The Nightmare Child is based on the KISS: Psycho Circus comic book series created by Todd McFarlane. The comic book series itself is based loosely on the rock band KISS, but beyond the likeness the four main characters share with their rock legend counterparts, these two properties don't share a great deal else in common. Now that we've settled that issue, KISS: Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child is an action-packed first-person shooter from first time developer Third Law Interactive. It's not the most ground-breaking FPS to come along, but gamers looking for a retro-like FPS experience are in for a treat with The Nightmare Child.
For those of you who might not be familiar with the KISS: Psycho Circus comic book series, here is a bit of an introduction to the franchise:
This story begins just beyond the frayed hem of reality, in the secret in-between places that haunt our dreams. A realm of spinning chaos and shifting landscapes, where four beings, older than words, older than memory, kept silent vigil, ensuring the balance of the universe....
And oh no I've gone cross-eyed!
KISS: Psycho Circus is a twisted world of horror, so I'll spare you the mumbo jumbo and get right to the goods. In KISS: Psycho Circus, you take on the role of the four Elders; the Starbearer, The Beast King, The Celestial and The Demon. These defenders of good against evil have lost their way since defeating the God of Evil and have become parted with their magic garments. They have been called together again by Madame Raven, because The Nightmare King's seed lives on. The presence of The Nightmare Child is powerful and it's up to the four Elders to re-cloth themselves and bring an end to the Nightmare Child.
The game begins in the remains of the Roadhouse. The world appears to be coming to an end as evil minions begin to spawn from every conceivable nook and cranny. The band, who was originally at the Roadhouse to play a gig before all this happened, is split apart allowing you to play as each of the characters. The game is than divided into four initial episodes, each featuring one of the characters. You must complete each of the episodes in order to advance in the game. There is a natural progression in regards to which character you should take on first, in terms of weapons available and number of baddies, but essentially you can choose your favorite character and jump right into the fray.
Starting each new episode, the gypsy, Madame Raven, will appear and explain your mission objectives (accompanied by a fly-by of the level). Once she's done clambering, it's time to jump into the action, head first. The episodes begin easily enough, but as you advance through each section you'll quickly find that the pace quickens and the enemies multiply considerably. I've seen many critics compare The Nightmare Child to the likes of Doom in terms of its gameplay, so who am I to break a trend? Essentially, it's very much like Doom in that it features old-school style action. Unlike the FPS these days, which attempt to introduce more complicated, intelligent elements, KISS: Psycho Circus is content with the old formula featuring hordes of creatures.
The level design is extremely linear in The Nightmare Child. Besides a few platform-like elements, each section features the sort of redundant switch and door-based puzzles that we've certainly become accustomed to in the past. The levels remain satisfying enough though due to the large number of enemies you'll face in a single area. They seem to be hiding around every possible corner and moments of silence will be few and far between. You might be wondering if this style of FPS still works considering some of more sophisticated shooters we've seen in the recent past. The answer to that question is yes. The reason for that is because KISS: Psycho Circus doesn't try to do too much. The developers, Third Law Interactive, knew what they had here with The Nightmare Child and didn't stray beyond those boundaries. The end result is an action-packed gaming experience that brings back the classic FPS formula.
One of the biggest flaws in KISS: Psycho Circus is the fact there's very little to distinguish each of the main characters. Each of the four Elders wields two unique weapons, a close combat weapon and a ranged weapon, but other than, there really isn't much to distinguish them by. None of them seem to possess unique attributes or abilities and when all is said and done, there's little if any reason to separate the characters if only to have the chance to play as your favourite member. Of course, those who don't follow the comic book series or the band itself won't have a favourite, which makes the selection process even less pertinent.
The Nightmare Child sports a modified LithTech engine. It doesn't quite live up in terms of visuals in comparison to some of the engines we've seen in recent months, but does an admirable job keeping the frame rates up amongst such massive melees. You'll probably notice the lack of textures when you come across levels with water and lava, but the visuals are more than passable considering you'll be too busy busting balls to look at the décor. The world that is KISS: Psycho Circus is a very colorful one. Grand architecture runs rampant and the environments are varied and unique. The psycho circus level probably best represents the entire atmosphere in this game. The Nightmare Child is also populated with some of the most colourful and freaky creatures you're likely to see, so you're certainly in for a treat there. The audio department is as much a treat as the visuals are. There are jukeboxes found throughout the game so you can play any of a selection of KISS songs when you feel the need. If you're not a KISS fan you can also blow up the jukeboxes to stop the infernal racket.
The HUD interface in KISS: Psycho Circus is one of the more creative interfaces I've seen in awhile. It shows you everything you'd ever want to know about weapons, health, inventory and other key elements and, in a console'ish move, you can even see health bars above enemy creatures within striking distance.
Another area KISS: Psycho Circus lacks in is multiplayer features. LAN and TCP/IP support is available, but there's not a great deal of variations outside of Deathmatch. There's your regular assortment of maps to choose from, but when all is said and done, there are certainly better options out there if multiplayer options is high on your list.
You don't really need to follow the comic book series or be a fan of the band KISS to enjoy The Nightmare Child. If it's a ground-breaking, sophisticated FPS you're after, you won't find it here, but if what you're looking for is an action-packed retro-FPS featuring hordes of enemies, The Nightmare Child is sure to provide an entertaining, if not button-breaking, gaming experience.
Games based on old rock bands are generally pretty awful - Iron Maiden's "Ed Hunter" and Queen's "The Eye" spring to mind .. unbidden, like some hideous waking nightmare that you are unable to shake from your memory.
The good news is that Nightmare Child is based on the "KISS : Psycho Circus" comic book series by Todd McFarlane Productions (of Spawn fame), rather than the band itself. You must take on the role of avatars for the four Elders - the Starbearer, The Beast King, The Celestial and The Demon.
Guided by the blind gypsy fortune teller Madame Raven, each of the avatars must fight their way through their own corrupted Realm to the Psycho Circus itself, and then on to the twisted dimension of the Nightmare Child for a final showdown between good and evil. Along the way they will find the Elders' armour, assembling it piece by piece until they look just like the comic book representations of Gene Simmons and friends.
The game begins in the ruined remains of The Roadhouse, a bar where you were supposed to play a gig. But then the world ended, hideous creatures appeared, and you were selected to be avatars for four immortal beings. Mom said there would be days like this...
Monsters .. Weapons .. Action!
Madame Raven appears at the beginning of each new section of the game, doing her best Mystic Meg impression as she gazes blindly into her crystal ball and explains what you must achieve, accompanied by a short fly-through of the level.
Then it's straight into the action, which starts off fairly gently to ease you into the game, but soon escalates to a Doom-like intensity that hasn't been seen in a first person shooter for years. Hordes of monsters leap out of dark corners, drop from the ceiling, pour out of holes in the wall, and are generated from spawners, leading to some real trouser-browning moments.
The creatures are as twisted as readers of the comic book would expect. Small clawed creatures scuttle around slashing at your knees, towering giants smash heavy weights on the ground to produce shockwaves, and the fat lady doesn't sing (although she does lead an aerobics class in one level), but instead rips out pieces of her own intestines to lob at passers-by.
The "arachniclown" is made up of a metallic spider, with the upper body of a manic clown that fires lightning bolts at you. "Gasbags" float around in the air spitting poison at you - shoot one and it will either explode, or whizz chaotically around the room like a punctured balloon.
And to combat these monstrosities you have a suitably bizarre and over-the-top arsenal. A rusty shrapnel thrower replaces the traditional shotgun, a whip acts as a powerful weapon as well as a grappling hook, and exploding jack-in-a-boxes stand in for landmines. The game's equivalent of the rocket launcher fires glowing blue balls of energy which explode into an impressive looking vortex, and can be skimmed along floors with a little practice.
Each of the avatars also has two unique weapons - one melee and one ranged. For example, the Demon can find a mighty axe to swipe at his enemies with, and a dragon which perches on his shoulder and breathes fire. The ultimate flamethrower?
All of this frantic action is handled by a modified version of the Lithtech 1.5 engine. It might not be as sophisticated as the better known Quake 3 or Unreal engines, but developers Third Law have certainly put it to good use.
Settings vary from gloomy medieval looking churches and graveyards to vast hellish factories and the "morbid mansion", a stately home complete with paintings of KISS hanging on the walls. Each of the four avatars ends up at the psycho circus itself, which has to be one of the most colourful locations I've ever seen in a first person shooter, with a blinding array of bright tents, stalls and banners making a refreshing change from the usual drab and dimly lit tunnels.
The real beauty of the game though is that however many monsters there are on screen at once, the engine manages to keep it all moving along at a playable frame rate. Add in the colourful locations, severed limbs flying around, blood arcing gracefully through the air, and over-the-top weapons effects going off all around you, and you have a real treat for the eyes.
The game is also a real treat for the ears, with DirectMusic support allowing context sensitive music. As the action heats up the music morphs into faster and more frantic forms, helping to keep the blood pumping as you fight off the heaving masses of monsters that the game throws at you.
KISS fans will be happy to hear that there are jukeboxes scattered throughout the game which you can activate to listen to well-known KISS songs, which are often a perfect accompaniment for the slaughter around you. KISS haters will be even happier to learn that you can also blow up the jukeboxes to stop the infernal racket...
As befits the KISS license, Nightmare Child is a decidely old school affair, harking back to classic games like the original Quake. The weapons seem strangely familiar beneath all that make-up, and the action is intense and in-your-face, with hordes of monsters the likes of which haven't been seen since the days of Duke Nukem and Doom.
The focus on action and wholesale slaughter makes a welcome change from the new wave of realistic and "intelligent" shooters, and the return to single player mayhem makes it stand out from the more visceral Unreal Tournaments and Quake 3 Arenas of the gaming world. It's real back-to-your-roots stuff which is sure to bring a smile to the face of more experienced (or should that just be old?) gamers such as myself who still remember the thrill of playing the original shareware release of Doom for the first time.
And yet at the same time Third Law have managed to build the game around an entertaining if slightly cheesy plot, complete with a series of excellent in-game cutscenes to push the storyline along, and to introduce new settings and monsters. There are even console-style end of chapter bosses and puzzle-based battles, where you will need more than an itchy trigger finger to succeed.
At heart Nightmare Child is a rather linear find-the-switch, open-the-door, blast-some-more-monsters kind of first person shooter, with the emphasis on fast paced action, complete with arcade-style health bars for your enemies and end of level score sheets.
But somehow Third Law have managed to take the best elements of old fashioned pure action shooters and build on them to make something that is entertaining and nostalgic for us old fogeys, while still managing to stand up against the rather higher standards of modern games when it comes to plot and gameplay.
A highly promising debut for Third Law which is well worth a look for action fans, whether or not you like KISS.
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