Dr. Franken Review
Posted by Patrick Elliot
You got Franken in my Castlevania
There is some common confusion surrounding the tale of Frankenstein, namely the fact that Frankenstein is not really a monster, but rather the mad scientist who creates the bolted-neck creature. Developer MotiveTime avoids this common misstep in their game by simply combining the scientist and monster into the same character. The end result is a pajama-laden doctor with a giant head who shoots lightning blots from his arm and can run complicated machinery.
The nonsensical premise of the game is a laugh, as the player explores a vast castle as Dr. Franken, searching every nook and cranny of the castle for his girlfriend Bitsy. The aptly-named Bitsy has had her body parts strewn about the residency, and it is up to you to find them and put her back together. This means not only finding hands, feet and legs, but also collecting the parts needed to fire up the machine that will bring your sewn-up girlfriend back to life. The goofy presentation is hilarious, complete with a rough diagram of your girlfiend's dismembered body that fills out as you collect her pieces.
You are thrown into the game with little direction, save a flashing question mark on your map to guide you. The question mark represents an item, and hunting items is what you'll be doing throughout game. That first item you collect – a book – is found floating in a bathroom, and upon nabbing it the game tells you: "Franken can not read. Put the book back where it belongs." From here a new question mark appears on the map, and you must side-scroll your way back to it, jumping over ghouls and blasting them with your simple lightning shot. This is the main way to move the game forward – collecting an item, reading the clue, and then going back to the area where you can use it. Once your reach your destination and place the book on back on its shelf, a new floor to the castle becomes unlocked.
That is where the game's linearity ends though, as the guiding question marks are gone from here on in. Instead, players need to decipher the cryptic clues given upon receiving an item, and use them to figure out where to go next. For example, after finding a doorknob, you are told "the door without a knob hides something for the Blacksmith," hinting to where that knob-less door might be. Later you read "time is moving where the Baron studies," hinting that you may want to revisit the Baron's room. While this teased sense of linearity may annoy some gamers, players with a nostalgic streak may find a special joy from breaking out the pen and paper to jot clues and figure out where to go next. You're going to need some paper anyway as the only way to save the game is through passwords, doled out via the pause menu.
Even with the clues though, navigating the game can be very hard, and the map is painfully simple as every room is represented by the same identical square. Furthermore, the game is a side-scroller, but the map is represented as a top-down view. This means moving left or right in the game will do the same on the map, but moving up or down in the game will not. Instead, doors in the background move you up the map, while "doors" in the foreground (represented by the word "exit") move you downwards. To make this even more confusing, the game commonly puts background doors and foreground doors on top of one another, making you think you're going up when you are really going down. Moving up and down in the game changes floors, but going up makes the floor numbers go down and vice versa. It also puts you on an entirely new map. This takes a really long time to get used to, let alone figure out, and you may find yourself having more luck wondering aimlessly through the castle.
Meandering through the castle however isn't that easy, and it wouldn't be so hard it weren't for the game's unresponsive controls. Your only attack is to shoot lightning bolts across the screen, and you can duck to shoot them low. While this works for battling enemies, many of the bad guys are simply invincible, requiring you to jump to avoid them. Jumping is slightly delayed due to the slow character animation that plays out, and since you are frequently jumping to reach items or avoid monsters, it quickly becomes a pain.
The enemies are very repetitive too, and by the time you've collected your third item you've likely seen the majority of enemy types. Some of the ghouls can be incredibly cheap, and its not uncommon for them to appear on the screen directly on top of you. Thankfully you have a hefty life bar, and there are electric chambers for you to recharge in spread throughout the castle.
The music in the game is great (it's Moonlight Sonata) but it never changes, and the same can be said for the graphics. The locations and characters look very good, and you'll know whether you're in a kitchen, study, bathroom or basement thanks to the nicely detailed backgrounds. A lot of the background environment can be traversed too, and you'll be jumping on columns and towel racks to reach items or avoid bad guys. Eventually though, pieces of the scenery begin to repeat, but they look so good that you likely won't mind seeing them again.
The game has a strong Metroidvania feel to it, as you generally find items in a specific order to move the game forward, backtracking to the location you can use it. As you jump and zap your way through the ghoulish hordes though, you are going to get lost. For some this won't be an issue, as exploring the castle and navigating a successful route can be very satisfying; for others it'll be a deal-breaker, as the repetitive rooms and reused enemy types offer little variation to the scenery and gameplay. Getting a handle on the confusing map is incredibly tough too. Still, if you can get acclimated to the castle's many floors and remember the locations of those recharge chambers, Dr. Franken can be a good bit of fun, especially if you're willing to scribble down passwords and clues.