So I think I feel safe to say that as a gamer I’m not one with any particular passion for twitch shooters, or bullet hell games, or really anything of that ilk. I like a degree of challenge in my games – for example, I love it in horror games where you die easily if you’re not careful, where it can take multiple deaths to solve a puzzle and move on; but I’m not the sort to seek out excessive challenge in games. So it surprised me somewhat that I ended up enjoying Butcher as much as I did.
So for those that don’t know Butcher is a side-scrolling shooter, in the style I’d say of old 90’s side-scrollers, with a touch of visual style borrowed from early FPSs. You play the part of a nameless (and rather faceless) pixelated hero, who battles through rooms full of enemies, avoiding traps and pitfalls to progress through a series of levels to the game’s climax. The controls in Butcher are very simple – you use the arrows keys to move (and maybe a separate jump button), you have a ‘use’ button for switches, and then you aim and shoot with the mouse. And that’s really it.
One of the most striking elements of Butcher’s design I’d say is its visual style, the game has a distinctive look to it – very dark, very metal, very grimy. Indeed it actually feels a lot like Quake and Quake 2 in terms of how it looks, which I think is a definite plus for me – not only because I like it myself but also because I think it fits the tone of the gameplay: the entire game feels at times like a love-letter to those impossibly hard, side-scrolling shooters and grimy, hard-as-nails FPSs that carved out such a big niche back in the 90’s, and this is just as true of the game’s distinctive visual style as anything about the actual mechanics. Admittedly this is something of a double-edged sword, as that visual style could also be considered a downside too; playing Butcher isn’t exactly like watching pure brown sludge run down your screen as the game does manage to side-step this through effective use of colour and keeping the visual design of the levels interesting, but all the same it has a distinctive rusty metal feel to it. And I know that’s not going to appeal to everyone.
In terms of gameplay at it’s most basic Butcher is built around the idea that the player has to be challenged – I’ve mentioned already the sort of games that seem to have inspired its look and feel, and it’s worth keeping these in mind when you imagine what to expect from the game, at times it really does feel like something you might’ve played back in the Megadrive/Genesis era, or maybe at an Arcade when those were still a thing. You do have a health bar, and an armour bar, so it’s not quite instant death if a shot connects but what you’re given in terms of health won’t go far, so though we’re not talking sudden death levels of challenge here (at least on the easiest difficulty of Hard) considering how quickly shots can connect and how much the game likes to surprise you with enemies you definitely have to react fast.
As a side-note that’s not so relevant to the review but might give you a better idea of how the game plays: You do have save slots for your game, they only save which level you’re upto and the achievements (skulls in this case) that you’ve unlocked though. Each level if not completed in a single no-death run has to just be replayed from the start again and again until you beat it. So we’re not talking super old-school arcade type mechanics here where you have to restart the entire game just because of one lucky shot from a goon with a machine gun; the developers have made some concessions to modern gaming, which I appreciate.
I think the game actually does all of this really, really well. I’ve played games where they set out to challenge you (and even games where they don’t set out to challenge you) where you meet a challenge that you just can’t seem to get past and when you do finally get past it you just feel that it was really unfair – as if the section itself wasn’t really that well designed, or that well play-tested to fit into the rest of the game, or where it just feels as though the developer introduced an unnecessary and unwelcome difficulty spike just because they could. Which feels unfair. But as difficult as it could be at times and as honestly frustrating as Butcher could be to play I never felt as though the game was unfair to me, even the punishingly hard finale never made me feel cheated.
I think that covers the good about the game – though I’d also like to mention that I feel overall the game fits together quite well, I can’t really think of anything that doesn’t click with any other aspect of the game design – from the visuals to the gameplay, from the pacing to the actual level design. There are a mountain of indie games that can do one or the other, but it’s nice that Butcher manages to pull everything together as well as it does.
Now onto the things I didn’t like so much about the game.
So I said already the graphics are somewhat of a double-edged sword and this actually brings me to my first criticism of the game: I like the overall visual style of the game (the grim veneer that seems that hang across every room and corridor,) but I don’t like the pixelated character art. Your character and every enemy in the game is just a faceless blob of pixels, and personally I just find it ugly. Not ugly enough to ruin the game for me, just ugly enough to dull some of my enjoyment; and it’s especially annoying since I love pretty much everything else about the game’s visuals – I love the backgrounds, I love the colour scheme (despite it being so brown and grungy) but I just can’t really connect at all with that blocky mass of a character of yours. I need something a little more human.
And for the record I know how odd a thing that sounds like to say, Butcher afterall isn’t some deep introspective journey into the meaning behind human existence, or some detailed examination of emotion and human interaction: it’s a game about literally shooting stuff in the face until it dies and/or explodes magnificently, but it just doesn’t work for me. I like having a distinguishable character to play as, perhaps with or without their own backstory – but definitely with a face! Perhaps it was born of some particular love of blocky pixel art on the part of the developer but it just didn’t work for me; I also find it odd considering how so many of the games that seem to have inspired Butcher – like Quake, Doom, the Contra type games, always had a distinct hero character. Admittedly the hero character was very much two-dimensional (in every sense of the word) but he did have those two dimensions to him.
So my next point is something of a minor spoiler for the overall game structure so look away now if such things horrify you:
Probably my biggest disappointment with the game was the lack of end of world bosses; almost everything I expected of Butcher when I first heard about it, and when I initially looked into the game, was borne out by my first experience of getting to actually play the game – I expected it to be punishingly difficult, I expected it to be frenetic and demanding of me as a player, and I really hoped it would keep my attention with interesting visuals and decent level design. It did that. I also expected there to be some sort of giant climax to each world though, a point where you’d chainsaw or shotgun your way through your last goon and suddenly come face to face with some sort of horrific giant alien/monster. A creature that you’d smash through a combination of tricky gunplay and simple puzzle-solving, but that never happened. I wouldn’t say it ruins the game in any way, it definitely didn’t mar my enjoyment of the game but I feel like it’s a missed opportunity.
And my final criticism is just that the game is strictly speaking a relatively short experience. I mean it never really felt short to me, and I never felt rushed through any of the levels – or as if a level had been cut short especially. I just don’t feel as though I can ignore its length either, as looking at my steam stats for the game it only took me about 5 hours in total to get through the whole thing; which isn’t really terrible, but isn’t amazing either. I really did enjoy playing it though, and I do feel as though it’s a game you can get your money’s worth from despite it’s length.
All in all though my gripes with the game are minor. Like I said at the start it’s not really my type of game but Butcher has really impressed me all the same – it’s a dark, morbid little shooter that is punishingly difficult but also incredibly satisfying to play. I’d definitely recommend it if you’re a fan of this type of game, and I hope to see more from the developer in the future.