Written by  :  Oleg Roschin (174057)
Written on  :  May 25, 2010
Rating  :  3.71 Stars3.71 Stars3.71 Stars3.71 Stars3.71 Stars

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Hard to be a Cat

The Good

Claw is the second game developed by Monolith, following their debut title Blood. It's hard to imagine that within one year, the young team had produced two imaginative, brilliantly designed, challenging games, that are so different from each other stylistically and gameplay-wise. Yet both games have something else in common: they break no new ground from either technological or gameplay point of view, yet they bring their respective genre formulas (FPS and platformer) to near perfection.

Claw is a traditional platformer much closer to Super Mario World than to Western cinematic games such as Prince of Persia. Level design doesn't strive to be realistic: the game's stages are full of tricky contraptions that serve absolutely no real-world purpose, coins, jewels, and power-ups floating in the air, etc. The gameplay, while introducing a few interesting and fun features (dynamite, elemental swords, etc.), is otherwise completely by-the-book. Claw is all about jumping to the right spot at the right time, staying alive, and defeating the wicked bosses. It doesn't pose much challenge to the brain, but will test your reflexes like hell.

The various aspects of the game are put together with great care and excellence. You have satisfying, challenging, impeccably executed melee combat; ranged attacks (gun and magic); fun ways of eliminating your foes by throwing dynamite at them or using elemental swords (fire, ice, and thunder); devilish assorted traps: moving platforms, disappearing platforms, crumbling platforms, spikes, arrows, cannons; a large variety of great-looking enemies, including cool dog guards and assassins, pirates, sailor bears, treacherous seagulls, mercats and invisible chameleons; incredibly dangerous and tricky boss battles that require extreme planning and timing; colorful, varied locations - prison, forest, town, harbor, underwater caves and mysterious temple.

The bosses deserve perhaps a special mention; though at times terribly frustrating, most of these battles are spectacular and very cleverly made. While the first few boss battles are simple (though really well-executed) sword duels, later ones are built like mini-levels, complete with traps, obstacles, and reflex-challenging tasks to accomplish before you have a chance to defeat the big bad guy. Such tasks involve for example changing the direction of a cannon shot to hit the boss instead of yourself, or arranging an explosion to make stalactites fall on your enemy's head.

Claw has great replay value for a platformer. Each level is full of secret areas, rare hidden treasures, and challenges that are not required to finish it. Completing the levels - meaning surviving their dangers and safely reaching the exit - is a very hard task on its own; but exploring the secret locations and collecting all the treasure and power-ups simply means that you have to put everything else aside and play Claw for months. This is certainly one of the most addictive platform games I've ever played; the game taunted me with unfathomable challenges, and I had to continue playing it, teeth-grinding.

The game keeps throwing new challenges at you, carefully introducing new enemies and obstacles with each new stage. The difficulty curve is flawless, each new set of levels (for the most part, they are divided into groups of two, with a boss waiting at the end of each group) raising above the previous one in difficulty, each subsequent boss being tougher and trickier than the one before, until it culminates in the outrageously hard final stages and the nearly impossible final boss. Every time I passed a level or defeated a boss, I wanted to see what else the game had up its sleeves, what other challenges awaited me. By the time I understood the game was making me miserable almost as much as it entertained me, it was too late.

Countless animals have starred as platformer protagonists before Captain Claw, but can you name even one with as much charisma and attitude as this feline pirate?.. Dozens of other games of this type tried to be cute, but none could put a smile on my face every time I watched one of the game's cutscenes. These cartoon movies are absolutely fantastic. Before the game begins and after each boss battle, the player is treated to a beautifully drawn, fluid, impeccably directed cartoon that moves the plot forward. The story is quite simple, but the whole thing just oozes style and is great fun to watch. It was an excellent decision to let the player watch any cutscenes he had already unlocked, and even watch them in a sequence, like a real movie.

Claw has colorful, beautiful 2D graphics with some excellent animation - you should see the peg-legged pirates roll or the tigers in the last level leap at you like crazy. The sound effects are all in the right place and are very satisfying. I also loved the short phrases the Captain kept saying - they became part of the experience in a way similar to Caleb's one-liners in Blood. After a while, I found myself saying "Hmm, this looks challenging!" aloud together with the Captain every time I saw some tricky disappearing planks over spiky ground.

Claw is the manifestation of everything that was great in old-fashioned 2D platformers, and can even be regarded as the genre's swan song, before 3D graphics made it obsolete in the eyes of most players. It is obvious that the game was put together with great care, and - just like in Blood - the developer did everything they could to squeeze the last ounces of creativity out of the rather conservative and almost stagnant gameplay templates they were using. Again like Blood, Claw proves that talent and effort are what really counts in game-making, surpassing gameplay innovations and technological achievements. Of course, the best way would be to have all of those, but the example of Claw shows that a game can become a classic without relying on innovations and cutting-edge technology.

The Bad

Claw is a very, very difficult game. I'm anything but an expert in the genre, but I'm positive that even a platforming veteran is bound to have hair-pulling moments of frustration when playing Claw. I could talk on and on about the merciless level design of the game, the absolute necessity to practice and memorize long stretches of a stage; the large segments consisting of complex patterns which require perfect timing and ultra-quick reaction; the ferocious, unforgiving bosses. I think that if you've played eleven out of the game's fourteen levels and found some of them very hard, you can safely start using cheats for the rest of the game. Because the difficulty rises brutally towards the end, and the final stretch - last save point of the last level and the final boss - is maddeningly tough. And yet all these problems pale in comparison to the game's crippling flaw - the inability to save properly.

Yes, I know that old platform games didn't have any save points at all, while Claw offers two save points per level. I won't go into a discussion as to why it was necessary to keep a tradition that owed its existence to console hardware limitations. But if somebody asks me why I don't play more old-school platform games, I'll honestly answer: because I want to be challenged, not frustrated by arbitrary restrictions. Claw has plenty of real challenge, but the lack of a normal save system raises the frustration bar much too high. Because even with two save points, the game forces you to replay very long and incredibly hard portions of a stage, until your hands ache and you feel like you don't want to ever play video games again.

By the way, I played the patched 1.3 version of the game, which supposedly makes it easier. In reality, it simply makes the regular enemies weaker; but believe me, enemies will be the least of your problems.

Other than those issues, the only thing that can be held against Claw is its derivative nature. It adheres to old-style platforming formula so fervently that it pretty much disregards everything that was achieved within the frames of the genre for the last few years. This becomes particularly obvious if we compare this game to its contemporary Abe's Oddysee, which has many more clever ideas and unique concepts.

The Bottom Line

Judging a game's difficulty level objectively is a tricky endeavor, and perhaps my inadequate platforming skills were the chief reason for the high frustration factor after all. Those who are as inept in those exercises as I am are looking at keyboard-bashing and potential nervous breakdowns. But if you adore everything platformers tend to offer - including diabolical traps, murderous bosses, and infuriating save point policy - Claw is your dream coming true. And what better way to go down than as a brave cat in a cruel dog-ruled world?..