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Some months ago, I visited our local gaming and movies resale store in search of a set of video games from a particular period. The goal was simple: experience a couple games per month from 20 years ago and write a review on them. My results weren't as great as one might have hoped. Between working full-time, planning out of country trips, and trying to maintain my social life, my pickings for 1997 were slim. I did, however, manage to play a few games.
One of those games was Spawn: The Eternal. A close friend of mine is a huge fan of Spawn, and when I saw the release date of this particular PS1 title—December 1997—I knew she had to play it with me. So we did. I put together my recording equipment, set my PS1 up, and we captured nearly three hours of awesome Todd McFarlane spawned, hell-fire fueled gameplay. Well, that was the dream, anyway.
Ultimately, what we wound up with was a headache and a resolution that we probably wouldn't play another Spawn game, and Spawn: The Eternal would be sitting on my shelf for the rest of its life—that is if we didn't ritualistically burn it to get rid of the evil spirits first.
In a word, Spawn: The Eternal is bad. A portion of this badness is in its unexplained challenge. There's a lot of guess work in the game, and by the time you get about three chapters in (exactly how far we made it), you realize you're going to need to start over, because your resources—unlike every other adventure game of similar design—are far from limitless.
In this strange cross-over between action/adventure game and 3D fighter, the player character—Spawn—has a limited supply of both magic and health. If Spawn's magic counter (permanently displayed in the bottom right as X:X:X:X) reaches zero, you lose. However, as far as we could tell, this is not possible. Spawn has access to several spells, mostly offensive, with a heal added in for good measure. That's right, you can give up “life-force,” assuming that is essentially what the magic meter is, in order to regain...life-force—or rather, health. If you cast a spell or attempt to heal with low magic, the spell will fail, or you will heal as much health as you can before hitting zero. You are now stuck with about half of your maximum health and 0:0:0:1 on the magic meter.
As if this inability to refresh magic wasn't bad enough, the game is not as forgiving as its pure 2D and 3D fighting counterparts. In my time, I have played many, many fighting games. For the most part, I can clear the story mode in these games without ever having blocked, save maybe once or twice. Games with high-powered super moves are the worst culprits of forcing players to block. However, going into Spawn: The Eternal with the same mindset basically screws the player. If you complete the first level without ever blocking, because hey, you have a healing spell and most of the enemies aren't that tough anyway, what you find waiting for you at the end of the first stage is the second stage, with the exact same amount of magic you ended the first stage with. Now you're off to a bad start. If you were figuring out the game like me, you've used nearly half your magic meter.
Really, what is the point of all these awesome powers if they're just going to leave you completely drained? Spawn's magic attacks aren't all that much stronger than his standard punches and kicks, and using his chains and cape can prove far more efficient than shooting one of those green fireballs, which seem to miss a lot. At least in other fighting games you either have no limit to the amount you can use your special abilities—the number of times in a single fight I can have Scorpion shout “Get Over Here” is nearly uncountable—or you are limited by an additional gauge, much like Spawn's magic meter, that can be regenerated either through fighting or by charging up when your opponent is distracted.
Now, all of that about the fighting system aside, we have to look at the utterly deplorable adventure portion of the game. Between questionably entertaining fights, Spawn finds himself walking around town, or sewer, or castle, like a tank with one tread blown off. I honestly don't know why so many PlayStation 1 era games insisted that tank controls were the preferable control method, but fine, I'm not beyond tank controls, I can figure those out, and what could possibly make it worse? Oh, clunky jumping mechanics, hidden walls, and either breakable boxes that you needed to leave intact to reach hidden areas or indestructible boxes that, though appearing to lead you to a secret area, are just stacked in a misleading fashion, ultimately garnering disappointment in the player who fancied himself clever.
In addition to terrible controls, the adventure portions of the game also feature terrible traps. Some rooms simply cannot be maneuvered without taking damage from the spikes that shoot out of the ground, others feature walls of arrow launchers that, though simple to dodge in well-made 3D platformers like Super Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot, are any tank-control adventurer's worst nightmares. Then you can add onto this pile of traps, lines of spikes that, at one point in the game, are pointing straight up and are arranged above your character's head, but walking into the brick wall below them still causes Spawn to take damage, losing oh so precious health.
Needless to say, when I finally realized the trick to the game was to underestimate no trap, and conserve as much health as possible by blocking, and to never use magic unless necessary, I had already resolved I would not be slugging back through it.