From blackness we fade in. Light. A city. Humans. An apartment. Cigarettes... A youthful dark-haired man, lean and smoothly cut, smokes casually in a hall. The worried glances of onlookers crammed in the dingy apartment before him do not phase our mysterious focus, nor does the girl tied to the bed -- the one with bulging veins that stress to contain the demonic presence infecting her fragile body. The man puts his smoke down, its cherry dangling off the edge of a dresser. He'll want it back soon.
He struts calmly over to the window and lets our nurturing sun purge the room of shadow. Dangling a variety of small stone tokens in front of the light, the man waits, gauging the interest of his "client." The girl's unnatural voice shrieks when one of the mystic runes is hung before her, its symbols dancing off the light. Now he knows what's tied to the bed; it isn't a girl.
A simple purging incantation does not work -- the festering rot of hell that has taken hold deep within her wishes to stay in its warm, dark home. So, the man smartly appeals to the beast's nature -- he exploits its vanity. With no thought of personal safety, the smoker straddles the bound child and beckons for nearby men to bring forth a large mirror. They do so and hold it high over the beast. The demon, spotting himself in his own reflection, is captivated by the image, but also trapped by it. In an instant, the man jumps to action and uses a clever pulley system to throw the mirror out a recently opened window. Five stories down the demon shatters along with its glass prison.
His job is done. The man collects himself, retrieves his still smoldering cigarette, and finds his own way out... Okay, but what the hell just happened?
Constantine is THQ, SCi, and Bits Studios' attempt to turn Warner Bros.' new film into a videogame. The title features a strong sense of style and isn't afraid to showcase its rich fictional background by breaking up gameplay segments with a variety of cutscenes, like that introduction we just described. But, sometimes the storyline can be a bit cloudy (like that introduction we just described).
Constantine's plot is loosely based on the movie, which itself was inspired by the DC-Vertigo Comics Hellblazer fiction; thus, the game assumes that players are already familiar with the fiction's protagonist and his unique abilities. If we're not, gamers will wonder why John Constantine -- the smoking exorcist -- can stand in water and materialize in hell. So before we get to the basics, let's look at our heroic magus.
The comic is about a man named John Constantine, born in 1953, Liverpool. There he grew motherless, tormented by his resentful one-armed father. Eventually John became enamored with the occult. After his despairing dad burned his books, John impulsively let out a grave curse, which required he first mutilate and butcher a cat. Sure enough, the curse worked well and pops fell ill. Constantine, in a flurry of guilt, halted the supernatural death sentence he imposed on his caretaker by jamming the cat into a preservative jar of formaldehyde. Now there's a good boy. Think it's interesting already?
Later in life John formed a Sex Pistols flavored punk band called Mucous Membrane (it sucked). He was also believed to be a child murderer and subsequently incarcerated at an insane asylum. After time spent being crazy, John met God and the Devil -- he blackmailed them both. Now he's old, drunk, stern, full of smoky cancer, and happens to spend his nights hunting demons and thwarting the machinations of unsavory devils.
Much more simply, the movie is about Keanu Reeves, an American magus recently diagnosed as having lung cancer. He "teams with Detective Sergeant Angela Dodson in the hunt for a serial killer who preys on psychics and magicians." Whoops.
Obviously those are pretty significantly differing takes on the same thing, so it's important to understand where the game falls in. And, unfortunately, the game never clearly lets us understand that. This lack of explanation and introduction will miff fans of the fiction and frustrate newcomers. Even though the videogame omits a well-lathered backstory and fails to deliver the distinctly beaten and battered personality of its protagonist, it still delivers the basic essence of John Constantine, demon fighter who fights demons. Callous as ever, the videogame John hits the mark with quips like, "That has to hurt" (directed to eternally burning souls in hell). But for as nobly original as his character may have originally been, the Keanu voice-a-like lends the impression of someone trying to pilfer and parody the Matrix stars' unique sound, which is almost comedic.
Throughout the game, Keanu-clone-John tracks down demons, half-angels, hell beasts, hell dukes, and normal people to unravel a plot surrounding a mysterious artifact and the plans of hell that happen to revolve around it. The cutscenes do admirably string together each portion of this adventure, but the gameplay binds the product with stale, straightforward progression.
As a third-person action title, Constantine pulls off two real tricks. The first is its nicely realized Hell environment, complete with inexplicable winds of fire, sailing cars, obscene growths, tortured souls, and otherwise fiery pits of hellfire. Hell acts as a sort of extra dimension players travel to and from at very specific points throughout Constantine to circumvent obstructions in the Earth realm. The most basic example would be entering hell to push a box up to a wall that in the Earth realm would allow John to climb onto a previously unreachable area. That's the most basic example and it's also the most common. Playing two dimensions at one time never excites, anyway. Entering hell so that you can get past a door on Earth isn't exactly amazing gameplay.
The second trick is spell casting. In addition to the usual assortment of pistol-like, shotgun-like, and machinegun-like weapons (all supernaturally enhanced), Constantine makes use of a small assortment of helpful spells. Some create lightning storms, some expel demons, some shoot out swarms of flies, and others confuse. These spells, more than simple weapons, require John to pound out a system of keys that translate to chants. Sadly, the tune is not rhythmic, and so long as players are capable of hitting four buttons in sequence before a small window of time elapses, the spell will cast. Our Keanu voice-a-like sounds off at each button press, too. The way he emphatically stumbles through supposedly mystical speak is hilarious. "Rar! Natu! Blaycrow! Gorton!" Brilliant.
Those are the sells, but are they good ones?
Hell (a kind of freaky Los Angeles) is a terrific visual representation of a place we decent folks will never see, but it's nothing more than that. Despite offering distinctly unique possibilities for game designers to explore, Hell serves as a stop between Constantine's current position and his next position. Likewise, the demonic influence that comes hand-in-hand with Hell creates characters that could be challenging and original, but instead wind up poorly duplicating classic pattern-based boss fights from 20 years ago.
As for the spells, well, their effects are neither devastating nor technically impressive, and the pull-off technique is easy enough so that it does not impact play, which makes casting feel like a slight spin on using preexisting weapons, rather than a unique way to handle specific situations. In light of all this, the basic third-person shooting mechanics feel somewhat antiquated by today's standards and falter. Even if Cosntantine is more akin to a sometimes plodding survival horror, its character is enough to at least warrant trial.
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