How could anyone possibly resist a game with a title like Countdown Vampires? And then I found out there was a tank-controlled survival horror game lurking behind that marvellous name – I was but a moth to the game’s flame. A completely lost cause. I didn’t care how much it cost, who was responsible for it, or even if the game was any good – I just needed to make it mine.
If you’d like to get on with your day: Countdown Vampires is a mid-grade popcorn flick in PlayStation form, and anyone who’s ever glanced in the vague direction of a 32-bit era Resident Evil can play this through to completion on muscle memory alone. The game itself is noisy and ridiculous and hard to dislike, beginning as it does in a bonkers horror-themed casino called the Desert Moon with pole dancers turning into ferocious vampires before homicide-cop-moonlighting-as-a-bodyguard Keith’s eyes on the place’s opening night.
Keith himself – this game’s Chris Redfield/Leon S Kennedy stand-in – has all the personality of a lump of mass-manufactured cheese. He’s a shirtless man of marketably acceptable age, height, and musculature for an off-the-peg action hero while sporting a style of tattoo that was incredibly popular for two months… fifteen years previously, making him look like an unfortunate homage to the most visually offensive Game Boy Advance special edition ever created. Beyond being decent enough to care about an attractive and available lady with her cleavage on display (Misato Hayakawa from R?MJ) and brave enough to shoot monsters in the face Keith J Snyder may as well be a nameless silent avatar who’s most interesting trait is his missing sister.
The good news is that while the lead may be a total personality vacuum the scenario he finds himself in is an un-carefully blended riot of every single absolutely bananas idea the horror handbook has to offer.
Vampires are of course the main attraction and most numerous enemy in the game: They’re all humans horribly mutated by mysterious black water and desperate to relieve the last few humans in the casino of their delicious
brai [cough] blood. Using vampires instead of zombies sounds like a nice change from the usual shuffling corpses that fill the prerendered corridors in these sorts of adventures but when they sound like zombies… and act like zombies… and rise from their graves like zombies… then they’re zombies, aren’t they? Only these bullet-sponge mooks can’t even manage to be as authentically vampiric as Castlevania’s saddest dad. Heck, they’re not even on the same level as Count Duckula, and he was a vegetarian! The one interesting thing about them is learning during the intro that the equally poorly explained “white water” (of which you carry an infinite supply) turns downed vampires back into regular dead humans, which you can then relieve of whatever cash they were carrying to spend on restorative drinks at any of the game’s numerous vending machines. Think of it as a less grisly version of the Resident Evil remake’s “setting fire to corpses” mechanic… an accurate but unfair comparison seeing as Countdown Vampires came up with this idea over two years before Resident Evil brought it to the masses.
Later on the game throws werewolves into the mix, huge beastly bruisers out to reduce your health to that dreadful limping “Danger” status. Then what can only be described as Resident Evil’s Hunters (I know I keep bringing Capcom’s series up but the similarities make it unavoidable) with insect wings glued to their backs to make them distinct enough to avoid litigation. Then we move on to… blobby… blob things… Oh! And an enigmatic individual who keeps appearing out of nowhere to deliver cryptic warnings and/or threats who’s head-to-toe black outfit practically screams I KNOW MORE THAN I’M EVER GOING TO TELL YOU EVEN IF SHARING THAT INFORMATION WOULD HELP US BOTH – the only way they could be more mysterious is if they had a billowing cape and made a point of swooshing it across their face as they leapt out the nearest window.
So what’s the reason for the game’s bizarre mix of popular Halloween monsters, and why does it lead you from a casino to a ramshackle diner to the obligatory secret laboratory to three floating wizard-types and a monster called Gells? Is this all down to some terrible biological experiments gone horribly wrong? The stirrings of slumbering ancient evils about to be unleashing upon the world? A “what if” scenario where mythical monsters are as real as anything else?
Who knows? And more importantly – who cares? Some stories – even ones with zombies in them that finish with a countdown timer and a convenient rocket launcher – deserve careful analysis over several playthroughs, carefully combing through discarded notes and unlocked files for important clues that will lead to the truth behind the nightmares. Countdown Vampires isn’t like that. Countdown Vampires is best enjoyed with a belly full of pizza on a Friday night and your brain left off the hook. That’s not me being snippy or a derogatory review, it’s just a bonkers game that starts off as CASINO VAMPIRES and only gets worse/better/more from there and the world is a better place if we take the time to enjoy something so obviously silly instead of berating everything that doesn’t rush to pat us on the back for being sensible and “mature”.
As a game it’s… fine. The plot’s not scary, or disturbing, and it doesn’t make you stop for a minute and wonder who the real monster is in all this. The gameplay is notable mostly for being good enough to not get in your way, but not so good you can really point at any single aspect of it (bar the action-movie-cool shotgun reload animation) and say “This is worth talking about”. It’s all competent enough to work as expected without doing anything special and there are no real snags that’d make you put it down in a huff – none of the puzzles are any more nonsensical than the usual door/key combos and “get the item for the thing” tasks found in similar games, there’s a bit of backtracking but nothing awful, bosses will keep you on your toes but aren’t so challenging you’ll tear your hair out over them, and so on. What this all means is that you can just plough through the game in a lazy weekend and enjoy getting wrapped up in whatever the heck this is supposed to be instead of fussing over a FAQ every room or worrying about restarting due in a few hours time because you weren’t careful enough with your ammunition/health (there is an easy mode selectable from the off if you want to remove all doubt).
Which all sounds a bit mild, doesn’t it – but what I’m trying to say that it’s OK for a game to be “OK” and nothing more. Now at the prices a US copy of this game currently goes for there are so very many better alternatives you could be spending your money on and I wouldn’t argue with that, or even try to push Countdown Vampires as a worthy purchase (however Japanese copies are much cheaper if you have the means to go down that route). But I do think it’s a good reminder of the right sort of B-movie level gaming that we don’t really see any more: It’s the unplanned TV-special sequel to your favourite movie sort of game – you’re not proud of yourself for liking it, but you’ll never deny that you do. I actually miss games like this – wobbly lower mid-tier of PlayStation games where developers were just creating things because they wanted to and you were never quite sure what the heck you were getting in to but you knew it’d be worth a go.
If you were looking for some inventive modern twists on those eternally-popular bloodsucking sun-haters in oversized silk shirts, or at the very least hoped to come across some dribbly candles in a moonlit mansion, you’re going to be sorely disappointed with Countdown Vampires. It is however a gloriously unpredictable ride from start to finish and not so long that it’s in any danger of outstaying its welcome (my first run took a little under six hours without any effort or hurry on my part). If you do fancy another go there are weird novelty weapons to unlock for the game’s NG+ mode that make a nice change from the usual unlimited ammo/rocket launcher variants you tend get in this sort of thing and multiple endings to see too. Not that any of them will help you understand what the heck just happened but they all at least leave you with a “I have no idea what happened but it must have been fun because I’m smiling” look on your face.
The game’s wonky, weird, and I really don’t know what it was all about but I love it, I’ll never part with it, and I hope everyone else gets the chance to give it a go one day too.