Butcher Bay. The toughest triple-max slam ever created. Only the most violent offenders get sent here. Unlike some places, the inmates are not here to be rehabilitated or tamed. When you’re thrown down this hole, you stay until you rot. They say this place is inescapable. I like a challenge.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is a wonderful mix of stealth, platformer and action shooter. It also shows that a great game can be made from a movie franchise. Taking place prior to the events in the film Pitch Black, you play as anti-hero Richard B. Riddick as he attempts to escape the most secure prison in the galaxy. After a brief cinematic, the game throws you right in the middle of the action. Almost as soon as you land on the prison planet, you are dodging bullets and making stealth kills while looking for a firearm. Then it’s all run n’ gun as you cut a swath of blood and carnage through the prison complex looking for a way out. Or is it?
In one of my favorite tutorial sequences ever, this game gives you the basics of Stealth Takedowns, Disarms and Gun Play well before you ever encounter them in the actual game. You don’t get the sense that you are playing a tutorial where every action leads you to the predetermined starting point. For example, playing the story of Riddicks’ capture. No matter how well you play, it is a no win scenario. The tutorial also makes sense from the storyline perspective of the game. A prisoner who shoots up a prison usually doesn’t get a warm reception from the warden.
The real game starts exactly like the start of any good prison break story. You are introduced to Hoxie, cut-throat business and warden. Then you start the long walk to your cell escorted by the head of security, a corrupt thug named Abbot. True to it’s cinematic roots this is also the time for opening credits and exposition. Abbot spends the journey making sure you know he has power over you by explaining his rules for the facility. By the time you get to the cell block you are sure of two things. Abbot is in need of killing and you’re the one to do it, but that will have to wait. At this point, it’s time learn your way around the cell block, making friends and enemies. You also learn the real rule in this slam: “Wanna live? Get a shiv.” Through conversations with the other prisoners you learn the layout and hierarchy of Butcher Bay. While you do have some choices in dialogue, these just let you accept or refuse some minor side missions. There is still a pre-determined path to take on your way to freedom.
Getting out of Butcher Bay is easier said than done. Prisoners start out in Single Max on the planets’ surface. Outside the prison walls is an entire planet covered by harsh desert. Inmates that show they cannot behave themselves there go to the Double Max area. This is an underground mining facility found deep beneath the prison. Perhaps too deep? Finally there is Triple Max, where prisoners are put into cryosleep. They are awakened for 2 minutes each day for exercise and then put back in the deep freeze. It’s hard to plan an escape when you’re an ice cube.
Early in the game, the combat is melee only. The guards carry assault rifles but they are DNA encoded. If your DNA is not on file in the prison computer then you cannot use the rifles. Your only choices for early weapons are shivs, clubs and knuckledusters, although there is always the option to use bare fists. You don’t have to decide which weapon you prefer right away, there is plenty of melee combat in Butcher Bay. The game strikes a good balance in how it ramps up the difficulty, starting with an opponent who doesn’t hit hard enough to actually hurt you. It then gives you enough enemies to fight that you can really learn the combat system, but not so much that it gets boring or predictable. When I reached the first “boss” fight I felt ready but not confident. Unarmed combat gets some variety when using the movement keys. For example, if you hit the attack key while moving forward you throw a quick jab, while moving backwards you perform an uppercut. This makes melee combat a bit more strategic than simply mashing buttons.
With combat comes the inevitable loss of health. There are two ways to replenish health and they each work completely different from each other. The health meter in the game is a series of individual squares. As you take damage, a square shrinks until it eventually disappears, then the next one starts diminishing. When not in combat your health automatically regenerates, but is limited to one damaged square. So if you started out with 4 squares of health and ended with 1 1/2 then that half a square would regenerate, but squares 3 & 4 would not. This strikes a nice balance between games where health replenishing items are inexplicably laying around everywhere, and titles where you just need to find safe cover in the middle of a battle while your health fills back up. The other way to replenish lost health is through the use of a NanoMed Station. This is a wall mounted unit that “takes away the hurt, leaves the pain.” They are found throughout the prison but have a limited number of uses.
These aren’t like your friendly med stations found in other games. In keeping with the dark, violent theme of the game, not even using a healing station is pleasant. When activated a set of spikes extend from the unit and pierce into Riddicks neck. A fully charged unit can restore a total of 4 squares of health before it is depleted. You can find Nano Cartridges in the game which can be used to refill an empty station. However these are very limited. Even rarer is the NanoMed Health Station which can permanently add one square to your max health. Using this machine however looks even more like torture than the regular NanoMed station.
Between all the bullets and bloodshed you will find a compelling storyline and top notch voice acting. The name of the game is Escape From Butcher Bay, so the story doesn’t really have a surprise ending. Some parts of the story seemed like they lasted more than they should have. Although this is more to accommodate the gameplay rather than drag out a plot point. For example, one part of the story requires you to get to the medical bay, which is visible from the cell block. Once in the medical bay you can easily get to the computer control room. But to get from the control room back to the cell block requires navigating a maze of corridors filled with armed guards. Ideally Riddick should just go back the way he came, but that wouldn’t be as much fun in terms of game play. Unfortunately there is one part of the story that I took issue with, and it’s a big problem for me. They RetConned the origin of Riddicks’ trademark Eye Shine. For you less nerdy types, RetCon is short for Retroactive Continuity. This is when an established back story is changed to accommodate a future story arch. This is common in comic books, though still annoying. When the film Pitch Black was released the story of how Riddick got his “shine job” was established. You do not start the game with the eye shine ability, but you do acquire it during the story. The new explanation fits better with the events of the second movie, The Chronicles of Riddick, but contradicts the earlier works. If you don’t care about this little change then there should be nothing stopping you from enjoying the story.
The voice acting is provided by many veteran screen actors. Riddick is, of course, voiced by Vin Diesel. This gives the in game Riddick all the same dark suave as the film version. Cole Houser reprises his role as Johns, the bounty hunter who captured Riddick. The warden Hoxie is voiced by Dwight Shultz, who maintains a perfect air of faux refinement mixed with self contempt. Rapper Xzibit brings the right amount of attitude and believability as a low life thug who is suddenly given too much power in his portrayal of Abbott. When talking to your fellow inmates you will hear the voices of Ron Perlman, Michael Rooker and John DiMaggio among others you may recognize. It also helps that there is a lot of well written dialogue. There are many times when I will stop what I’m doing just to listen to some random conversations between characters.
Throughout the game you will find packs of cigarettes. These are collectable items that unlock additional content in the main menu. This includes a lot of concept art and even some video files for both the game and the 2nd Riddick film. There is another bonus item that becomes available upon completion of the game. Long before this became a normal feature in Valve games, Escape from Butcher Bay implemented a system of in-game icons that play commentary from the development team when activated. These vary in length from 30 seconds to 15 minutes. Sadly, not everyone who has this game will have access to this content. It was included with the original release of the game in 2004.
In 2009 the game was rereleased as part of game The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. The newer release was a remake of the original and featured bug fixes, AI tweaks and rebalances some of the game play. However, the commentary mode was cut out and made into a bonus DLC available to those who purchased the game from select retailers. Atari later offered it as a free patch to everyone on their website, unfortunately those links seem to be dead now. If you are willing to do some digging there are people and places on the internet where you can get a copy of the patch. It seems pretty bad that a company would cut content that was already part of the game and turn it in to DLC, but the commentary was intended for the 2004 version so some of it no longer applies to the 2009 remake. In one of the comments, a developer talks about the weapon reload animation. There were specific ideas about what would happen when you reload, but budget and time constraints limited what they could put in the original game. This is one of the things they fixed in the re-release so it is a little odd hearing a developer lament that the animation doesn’t look like what you are actually seeing when you play. If you are a fan of the game it is well worth the effort to find the commentary patch.
I was blown away by the graphics in this game when I first played it. Of course that was about 9 years ago when it was released for PC and XBox 1. By today’s standards the graphics still hold up pretty well. Although there can be some annoying glitches when run on newer hardware. Even with those minor quirks, this is a game worth playing, especially if you missed it the first time around. The 3rd live action Riddick movie is slated to hit theaters later this year. So I’d say now is a great time to get a copy of this game and familiarize (or re-familiarize) yourself with the enigmatic character of Riddick.