They’re watching you. They‘re not easy to spot, but they‘re there. Staring. Waiting. Maybe you’ll get lucky and catch them in the act. But chances are, you’ll never see them coming. In fact, you’ll probably feel them first; a slight tingly or itchy feeling on your back, or the slight but undeniable weight of something on your head. Something scratching, digging, tearing its way through your skin. You’ll likely frantically scramble to feet, awkwardly shuffling off your clothes or raking through your hair in feeble attempt at self-defense. But it’ll be too late. Whatever’s on you is clinging firmly, and it’s gorging on your flesh with its tiny, dagger-filled mouth. Maybe you’ll get off easy; you could be left with just a red little bump. Or you could end up keeling over from whatever poison that might’ve just been injected into your bloodstream. Either way, it’s funny how the tiniest, most insignificant things can prove to be the most dangerous of them all.
Deadly Creatures takes this idea and runs a marathon with it. It starts a couple of greedy yokels – whose voice acting Dennis Hopper and Billy Bob Thornton execute superbly, by the way – prospecting for buried treasure in some godforsaken stretch of desert. This is merely the backdrop of something far more intriguing: an epic struggle for survival on one of smallest scales imaginable. As shovels dig and dirt flies, a tarantula and scorpion are barely managing to stay alive. There’s nothing admirable about them; the game makes no attempt to gloss over their hardened exoskeletons or their creepy-crawly leg movements. They don’t show emotion, let alone any voice acting a human could understand. Despite such limitations, it won’t take long for you to feel the connection you might get with any other video game protagonist. There’s no evil mastermind to defeat or peace to be won, though. For these two, living another day is just fine.
Oh, it sounds simple. Something as primal as self-preservation ought to be…but it never is. The desert is a dangerous place for humans as it is, and it’s even worse for the insects. All of those rocky outcroppings and cactus fields are teeming with predators. You might take a dragonfly or beetle for granted, but it’s a whole different story when you’re the size of a quarter. Those little pests turn into hulking, buzzing monstrosities looking to tear you limb from clawed limb. You can’t squash those things with a folded-up newspaper or shoo them away with a flapping hand; you’ve got to get up close and personal. The combat in Deadly Creatures might seem pretty basic compared to the brawlers that you might be used to, but they are just as brutal. A quick button press or Wiimote thrust will dish out tackles and combos that can send bug juice splattering to the ground and bodies flying. The more carcasses you rack up, the more points you’ll earn towards unlocking new moves and abilities. It won’t be long before you’re slinging web projectiles or burrowing through weakened surfaces. It’s not exactly God of War or Devil May Cry, but it works well enough.
Considering how dynamic the combat is, it won’t take long for you to notice the difference between the protagonists. The tarantula is built for speed, evasion, and exploration. Not only can it crawl on most surfaces, but its fighting abilities make it a stealth killing machine. Trying to take down a Gila Monster? Try blinding it with a webbing shot to the face, then punishing it with a few spinning kicks. Or you could do a sneak pounce attack and send it reeling with your venom-tipped fangs. It can’t take nearly as much punishment as the scorpion, though. Its massive claws can be used to block attacks, tear foes to shreds, and dig through tunnels. This other insect is built for head-on combat; its tail not only stings its foes into poisoned submission, but can be used like a bladed whip. The problem is its hardened bulk, which weighs enough to prevent it from crawling up walls or nimbly avoiding oncoming assaults. The real trick is learning how to use these characters; strengths and weaknesses to their greatest potential.
Or at least as far as the WiiMote will let you, anyway. The majority of the protagonists’ movesets are performed through a combination of simple motion commands and button inputs. You might have to hold down a button and chop downward to pull off a pounce, or waggle the controller to do a tail whip or claw through some underbrush. The commands get more specific in battle, though; once you’ve beaten some hapless bug into submission, you can perform a handful of finishing moves on it. There’s nothing quite as awesome as flipping your prey onto its back – all eight legs desperately flailing – and stabbing it through its juicy abdomen. Such special attacks are executed by following on-screen commands, like thrusting with the nunchuck or making a chopping motion. The problem is that the game occasionally misreads your commands and botches your most devastating combos. The errors even worse when there are several enemies on the screen at once, which can slow the action considerably. Not to mention the camera, which randomly switches from reliable and steady to an erratic and awkwardly shifting mess. There’s nothing game-breaking, but it can make the easiest battles needlessly annoying.
These nagging little flaws are more bearable thanks to the game’s pacing and balance. While Deadly Creatures features predators and prey duking it out Darwin-style, it’s not all about senseless killing. Much of the game focuses on exploration; you’ll have to find your way through all the little nooks and crannies that make up the rocky desert surface. There’s a smooth blend of combat and wandering. You might be given an objective, like reaching a certain area or finding your way out of a maze of underbrush, but nothing too challenging. There’s even an optional arrow display to point you in the right direction. A little searching can reap plenty in bonus points and unlockables. The problem is that the levels aren’t designed around explorative gameplay. You might find a cleverly-hidden cave or something, but the majority of the levels are surprisingly linear. Though revisiting stages later on might uncover previously inaccessible areas, an initial playthrough might seem a little short. The levels are well designed, but there’s always a sense that more could have been done.
You’ll probably be too distracted to care, though. If there’s one thing Deadly Creatures excels at, it’s conveying atmosphere. An insect’s world is a disturbing, hostile expanse of impossibly large obstacles and foreboding locales. You wouldn’t think a rotted tumbleweed would be scary, until you’re lost amidst the endlessly twisting branches and thorns. When you get trapped in an enemy spider’s web, you might not notice your breath catching as you watch the predator slowly descend from the darkness, ready to rip you to shreds. Or how you’ll get lost in some dark cave, only to be guided by the dimming light and endless beeping of a discarded cell phone. What makes the designs so believable is how they’re built to scale; there’s nothing abnormal at all in these levels, but seeing everything through the eyes of an insect makes all the difference. Even if you get used to the all-too realistic movement animations (authentic scuttling sound effects and all), you might never get used to the otherworldly images that make up every level. It’s a shame that such a visually engrossing experience is marred by occasional loading freeze-ups and glitchy walls. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s still beautiful.
Deadly Creatures has a lot going for it. Originality and creativity, primarily. There hasn’t been a game since Mister Mosquito that has played with the idea of an insect-sized protagonist and pulled it off so well. Even if it boasts some Hollywood A-List voice acting, it’s not about the humans at all. It’s about a couple of tough little beasts trying to survive another day. Each of the creatures comes with several moves and abilities, allowing for some variation in gameplay and combat mechanics. While there is some exploration to be had, it feels limited. There are a handful of graphical and control issues, but nothing that’ll ruin your experience. Besides, the incredibly designed and detailed levels will keep your eyes glued to the screen. And above all else, Deadly Creatures teaches an age-old, but valuable lesson: Mother Nature can be a *****. Don’t mess with her.