The Rockin’ Dead review

The Good:
  • It’s in 3D! (and done pretty well)
  • Nice background art
  • Mildly amusing B-movie camp atmosphere
The Bad:
  • Poorly clued, obtuse puzzles
  • Very little feedback about objectives
  • Far too much tedious backtracking
  • No real story tying the absurd tasks together
Rockin’ Dead
Rockin’ Dead
The Good:
  • It’s in 3D! (and done pretty well)
  • Nice background art
  • Mildly amusing B-movie camp atmosphere
The Bad:
  • Poorly clued, obtuse puzzles
  • Very little feedback about objectives
  • Far too much tedious backtracking
  • No real story tying the absurd tasks together
Our Verdict: It’s an intriguing novelty for a while, but even stereoscopic 3D can’t raise The Rockin’ Dead completely up from the story and gameplay failings it’s buried under.
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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.

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