At its surface, Vampire Hunter D is many things. First and foremost, it is a gothic drama about a vampire hunter named "D" (in case you couldn't tell from the title). It is a vampire game done up in grand, operatic fashion. It is a game based on a popular animated film from Japan. It is yet another slow-moving, heavily stylized horror game in the stale Resident Evil tradition (what hath Capcom wrought?). It's a game filled with many monsters, bats and other assorted winged and four-legged beasties. It's a game played from too many off-kilter camera angles. It's a game strewn with mind-numbing puzzles, ordinary and familiar gameplay and poor controls. At is surface, Vampire Hunter D is many things. Below its surface, Vampire Hunter D isn't much.
As someone unfamiliar with the source material, I can report with confidence that the game really tries to do justice its inspiration—the film of the same name. Visual and audio production maintains a consistently high quality throughout the proceedings, and a genuine affection for the story and the characters shines through.
The game is set far into the future, in the year 12090 (that's A.D., just in case there's any confusion). The vampires' 10,000-year reign over the world is coming to an end as humans are once again emerging as the dominant species. In "remote regions," the vampires "continue their grusome attacks on humans." As a result, bounty hunters are hired to eliminate any remaining vampires. A race of vampire and human half-breeds, the Dunpeals, are considered the best among the bounty hunters. As the best of the Dunpeals, D, your mission is to collect the ultimate bounty by saving a rich man's daughter, Charlotte, from the clutches of Meier Link, a vampire.
There's no doubt that this is ripe material for a video game. However, I question the decision to slot Vampire Hunter D in the so-called "survival horror" genre. This is not to say I don't know the reasoning behind it. With the Vampire Hunter D license, the developers obviously felt they had a natural fit for a horror setting, and considering the popularity of games like Silent Hill and Dino Crisis, that's too big an audience to pass up. What the developers may have forgotten however is that this material has been seen many times in video games, most notably in Konami's Castlevania series of action games—so the premise isn't as fresh as maybe originally thought. Vampire Hunter D, with its similar characters and themes, plays just like the great PlayStation game, Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night, would if it were made into a survival horror game. There's only one problem—horror games are meant to be scary, and Vampire Hunter D isn't scary at all.
Honestly, why should we be scared? We're already playing the part of a vampire who has a left hand that talks to him—what could be more creepy than that? If the hero looks more sinister than the moronic enemies he fights, isn't the game defeating its own purpose? If we were given the role of the kidnapped girl, Charlotte, trying to escape from Meier Link's castle—now that might be scary. Otherwise, this game has no business being in the genre it's in. The gameplay of Vampire Hunter D is geared more toward action anyway—featuring more fighting and jumping around than any other survival horror game I've ever played. Why didn't the developers try a 3-D action/adventure game? That certainly would've fit this kind of stuff better, plus, the failure of other licensed action games, like The Crow, Spawn and even the Castlevania efforts on Nintendo 64, have left plenty of room for a dark, moody adventure game to come in and do reasonably well.
However, we can't examine Vampire Hunter D for what it might have been. We're instead forced to talk about what it is, which is the same survival horror action that's been around since the first Resident Evil. Aside from not being scary, it never goes beyond the same boring, extremely played experience. You look for items, solve inane riddles, fight amazingly stupid monsters and watch a little story progression here and there. In Vampire Hunter D however, the controls are a tad slow to respond, camera angles are too far away and change too frequently during battle, and enemies magically reappear in areas that are revisited. But just like in other games of this sort, bad guys will rountinely attack you from just outside of the fixed viewpoints—so even if a monster is within sword's reach, you won't be able to see him—much less engage him—unless the camera has him in view.
There were a few things about Vampire Hunter D that interested me gameplay-wise. The sword-based combat worked pretty well and was a nice departure from the heavy guns and ammo approach that other horror games so often depend on. I also liked the fact that you could save your progress at any point in the game. However, the game's best attempt at innovation in the genre is how you can suck energy from weak enemies to build up healing and attack magic. It's this gameplay device that explains why monsters keep coming back after you've killed them—it provides an continuous source of health if the player chooses to go for it.
Most of the time however, I was bored out of my mind playing this game—even when I was advancing through it at a good clip. But there's never a "good clip" to this game. Everytime you open a door, you're forced to wait through animation of the hero walking in place as the next room loads from the CD, and all the tedious going back-and-forth throughout the castle while solving puzzles and killing the same monsters over and over again just makes it worse. Just like any other horror game, once you familiarize yourself with the awkward control scheme to the point where you can actually play the game, it's a breeze. It just isn't any fun.
I'll close in discussing the one part of Vampire Hunter D that really piqued my interest, and that's D's talking left hand—appropriately named Left Hand. That's right—our hero D has a living left hand that has eyes, a nose and a mouth. It talks to him, makes jokes, offers advice and does all sorts of things in addition to being the source of D's supernatural power. When D wants him to shut up, he simply makes a fist (though if I were D, I would watch Left Hand to make sure he doesn't try to bite off my fingers when I did this). Left Hand's role in the game brought up all sorts of philosophical and logistical questions for me. How would my life be different with a living left hand? Would I ever be truly alone? Since he feeds off the lifeforce of others, could I ever allow him to eat and not feel guilty about it? Does Left Hand share D's brain (and his thoughts), or does he have his own? If he does have his own brain, is it also in the left hand, or is it in the wrist or maybe further up the arm? How could there possibly be room for all that stuff crammed into a hand? Why did he choose the left hand to live on and not the right? And if he were on the right hand, would his name still be Left Hand?
After wearing myself out with all of these questions, I found it was a simple observation that truly meant something to me: With a left hand like that, it must be easy for D to be the "master of his domain."