Those who think that rock ‘n’ roll is the devil’s handiwork may well hold up The Rockin’ Dead as a prime example. Jam-packed with metal guitar riffs, scantily-clad babes, mutated monsters and other ghoulish undead denizens, it’s practically the poster child for sacrilege. The problem with that argument is that if the devil created a game, it would probably be fun. Instead, it’s clear that the sins of The Rockin’ Dead are all man-made, from its non-existent storyline to obtuse puzzles to utterly aimless progression, with other problems filling in the gaps. You’ll have a chance to look deep into those gaps, too, as this game includes an anaglyph 3D mode (complete with glasses in the boxed retail edition) to make its flaws really stand out. It’s a laudable effort to offer something different, and it’s a pretty impressive visual accomplishment, but a technological gimmick is no substitute for solid game design. The scenery sure is pretty, and there are moments of decent traditional adventuring to be found here and there, but you’ll need to do a ton of tedious trudging to find them. So no, The Rockin’ Dead isn’t from the devil; it’s just hellaciously frustrating.
The simplistic premise establishes the schlock B-movie tone right away. Chick band the Deadly Lullabyes have been invited to play a gig at a secluded castle, where glimpses of a mad scientist performing even madder experiments are shown in the opening cutscene. Naturally the girls accept, but they crash their ambulance-turned-tour bus just as they near their destination. When Alyssa regains consciousness, all the equipment is gone and there’s no sign of her two cohorts. As she sets off to find them, however, what she discovers instead is a surreal world full of talking skeletons, tentacles, trolls, giant rats and spiders… and even Elvis! (Or what looks like a post-mortem, grey-skinned version of him, anyway.) It’s pure camp, as none of them pose even the slightest danger to Alyssa, but they do represent a serious hindrance. Only by collecting a host of random inventory items can you hope to proceed, as what begins as a simple rescue mission soon devolves into an often nonsensical string of arbitrary tasks that do nothing but slow you down and bewilder you in the process.
Compounding the absurdity of the objectives you’re forced to complete, whether it’s making soup at an automated production facility, setting up a date for a love-torn, hooch-making zombie nurse, or conning a pirate raft captain in a drinking game, are two key issues. The first is a distinct lack of feedback. Occasionally a scenario will make it plainly evident what’s needed (even if it’s completely unclear why resolving it will help you): pool-shooting skeletons need an 8-ball to play, and a group of dwarfs want cool new outfits. All too often, however, there’s no feedback at all as to what you should be doing or why. This ties into the second issue, which is the game’s linear design structure scattered across an extremely non-linear environment. Not all locations are available right away, but they soon open up without any real sense of progress, and you’ll continue to tromp through the same cemetery, swamp, forest, docks, underground crypts and caves, and lab facilities over and over again, much of it spent wandering aimlessly. If you’re lucky, you may stumble on clues or important details in time to still be relevant, but usually you’ll just do things because they apparently need to be done.
That’s assuming you can figure out how, of course. The Rockin’ Dead isn’t a hard game once you have all the information you need, but since you’re rarely sure you do, there’s a lot of guesswork involved. At one point I counted over 40 items in my inventory, some of which I carried with me for hours, and at least a dozen of which were red herrings never to be used at all. I felt like Tom Hanks lugging around a volleyball for so long with no idea of its purpose. Some of the items are bizarre, or at least used in completely unintuitive ways, like a disembodied, Addams Family-like hand and a wad of slime, and attempting to use items on hotspots often yields absolutely no response at all. Actually, it’s worse than that, instead triggering the default unskippable “use” comment almost every time, which quickly discourages even the fallback “try everything on everything” method. Items can be combined in inventory as well. The good news is, simply hovering one item over another will show if a combination is possible. The bad news is, the scrolling, bloated inventory is so cumbersome that it’s still a nuisance just to navigate. There are only a few basic non-inventory puzzles to solve, which is good since they can be just as poorly clued and pull dirty tricks like not telling you that timing matters, or that you can scroll the screen up and down in just a single instance.
But that’s what hint systems are for, right? Well, sort of. There is indeed a three-tiered help option available, but two of them serve merely as the basic input you require just to understand your goals, while the third is a tell-all solution to any puzzle on-screen. Again, though, the non-linear structure makes it impossible to know what you can solve when, and the final hint typically assumes you’ve already performed other actions first or suggests using items you may not even know exist yet. There isn’t a lot of pixel hunting involved in The Rockin’ Dead, and hotspots are clearly marked with subtitled bubble cursors when you sweep over them, but the sprawling environments make it easy to miss key objects – and more importantly, exits. A hotspot highlighter reveals all interactive areas on screen, but because most screens scroll widely from side to side, you’ll need to keep using it to find things tucked into the farthest-flung corners of the world. On at least two occasions, I completely overlooked nondescript exits I never would have known were there if not for the highlighter.
Even when you do know where you’re going, it can take a looooong time to get there. There is no auto-exiting, so you’ll constantly need to endure Alyssa’s agonizingly slow walk speed, perhaps to admire (or not) her prominently displayed, unnaturally jiggling bust. The game acknowledges the abundance of backtracking by eventually introducing a few portals that warp to distant areas, but these are far too little, too late. If any game screamed out for a quick travel map, this is it. Some locations extend the walkathon even farther by introducing faux maze-like levels. Alyssa only ever moves on a purely horizontal plain across the screen, but occasionally she must navigate meandering, multi-layered walkways. It isn’t at all difficult, just entirely unnecessary padding as you zigzag your way left and right, front to back. Clearly this design was meant to capitalize on the game’s 3D capabilities, but the visual appeal could have been accomplished just as easily without all the dreary legwork.
And let’s be honest: 3D is the main selling point of The Rockin’ Dead. For good reason, too, since it’s far and away the best part of the game. It’s a more rudimentary anaglyph technology than the one used in movies, but in many ways it’s more effective. Since it’s rarely applied to moving parts, here it serves more like a delightfully complex View-Master. Scenes are divided into as many as six or seven layers that look legitimately distinct from each other. The downside is, some layers look more like flat stage props, losing all sense of their own depth in the process, but it’s a small sacrifice for the overall stereoscopic effect. The twisting branches of a treehouse, massive spider webs, and bats fluttering by in the foreground offer a real sense of 3D, and the few underwater scenes are particularly impressive. Of course, you do have to wear the stylish paper glasses the whole time (it’s the red/cyan variety, if you have spares kicking around at home), and so much time is spent roaming through these environments, the novelty wears off before long and you’ll probably be tempted to rip them off after a while.
Fortunately, you can do that if you want. If you don’t have the glasses, or simply want to play the game in plain ol’ 2D, you can switch back and forth with the click of a button, which is a nice option. There’s far less “wow!” factor with the standard version, but The Rockin’ Dead is actually a nice-looking game in any case, albeit stretched to fit widescreen monitors. There are many cinematics sprinkled throughout, curiously presented like a black-and-white film reel surrounded by thick borders. In-game backgrounds are colourful and nicely detailed in a realistic style, and there is plenty of strange animation to bring the environments to life (more or less). A hungry eagle patrols a broken bridge you need to cross, and oddly-attired skeletons are always ready to smoke cigars, fly model airplanes, or even jam. If only as much effort went into Alyssa’s animations, as objects frequently just disappear from the screen when you left-click to collect them. The character models are nicely designed in close-ups, but sometimes suffer in motion. Alyssa can appear washed-out against the 2D backgrounds at times, and perhaps the most hideous-looking creature of all is the girls’ human neighbour back home.
Alyssa herself is something of a looker in her short shorts, thigh-high boots and low-cut top. She’s dressed to titillate, which is entirely ridiculous but does fit the silly sexploitation vibe the game is after. At one point she discovers a cardboard cutout of Lula and hints at some kind of behind-the-scenes connection. (That would explain a lot.) The lead guitarist for the Deadly Lullabyes is sassy without ever being funny, and entirely blasé about the seemingly-horrific events going on around her. A massive, raging troll elicits a calm “I see.”, while an axe-wielding coffin monster warrants an apathetic “What a grouch.” While this game is more spoof than horror, at least a little emotion is surely called for. The actress portraying Alyssa is quite suitable, though the voice direction is occasionally lacking. Some lines clearly sound like they were read off a page and accepted on first take, while even script errors made it into the final game. I laughed when both the subtitles and Alyssa triumphantly declared “viola!” at one point. Someone’s command of music is far better than their French. No one else has much of a part, but the supporting cast does a solid job as well, offering a variety of optional dialogue lines to choose from.
Surprisingly for a game called The Rockin’ Dead, music plays a very insignificant role. You’ll be greeted by blaring metal when first launching the game, and there are a couple of lengthy concert cutscenes throughout, but most of the action is backed by a mellow soundtrack that’s mild rock at most, even a little folksy at times. Occasionally the game forsakes music entirely, giving way strictly to ambient background sounds of insects, birds, and stormy weather. Overall it’s a decent aural backdrop, though dialogue lines are periodically cut short, and I’m surprised so little effort was made to incorporate its musical theme into the adventure.
The retail version requires a Steam account and activation to play, but once installed the game played glitch-free for the most part, though it seized up on me every single time I tried to quit. It’s also completely Alt-Tab unfriendly, making this the "Hotel California" of adventure games. You won’t have to shut down too often, however, as it should only take about six hours to complete the game, assuming a reasonable use of hints (and believe me, you’ll do so). Really, though, these are six hours that only 3D fans should bother to invest. It’s not a horror game, and with little sex (appeal), no drugs, and not even much rock 'n' roll, it’s not nearly as edgy as its subject matter would have you believe. There’s some decent campy entertainment here and there, but it’s never really funny and the lack of any coherent storyline provides no real motivation to persevere through the clueless puzzles and aimless wandering. Like its heroine, The Rockin’ Dead may be pretty, but beauty is only skin deep, and to find any substance below the surface here, you’re definitely going to need glasses.