The light goes out, making the guards jumpy. They know he’s stalking them, they’ve heard the stories, but they never believed a word. Then, a flash of movement, a roar of rage, and the guards fall lifeless to the ground. Little blood has been spilt, but that matters not to Richard B. Riddick – all that’s important to him is escaping from this place.
If you can’t tell, I’m deep into The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, a prequel to the cult classic Pitch Black and its sequel The Chronicles of Riddick, and I feel overjoyed with the gritty, no-holds world that Starbreeze Studios created here. Escape from Butcher Bay takes one of the simplest ideas in narrative history – a prison escape – and turns it into something greater, something darker, something far more relevant to gaming than one would expect from this iffy-quality series.
Escape from Butcher Bay, as stated, takes place sometime before the events of Pitch Black, Riddick’s first and generally most renowned appearance, detailing quite literally how Riddick strategically plans his escape from the infamous prison Butcher Bay after his sudden capture. Within the walls of this hellhole of a penitentiary, there lies advanced turret systems, an incredible number of either overly lenient or psychotically overzealous security personnel, and far too many of the galaxy’s most dangerous and unstable criminals. To say escape is a long shot is an understatement, especially considering that what is listed isn’t indicative of all of Butcher Bay’s threats.
However, for whatever reason that lingers in his mind, Riddick is dead set on escaping and we are the interactive witnesses to his struggle. While the basic idea is just that, the way that events play out and the manner in which characters play off of each other is intriguing and definitely compelling. It should be surprising that Riddick, a condemned killer with a notable criminal record, is actually the least crooked person in this game – he has a code of honour, he’s honest about his intentions, and he is driven to achieve his goals while still retaining some level of decency.
To be fair, other characters and plot threads within the game’s unusually structured story are also well-done, as they provide a sense of commentary on this famed prison and they feel fleshed out enough to be satisfying. Riddick’s dry, sarcastic conversations with the prison staff can definitely draw out at least a chuckle and a nod of respect, and the plot progresses fast and deep enough to warrant calling it a plot and not an overlong action sequence. While not everything that occurs is interesting or well-crafted, there’s a level of consistency and intriguing content that needs to be seen to be believed.
What truly makes this game standout, besides its then-innovative gameplay and presentation, is its atmosphere. As mentioned, Escape from Butcher Bay is intended to be a dark and morally middling game, and its method of seeing this agenda through is to write the characters as simplistic people with hints of underlying issues and to make each story scene as tensely paced and scripted as possible. The result is an experience that keeps you on your toes and always peering over your shoulder.
Of course, as a game meant to tie into the Chronicles of Riddick universe, it needs to qualify with solid gameplay. As luck would have it, this game turned out to be a classic exemplar for stealth action gameplay, matching what the Metal Gear and Splinter Cell franchises were doing at the time.
EfBB utilizes a first-person perspective for all of its gameplay, save for in-game interactions. It’s not new for stealth games to use the perspective – see Thief: The Dark Project – but here it creates a sense of anxiety and even weakness that many other games in the genre struggle to get across. Throughout the game, be it in the opening or in combat, the player tends to be outnumbered and outgunned, pushing them to be strategic about dealing with their foes to survive.
That’s where the controls come in, and by god are they effective. Riddick moves at a respectable speed and is fairly agile, being able to climb up crates or shimmy across railings with ease. The combat is respectfully simple – click a single attack button to strike, use movement buttons to curve the punch, scroll and click to change weapons (which are similarly few but varied and functional). Interacting with things, similarly, is a simple input, though one can’t help but be impressed with how interactive the environments are (as per the genre’s expectations, Riddick can crouch in darkness and drag bodies to avoid alerting other guards).
If there’s an issue, it’s not with the user interface, either: all that comes on screen is the choice of firearm or melee weapon while selecting one, the player’s health when injured and info boxes when approaching a person or object. Aside from that, your point of view is never obstructed, allowing you to take in the sights of this dank and horrid place.
The game also progresses differently than other games. From key narrative checkpoint to key narrative checkpoint, the player will travel through a different section of Butcher Bay that double as “hubs”, taking on tasks assigned by other inmates and exploring every nook and cranny. There are clear cinematic moments, but the loose, almost non-linear structure gets across a sense that the player is actively making the decision to escape as much as Riddick when they take on strictly essential tasks.
Any complaints to be had really centre around the game’s dual issues: it’s short and lacks content. Having progressed through to a respectable point in the game, it’s safe to assume that the entire campaign lasts around 9 hours – in other words, the standard length of a single-player game these days. However, after completing the story, little exists to compel additional playthroughs besides collectable cigarettes which represent secret unlockable content, and there are no other modes to play through.
Although not as stunning as the good old days, the visuals in Escape from Butcher Bay do invoke a stark reality to this world that, frankly, few other games really understand. Chracters, while not perfectly rendered and occasionally suffering from clipping, do emote well and the environments in this worn-down literally drip with details and textures that are fairly appreciable today. Artistically, the wall, floors and other various rooms feel akin to modern society yet still remain distinctly fantastic.
Sound design make an equal impression, with the atmosphere being boosted by every noise in the dark, every bump, every cry and every other tiny addition to the complexity of the auditory experience. The voice acting here, while not Oscar-quality, is quite respectable and fitting of both the script and the universe, with lead actor Vin Diesel absolutely nailing the cold anti-hero vibe that Riddick made his own. There’s also good work done by Ron Perlman, Dwight Schultz, and Cole Hauser, among others.
Never before has a game come along that has significantly outshone what it was meant to tie into, yet somehow here is our crowning champion. Escape from Butcher Bay is an excellent specimen that counters its competition in the shooter and stealth markets with tense atmosphere, solid gameplay and high production values. It more than outclasses the critically dividing Chronicles of Riddick film, and it at least honours its source material with casual finesse – if nothing else, that’s a victory.