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SummaryNo game has ever entertained me like this one has
The GoodAn interesting thing about Monolith is that they are a company of extremes. I've never played a "decent" or "average" game made by Monolith. Their games are always either brilliant works of art or complete shockers, there's no middle ground. Claw and Get Medieval (released a few months apart) are typical examples of this. Get Medieval is a tired, repetitive Gauntlet remake that probably could cure insomnia. Claw, on the other hand, is quite possibly the best side-scroller ever made for the PC.
The game is set in a kind of alternate reality in the 17th century, in a world inhabited (and governed) by cats and dogs. The two kingdoms are at war, and an audacious pirate cat named Claw begins raiding dog shipping. His attacks are causing so much damage that the Cocker Spaniard king (whose subjects all talk in outrageous accents) issues a bounty of 1,000,000 gold pieces for Claw's capture, dead or alive. Dead, preferably.
Eventually, Claw's luck runs out. His ship is attacked and scuttled by the king's admiral Le Raux, his crew abandons him, and he himself is captured. He is transported to the feared prison La Roca ("The Rock") to await his death sentence. While trying to find a way out of his cell, he comes across a piece of parchment left behind by one of La Roca's former inmates. The letter speaks of a powerful artifact called the Amulet of Nine Lives, which supposedly grants the wearer with near immortality if all the gems for it are found and assembled. The writer urges whoever finds the letter to search for the amulet, and ends with "...but beware, others now know of the amulet too."
One thing leads to another, and Claw overpowers his guards and escapes. Once outside the prison, he makes a rather predictable decision to begin searching for the amulet and the gems for it. And thus the game begins. The game has a surprisingly good story considering it's a side-scroller, told by over 20 minutes of professionally animated cinematics. The movies alone are superb, it's worth replaying the game just to see them. But gameplay is where the game really shines.
The game combines the addictiveness of Super Mario Bros with the complex puzzles of Prince of Persia. Jumping from platform to platform, climbing ladders, swinging from ropes, battling enemies with sword, pistol, and anachronistic dynamite, there's really nothing new in Claw. But the level of refinement found in this game is what makes it so good. Claw has 14 massive levels to play through, each with its own scenery and enemies. The game should keep the average player busy for a week or more. The game is extremely hard, but not hard because of broken controls like Get Medieval or even because of ridiculously tough enemies like Blood. Instead, it's hard because of interesting puzzles and solid level design. You're not frustrated when you die, but rather you want to replay the level and try again.
You could never praise Claw's graphics on a technical level, but on an artistic level they're superb. The sprites are all hand-drawn, and the result is a game that resembles a cartoon, with graphics that look like they've been painted rather than rendered on the screen. The game makes use of Monolith's advanced parallax side-scrolling engine WAP, and the game is as smooth as silk even at the highest resolution and detail settings.
The game's audio side is also strong. Claw (voiced by Stephan Weyte) has a number of one-liners for every occasion, shooting, running, attacking, and even for when he is left idle and gets bored. "At least bring me something back from the kitchen!" is a classic. Your enemies also have their own repertoire of lines. I particularly liked the town guards on levels 5 and 6, who will quote Shakespear at you as they draw steel and attack. The game's music is catchy and suits the piratish theme perfectly.
In the event that you're looking for additional entertainment out of Claw once you've beaten it, the game has a level editor that can be downloaded from the Claw site. While the editor isn't as user-friendly as it could have been, it's a blast creating your own levels or fiddling with existing ones. Claw has spawned a very active level-editing community, you could be busy for months playing through the hundreds of custom levels that have been made. Side-scrollers traditionally don't have much replay value, and Monolith's decision to include a level editor was probably one of the smartest they made while developing the game.
The BadThe only big problem with Claw is how it saves your game. You don't get to save whenever you want, rather you have to reach a "Save Point", of which there are two in every level. This sounds rather harmless, except that Claw's levels are massive. Assuming you play faultlessly, negotiating all the obstacles first try, never dying once, it still takes about an hour to complete most levels. What cannot be stressed enough is that Claw is tough as well as long, and two save points doesn't feel like nearly enough. If you die you have to restart at your last save point, and you usually have to march across massive amounts of territory just to get back to where you were.
This whole checkpoint concept in platform games has never really appealed to me. What's wrong with just letting the player save whenever he wants? Does it somehow make the game more fun when the player has to retrace his steps because he died just before the next checkpoint, has to start all over again, and has essentially wasted 20 minutes of gaming time? Jazz Jackrabbit 2 (Claw's main rival) was smarter in this area, and lets the player save at any point. Save points might have been a necessity on the cartridge-based console games of yesteryear, so why do we still have them today?
It's a rather logical assumption that in a platform game each level should be tougher than the one before it. But in Claw, level 2 is harder than level 3. Level 7 is much easier than level 6. The boss of level 6 is extremely difficult while the boss of level 8 is a pushover. The final level is more or less a cakewalk. Just a nitpicky thing that doesn't hugely impact the playability of game but warrants a mention all the same.