Game Review: Blue Stinger (DC)

Blue Stinger Cover Art

Blue Stinger Cover Art

 

Name: Blue Stinger
Developer: Climax Graphics (Shinya Nishigaki)
Publisher: Activision
System: Sega Dreamcast
Genre: Scifi Action Survival Horror
Release Date: September 9, 1999 (NA)

 

(Editor’s Note: This game was covered using an official copy of Blue Stinger and was played to completion on a stock North American Sega Dreamcast console both owned by the reviewer.)

 

Blue Stinger is quite an interesting yet polarizing launch title for the Sega Dreamcast. Being marketed as a survival horror game, it places its mechanical intricacies on the foundations predefined by earlier titles like Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil while making some slight changes to the formula. Unfortunately, there are is myriad of conflicting elements that makes this early entry both difficult to love or hate. These conflicting elements are seen with the overall presentation and mechanical execution and are present from start to finish. The biggest disappointing thing is that there are frequent glimmers of what could have been an incredible game that has a humorous scifi B movie vibe and has the feel of what seems to be an unintentional parody of the survival horror genre.  For every one thing that Blue Stinger gets right there are two or more things that overshadow it. Simply put, Blue Stinger is sadly less than the sum of its parts.

The exposition of Blue Stinger shows a meteor hitting the Yucatán Peninsula on Earth 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and paving the way for the era of humanity. It then shifts to the year 2000 and reveals that an island has formed at the meteor’s crash site. A biological technology development company by the name of Kymra occupies the island, creating a full fledged community as a front for its research. Tasked with the protection of the public and employees in the region is the Emergency Sea Evacuation and Rescue organization, or ESER for short.

Enter Elliot G. Ballade, an elite ESER member taking his vacation leave off the shores of what is now known as Dinosaur Island in the year 2018. While enjoying the day with his friend Tim on a boat that he leased from Kymra an unknown object falls from the sky and crashes into the center of the island. This creates a dome of energy that grows to encompass a large area surrounding the island and traps Elliot and Tim. Tim is caught in the barrier and is frozen in stasis. An otherworldly light then arrives and takes the form of Nephillim, a good luck charm of Tim’s. Afterwards, the boat is attacked by mutated monsters and Elliot manages to escape and swims to the shore of Dinosaur Island. Along with ship captain Dogs Bower and ESER member Jeanine King, Elliot has to fight his way through a chaotic biological mutagen outbreak to unravel the mystery the Kymra corporation and its involvement in Dinosaur Island.

The plot and premise of Blue Stinger is an interesting amalgamation of elements seen in other survival horror games like Resident evil, Dino Crisis, System Shock 2 and Deep Fear.  It also seeks inspiration from films like Jurassic Park and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Taking all these themes into account, the game creates its own plot concoction and throws in a heavy B movie cheese factor to glue all these elements together. The game features voiced dialogue, which comes across as being very campy like something out of Resident Evil. Granted, the voice acting is not the problem; it is the script coupled with overly exaggerated character animations and awkward camera cuts in the game that make up the source of the B movie charm. Awkward pauses and bad lip sync in the dialogue also contribute to this and is more likely an issue of a poor localization and not of intentional design. It is hard to tell whether or not Blue Stinger is trying to take itself seriously, but it does make for a humorous and endearing experience in some ways. As a result, it is very hard to find this game as being scary, but that can be debated as a matter of personal taste.

As far as game play is concerned, Blue Stinger revolves around exploration, traversing the environment, accomplishing rudimentary objectives and combating the mutated monsters that inhabit the island. All of these core competencies happen simultaneously, making this game overall a fairly challenging experience. From the outset the player takes control of both Elliot Ballade and Dogs Bower. Both characters differ in areas pertaining to weapon specialization, defense power, constitution and movement speed. The player can switch control between the two on the fly.

Elliot is a well rounded character to play as. He may not have as much health or defense power as Dogs, but can move faster and is even able to use melee weapons to combat enemies. He is the character to use for general exploration, combat with intermediately difficult enemies and traversing the environment. Dogs is not as spry as Elliot, but he has higher defense and can wield heavy weapons that inflict more damage. Both characters run at a relatively slow pace, but Dogs is woefully slow. He shines the brightest during encounters with larger enemies, bosses included. You will most likely find yourself using Elliot for most situations that the game throws at you.

The Kymra facilities on the island have many sections that require certain levels of clearance in order to access. This is where exploration and a little bit of puzzle solving are needed in order to progress. Keys and key cards are littered throughout the environments and are found by searching the dead, fallen enemies and by finishing small tasks. It is great to have some simple puzzles that require out-of-game problem solving skills to complete. Sometimes it is as simple as converting letters of the alphabet to numerals or physically investigating objects to find an access code. These are just two examples, but it is refreshing to see objectives that have solutions that simple deduction can solve, as opposed to other entries in the genre that are absurdly obtuse in the same area. However, finding keys to unlock new areas comprises most of the the game and this does start to get old after playing halfway through the experience.

In order to find these keys the player has to explore and traverse multiple locations and environments on the island. The controls that govern the player’s movement are clunky and antiquated to say the least; even with the standards of 1999. While on dry land, manipulating the analogue stick or directional pad will make the character move in a respective direction. There is a weird control quirk with movement that is very hard to explain, but it does make something as theoretically simple as traversing the environment an awkward proposition. Moving the analogue stick in a certain direction moves Elliot or Dogs in that direction, but does not change to reflect the rotation of the camera. With that, holding the stick in that direction locks the character in that direction. You could be tilting the stick downward and once the camera resets to being behind the Elliot’s back he will be running forward with the stick still be tilted downward. It is an anomaly of programming that defies all logic and can be disorienting at first.

This issue is further magnified when having to swim in order to traverse the environment. Swimming upward and treading water is done by pressing and pulsing the B button respectively. Swimming forward requires tilting the analogue stick in a any direction while pressing B. Movement in water is just simply awful and you will probably die a few times just trying to figure it out. Saving your game before taking the plunge is highly recommended. Lastly, Elliot and Dogs can climb or scale small walls, ladders and other objects. The only problem with this mechanic is that it is never clear which objects/walls can or cannot be scaled. A good example of this is environments that are furnished with tables and couches that are identical; some can be climbed and others cannot. Even still, this is the least of the problems that plague Blue Stinger.

While trying to accomplish these objectives the player will have to combat an array of mutated monsters along the way. After these encounters some enemies will drop cash; more like coins pop out of them when they expire which is quite comical. It is important to collect this money in order to buy weapons, ammunition, healing supplies and other items that are sold out of vending machines that are peppered throughout the various locations on the island. When using healing items the character uses it in real time, so it is imperative that the player is out of harm’s way when healing or reloading. It is a neat little way to sell the idea of acquiring new supplies within the conceit of the game’s universe, but acts against the horror aspect just because of the fact that this element empowers the player and is the antithesis of the mechanical staples of the survival horror genre.

Also littered throughout the island are save points for recording progress and map computers. These kiosks update the map, which can be accessed through the menu. This map interface barely helps in figuring out where to go or where you are in the current room. This is because there is no marker that indicates your current physical position or direction in which you are facing. Relying heavily on the map will easily get you lost, leaving you unsure of where you need to go next.

The arsenal of weapons in Blue Stinger is pretty eclectic and runs the gamut from the mundane to the absolutely ludicrous. Pistols and shotguns abound, as well as more advanced weapons like bazookas and Gatling guns. By far the most ridiculous weapon is a pair of gas powered iron fists that attach to Elliot’s arms to pack a more powerful punch than just using his bare hands. Some of the available weapons are generally silly in their conceptualization and devoid of any logic, which just adds to the B movie feel.

The combat system is very intuitive in its own right on paper at least. Pressing X will make Elliot use his melee weapon or  punch/kick. Pressing it in rapid succession engages in a combo of attacks. Holding the button down will make Dogs guard against attacks. Pressing Y or R Fires the equipped weapons of both characters. Guarding and using melee attacks requires both characters to physically position themselves to face the enemy to be effective. However, just facing in the general direction of the enemy before firing a shot will yield positive results. It is a system that potentially is easier to master than that of Resident Evil. On the other side of the coin, there is no way to manually reload a weapon’s magazine other than firing all shots which forces your character to reload his magazine automatically. Theoretically, it is a system that should function more than it does not.

From a graphical standpoint Blue Stinger is quite the visual feast for being a first generation Dreamcast game. While there are some inconsistencies with texture in terms of compression and resolution, this game makes up for it in variety. As mentioned earlier, there is are quite a few different types of locations and environments that vary in terms of there atmosphere and utility. In Lab Town the location is abound with fully furnished and detailed apartments, shops, bars, amusement halls, strip clubs a billboards. Everything is meticulously crafted to give the game a semblance of believable grounding and makes Blue Stinger an pleasure to watch in action. Whenever you shoot or strike an enemy it is so satisfying to see a laughably profuse amount of blood spray everywhere, coating everything in its vascinity. The monster original design may not be anything particularly amazing, but it is unique and absurd. One could venture the statement that Blue Stinger may be the only game where you can fight a giant mutated hybrid of a scorpion and a jeep (yes, the vehicle). It is a very impressive early display of what the Dreamcast can do in the graphics department.

Music and sound design are also well conceived in a hokey and satirical sort of way. The overall soundtrack very overly bombastic and epic, which does not fit the action of the game at all. It is even more contrasting when having to backtrack through previously explored areas that are devoid of enemies. The musical theme for Lab Town is the most out of place because it is a cheery and lighthearted melody, more akin to elevator music, that is humorous to listen to while hacking apart mutant zombies in the Hello Market. The sound effects used are a little more appropriate and adequately match what they are attached to.

However, all of these previously mentioned features are almost completely undone by Blue Stinger’s camera system. This game employs a behind-the-back chase camera that, in theory, would be the optimal solution for a game that focuses heavily on exploration and combat. However, this system is horribly implemented in many ways. Firstly, the camera’s position is slightly above the character’s head and focuses directly on the head. Couple this with the fact that the camera collides with and does not clip through walls and other objects in the environment. When the character’s back is close to or up against walls and other objects this forces the camera to zoom in, swivel upward and rotate downward to have the character’s head obstructing your entire view.

This is a toxic system that makes combat and exploration absolutely frustrating depending on the size of the environment you are currently in. When in exterior environments the camera is not so much of an issue, but being in close quartered environments makes Blue Stinger an unplayable catastrophe. It is hard to distill into words just how maddening it is to enter a cramped room with a few enemies that spawn right where you entered and have to dispatch them from close range, not being able to see what you are trying to hit just because the camera is fixated on the top of your character’s head with no way to remedy the situation. The only technical aspect that is Blue Stinger’s saving grace is that it runs at a solid 30 frames per second and never falters, no matter how chaotic or cluttered the screens gets; the only weird slowdown that occurs is with the music when coins pop out of fallen enemies.

The most unfortunate truth about this flawed camera system is that it was implemented only for the American release of Blue Stinger. The original Japanese version used a dynamically changing cinematic camera system that was specifically designed to cater to control scheme and combat system. The change to camera routines was made months before the American iteration was to launch alongside the Dreamcast in the US. Though lauded for deviating from the Resident Evil camera style during its initial release, this one change almost completely destroys the game.

Another fatal flaw in Blue Stinger’s mechanical design affects the combat at the worst of times. When using heavier duty guns that have a large polygonal model the player cannot be physically making contact with enemies. If facing and being right up on a monster while firing your heavy weapon 75% of your shots will actually go right through your target without registering. It is yet another anomaly of programming that unravels the fabric of what could have been a well conceived and intuitive combat system. It does not help that humanoid monsters will constantly be trying to get within intimate contact with you before taking a swing, forcing you to run away to make a gap of distance to where firing your weapon actually functions.

Hopefully you are at full health when trying to make this correction because not having full health affects your character’s ability to run at full speed, as he will only be able to limp when injured. It is a neat aesthetic feature on its own, but throwing it into this already toxic mix just compounds the frustration even further. All these problems hit their fever pitch when having to dispatch flying enemies. This is an area where even the intuitive nature of the combat system fails. It is borderline impossible to land successful shots on flying monsters that often fly out of your vertical aiming range and move much faster than your character can run. On top of this, flying creatures are extremely resilient and deal profuse amounts of damage. It is highly recommended to waste the Bazooka and napalm ammunition just to survive against flying opponents. To put it simply, Blue Stinger buckles under the weight of all its disparate elements that often work against each other.

At the same time that this title is an unmitigated disaster, there is still quite a bit of fun to be had from it. When it works and the game is firing on all cylinders, Blue Stinger can be incredibly satisfying. The B movie motif makes it worthwhile just to see how campy characters and their dialogue gets. The different types of weapons at the player’s disposal have cool effects and different types of environments make this game a joy to just look at. Combining this and the satirical soundtrack makes Blue Stinger an oddly fascinating game that goes out of its way to defy classification. With that, this is one game that is both difficult to pan or recommend. Given that this is a cheap game to own, diehard Sega Dreamcast fans owe it to themselves to own this seminal and odd launch title. For anyone who enjoys the trappings of survival horror, has a sense of humor and a taste for the weird then pop open a good old can of Hassy and give Blue Stinger a go. Otherwise, it is best that you steer far clear of this beautiful disaster.

 

 

Rating III-V

One response to “Game Review: Blue Stinger (DC)

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