This game is dark. I mean that in more ways than one… Obviously, the content about a man who lost his entire family to brutal, criminal violence is proof enough, but that’s only the beginning. Frank stays in a very dark place himself. In fact, as you play, certain events will trigger flashbacks in his mind. If an enemy says just the right thing, it will trigger the memory in Frank’s mind. Seriously, this is really dark stuff… For example, a thug, pleading for his life, might say, “I’ve got kids!” This seriously affects Castle, though never enough to truly faze him. Or keep him from delivering the darkly delicious one-liner, “So did I,” just before executing the thug.
Like Super Star Wars, The Punisher is (obviously) a licensed game. Strike One! And it was published by THQ. Strike Two! I sure hope the gameplay holds up… Thankfully, it does and then some! It was developed by Volition. You may remember them from such series as Red Faction, Summoner, and Saints Row. This is a third person action game, and, at first, it’s easy to assume that’s all it ever will be. You can carry two handguns and one long gun. L1 fires the gun in your left hand, R1 fires the one in your right. Pretty standard stuff so far.
I'll have to remember that! What a thoughtful game! Thanks!
If that last image bothered you, you’re not alone. This game bears the distinction of being the only game that would have been rated Adults Only by the ESRB. To bring the rating down to Mature (yes, DOWN to M), they decided to apply a black and white filter to these special interrogation scenes. That helps take the edge off and the lack of color even further fits the mood of the game. Still, if you haven’t figured it out yet, this game is rated HARD M and is extremely violent. That wood chipper I just mentioned? Yep. You can more than threaten to throw a guy in…
Did you ever see American History X?
The best data I could find places The Punisher’s kill count at 48502, but this data is 4 years old (and questionable already), and, as much as I love the character, I’m not going to tally up all his new kills (assuming I trust that number in the first place). Still, it’s probably not all that far from the truth. Even at nearly 50000 punishments issued, we still clamor for some variety. As in the comics, the game delivers here as well! There are iconic orange spots on the floor that are “Special Kill” areas. These let you interact with the environment in some particularly brutal ways, such as a bear trap to the face. There are also exceptional white spots that are “Special Interrogation” areas. These follow the same basic rules as normal interrogations, but are much more spectacular, such as feeding your opponent through a wood chipper, feet first.
But the real element that makes this game its own unique experience happens when you press X. This lets you grab an enemy. If that’s all you do, it’s already to your benefit, as, by default, you’ll use him as a human shield. The game even displays the adversary’s life AS a shield icon! That’s appropriately cold! While equipped with your fleshy buckler, you can’t dual wield handguns, but the tradeoff is worth it. You can opt to throw the evil doer and play an impromptu game of “bad guy bowling!” Or you can press X again while holding your 200 (give or take) pounds of flesh to…
I've heard that women agree: size DOES matter. The size of a man's heart means everything.
Now you see his head...
I do have to knock a few points off of the game for its difficulty. The Punisher is seemingly always in beast mode! It’s seriously hard to die in this game, especially as you purchase the upgrades. It’s important to note that Frank Castle doesn’t have any magical or mutant powers, rather, he’s a highly trained human being, akin to Batman (and they’re both great detectives… Hmm…). He is heavily armored, even drawing enemy fire to the large skull on his chest, which is the most durable part of his body armor, but at the end of the day, he’s still a mortal, flesh-and-blood man. The game’s portrayal of Castle as a walking tank isn’t canonically correct, and makes the firefights less tense than they should be.
The sound effects are great! Different guns have unique shot sounds, but where the game really shines is with its sheer brutality. This game sounds much more violent than it looks. You really hear the cold steel of your knives tear your foes’ flesh asunder. Then you hear the spatter of his blood against the walls and floors. Punches have the perfect crunchy fierceness to them to make them believable. The Dolby Pro Logic II sound may just have you ducking for cover, depending on your sound system!
Of course, there is also the graphical darkness. Or should I say the grim, grizzly, gritty, gray, gloomy graphical goodness! This immediately sets the mood and perfectly captures the character. The literal darkness of the look accurately reflects the brooding nature of The Punisher’s story while also capturing one of the most characteristic aspects of his mentality. He sees the world in truly definitive terms: black and white. Period. Either you are evil and he WILL kill you or your aren’t and he’ll leave you alone. As colorful as comic book characters so often are, The Punisher is a rare standout in that he’s willing to actually cross the line of lethal force. The visuals of this game immediately sell the unlawful, savage setting, while flawlessly encapsulating the feel of the character.
Excuse me… Nerd arguments tend to fan the flames of passion… Anyway, back to reality, er, fantasy! Frank Castle was a Vietnam veteran. Although there’s some debate about this now… Like The Punisher himself, Marvel is a bit of a loose canon these days. That’s okay. Two can play at that game! FrankenCastle NEVER HAPPENED! DO YOU HEAR ME, MARVEL? FRANKENCASTLE NEVER HAPPENED! *Ahem* Sorry… I’ll have to consult with The Power Trip for more details. One constant is that he was enjoying a picnic in Central Park with his family when they were unintentional witnesses to a mob hit. To cover their tracks, the organized criminals executed Castle’s entire family. Almost. Frank survived. He attempted to testify in court, but the corrupt NYPD was on the take. Now, he exacts his vengeance on the criminal world that took everything from him.
The Punisher is my absolute favorite comic book character. I’m not really sure what that says about me. Well, either that or I do and I just don’t care… If anything ever happened to my wife, I would end up doing one of two things. I would either commit to following “Weird” Al Yankovic and seeing every single concert for the rest of his (or my) life or I would become The Punisher. Sorry, nerds, but this has to be said. Screw you, Joss Whedon, for your hatred of this character! You’re overrated anyway!
Thanks for the assist, Dumbo!
Looks like they were right!
But I bet this guy will be joining him soon enough...
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Pictured: A job well done!
So what? Points haven’t mattered since the (glory) days of arcades. Why do I care about them here? The simple answer is that you want the upgrades. In order to further empower Francis Castiglione, you need these Style Points. The game keeps a record of your top score from each of the 16 levels, and you can spend that number of points. You do NOT get to spend the points you gain during each run through of a level, only the max score you’ve ever gotten. Let’s say you scored 10000 points your first time through the funeral parlor. Then you can spend 10000 points. Now, let’s assume you spend all of them (balance 0). You play the parlor again and only manage 9000 this time. You don’t get any more points. On a third run, you pull off 15000, which is 5000 over your previous best, so you now have 5000 at your disposal. These range from increased body armor, to recovering via kills; from attaching scopes to certain guns, to increasing magazine size, and much more. You really want to bag as many of these as possible, so pay attention to this feature!
Do you think if I took his boots, they'd help me get back home?
The music is also an important part of fully immersing the player in the world of The Punisher. It manages to sound violent, crafty, and almost heroic, but not quite. By design. The music also appropriately sets the level of tension to whatever is going on at the moment. The number of tracks is limited, but the quality of the ones that do exist manages to keep them from getting repetitive. I’d like to have seen more, but I’m happy with what I got.
Now you don't!
Welcome back to Zero Sum Gaming, here at The Culture Cache! I just received a donation from… Karlene Catastrophe? Okay. That’s weird. Well, since she sent me this game, I’ll give her a quick plug. She is one of the content providers, like yours truly, at The Culture Cache. She covers movies every Sunday under the banner of Two Cent Cinema. Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d say there’s a pun afoot! She’s got an interesting take on a wide range of topics (and lots of great animation content!), so check some of her stuff out when you get the chance. Anyway, she wants to see The Punisher. Fitting, considering how much this game draws from the 2004 movie with the same name. If only she knew… I’m only too happy to oblige on this one!
Yep, those are knives in that guy's face. Yep, I put them there.
Yep, that's a meat cleaver in that guy's face. Yep, I put it there.
But you may not actually want to do that. The scoring system in this game is interesting. You rack up Style Points based on how you dispose of the various baddies. Each time you kill or break one of the goons, you get some of these Style Points, however, each time you repeat the same action, the amount you get is reduced by 5-7% (to a minimum of 25%). This encourages you to get creative with your kills. Yes, that was a fun line to type! You also earn a score multiplier for every fifth action you perform in a row without taking damage or harming an innocent. Given that Quick Kills are somewhat random, you only have so much control here, but you still have quite a bit. As established, you always have four different interrogation techniques at your disposal, so by rotating through them, you maximize your points. Furthermore, breaking a guy and then killing him count as two separate scoring actions. Just be sure not to kill him WHILE interrogating him. Doing so penalizes your Style Points by half the maximum amount of that interrogation. If you’re just playing for fun, then go nuts! Feed that bastard to a shark and don’t think twice! But if you want lots of points, you’ll have to show enough restraint to kill him some other way (difficult, I know).
But then watch what happens when you get near a villain and press square. This is your Quick Kill button. Yes. This game has a dedicated button for a command known as Quick Kill. I love it! At the risk of sounding hypocritical, I usually dislike games where you do some flashy, over the top thing by simply pressing a single button, but here, it absolutely works. For starters, it’s a perfect representation of the character. Frank Castle puts little thought (beyond tactics) into his merciless killing, so reducing it to a single button press actually helps the gameplay fit the narrative. Each weapon also has multiple different animations for quick kills, many of which are dependent on where you are in relation to your victim when you perform them, so this staves off the repetition I spoke of earlier with villainous voice acting.
Well, we’ve reached the end of our chaotic escapades for this week, so let’s figure out if this game is worth it. This game can be yours for about 10 dollars. Other than it being too easy and some recorded dialogue getting a bit repetitive, this game doesn’t have anything else wrong with it. Until the Batman Arkham games came out, this used to be the game I’d cite to prove that not all licensed games are garbage. While it’s true that many are nothing more than blatant shovelware cash-ins, there are plenty of great licensed games out there. This really is one of the best ones. Seriously, I only put the Batman Arkham games above it in the licensed department. Factor in that 10 dollar price point and you have a real winner on your hands!
I promise I have no idea how that guy got there.
There are some other unlockables as well. As you witness the story unfold (which is pretty darn accurate to the 2004 movie and the Welcome Back, Frank series of the comics), you unlock the movie files for playback any time you like. The presentation is quite good and they’re a joy to watch. Also unlocked during normal play are newspaper headlines, which immortalize your exploits. Completing each level also unlocks Challenge Mode. Challenge Mode has you replay the level, but with extra stipulations involved, such as a time limit, weapon restriction, or only being allowed to land headshots. Succeeding in challenge mode unlocks comic cover art. The other way to round out your cover art collection is through Punishment Mode. Punishment Mode can only be unlocked if you’re playing on Normal difficulty or higher and you must also earn a silver medal on each level you wish to play this mode on. Really, Punishment Mode is just a score attack.
Start an interrogation! Fans of The Punisher comics would expect no less. These are great fun. By default, you have four of them at your disposal. Gun tension lets you place your handgun against your opponent’s face. That’ll make ‘im talk! Choke has you wrap your hands around your unfortunate criminal’s throat until your fingers meet. Face Smash gives you the chance to introduce the lawbreaker’s visage to whatever hard surface is nearby. And Punch is exactly what it sounds like. Each of these has its own rhythm to how you use the analog stick. While you’re pumping him for information, there’s a special meter onscreen. The top of it displays your prey’s remaining life and the bottom is reserved for fear. Fear fills up in blue based on what you do. There’s an orange section of the gauge you need to keep the fear in for three full seconds in order to break him. If you’re below, then he’s not afraid of you. If you’re above, he doesn’t think you’ll ever stop. Like Goldilocks, you have to get it just right. And Volition must really have done their homework. In the comics, Nick Fury once remarked about Frank Castle’s incredibly high tolerance for pain, and we already know what motivates the character. These two traits are combined through the judicious use of these grillings, as each time your break an outlaw, you heal your life gauge.
The voice acting is above average. Thomas Jane reprises his role from the movie and every single line he delivers is perfect. Frankly, Thomas Jane was ideal playing The Punisher in the movie, and he’s ideal in this game as well. He perfectly nails the comic book one-liners. For example, after rearranging a punk’s face with a table saw, he quips, “Good worker. Always kept his nose to the grindstone.” If you have a depraved sense of humor like I do (meaning you regularly enjoy Cards Against Humanity), you’ll love these. The random pieces of human refuse you encounter aren’t quite up to snuff. Taken individually, most lines are pretty good, but they don’t always sound like they fit the look of enemy characters. There also aren’t very many of them. If you interrogate (!) lots of hit men, expect to hear some dialogue repeatedly.
How creative of you, Volition!
I will! Thanks, Volition!
Pictured: Handiwork. Sorry, couldn't resist.
Hee hee! I know EXACTLY how that guy got there! Well, what's left of him anyway...
They always said too much TV would kill you.