The original PlayStation had no shortage of excellent games, but few of them hold as special a place in my heart as Medievil. Developed by the recently defunct Guerrilla Cambridge (at the time known as SCE Cambridge Studio), the game was a story of redemption. Sir Daniel Fortesque, the “Hero of Gallowmere,” led the king’s army against the evil sorcerer Zarok and his invasion force. At the cost of his own life, Fortesque defeated Zarok, ensuring an era of peace for the kingdom. That is how history tells the story, but the truth is that Fortesque was not only not a hero, but he was the very first casualty. Leading the charge, Fortesque was shot in the left eye and killed immediately. In order to avoid the embarrassment of telling his people his chosen knight was slain before the battle began, the king made of the story behind the Hero of Gallowmere and Fortesque went down in history as a legend.
Fast forward 100 years and Zarok, the still alive and still evil sorcerer, returns stealing souls and reviving the dead as his new army. As a result of Zarok’s magic, Fortesque is also revived, albeit with no knowledge of the last 100 years or the result of the battle. Don’t worry, he’s brought up to speed by the friendly…talking…gargoyle heads. After berating poor Dan to no end, they let him know Zarok is alive and up to no good, and that he has a chance to live up to the legend by finally taking down the sorcerer once and for all. With no jaw, no left eye, and nothing but his bones and his armor, Dan sets out to do just that.
One thing you’ll learn very early is that Medievil is a goofy game. The talking gargoyle heads will spend much of the game cracking jokes and having fun at Dan’s expense, constantly reminding him of his failure. It’s funny, but it makes Dan all the more endearing. Sure, sometimes he lets out a sad grunt or two, but he never gets down on himself. When someone tells him he can’t do it, he angrily grunts back, “I’ll show you!” It’s hard not to like a guy when the whole world seems to be against him, but he pushes on undeterred. You start to take it personally because, in all reality, Dan is fully capable of being the hero the world knows him as.
Ready to set off on his quest, Dan grabs his trusty sword and shield and heads out to the unforgiving lands of Gallowmere. Now, these are the most simple of weapons, and Dan will need more than a short sword and copper shield if he’s going to defeat the forces of evil. Starting with the second level, Dan can find a golden chalice in a level by filling it with souls. How do you get those souls? Killing things of course! Hack and slash your way through each level and locate the chalice hidden somewhere inside. With chalice in hand (figuratively), we can go to the Hall of Heroes after the level. Once there, it’s just a matter of exchanging the chalice with one of the available heroes in exchange for weapons or life bottles (these keep you alive after you lose all your health, think of them as lives). The heroes themselves are a lively bunch, telling tales of the battle against Zarok, speaking of how their weapons of legend turned the tide, all the while rubbing more dirt in the wound on your pride. Still, these weapons and life bottles are a necessity if you are to save the world for real this time.
The initial maps feel pretty safe for a game like this. A graveyard, a cathedral, back to the graveyard, they aren’t brilliantly designed, but they do a good job of introducing you to the game’s mechanics. While nothing can prepare you for the awful camera controls, you’ll learn how to do just about anything else you’ll need to do for the rest of the game in a fairly controlled environment. Now, how quickly you learn depends on if you take the time to talk to the gargoyle heads, which are often the only way you learn anything without trial and error. Back in those days, we didn’t have entire missions dedicated to holding your hand while you learn, for better and for worse. I can’t tell you how long I spent trying to figure out how to kill the first boss (which is an awesome fight by the way, just challenging enough to test your skills, but forgiving enough that anyone stands a chance).
It is only after you pass through the Enchanted Forest for the first time (oh, you’ll be back) that the game really shows off its creative muscle. It starts with scarecrows and cornfields, with a dash of there’s something in the field and I don’t know what it is but if it touches me I’m dead. We pay visits to small villages with mechanized guards, a puzzle-infested asylum grounds and the asylum itself, and even a pumpkin village full of pumpkin people who will mess you up if you move in on their turf. This is all before you go back to the Enchanted Forest and actually unlock the important parts of the level, like the part where you shrink so you can put down an entire ant colony from the inside so you can save some fairies who give you a weapon that turns enemies into chicken drumsticks. I CAN’T MAKE THIS UP PEOPLE. Jokes aside, it is at this point that the game becomes less goofy and starts adopting a more sinister tone. The game becomes harder, putting your skills further to the test with each new area.
It is a rare quality, but Medievil makes backtracking make sense. While I am almost universally opposed to the idea, games like this (and the original Dead Space which I also adore) are designed in such a way that they reward you for having to go back. By making the Enchanted Forest the midpoint of the map, it makes sense you’d have to go back there to progress, and there is so much of the level untouched on your first visit that it feels like an entirely different level altogether. Oh, and you also accidently release the Shadow Demons, an evil that nearly brought Gallowmere to ruin and can now finish the job they started before being sealed away. Not our finest moment, I admit, but a hero’s tale is rarely without unforeseen trials.
From here, Medievil takes a more punishing turn. The game becomes more difficult, if only because there are more and more hazards. Pool of the Ancient Dead (my personal favorite level in the game despite this) is full of death pits and water, and poor Dan can’t swim. Most enemies in this level cannot be killed in the traditional fashion and must be pushed into the pits themselves if they don’t do it to you first. It is a fierce challenge when you aren’t expecting it, but I consider myself a master at this point. Levels like The Lake have thin pathways and death everywhere else, so a cautious pace is key. A late mission that takes place at the king’s castle eventually pits you against the clock while you attempt to drop the castle into the lava pit below in order to kill off the Shadow Demons. Intense music plays as the screen shakes, heat waves cause the screen to slightly blur and you try desperately to remember where the hell everything is and then get out alive.
Finally, the time has come. Fortesque is ready to take on Zarok in a battle 100 years in the making. Depending on the number of chalices you collected through the game (there are 20 in total) you are granted one skeletal soldier to combat Zarok’s army…of skeletal soldiers. In order to win, you have to use the newly earned Good Lightning, a weapon that drains your health to keep your soldiers alive. Dan is literally giving his life to defeat Zarok’s forces. When you finally defeat his forces, they each drop a life vial, restoring a portion of your lost health. This is important because the real fight is about to start. Lord Kardok, Zarok’s champion, trots into the arena on horseback with intentions of putting you down for good. Keep your head on a swivel and you can make short work of this so called champion. Zarok, furious at his defeat, recedes momentarily behind a curtain, only to reemerge as a dragon. A difficult battle ensues, but with your arsenal of legendary weapons and an iron will, you emerge victorious. Zarok lays defeated before you, the kingdom is saved, Fortesque is finally a knight worthy of the legends. With no threats left, Dan returns to his crypt, prepared to return to his eternal rest. Now, he returns again to the Hall of Heroes, but as a champion. He dazzles the other heroes and awkwardly tries to drink a glass of wine, the whole missing his jaw rearing its ugly head again.
We’ve done it. We’ve made Dan the hero he always could be, one worthy of the legends. It’s not the best game the PlayStation ever had, but it is among it’s most memorable. It’s a shame that the sequel doesn’t strike the same chords, and that we didn’t see anything else come from the series other than a kinda sorta not really remake of the original for the PSP. Every year at E3, whenever I hear about a franchise coming back from the grave (no pun intended) I always hold out hope that it will be Medievil. It will never happen, I know this, but I still dream.
If you haven’t played the game yet, there is so much more than what I talked about here. You can get the game for next to nothing on the PS3 as a PSOne classic. I highly recommend giving the game a spin. It’s a little rough if you’ve only started gaming in the HD days, but if you can look past the aged visuals, you’ll find a game with a great art direction and some impressive music, as well as mostly solid gameplay in every other regard.