Drawn to Death isn’t a great shooter. Heck, I’m reluctant to say it’s even a good shooter. It’s somewhere in between good and average: that murky area of a solid recommendation vs. “yeah, that game is alright.” Luckily for developer The Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency, everything else around its core is far better than average, and in many instances even better than great.
Drawn to Death’s concept is wildly novel; it’s over-the-top, incredibly self-aware humor somehow works, and works quite well. Most importantly it stands out in multiple ways in a shooter genre where originality has long departed.
The heart of Drawn to Death is its style, which it would run-the-risk of being terribly generic without. The game’s cartoon-scribble aesthetic is taken straight out of the notebook of a kid sitting in the last row of a junior high class. It’s not pretty — in fact, it’s a bit superannuated. But this is by design and, more importantly, it works.
Rarely do games dial-in a style and tone as well as Drawn to Death does, and ever rarer to that consistently. Still, aesthetically speaking, it’s understandable to be off-put by the game’s visuals, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that The Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency did a splendid job of transporting you to the notebook pages of an overly edgy 90’s high schooler.
Perfectly synchronizing with the game’s aesthetics is its tone, and over-the-top, edge-lord humor, which manages to both hit and miss at the same time. Again, this feels 100 percent intended. Drawn to Death is obnoxious on steroids. It’s edgy and self-aware to a cringy level. And if you were to take any particular isolated moment of this obnoxiousness and analyze it apart from the rest of the game, you’d roll your eyes. But it all comes together: the relentless foul language, the fourth-wall breaking match commentator, the endless violence and carnage, and the over-the-top bawdy humor all works together in a perfect harmony of delightful absurdity.
I’m a joyless person when I play video games: no smiling, and sure as hell no laughing. But Drawn to Death got me to do both, quite a bit, despite my best efforts not to succumb to its toilet-humor. It’s even humorous in parts of the game where it shouldn’t be, like the tutorial. Tutorials — by industry standards — are supposed to be insipid and informative, but not Drawn to Death’s tutorial.
No, Drawn to Death’s tutorial relentlessly pegs everything it’s got at you like a dodgeball, and let’s you know how much you suck in the first place for needing such a coddling introduction to the game. This tone and humor won’t be for everyone, maybe not even for most people. But I couldn’t help but be won over by the game’s unfading commitment to uphold its tone and humor.
As mentioned earlier, there’s a match commentator who did what I thought was impossible in a video game: make me laugh with fourth-wall breaking humor. The actual gameplay of Drawn to Death does have the capacity to be dull at times, so whether it’s the commentator bitching about your rage-baby teammate who just left you stranded or his literal minute long ramblings about how pre-recorded commentary sucks, it always livened up the experience of moment-to-moment gameplay, even if it does get repetitive and tiring after long sessions of continuous play. The moment the commentator came through the speaker of my Dual Shock 4 controller during a match wondering what I was wearing is also my favorite moment of 2017 so far. And I don’t suspect that will change either.
Going into Drawn to Death I was concerned the game’s visual design would not translate well in moment-to-moment gameplay. Luckily, it looks and runs smoothly and its chaotic nature never did become to overwhelming messy or headache inducing. Unfortunately, the gameplay isn’t particularly great or impressing. It’s not particularly bad either: it’s decent, with interesting mechanics and quirks, but also quite shallow at times.
Drawn to Death feels like the offspring of Twisted Metal and Quake. It’s an arena shooter/brawler with a small player count (there’s a maximum of only four players) and compact maps where learning the in’s and out’s of each map is equally important as having twitch reflexes and skills for quickly aiming at your opponent’s head. Like games such as Overwatch, there’s an equal emphasis on understanding each character and how they play off one another.
Speaking of characters: there are six, AKA not enough. What is there is well thought-out though and, more importantly, each character is a joy to learn and play because they feel different from their fellow cast of characters. There’s Bronco, a marine parody-like character with a drone buddy named MO. Then there’s Johnny Savage, a hardcore punk guitarist with a bad cockney accent. You also have Alan, a deranged man-thing with a deadmau5 head and chainsaw. There is also Diabla, a pistol-wielding devil, and Cyborgula, a cyborg vampire. And then there’s Ninjaw, a shark head with a woman body wearing high heels. As you can see — like the rest of the game — Drawn to Death’s characters are over-the-top and then some… and then some.
Beyond aesthetically being very different, Drawn to Death’s characters all have unique abilities. Unfortunately, I never found that any of the character-specific abilities drastically altered my playstyle, but they were enough to keep the roster feeling fresh. Further, the gunplay is never very satisfying on its own: the powers not only provide a more arcadey feel, but simply add a bit of much needed spice to the combat. For example, one of Johnny Savage’s specials (each character has two specials), Headbanger, creates a large dome-zone that if players can’t escape in the few seconds before activated, their heads explode (and die). Meanwhile Alan has a special that allows him to throw chainsaws like they’re javelins. At the very least, the character-specific abilities and specials manage to mostly smother the rather mediocre combat and keeps things interesting.
What makes the lackluster shooting mechanics even more disappointing is that the game boasts a large arsenal of zany and awesome weapons. Ranging from a rocket-powered Super Nintendo armed gun that shoots out deadly cartridges of Chrono Trigger, to a dodgeball player who chucks powerful explosives, all of the game’s weapons are incredibly fun to experiment with and learn how to use. And like the character balance, no one gun feels overly OP nor overly weak, which serves as a nice enticement to trial them all out.
Despite its chaotic nature and compact maps, matches tend to run on the long-side, and lack that feeling of satisfying momentum shifts that you find in many other online shooters. A lot of this has to do with the floaty character movement and large health pools that make it very easy to escape a confrontation. On one hand it’s quite nice to not simply die because I turned a corner at an inopportune time or because simply the other player saw me first. On the other hand, hunting down a combatant around the map as they scurry to find a health-pack or escape can get tiring. Sometimes it creates for some very intense battle moments, as you frantically try and get away with a drop of health left, but other times the floaty movement just makes the pursuit not as thrilling as it could be.
Where the game is perhaps most noticeably shallow is in its lack of modes. There’s a standard free-for-all, 1v1, 2v2, plus a mode called Organ Donor, where dead players drop hearts that must be collected and deposited into different drop points. Few modes wouldn’t be as regrettable if said modes were at least original, but in this regard Drawn to Death decided to tone the originality down and just stick to the status quo of shooter game modes.
David Jaffe and co. have created something wildly novel, moderately fun, and slightly frustrating with Drawn to Death. In the finished product lies a blueprint for a great game, but mediocre shooting mechanics and a slightly shallow level of content holds back Drawn to Death in the end.