When it comes to influential names in the gaming industry, one of the most unquestionably outspoken would have to be David Jaffe. His fertile mind gave birth to the likes of Twisted Metal and God of War, so it’s fair to say that he has plenty of clout when it comes to influential game design. When it was announced that his next release would be taking on the arena shooter genre, people were fairly intrigued. And so, Drawn to Death sprang from the page, in its full doodle glory.
Born From Doodles
Anyone who’s ever been bored out of their gourd in a mind-numbing class knows that doodles can be your one opportunity to preserve sanity. Drawn to Death taps into the overwhelming wealth of creativity (and sometimes borderline insanity) that can flow from these artistic streams of consciousness, and channels it into actual game design. As if the world imagined on the page sprouted a third dimension, these ridiculous settings and characters materialize into a seemingly disparate collection of absurdity. Simply put, if a garage death metal band was synthesized into shooter form, this is what it would create.
Oozing personality from its every pore, Drawn to Death is the literal definition of artistic freedom. Devoid of virtually any color, other than the dark shaded outlines of structures and the crimson of bloodshed, the game’s aesthetic is its most strongly defining characteristic. All of the combat animations and death-splosions help to embellish the minimalist map design and establish a tone of petulant over-exuberance, with a penchant for excessive gore. Now this is not to say that this is a bad thing, per se, but it doesn’t take long before you become numb to the carnage, simply due to its excessive nature.
Character designs range from a chain-gun toting Rockstar to a burlesque dancer with the head of a literal shark. It’s like a fever dream in gaming form. Thankfully there’s also the more traditional fair like commandos mixed in, just to keep things a bit more grounded. But let’s be honest, how grounded do you expect to be when you can use a chain mounted harpoon gun to launch yourself across the map? If you are looking for realism, or any form of lucidity for that matter, look elsewhere. Yet somehow, despite the utter ridiculousness of each combatant, these drastically differing competitors manage to feel at home inside of the same arena.
Each fighter has their own unique abilities and skills, aside from the standard arsenal of weapons that are shared across all players. These can take the form of both offensive and defensive abilities. For example, if you’re fond of raining down hell from above, the commando character can unlock a drone that will do their bidding from a distance. In contrast, the “shark-lady-thing,” can counter most attacks by using her water shield to absorb all of the shots being furled her way. There’s also an underlying ability balance system that makes certain characters more effective against their elemental opposites. These factors are key to consider when selecting the proper competitor to toss into the fray. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough emphasis given to exploring this depth. Ultimately, this is why it ends up unfairly feeling like a mindless shooter.
In the heat of battle, damn near every character feels like they play almost exactly the same. Sadly, that isn’t a good thing most of the time. Jumping feels floaty and imprecise. If you are also attempting to throw a double jump into the mix, you might as well roll the dice to guess where you will land. It’s hard not to feel like a sitting duck while airborne, which is never a positive quality in an online shooter. Another issue is the actual responsiveness of the controls. Though this may be a side effect of lag, I found the sticks to be embarrassingly sluggish when the action becomes chaotic. Further compounding this issue was a turning radius that even at its highest setting is tediously slow. Essentially, if an adversary gets the jump on you from behind, good luck turning fast enough to avoid being turned into worm food.
Perhaps the lackluster controls are why the game forces you to pour at least a clip of bullets into an enemy before they are dropped. The one exception to this rule are the drastically over-powered projectiles, which can dispatch someone in just a couple of shots. Ultimately, this lack of balance is reflective of the overall Drawn to Death product as a whole.
Compulsively Critical Commentary
Another perfect example of poor balance is the in-game announcer. At some points his obnoxiously over-the-top pronouncements are a perfect time capsule into early online arena shooters. However, the commentary has a tendency to jump from subtle mocking to unnecessarily offensive at the drop of a hat. At one point while a killing spree was taking place, the announcer thought it was imperative to inform us about his erection. Sure, my inner adolescent giggled a little, but it began to become increasingly uncomfortable as the boner tirade continued for the next several minutes. Then the disembodied voice offered to show it to us… Yeah, I wish I was kidding about that.
There is a fine line between being offensive for the sake of being edgy and suffering from a case of pop-culture induced Tourette outbursts. Unfortunately, Drawn to Death isn’t content to just toe the line. Instead, it goose-steps across it with glee, all while still finding time to verbally berate every player in the arena. Call me crazy, but I cannot ever remember being bullied by a game, at least to this extent. It doesn’t take long before the aggressive cheekiness graduates from jarringly entertaining to downright abrasive.
What could have been a genuinely interesting new chapter for Jaffe and company, ultimately ends up falling flat under the weight of its own potential. Though there is plenty to like in the art style and core level design, there are many other key elements like merely passable controls and unfulfilling combat that drive home its lack of polish and balance. On paper, enthusiastically diving into a sophomoric world of teenage angst seems like an fun concept. However, it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s a damn good reason why most people grow up. Maybe Drawn to Death should do the same. It needs to report to detention, immediately.