MediEvil review: Tired old bones

I think most people would agree that having old games available on current hardware is generally a good thing—not just from the perspective of preserving the medium’ history, but also just for the sake of allowing people to revisit old favourites and new audiences to discover those classics for the first time. But what is the best way of making old games available on current hardware? Is it to preserve the original work as untouched as possible, aged as it may be, with whatever warts come with that? Or is to try and modernise the work, tweaking the design to better fit current expectations and tidying up things that the original didn’t get quite right? 

That’s the eternal debate we have around this booming trend of re-releases, remasters, and remakes, and it’s one with no right answer. Different audiences want and expect different things, and different approaches serve different functions; the Final Fantasy VII Remake exists for a very different purpose than the remastered version of the original Final Fantasy VII, which serves a different purpose than the direct port that’s available on PlayStation 3 and PS Vita, but they all have their place.

And then you get something like the MediEvil remake for PlayStation 4. 

I’m honestly not sure who this game is for. It’s certainly not for historians and purists; by definition, the fact that it’s been remade from the ground up means that, no matter how faithful it might be, you’re not playing the game that came out in 1998, any more than a shot-for-shot remake of an old film but with prettier actors and better effects would be the same film as the original. 

But it’s also not for new audiences who want to play a modernised, more playable version of a game that was once an iconic part of PlayStation’s line-up but is now more than 20 years old. For all its graphical overhauls, still plays like a decades-old action game made at a time when developers were still trying to figure out how to handle a third dimension—in other words, it’s a tedious, frustrating experience that no amount of modernised presentation can redeem.

MediEvil is an action game where hit detection is unreliable, where there’s little in the way feedback or weight to anything you do, and where your limited defensive options are fiddly and unreliable. It’s a game where enemies mostly just ignore your attacks without so much as flinching and continue on their path, where stiff movement and a nuisance camera make actually avoiding attacks a feat of luck more than skill, and where your shield only works if you get the angle just right—and even then, sometimes you’ll just get hit anyway. As such, it’s a game where encounters are mostly just a case of mashing away on the attack button and hoping you empty the enemies’ health bars before they empty yours, and where your biggest advantage is in memorising enemy spawn points through trial and error so that you know where and when to start your mashing at the earliest convenience.

And if you die? It’s back to the start of the level for you—there are no checkpoints here. MediEvil‘s levels aren’t exactly long, but slogging through them again and again because you keep dying to a wonky camera or crappy hit detection is a frustrating experience, to say the least. If you’re holding a life potion when you die, you’ll resurrect on the spot, but they’re few and far between. Even when you do find one, if you’re on low health when you pick it up, you’ll just get some of your missing health restored and be stuck with a useless empty bottle.

MediEvil mixes up its action with some light platforming and puzzle solving elements, but the emphasis there is on light. The level design in the original was fairly uninspired even by 1998 standards, and they’ve been dropped wholesale into the new game. Juxtaposed against the modernised visuals, the tiny levels and simplistic puzzle design feels even less impressive.

The ironic thing in all this is that these are all issues that the original MediEvil received its share of criticism for, and that MediEvil: Resurrection for PSP got even more criticism for doing nothing to address. It seems like, in setting out on another remake project, these would be the very first things you’d look at improving before you even think about a new graphics engine.

Misguided priorities notwithstanding, the MediEvil remake does look nice. The original’s sense is style and character was one of its defining features, with a gothic-comedy tone reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas and some wonderfully oddball character designs to go with that. The remake stays as faithful to that as possible, taking those same designs and bringing them to life with a level of detail that people comment gave dreamed of in 1998. Essentially, it looks like a prettier, more detailed version of the original, which is the ultimate goal of this sort of remake—the same thing, but not beholden to the technical limitations of yesteryear.

The trade-off, though, is that the new look makes the gameplay feel even more dated by comparison. If you play the original MediEvil today you’ll run onto the same problems, but the primitive presentation helps to contextualise that. It’s a constant reminder that you’re playing a 20-year-old game. The remake looks the part of a game released in 2019, so it’s jarring to play something that feels as dated as this does.

The revamped looks might reason enough for any diehard fans to enjoy this remake, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who remember playing the original as a kid, want to revisit it as an adult, and will get exactly that out of MediEvil on PS4. But there’ll also be plenty of people remembering it through rose-tinted glasses, and suddenly have those glasses torn off when they pick up a remake that’s done nothing to modernise the gameplay and realise how poorly the thing they loved has aged. 

Anyone not playing from a place of nostalgia will simply get a game that looks nice but feels a mess to play. MediEvil needed modernised gameplay as much as—more so, even—than a graphical overhaul; no amount of prettied-up graphics can redeem a ground-up remake that’s still as clunky as the decades-old original.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.