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Countdown: Vampires
Score: 100%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Bandai
Developer: K2-Network
Media: CD/2
Players: 1
Genre: Survival Horror/ Action/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:
Just when you thought it was safe to pick up your PlayStation controller, Bandai weighs in with the impressive Countdown: Vampires, and takes on Survival Horror with some truly great results. Okay, Iíve seen this described as a Resident Evil take-off, but anyone who spends real time with Countdown: Vampires will realize thereís a game with many unique elements here. The graphics do remind me of the CAPCOM characters, and the backgrounds and camera angles look a little like RE or Parasite Eve, but Bandai just shows how well they can work within the form.

The sound is totally creepy, and I had to turn on a light at one point when things started getting heavy. Thereís a good mix of human-like enemies and true monsters, but you start to learn by listening whatís coming down the next dark hallway. All of the computer animation looks great, and the intro movie tells you right away that Bandai wasnít shooting for second place in any element of this game.


Gameplay:
The setting for most of Countdown: Vampires is the Desert Moon Casino, where things have gone way wrong. Somehow, a hip fete to celebrate the opening of the hotel and casino, staged by a famous horror-film director, becomes a slaughterhouse as almost all the guests are transformed into blood-sucking freaks and monsters. You play the role of Keith, a detective hired to guard VIPs for the big night. Keith mysteriously avoids being turned into a vampire; while trying to escape the Desert Moon, he begins to unravel a mystery far darker than what has already occurred.

Survival Horror is a genre like Racing or Fighting, which pretty much explains itself. So the object of Countdown: Vampires is always to stay alive. Itís challenging to manage this, and the first notable in gameplay is how fast both the real vampires and the Ďturnedí humans can move. If you played Dino Crisis and remember running away from Raptors, youíre on your way to imagining these vamps at work. Most of the casino is shut down or locked off, so Keith spends a lot of time at first trying to switch the power back on for different areas. This involves some simple puzzles and the usual locked doors, but the puzzles get harder as the game progresses. Bandai managed to balance the amount of travel it takes to get a puzzle solved, and even though I could have used more save points, the game moves quickly. New characters are introduced, and instead of running for the exit sign, Keith is pulled into solving the mystery of the Desert Moon. Most of the puzzles revolve around casino games, but also have the dark undercurrent that pervades every aspect of Countdown: Vampires. Visual, musical, mathematical, and timed puzzles complement plenty of battles and exploring, but the mood is there to always keep tension building and propel the story.

For dispatching the vampires, Keith is first equipped with some seriously puny weapons. Bandai chose to do without the traditional knife, going instead with a weird stun-glove that gets you killed real fast, and a tranquilizer gun. This dart-gun exposes an interesting strategic side to Countdown: Vampires. Instead of blowing away every vamp you come across, the tranquilizer gun puts vampires to sleep, allowing you to Ďpurifyí and rescue them from vampire form. By restoring their humanity, you not only earn points and money used to buy first aid supplies, you also move the story along. The payoff for finishing the game is deep and cool, but Bandai plays their hand pretty close. Multiple endings - yes. Replay value - yes again.


Difficulty:
Iíd be a liar if I said that Countdown: Vampires isnít a really hard game, especially at first. For gamers who get into the mood and style of this game, there are plenty of cool weapons to be found, but that darn tranquilizer gun is all you get for quite a while! So, it means constantly going from good to poor health, using up first aid supplies and sometimes being frustrated. Though Countdown: Vampires is on the hard side, it rewards you for hanging tough. Some people may not get it, or they may not like the lack of mass-destruction in the first few hours of the game. But, by the end of the first disc and beyond, youíre armed to the teeth.

Game Mechanics:
Countdown: Vampires employs a neat menu system, made to look like a PC, complete with e-mail! Save points, much like REís typewriter or Parasite Eveís telephone, are networked computers you find in safe-rooms throughout the game. Once you get inside the PC, itís possible to move items, read e-mail, or save progress. I love that the e-mail messages change throughout the game; it really gives a cool sense of things happening outside Keithís and your little world.

Controlling Keith is made simple by good analog control, a one-button 180-degree turn feature that comes in handy for tough enemies, and auto-aim for all weapons. Examining objects is done with the (X) button, and getting through the menus is easy to do, even under pressure. Like the system that has become standard in Survival Horror and even RPGs, Countdown: Vampires offers the ability to combine items in inventory, to load a gun, or improve a weapon. First aid items come in the form of drink or food, and both can be found or bought in the right scenarios. Keith can carry the tranquilizer gun and one other weapon, with the tranquilizer being handy when enemies are sparse or you need extra money. When you get to the puzzles in the game, control is kept simple, while most of the clues can be gathered from documents you collect or environmental items. Fighting is sometimes hard because of fast, tough enemies, but thereís nothing a good shotgun blast wonít slow down. Dual Shock works great, and adds to the tense moments, especially in battle when you get hit or have some blood sucked out.

If everything sounds a little familiar, itís because Bandai did a great job taking a form that theyíre not exactly known for covering like a blanket, and competing well against Big Dogs like CAPCOM, Square and Activision. The tough gameplay lessons learned in the beginning serve you well if you stick things out and keep going, but Countdown: Vampires may lose a portion of the less hard-core audience. And thatís cool; I think with so many platforms, genres, and publishers fighting for our gaming dollar, it will be surprising if companies donít start making games to do one thing well, not trying to be everything to everybody. If you like Survival Horror and own a PlayStation, you must not miss this game!


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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