There are a few different ways this review could have started. Lamenting that officially licensed video games based on blockbuster movies have had a rough history (to put it politely), or the even more disappointing tales of movies that have used gaming franchise IPs as source material. Whichever way you cut the proverbial cheese, the two mediums just can't seem to get into a groove. The irony is that the more executives and film studios try, the worse it seems to get, and on the other side games based directly on movies have often been confined (recently) to mobile. Of course, historically there are exceptions and noble attempts, which gives hope whenever these tie-ins come around.
Californian developer WayForward certainly has a very good pedigree when it comes to 2D action platformers, so when the relatively surprising announcement arrived regarding its most recent title - The Mummy Demastered - there was at least cautious optimism. What was more interesting was that it was connected to this summer's Universal monster movie reboot of The Mummy. As the genesis of the studio's grand plan to build a new 'Dark Universe', the rebooted Mummy movie nevertheless got buried by Wonder Woman at the box office and in publicity, seemingly passing by quite quietly. This in turn makes it all the more fantastic that not only did this game see the light of day at all, but judged on its own merits (to cut a long story short), it's brilliant.
To the well informed, this should come as little surprise, considering the developer has the acclaimed Shantae series, DuckTales: Remastered, DS gem Aliens: Infestation and many more on its CV. The pleasant surprise comes from how the game has taken influences from the glory days of 16-bit two dimensional classics that don't involve an Italian plumber, and delivers something so well crafted and fun that it has every right to stand alongside prestigious contemporaries such as Axiom Verge and Cave Story; it maybe even gets close to what a certain shovel wielding hero managed to achieve for side scrolling platformers in 2014.
The Mummy Demastered - at its core - takes cues from series such as Contra, Castlevania and Metroid. Based around a squad of elite paramilitaries known as the Prodigium Organisation, they are burdened with the task of finding and eliminating the recently resurrected ancient princess Ahmanet. Guided by a mysterious chap via a codec-like intercom, you assume the role of an unnamed masked trooper looking for the rest of your team and start out with a gun, infinite ammo, and not much else. Taking down beasties, sword flinging skeletons and other bigger, badder and generally more creepy crawlies, you will traverse platforms, interior and exterior environments, learn new abilities, pick up health upgrades and additional weapons (of which you can only carry a certain amount, requiring you to switch at designated locations), while you unlock new areas and explore an ever expanding, large and varied interconnected world.
The overall presentation of The Mummy Demastered is stellar. Whether it be graveyards, forests doused in moonlight or the gloomy London Underground, each environment is beautifully detailed. The incredible soundtrack, courtesy of Gavin 'Monomer' Allen, is a blend of pounding and ominous yet ambient techno and neo-gothic synth chiptune, suiting both the environments and atmosphere perfectly. From the architecture and vehicles to the rolling or crouching of the titular hero, animations are superb - whether bobbing when idle or swaying when undead, all of the sprites have a kinetic energy and pace to them that is smooth and mostly seamless in motion. Insects flutter and scuttle, sand or mist drapes outside scenery and smog engulfs underground passages.
Controls are also tight - simply running and shooting is as effective as it is risky, but holding ZR will 'anchor' the character to allow free aiming in 45 degree increments. Combined with a changeable jump distance and various abilities later on that require a greater amount of dexterity, everything feels natural and effective. Platforming and shooting is immensely satisfying, especially when dealing with the range of supernatural foes. With some enemies continually respawning you'd be forgiven for thinking that things get stale or predictable. Despite sometimes needing to do a little resource farming the gunplay is fluid and brisk, which is handy as some enemies can hone in on your specific location from various directions. There is also an unobtrusive mini map (which can also be accessed in full by pressing '-') providing just enough geography to not get frustrating while avoiding handholding. Some of the enemy placement can feel a little cheap considering their speed, but the action is always plentiful, tense, and sometimes tactical.
The crux of The Mummy Demastered is the manner in which it handles life and death. Starting out with a health counter that can be upgraded, if (when) you die, you will become an undead reincarnation, and you will then start again from your most recent save point but stripped of all your gear. The kicker is that locating and defeating your zombified predecessor will allow you to reclaim all the weapons, ammo and health upgrades you had on your previous run. Despite being reminiscent of the developer's previous movie IP tie-in Aliens: Infestation - where if a marine falls in battle, another is drafted in to take their place - in that case the number of chances was finite.
The emphasis here is as much on survival as it is about progression, as there is no limit to the amount of times you can die and therefore revive. The parallel micro-management of not only journeying through the meaty adventure, but also being more mindful around hazards or enemies than in the average run and gun, is as refreshing as it is enthralling. Die twice in the same place, for example, and you'll have two of your previous avatars to dispose of.
Taking on the game's massive bosses is a visual spectacle, too. They're often articulate, gorgeously rendered and sometimes ruthlessly tough monsters that are on the bullet sponge side, but nonetheless enjoyable. Despite the game running almost completely fine in handheld mode, they truly are worth savouring and tackling on the big screen.
While the game is technically and aesthetically superb, the minor letdowns are the characters themselves. Your mentor / guide is distant, the antagonist pops up and disappears at regular intervals and as a masked, nameless recurring paratrooper; as a result it is difficult to apply any kind of personality to proceedings. However, if you aren't that interested in another protagonist or universe to rival the caliber found in broader adventures elsewhere, then it's even more negligible, as there is a rich, challenging and thoroughly enjoyable experience on offer here.
They say don't judge a book by its cover, and you shouldn't judge this game based on its movie tie-in; with The Mummy Demastered, WayForward may have reached its apex. It deserves to stand on its own as one of the best recent examples of not only a pixel art aesthetic, but as an excellent combination of run 'n gunning, platforming and exploration. The game benefits from paying homage to multiple 16-bit ancestors rather than strictly sticking to its celluloid source material; The Mummy Demastered is a polished, accomplished and satisfying adventure that will entertain more than just Metroidvania fans.