House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn (Arcade) Review

February 4, 2019

From the very first day it was revealed in January 2018, House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn had been my personal hype demon. I had always wanted to experience the renowned zombie-shooting series, and the fifth installment would give me just the opportunity I so desired. I wanted—no, needed—to play this game. And when it was announced that Scarlet Dawn units would be gracing every Dave and Buster’s in the country, I knew the magic would finally be attainable. In October 2018, I made it my sole mission to get to my Nashville D&B as soon as humanly possible.

            And then…I didn’t. For quite a while, actually.

            For one reason or another, my family and I could never find a good chance to make the hour-and-twenty-minute drive to Nashville, Tennessee. Either my parents were busy, or I had work. Knowing the game was there—that it was so tantalizingly close—drove me absolutely bonkers. I eventually broke down and watched gameplay footage online, hoping for even a rough approximation of the Scarlet Dawn experience. As time went on, and House of the Dead seemed farther than it ever had, my hype reached a fever pitch.

            Until it wasn’t.

            Last weekend, the stars finally aligned in my favor. I wasn’t scheduled for work, my parents were free, and we were ready to spend an evening in Nashville. It was finally time for me to play one of the most-anticipated arcade games of 2018. Heck, when I entered the Dave and Buster’s and couldn’t find it, I almost had a mini heart attack. But I did locate the cabinet, and my unbridled hype finally came to a rest. I was standing right in front of House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn. It wasn’t some fantastic image. No, this was the game I had been waiting for.

            But now that I’ve finally played it, we’re left with some questions: Does House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn live up to the hype? Or is it “dead” in the water?

            I dunno. Read the review or something.

House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn

Developer: Sega R&D1

Publisher: Sega

Release Date: October 2018

 

 

Gameplay

As far as gameplay goes, this is one of the most “traditional” rail shooters I’ve played in quite some time. While the vast majority of modern shooters follow the mounted-gun, spray-and-pray style format popularized by Let’s Go Island, Scarlet Dawn is fueled by decidedly more old-school sensibilities. There is no on-screen reticle or dumb, barrel-shaped gun…thing. This is point-and-shoot, House of the Dead 4-style MP7 action. And like any rail shooter of this breed, it’s darn good fun all around. The gameplay is based entirely on player speed, reflexes, and accuracy.

            Going in, it’s important to understand that House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn bears much more resemblance to the fourth installment than it does the first two or even the third. While it may not be some Let’s Go Island casual-fest, it isn’t a six-bullet pistol shooter, either. Scarlet is a nice middle ground: the intensity of machine gun play with the required skill of an old-school shooter. Whether you like that or not is something you’ll likely determine within the first few minutes of gameplay, but it’s certainly something to consider.

            I especially enjoy how Scarlet Dawn combines the old and new in some really interesting ways. For instance, hostage and partner rescues are back, which is super-duper cool. Whether it’s a hostage or your partner, the goal is the same: save the innocent from a zombie attack within the time limit and without shooting said innocent. (Failing to successfully complete the rescue scenario will result in a life penalty.) Like past House of the Dead games, rescues provide an excellent diversion from the moment-to-moment gameplay and, in a way, kind of raise the stakes.

            Similarly to HOTD 4, zombies can knock you down. However, what makes it a little different is that it’s more of a timed deal where you must clear out the surrounding enemies to get back up. (Shaking the gun to shake off enemies does not see a return.) In fact, time scenarios are all over Scarlet Dawn, such as a sequence where I had to shoot the chains of chandelier to bring it down on top of a group of enemies. While there are quite a few of these sequences, I really enjoyed them. Like rescues, timed segments go a long way toward spicing up the standard gameplay.

            One thing I’m not as big of a fan of is the introduction of “bullet-time” (known outside of rail shooters as quick-time events). Occasionally, like so many other modern rail shooters, Scarlet Dawn will prompt the player with shooting time-sensitive targets, with penalties for missing them. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with bullet-time, it’s become so prolific that it getting a little stale. What’s kinda disappointing is that Scarlet Dawn will sometimes employ brief bullet-time sequences in boss battles, as well. It can be very fun, but it’s a little overdone.

            And speaking of boss battles, they might the weakest part of this game’s design. House of the Dead is a series known for spectacular, hair-rising boss fights. Scarlet Dawn provides…”okay” boss fights. There are only two brand-new bosses, which is a shame. And though the fights are still quite fun, their mechanics felt rather dull compared to other series encounters due to overreliance on bullet-time and extended invincibility periods. The final boss—which I won’t spoil here—may have been the weakest of the bunch, from a gameplay perspective, despite looking cool as heck.

            Even so, I have to give credit where credit is due. New to this entry is the addition of an item select screen before each chapter. With about 17 items to choose from, ranging from guns and grenades to life packs and shields, it does a whole lot to keep things interesting. While I didn’t experiment too terribly much with different items, I found that going in with specific weapons really made a difference when dealing with large hordes of zombies or bosses. At first, item selection seemed a little out of place in a House of the Dead game, but I ended up loving how it shook up the dynamic.

            However, that little bit of depth is almost negated by a very questionable design decision: automatic reloading. Reloading has always been an integral “mechanic” of the House of the Dead series. Whether it was shooting off-screen to reload in the first two, pumping to reload in the third, or shaking to reload in the fourth, ammo management has been always a priority. Reducing reloads to an automatic process thusly reduces the thought required to take down enemies. While you can still shake to reload manually at any point, it’s simply not as important anymore. As minor as it may seem, Scarlet Dawn essentially “casualizes” a core aspect of the series’ gameplay. This is pretty inexcusable.

            Other than that, though, he basic mechanics all behave properly. Rescues, timed scenarios, item selection, and even boss battles all function more or less as they should. And the difficulty, too, is balanced pretty evenly. My first blind playthrough required about 14 credits, which was admittedly a bit steep. However, don’t take that the wrong way. House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is not an unfair game. It can be mastered, as proven by many playthroughs on YouTube. If you’re a relatively skilled player, you shouldn’t have too much trouble at all. (Still, I recommend bringing $20—just in case.)

            In the long run, though, most of your fun will come from repeated playthroughs. Scarlet Dawn is all about pushing your personal score ceiling and achieving a higher rank. Like any good HOTD entry, there are a few hidden paths and collectible coins to discover throughout your journey. If that weren’t enough, there are also four different endings that can be achieved based on rank and number of continues. Scarlet Dawn delivers phenomenally on the first go-around, but it really is meant for multiple completions. Additionally, since the levels can be played in any order, you’ll be able to mix things up every time. There’s a lot of fun to be had here. (And after all those plays, you’ll probably have the game perfected anyway.)

            Of course, Scarlet Dawn is a rail shooter through and through—you’ll be pointing and shooting a lot. And if that’s your proverbial cup of tea, this is the game for you. While it’s marred by a handful of glaring flaws, House of the Dead is still House of the Dead. It’s cool, it’s fun, and it’s spooky.

 

Content

In terms of depth, House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is really solid. The base game is about an hour in length and divided into five chapters—which is pretty beefy compared to most rail shooters. Considering that the original House of the Dead was approximately 30 minutes long and HOTD 4 was around 45 minutes, this new installment really seems to get the job done. Additionally, the experience remains consistent enough throughout the duration of the game that you won’t likely get too bored. (This, of course, depends on your tolerance for rail shooters, though. I assume that, if you’re reading this review, you do have some interest in the genre.) 

            As I’ve said already, the real value will come from multiple playthroughs. There are a few alternate pathways, hidden collectibles, and a refined scoring system to incentivize going at it again and again. And if you end up really enjoying Scarlet Dawn, you’ll be ready to jump back in as soon as the credits roll. (I know I was.) Even if you only play it once, though, you’ll still get a solid hour-long experience for your money. Chasing different routes, bonuses, and rankings just makes it that much more enjoyable. If you like your games on the long side with plenty of replay value, House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is for you.

            Unfortunately, I do have one major complaint with the “content,” so to speak: all Aime card features were removed outside of Japan. Because Western arcades are apparently so scared of online functionality, we dedicated gamers are missing out on a huge chunk of cool stuff. We don’t get to save our progress, store/use HOD coins for purchasing weapons, complete achievements, catalogue our high scores, or view national leaderboards. Although playing offline House of the Dead isn’t the end of the world, it’s a real bummer that all these cool features were removed. Quite frankly, it feels like slap in the face to the Western audience.

            Despite those regional hiccups, House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn otherwise provides a meaty experience through and through.

 

Controls

Controls-wise, House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is very nice. The cabinet is outfitted with two light guns modeled after the H&K MP7. The guns feel great (with a good sense of weight to them) and work beautifully during gameplay. I especially appreciate that there’s no onscreen reticle, so aiming is based 100 percent on personal ability. Because Scarlet Dawn is, in fact, rail shooter, most of your control is limited to aiming and firing, but it’s still a mechanically sound experience. Scarlet Dawn does, however, advance the controls a little bit. There is now a weapon-swapping switch on the side of the gun, which provides for slightly more strategy throughout the game.

            But I will say this again: the automatic reload feature is downright sinful. Rail shooters are already somewhat limited in player input, so taking away even one bit of our control is, quite frankly, lame as heck. As silly as it sounds, reloading is a huge part of the strategy. Reload at the wrong time, and you could take enemy damage. Fortunately, you can still shake the gun to reload at any time, but it’s just slightly more…pointless. Even though it’s nice to refill your ammunition while traveling to the next room of enemies, you still loose some of that strategy, you know? It’s Scarlet Dawn’s singular critical control failure.

            Other than that, the game controls exactly how you would expect it to. The guns work marvelously, and the controls, though simple, make perfect sense. Perhaps the next House of the Dead will bring back true reloading.

 

Graphics/Presentation

In terms of raw graphical quality, House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is quite good. With the power of Unreal Engine 4, Sega has been able to render character models and environments that surpass the Lindbergh-fueled visuals of HOTD 4. And the sheer number of zombies on-screen at any given moment—with a stable 60FPS frame rate to boot—is positively astounding. While I'd say it's basically "on par" with current home console releases, Scarlet Dawn is still the most graphically advanced House of the Dead game to date.

            My one complaint with the graphics is that, despite its otherwise stark modernity, House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn outputs graphics in 1080p HD. Maybe I was spoiled by Halo: Fireteam Raven, but boy howdy is 4K Ultra HD gorgeous. And considering arcades are havens of advanced technology, I feel it’s reasonable to expect 4K when 1080p 60FPS is quickly losing its luster. With home consoles already entering the 4K realm, I’d rather not see arcade hardware get left in the dust. The lack of Ultra HD is especially disappointing considering that HOTD 4 was doing 1080i 12-plus years ago. Heck, when even Cosmotrons is doing 4K and Scarlet Dawn isn’t, you know there’s a problem.

            As far as presentation goes, though, Scarlet Dawn is still totally awesome. I love all the new and updated zombie designs—like that funny Slash-lookin’ dude—and I had a lot of fun exploring the different environments the game takes place in. The church setting in Chapter 4, for instance, was perhaps the atmospheric of the entire game. Progressing through misty, marble hallways, surrounded by eerie statues, was truly a spooky delight. While most of Scarlet Dawn isn’t quite as visually breathtaking, it’s the little touches throughout that count. And character animations, including humans and zombies, are just as exceptionally refined. It’s a pretty title.

            Unfortunately, there is a down-note here. The narrative (which I believe to be part of presentation) is…really uneventful. After the soaring, dramatic storytelling of the fourth game, I was expecting Scarlet Dawn to keep pushing the stakes forward. But instead, what we got was almost painfully average. The plot itself feels like a considerably less interesting retread of HOTD 4 (even if some important lore details were revealed), the scripted dialogue is really awkward and unnatural, and the voice acting is downright atrocious. Ryan Taylor, the new protagonist, has an unbearable personality, and Thornheart, the new villain, is comically unthreatening. All spoilers aside, prepare for a somewhat anticlimactic ending, too.

            Additionally, while bad voice acting is a staple of the series, the older games made it work ironically by still presenting top-notch tales behind it. The problem with Scarlet Dawn is that, with such a dull story, nothing really redeems the script or acting. And considering how actually decent the voice acting was in HOTD 4, it’s a shame the series has suddenly taken two steps backwards. I hate to beat up on the story so much, but it’s a genuine issue. This is a series known for its characters and lore. When those aspects aren’t living up to expected standards, it can be pretty disappointing. How do we go from the epic storytelling of House of the Dead 4 to the dry narrative of Scarlet Dawn? That I’m not sure of—but it’s still a shame. (To make matters that much worse, this is the first entry in the series to not feature subtitles. Like, what?)

            Even if the story is a little anticlimactic compared to previous entries, it’s still worth experiencing for some lore reveals and to stay caught up with series happenings. And despite these other flaws, the visual presentation is downright gorgeous. It’s just that, for whatever reason, the narrative was really weak this time around. Maybe the next House of the Dead will clean things up.

 

Sound/Music

My least favorite thing about playing games at Dave and Buster’s is how gosh danged loud it is. Audio presentation is super important to me, but it’s quite difficult to appreciate much of anything in such a noisy, chaotic environment. But even though my personal audio experience was somewhat hampered by location, I’m fully aware of this series’ prestigious and symphonious track record. Scarlet Dawn, I’m sure, is no exception, even if I couldn’t make it all out. So, through my own perception and the aid of others’ YouTube videos, I’ll try to give you the best SFX and music overview that I possibly can. 

            The first composition you’ll likely encounter is the attract theme, played throughout…well, the attract mode sequence. This is the initial indication that Scarlet Dawn is going for a “spookier” sort of atmosphere. Eschewing the grungy rock in the fourth game’s intro, this title returns to the orchestral roots of the first and second games. Scarlet Dawn’s attract theme is chilling and sinister, building up to a roar as the footage becomes increasingly intense. I absolutely adore the opera- esque female vocal backing, as well. While I’m not sure if this new attract theme reaches the heights of those before it, the piece is still plenty exceptional in its own right. And of course, I totally the dig the ominous “HOUSE…OF…THE DEAD” at the end. ‘Tis been a long time since we’ve heard those sweet words, boys and girls.

            The actual in-game music is decently consistent in terms of quality and tone. The music, when you can hear it, has this cool and haunting vibe to it. Just like any House of the Dead game, Scarlet Dawn provides kick-butt compositions. However, it’s usually a bit difficult to perceive over the blaring gunshots and zombie groans. I love Xtreme Audio—the enhanced, explosive audio system Scarlet Dawn boasts—but I’m not the biggest fan of how it was mastered. Were the music just a little louder, I’d totally dig it. Fortunately, though, you can still hear cool tracks like the results screen theme (which is slightly different than in previous games) and other menu music. Which, as strange as it sounds, is greatly appreciated.

            One thing I’ve always associated with this series is powerful ending themes. Whether it’s the grand, sweeping orchestra melodies of the first two games—or the eerie, contemplative piano hymn of the fourth—The House of the Dead is known for some cool credits music. (Except for The House of the Dead III. I’m still so bitter that that game has literally no ending theme.) That’s why, naturally, I was stoked to hear what the monumental fifth installment would have in store. And after beating the game, I’m still not really sure how I feel about the credits music. On one hand, it wasn’t the return to big orchestra I was hoping for; but on the other hand, it’s got this sort of peaceful beauty I can’t quite explain. (But I’ll sure try.)

            You see, House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn ends on a very mellow note. The soft, guitar-and-piano credits theme is serene, contemplative. It doesn’t soar and explode like the endings of the first two titles, because it’s not trying to. Like the fourth installment, it’s a quiet stroll back through the titular “house.” Of course, Scarlet Dawn doesn’t conclude on nearly the same downer as HOTD 4 (spoilers, kind of), but it’s somber just the same. Even so, I kinda wish the finale went out with more of a musical bang. Don’t take that as criticism as much as preference, though. It’s an excellent song—and a nice breather after such an action-packed title.

            Though some compositions weren't quite as memorable as those in previous installments, the music is House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is decently delightful. With standouts like the attract theme and credits music (so basically the beginning and end), you’re sure to derive some joy from the soundtrack. I know I did.

 

Cabinet

Scarlet Dawn has, if anything, a standout cabinet design. Described by Sega Amusements as a “five-dimensional, full-body experience,” the unit features a 55-inch 1080p high-defintion monitor, a 5.1 channel surround sound and subwoofer system, vibrating seats, ceiling-mounted air blasters, and dedicated LED spotlights. Even when compared to the jaw-dropping, super-deluxe House of the Dead 4 cabinet before it, House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is a beast. But then again, so is every arcade shooter these days. (What can I say? Environmental cabinets don’t really blow my mind anymore.)

            I must admit that, unlike most “4D/5D” arcade games I’ve played, the cabinet novelties really, really work. While the ambient lighting isn’t quite as stunning as that displayed in Raw Thrills’ The Walking Dead, every other aspect is firing on all cylinders. The air blasters, for instance, are much more stunning than I would have expected. Seeing a helicopter onscreen and feeling the choppy “wind” from the rotor blades is genuinely cool. (Haha, punny.) And the high-spec bass shakers within the seats, too, are super exciting. Believe me when I say that it can be one heckuva sensation. You truly haven’t lived until you’ve felt 50 watts of vibration rumble through your entire dang body.

            Going in, I was a little concerned that a 55-inch monitor would be a tad too large for a point-and-shoot-style rail shooter—a problem that is somewhat evident with 2015’s Time Crisis 5. Fifty-five inches is quite a bit of space to cover, especially considering there’s no on-screen reticle. However, after playing Scarlet Dawn, I’ve determined that the monitor size is absolutely reasonable. I suppose the problem with Time Crisis 5 is that, with two 55-inch monitors, each player has a screen of his or her own to stretch across. But with Scarlet Dawn, the two players share a single screen, making the task much more manageable. Either way, it functions just fine.

            Though it may seem like a trivial hang-up, I will say again wish this machine had been outfitted with a fancy 4K ultra-HD monitor as opposed to the industry-standard 1080p setup. After experiencing 4K for the first time with Halo: Fireteam Raven, I can no longer deny just how flipping cool it is. Ultra-HD is simply breathtaking. And as I mentioned earlier, a 4K display would have felt decidedly more “next-gen” when compared to House of the Dead 4. Again, a minor cabinet complaint, but an important one just the same.

            Aesthetically, the House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn cabinet is exquisitely refined. I adore the exterior in particular—deeply foreboding and gritty, while somehow sleek and clean at the same time. It’s good all around!

While some of this review has been on the negative side, let it be known that House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is not a bad game. It’s a top-notch rail shooter with action-packed, horde-based gameplay that’s definitely worth your time. This is a HOTD game, after all, so there’s a certain standard of quality that comes with the territory. But by that same token, it’s far from perfect. Even if the core gameplay works just fine, there are some critical errors that keep it from feeling like a pitch-perfect successor in a 23-year-old series. Scarlet Dawn so much right, but it also does so much…not as right.

            I kind of see Scarlet Dawn as the “Time Crisis 4” of the House of the Dead series. In my eyes, TC4 was the most “average” of the Time Crisis series. However, at the same time, it was still a really solid game because, well…Time Crisis is a legendary series. TC4 wasn’t that weak on its own merits, but it felt ever so slightly below average when compared to the rest of the series. Scarlet Dawn exists in the same fashion within the House of the Dead franchise. It’s a top-notch title, but it’s a low-tier HOTD experience. The connection to a stellar legacy makes the flaws that much more apparent.

            But if you’re a House of the Dead fan—or even just a fan of rail shooters in general—I highly recommend playing Scarlet Dawn, if only for the experience. This is the sequel we waited 12 years for, and even if it’s got some rough patches, it’s still worth your time. Does it feel like Sega prioritized flash over substance, what with the massive cabinet and shallow story? Yes—100 percent. But that doesn’t necessarily make this a bad game. It’s still a whole lotta fun with a whole lotta value. Just don’t go in expecting a super-duper stunning House of the Dead installment. Expect something pretty darn good.

            At the end of the day, I still loved the experience. So thank you, Sega, for bringing back House of the Dead. But next time (if you don’t mind me asking), please make it even better. I am grateful nonetheless.

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