Why aren't there any Christmas-themed video games? Why not a Santa Claus stealth-action adventure? Or shopping mall wrestling? Or Three Wise Men kart racing?
Most games, with their enthusiastic embrace of mayhem and chaos, don't mesh too well with the ostensible peace-on-Earth message of yuletide.
But some of us find the holidays more frightening: The crowds at Wal-Mart (WMT), the incessant Christmas carols, the dreaded office parties are enough to send us racing for the relative comfort of a graveyard full of hungry zombies.
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A good scare can be enough to chase away the holiday blues — or at least allow us to pretend it's Halloween and we still have two months to do our Christmas shopping. So let's give Santa a break and pay a visit to some of our favorite video-game ghouls.
This time, an evil force is trying to resurrect Dracula, and it's up to a whip-wielding hero to invade the old goat's castle and stop the threat.
The fresh twist is that the hero, Jonathan, is accompanied by a spellcaster named Charlotte; you can control either character or, in some cases, both. As they explore the castle, Jonathan can find deadlier weapons while Charlotte can upgrade to more powerful spells.
"Portrait" lets you escape the typical confines of the castle via an assortment of cursed paintings that are actually portals to different worlds, ranging from desert pyramids to a depraved circus fun house.
It's essentially one giant maze with a handful of branches, all presented in the glorious 2D that fans have come to love. (The mystery remains around Konami's inability to create a decent 3D "Castlevania.")
Series regulars will enjoy the new stuff in "Portrait of Ruin," while newcomers will discover an entertaining, old-school adventure. Three stars out of four.
You're part of an elite strike force, First Encounter Assault Recon (there's your acronym), sent in to clean up the mess, but your enemy isn't your everyday terror cell.
Instead, you're confronted with a force of supersoldiers who are psychically controlled by a maniac named Paxton Fettel. He can get into your head too, feeding you hallucinations of a creepy, dark-haired girl in a red dress.
"F.E.A.R." is a first-rate first-person shooter, but the paranormal elements elevate it into a much scarier experience.
Some of the visions are genuinely gruesome, much more than in your standard blast-a-thon or even in "survival horror" games like "Resident Evil."
"F.E.A.R." suffers from repetitious enemies and bland level design, but the regular doses of shock make it worth the ride. Three stars.
"Death Jr. II: Root of Evil" (Konami, for the PlayStation Portable, $39.99): Death Jr., the insecure son of the Grim Reaper, is one of the more appealing new characters of the last few years, at least to those of us with latent goth sensibilities. Too bad the games he's headlined haven't lived up to his potential.
In "Root of Evil," DJ and his doomchick buddy Pandora contend with a deranged nature goddess named Furi, and there's something likably perverse about making Nature the villain.
The journey encompasses some colorfully weird locales, from the River Styx to a toy graveyard to a waffle house where the syrup is made of acid.
Unfortunately, the gameplay gets dull quick: Most of the time you're just twirling DJ's scythe or Pandora's whip, and most of the challenges are a bit too straightforward.
The controls are a little sloppy as well, making it hard, for example, to see enemies that are attacking you from off-screen.
We really do like Death Jr. — the character — and we want to see how much fun he'd be in a better-designed game. Two stars out of four.