Where exactly did Sega’s survival horror franchise disappear off to?
First person games and horror games have seen a nice overlap in recent years with games like Amnesia and Outlast rising to a well-deserved prominence by taking advantage of what that perspective can do to enhance a scary experience. Where first person games tend to get tricky, though, is when melee combat enters the mix. Depth perception can easily feel weird and it can be very hard to nail that feel just right. This is why most games that have a heavy emphasis on melee combat tend to be third person, it just makes that type of game play easier to pull off. However, in 2005, there was a video game developer, Monolith Productions, who was having none of this conventional thinking, and way before the first person horror craze that Amnesia started, Condemned: Criminal Origins was released worldwide on the Xbox 360 and PC. Europe would know it simply as “Condemned” and in Japan “Condemned: Psycho Crime” respectively.
Regardless of the title in your region most who played the game would concede that it was less than perfect and suffered from some of the issues that tend to arise when first person and melee combat are combined, but largely those issues were minimized and often offset by some tight programming on the part of Monolith and an interesting gritty crime drama backdrop that permeated the entire game, giving it an abrasive yet somber tone, not unlike the films Silence of the Lambs and Seven, which are heavily rumored to be the main inspiration for the game’s visual texture and overall mood. On top of everything it had going for it, Condemned managed to work in a lot of nice investigative elements and mix them with the horror and combat with reasonably good story-telling, and an excellent soundtrack that included everything from great combat sounds to moody ambiance that kept players on edge without always knowing why to really make itself a nice package.
So despite being a little rough around the edges Condemned was received pretty well and ended up gaining more praise than criticism for its risk-taking and bold splicing together of different genres and play styles that usually stayed in their own corners at the time. The game was also probably helped a little by being a launch title for the 360, so it did sell well and there were even plans for a film adaptation at one time that ended up falling through. So why didn’t this turn into a long-running franchise? With such a distinct take on horror and first person melee combat combined with good reviews and good sales, why has this franchise fallen into the shadows of relative obscurity? What the hell happened to Condemned?
Well as you may have guessed, Condemned did well enough to warrant a sequel. Ethan’s story clearly had room for more evolution so Monolith went to work on a sequel that would continue the story about a year after the ending of the first game and work in some modest improvements to the combat and graphics of the original. Condemned 2 would also see a release on the PlayStation 3 as well as the 360, though oddly no PC version. In Condemned 2: Bloodshot, Ethan finds himself reluctantly recruited back to investigate another case that everything depends on. His parter Rosa makes a welcome return as well as a few other characters and themes that fans of the original game would be sure to recognize. During Ethan’s new investigation, he finds himself dealing with a heightened focus on the cult at the center of the evil that Ethan routinely has had to deal with. This was perhaps a better idea on paper than how it actually ended up turning out.
Any subtlety about why things were the way they were that the first game had nurtured was pretty much gone here, as the cult’s super natural powers were painstakingly explained, removing any and all mystery that would have come along with them. On top of that, the focus of the game seemed to switch around from horror to supernatural stuff to sci-fi and back to horror with almost no sense of pacing or timing and many thought the story, while handled relatively well considering what a mess it was, got a little too all over the place for its own good and missed out on the simplicity of Ethan hunting down a serial killer from the original game. This may be part of what went wrong with the series. There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with complicated stories in games, but for a game like this, it really helps to have an efficient story and transparent motivation for the main character, so the player isn’t distracted with sorting too many things out and can focus on getting immersed in the atmosphere.
This is something that the original Condemned seemed to understand better than the sequel. Combat was notably the biggest improvement with more finishing moves and combos being added in to the roster of ways for Ethan to dispose of enemies, which were also far more interesting and varied than before. The added amount of guns and combo multipliers rubbed many fans of the original the wrong way however, as it made the combat, much like the story, seems like it was trying to do too many things at once, never really spending enough time with any one idea to see it fully fleshed out. This isn’t terribly uncommon of sequels to games, but unfortunately it was such a pervasive issue in Condemned 2 that it made many fans of the first found themselves disappointed by the end of the game despite its various improvements and the game was probably too divisive for Monolith to continue work on the franchise, as they ended up getting back to work on their FEAR series that was gaining more popularity at the time and selling better than condemned games.
Another element that could have been handled better, or perhaps not at all, was the multiplayer in Condemned 2. Surely this is not a mode that many, if any, were asking for after playing the first game, and one can’t help but wonder how much better off and perhaps more focused the second game could have been if portions of the team’s time and attention wasn’t squandered on a pointless multiplayer for a game series that just didn’t need it.
So with all of that said, for Condemned, it probably just came down to the power of the mighty dollar. Supposedly, Condemned 2 did indeed sell well under what the publishers wanted, so, while we could go back and forth on the pros and cons of the second game all day, if a game franchise no longer makes fiscal sense to allocate funds and resources to, it mostly likely won’t happen. Especially in today’s development environment where so many careers and investment dollars are on the line with nearly every mainstream release. However, with the rise of more than capable indy studios showing the Triple-A folks up on many of their expensive projects, with games that look and play great but cost a fraction to make, perhaps we could see a bright future for the series. Jace Hall of Monolith has said as much in a tweet from a few years ago where he mentions that he does still own the Condemned franchise in its entirety and has been entertaining the idea of looking into finding a small team he trusts to take it on. This was back in 2015 so if he did follow through on that idea, perhaps we’re not as far away from a third stab at the franchise as we might think. Maybe, like an insane pipe-wielding psychopath, a third condemned game is lurking just around the corner.