and cleaning out any huge problems, such as crashes, yet filling almost every square millimeter of this disk with an array of technical annoyances. Cutscenes that flicker with multiple screen tears, moments of being caught in the geometry forcing you to restart, the list goes on and on. The only aspect in which RtH gets some credit would be for the variety of locales visited. Places like wooded areas and casino interiors look like some amount of effort was actually put into them, but then you’re just kicked back to the same routine so quickly.
Where the visual components may receive some breaks from me, there’s not a single element in sound design that affords any lenience. If you thought the fusillade of intellectually-repulsive overtones and facsimile of human emotion replete in the story wasn’t enough, that writing is only further damaged by some of the worst voice acting in recent years. Some may be quick to bring up the slew of annoying examples in the JRPG genre and the like, but at least those developers took the effort to make it sound like those voice actors were not recorded with a laptop microphone in someone’s living room. On top of these bad voice acting choices, it’s sometimes hard to even hear these characters speaking because of the background noise produced from being near a loud casino or while riding their motorcycles drowns everything out. If I were to guess, I’d say the Foley team behind this was given about twenty minutes to just cobble up whatever was needed for added sound effects and those were just recycled over and over again. There’s also this panoply of hilarious problems with the design: guns sounds as if they squeak or cough bullets, motorcycles keep to one strident reverberation whenever you get past first gear—regardless of driving on the road or earth, a Devil’s Hand-hijacked combine harvester chasing Conway that’s almost whisper quiet, and so many other tidbits display so many examples of missing audio effects (which is probably what makes certain scenes so original). I’m rarely tempted to see the product information a developer/publisher may post on their site; but in this case, I just had to see what stuff they tried to come up with to try to sell their game. What initially struck me as the most deceptive selling point is the soundtrack being credited with a ballpark of twenty-five unique tracks. Unless they were counting these raucous, generic rock songs in which one piece segues to another at a higher volume as being a “unique” track all its own, I would estimate the tally was more in the single digits.
If there’s one thing to solidify this game’s leap from running off the rails to being an absolute train wreck it’s the result of a combination in both the woeful design of almost every gameplay facet combined with the given-up attitude the play testers had upon starting the game. The only question: where to ruddy start?
Given how motorbike action looked like the selling point for RtH, it’s rather hilarious to see just how wretched it turned out to be. Think of a game like Road Rash (which if you haven’t heard of, find a way to play it and thank me later), except without any TLC to handling, sound design, or the combat. Instead of moving around the road to bash other bikers, encounters force you into the middle of the road to either a tedious QTE event that finishes off with a recycled melee animation or a horrendously drawn-out shooting scene in slow motion as enemies continuously come out of nowhere. Given how buggy the software is, you might not even have to do anything and be rewarded with seeing your enemies exploding at random. Handling these choppers is just as agitating since it’s more akin to having a motorcycle with wheels made out of ice than actual rubber and advancement can be purely based on luck, especially when the game capriciously decides if your powerslide under an obstacle was successful or not. And if you bump into practically anything the screen fades to black and you’re just kicked back to an earlier portion of the map instead of there being a reverse option or the ability to drive in the other direction. During one race, I accidentally ran into a car’s front bumper and I was spat back out right in front of that same car’s bumper again and again until finally the game took over and just possessed Jake in order for him crash into a fence and explode upon impact. Admittedly, it’s more often terribly hilarious to witness moments when the physics constantly break itself like when hitting busted-up concrete which will send Conway or his enemies flying into the air, but tying arbitrary time limits to driving sections when you're at the mercy of such awful mechanics starts to wear down my patience.
Melee combat is about as exhilarating as getting a root canal. There’s no real sense of progression since enemies remain the same and the moves you purchase still make this feel like the most unpolished X and Y button mashing system ever crafted. And between the over-saturation of QTE’s in order to finish off enemies, the moments of punches oftentimes failing to connect with their target, to the instances of the first punch in your combo able to knock the enemy far enough away to stop the rest of your combo, there’s nothing more frustrating in the amalgam of gameplay formulas than this one.
For the most part, shooting is actually functional in the sense that the targeting reticle goes in the same direction as the control stick commands. Besides that, the sundries of annoyances range from adorably bad to annoying. The first entertaining problem to type about is actually one I discovered in the shooting range at the beginning. You know how in any decent shooter the circle around the reticle expands when you’re shooting an automatic to visually inform the player of recoil? Well…the developer here thought that would be unoriginal and decided to make both the circle around the reticle expand and let the reticle move around on its own whenever firing an Uzi. For the rest of the problems, I may as well just list them via bullet points:
-Anything outside of headshots is practically useless to these bullet sponges.
-Any sort of configuration to control settings can’t get rid of the general unwieldiness of the controls.
-Clumsy camera transitions when attempting to shoot and/or melee enemies indoors.
-Blindfire just hits the very cover you’re hiding behind, unless aiming towards the sky.
-Enemy AI that rarely gets the concept down of hiding behind cover or sometimes even attacking.
-The segment where Conway’s in his uncle’s sidecar while they’re chasing an enemy is the most abysmal example of an on-rails/turret section I've played yet.
-Throughout the cycles of the reused combat arenas, the enemy variety changes between reused groups of enemies with guns or melee weapons. Since you’re rarely bound to using only melee weapons in any situation, shooting dumb enemies with firearms is mixed in with shooting dumb enemies that are running headlong towards you in a single file line.
Outside of all the killing and bike-riding activities, there is a poor excuse of open-world exploration. It doesn’t take long to notice that this was originally planned as a sandbox game. Looking at the original concepts for this show there was a healthy amount of ambition for it: GTA in a 60’s backdrop, exploring large locations, climbing the ranks of a biker gang, and more. What the final version has is a lot of visible assets within these few hub worlds but imposed with these erratic strictures as to how far you can walk away from the center of the map. Once you traipse too far from the immediate interest points you get shoved back into the map. And even within the parts you can walk around, there’s really nothing of significance aside from selling acquired drugs for money and wasting that money on some better weapons and pointless melee moves.
In the end, it takes a fine-tooth comb just to find any sort of redeemable quality in gameplay. Sure, there’s the customizable motorbike aspect that allows you to change multifarious components, like the paint job, rims, and other pieces, but it’s a shame to put so much focus on that when the uncustomizable hogs you acquire later look just as nifty.
Ride to Hell: Retribution is the kind of game that’ll leave indelible mental scars on anyone who dares to play it. Even though some may be a bit antsy in the idea of an unbroken game getting this kind of a score, in the sense that I did beat it with only having to restart once or twice, but to that I must say surely teachers have to eventually give out zero scores when a marked paper is a sea of red because a dense student that should’ve been held back a handful of grades can’t even write a single complete sentence. And like that hypothetical paper, there’s something so tremendously bad about RtH that you’ll want such a…thing to be pinned to a wall somewhere in your house forever rather than tossing it in the trash or returning it to the store. It can serve as the quintessential way to keep you contented on your worst day by reminding you that life could be so much worse; you could’ve ended up being a part of the creative team for this game.
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