Deconstructing The Ring: Terror's Realm

In 2001 I saw a horror movie that totally changed the genre for me. I was at university and a friend who was (and still is) a complete movie nerd persuaded me to sit down and watch The Ring. Directed by Hideo Nakata and based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki, The Ring tells the story of a mysterious VHS tape that if watched, will forsake the viewer to certain death in seven days. It certainly peaked my interest in Japanese horror movies and over the following years I went on to buy the home releases of stuff like Dark Water, Uzumaki and The Grudge.
I'm not entirely sure what it is about horror from that particular part of the world, but there's always an intrinsic and overwhelming sense of dread that permeates every scene. There seems to be a strangeness that modern-day Japanese horror films effortlessly produce in spades: a gut-wrenching sense that while everything may seem normal, it is far from it. The colour may be off, the air just a little bit too still, the room just a little bit too quiet.

A built up, technologically advanced setting in which traditions and spirits are integral, and the odd juxtaposition of a totally empty street or apartment block are far more skin crawling than a typical haunted house or graveyard scene packed full of screaming zombies or monsters; normality steeped in an unknown and untraceable uneasiness is far more terrifying than a skeleton popping out of a cupboard, or a maniac running around with a knife. To me at least, that is the essence of modern Japanese horror; and while I am a huge fan of Hollywood productions like The Thing or The Shining (and more recently It Follows), what excites me is the notion that older, more powerful things exist in our world that have the ability to circumvent our technology and scare the living shit out of us.

With this in mind, let us turn our attention to Asmik Ace Entertainment/Infogrammes' 2000 Dreamcast game The Ring: Terror's Realm. Based loosely on the tale spun in the 1998 movie, Terror's Realm introduces us to a whole new set of characters and a whole new location but keeps the familiar plot mechanism by which some form of ancient evil is killing people through their use of modern-day technology. Here though, the focus switches away from JVC's Betamax-murdering home video format and instead focuses on a cursed computer program.
As a side note, back in those heady days of VHS tapes and floppy disks, it seemed perfectly reasonable that a physical media format could indeed harbour some form of swirling malevolence - just look at the 'haunted Legend of Zelda cartridge' creepypasta for instance. I don't know why, but the same air of mystic just cannot be afforded to a DVD, Blu-Ray or GD Rom. But a VHS tape? That shit is scary...and not just because someone might tape over your collection of adult material with episodes of Eastenders or E.R. without you even knowing. Man, I hate VHS tapes.

Anyway, let's get back on track. Imagine that the scary VHS tape macguffin has been substituted for a creepy computer program (and I'm not talking about Windows 8), and that several scientists from the local Centre for Disease Control have all died mysteriously - at the same time - while using it. Not just keeled over in a nice peaceful way like a good corpse does either. No, they've all perished under very strange circumstances, their badly rendered early 2000s CGI bodies contorted into grotesque and equally pathetic CGI renders with protruding foreheads and bulging, unblinking eyes. Not that they blinked when they were alive either...but you get the idea. This scene setting is all played out in one of the worst, most embarrassingly bad pre-rendered intro sequences ever pressed onto removable media too, so my earlier comments about disc-based media not being as scary as VHS tapes? Null and void, I'm afraid.

You start the game as Meg Rainman, a new researcher at the CDC and coincidentally the girlfriend of one of the deceased scientists, Robert. Meg starts the new job so soon after her boyfriend has died, that when she gets to work in her lab, Robert's old laptop is still on the desk and the battery hasn't even run flat yet. Compassion? Bereavement counselling? Nope - just get back to work and start rummaging around your dead boyfriend's private laptop all the while grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Seriously - look at Meg's face. She could have auditioned for Heath Ledger's role in The Dark Knight:
"The question must be asked: What's with that smile? Regardless of the situation, Meg wears a disturbing, Jokeresque leer throughout every scene of the game. Her boyfriend died the day before? She's all smiles. She's faced with a slobbering apelike creature? Big dopey grin. It's disturbing."
 - Brad Shoemaker, GameSpot Review (July 2000)

Smile aside, once you get past the hilariously bad intro and painfully slow explanatory text (there's no voice over work in the main game, it's all text based), things get even weirder...and not really in the way you'd want a game based on The Ring to get. Upon booting the computer, Meg is met with the aformentioned program, oddly stylised as [RING], and is instantly transported to some alternate reality where she is a soldier/cop/security guard armed with a laser-sighted gun and a flashlight and must run around shooting badly animated, shambling zombies. Once the zombie things are dead, you return to reality and must then wander around the CDC facility speaking to NPCs and going back and forth between the alternative reality (which - you've guessed it - is inside the computer program) finding keys, interrogating scientists, unlocking rooms and opening draws that have nothing in them.

I really wanted to like The Ring: Terror's Realm and so I purposely didn't read any reviews or research the game at all before playing it for myself. All I knew was that it had something to do with the 1998 movie...but as soon as I saw the laughable intro I knew something was amiss. Confirmation of my fears was received once I actually took control of Meg, and it was drilled home that Terror's Realm was going to be a slog. The controls are pretty laborious, as you have to use the d-pad to move around...and Meg moves like she's trudging through waist-high treacle. You can run if you hold the X button down at the same time, but this just means you'll be running along corridors bouncing off the walls as the camera switches its viewpoint. I suppose this is a flaw that can be levelled at all 'fixed camera' survival horror games of the era (Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark etc), but you know what those games have that Terror's Realm doesn't? Polish.
The dialogue is poor, the controls are bad. The story itself is as tenuously linked to the awesome movie as you could possibly imagine. The movie was about a cursed VHS tape and ended *spoiler alert* with one of the most memorable and iconic scenes ever, where a ghastly apparition of a dead girl literally climbs out of a TV set. That shit was terrifying, but in contrast there's nothing even remotely scary in The Ring: Terror's Realm...unless you count the utterly horrific muzak that loops incessantly as you play.

Quite why the developer felt that they had to use a franchise as highly regarded as The Ring and bolt it on to a desperately poor Resident Evil clone is beyond me - if it had been released as a standalone game, maybe it would have relieved some of the expectation heaped upon it and the adventure could be enjoyed (I use that term loosely, by the way) for what it is. I went into this expecting a game drenched in atmosphere, with at least some link to the events of the movie...but what I got is something else entirely: a slow, lumbering Resident Evil rip-off but with not one iota of the finesse of Capcom's title. In case you wondered, the mimicry doesn't end with the fixed cameras either. You have almost identical map and inventory screens, limited slots for equipment, a familiar combat scheme (aim with trigger, fire with another button) and the usual 'safe rooms' complete with radios (in lieu of typewriters) for saving progress and boxes (instead of chests) for storing items that you don't have inventory room for. Hell, even your health is monitored in a similar way. The Ring: Terror's Realm lifts almost every idea it has from Resident Evil, but somehow makes it seem cheap...if that makes sense. The door opening animations, the 'there's nothing of interest' dialogue that pops up when you try to investigate a desk clearly strewn with items. The combat where you can't move and shoot at the same time, the atrocious awkward conversations and downright weird interactions with NPCs.
The Ring: Terror's Realm is a total stinker of a survival horror game and I don't say that lightly. I've played stuff like Evil Dead and Carrier, but this is a whole new level of horror - and not in a good way. As I said earlier, the game did hold a certain intrigue for me as it was never released in PAL territories, and while I was aware of its existence I was totally unaware of how it was received by critics or even what type of game it was. When it appeared on eBay for £15 it was an instant purchase because there aren't really any Dreamcast games out there that I don't have a least a little bit of knowledge on. The Ring: Terror's Realm was one of them, and now I have experienced it first hand I would strongly advise that you steer clear of this abomination.
I'd rather watch the cursed VHS than play the game...
I suppose it would almost be poetic if every person who had played The Ring: Terror's Realm died in mysterious circumstances seven days later,  only to be found face down in a pile of their own vomit, a painful grimace locked on their face. Meanwhile, a Dreamcast whirrs in the background while the unearthly background music from Terror's Realm plays an eternal dirge, mocking the dead in the knowledge that they can never turn it off from beyond the grave.

3 comments:

CageFightingBlogger said...

The Japanese original Ring is still a great horror movie. I remember watching it well. It was 2002 though, after Varsity Games in first year, which would have been about May / June. I think we just stumbled across it on TV. I was going to stay over at Toby's but he got arrested. You were kind enough to let me crash! Fun (and nerve racking) times!

Simon Early said...

I never managed to make headway with the Evil Dead (or for that matter D2). Looks like I can add this one to the list I will never play!)

noiseredux said...

great post, Tom.

I still plan to play this. Like you, I loved The Ring back in the day. So even knowing full well that this is considered horrible, I still can't help but want to experience it for myself.

And props for mentioning Uzumaki. Easily my favorite Japanese horror film.