In this crazy world that is subdivided into gaming territories, living in Europe generally means we get things significantly later than our American and Japanese friends - if at all. So when something comes along to PAL-land that will not even make it to our brothers across the pond, we should be happy, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, because it is nice to feel loved as a territory and gives us that warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but no when you consider that the reason the US won't get it is because it isn't deemed good enough. So Sega present to us Altered Beast, a game that is clearly good enough for us Europeans, but not the North Americans. This is because Sega recently undertook a quality-review of the titles they will release in North America in future, and Beast didn't make the cut.
Altered Beast is also a raid on old Sega-IP. The original game was a 2D arcade-scrolling beat-'em-up set in ancient Greece and revolved around Zeus and his cronies. The unique selling point was the fact that the main character could transform into various creatures to aid in his pummelling duties. Zoom forward to 2005's version, and - thematically at least - don't expect any angry Greek gods here. Whilst still a brawler (albeit now in full-3D), apart for the fact that you can still transform into various beasts, this is neither a remake nor a continuation of the original title, being set as it is in more modern times and with a sci-fi leaning.
The opening cinematic explains little by way of background. We see a military helicopter flying over a mist-shrouded land, and hear the two pilots talking about a mysterious cargo they are carrying. Their peaceful flight is fatally interrupted when a strange winged-beast emerges from the dense cloud and attacks the helicopter, which promptly crashes. Out of the wreckage our hero emerges, dazed, confused and with no idea of who he is; how terribly inconvenient. A nearby open briefcase reveals some guff about a Genome-Chip, but before you are able to read further you are attacked by some strange creatures. This attack triggers unknown abilities, and our hero transforms into a Werewolf, at which point control is handed over to you. After killing some bad guys and collapsing, another FMV kicks-in, and a strange woman injects you with something, mutters some stuff about bringing the chips, and then wanders off. During the course of the story you will discover who you are, what has caused the strange mist, learn about your special abilities and Genome-Chips and ultimately save the day. The story is gene-manipulation nonsense, with a clichèd twist thrown in for good measure, and isn't particularly engrossing.
The game is broken down into 15 areas including such locales as a research lab, a residential area, a nuclear power plant, and underwater caverns. Your aim in each is to get from A to B, where B is generally the location of a boss character that requires its arse being handed to it on a plate. In getting there you will fight with various mutated animals and monstrosities (of which there are 87 varieties, although to get to this number many of the character models are re-used with a different paint job) and solve some rudimentary puzzles.
The focus, however, is very much on combat, and indeed the game is really an extra-dimension extension of old 2D scrolling-fighter mechanics: walk forward, kill some enemies, walk forward some more. Whilst in human form combat options are limited (and attacks are not particularly strong), but the hook for would-be purchasers is in the fact that you can transform into one of six different beasts, each boasting different attacks, strengths and abilities: transform into the Werewolf (the quickest of the bunch) and use quick slashing attacks; or try the ice-cool Wendigo, utilising his incredible strength to beat down the bad guys. To add further depth to proceedings - and give you a reason to seek out the plentiful hidden areas - killing certain marked enemies will yield Genome points, which can be used to upgrade attacks, providing different moves and combos. In addition, you will find learning genes that give each beast a unique ability, which will need to be used on at least one occasion to solve a puzzle element. Examples include the Minotaur's ability to smash-through selected walls with a running-attack, or the Werewolf's super-jump to enable access to those previously out-of-reach ledges.
The game is a simple brawler at heart, though, and to keep the game combat-focussed each area is fairly small and linear, with little pockets of foes dotted around for you to maim. And the quickest way to dispatch them is whilst in beast form. In an effort to keep the action fast-paced you cannot remain in a transformed state without consequences, as you burn through energy all the while. Once out of energy you will start to deplete your life bar, unless you revert back to human form. All is not lost though, as killing the abominations will yield energy pick-ups, giving you reason to kill quickly, which in turn keeps things moving along at a reasonable pace. And, because areas are each fairly small, it does mean you can pick it up, clear a few stages, and put it down again.
So it all seems okay, right? Well, yes it is, but no more than that, as a number of niggles hold it back. For starters, the camera is awful. It doesn't track your movements, so you are continually fighting for a good vantage point on the action - and the switching angles used for boss fights cause much irritation. Maybe the camera wouldn't be so much of an issue if there were at least some assistance with the targeting (no lock-on here, folks). This can mean that sometimes you are left watching the uninterruptible attack-animation hitting thin-air whilst a dastardly foe walks up behind you and launches into a flurry of attacks. Thanks. And they would do this more often if the enemy had any AI, which they don't, content instead to move as a collective group right into your path. So, it makes for a brainless button-masher. Aside from boss-fights and puzzle elements that require a certain beast to get through, it is all too easy to stick to just the speedy Werewolf and slash your way through the game.
The game looks okay graphically and the environments are all different enough from the last to keep things feeling reasonably fresh, but a splash more colour certainly wouldn't have hurt things, there is an awful lot of brown and grey on display. A more stable frame-rate would have been nice, too - you'll be hit by some painful slowdown at times. However, whilst the graphics are reasonable the game's sound isn't very good, with ambient noise at a premium, given the scarcity of it. The usual grunts and groans suffice, but it seems the audio certainly had the least attention paid to it. The most unnecessary irritation, though, has to be little FMV that plays each time you transform; you can skip it, but only after seeing the first couple of seconds. It just seems so pointless after you have already seen it 200 times before.
Once the main story mode is complete you may still return to it to have some fun, as there are three additional mutations that can be unlocked upon meeting certain objectives (although sadly they cannot be used in the main game), and there are a couple of bonus game modes to play around with. Okay, so you probably won't be returning to it unless you love the game, but it all helps round out the package.
In the end, Altered Beast is the gaming equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders. What would maybe work better as a 45-minute arcade game seems to have been expanded into an experience that lasts ten times or so that length. It doesn't do anything particularly badly, nor does it do anything particularly well. There are better games in the genre to spend your hard-earned pennies on, which will provide more depth and entertainment. Indeed, for the money, you could buy the relevant hardware and original game, should you really need an Altered Beast fix.
So have Sega made the right decision in not releasing across the Atlantic? Maybe. Let's just say that the Americans have no need to feel particularly jealous about not getting it.