Forgotten Gems #7: Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay - ArticleTaneli Palola , posted on 23 September 2018 / 1,538 Views
Games based on film properties have a reputation for generally being nothing but hastily put together titles attempting to cash in on the name value of a film while it's fresh in people's minds, and to be honest it's not an entirely undeserved reputation. Games like that usually have to come out very close to the film's released date, which rarely gives the developer a lot of time to work on the project and make something actually worth playing.
Naturally, as is always the case, there are exceptions that manage to defy the odds and overcome the limitations that are often placed on movie-based video games. When this happens it is often the result of the developer having a lot of creative freedom and time to work on the game, or just a wealth of talented people working on the project. While this may not be a common occurrence it does still happen, and one example of just such a game is Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.
Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay – Shining Eyes in the Darkness
Technically, Escape from Butcher Bay isn't based on any specific film, but rather on the character of Riddick who at the time had appeared in the film Pitch Black and had another one in development and set for release alongside the video game. Butcher Bay serves as a prequel to the films, set in the eponymous maximum security prison some years before the events of the first film.
The game's developer – Starbreeze Studios – was a relatively little known company at the time, having worked on just a few games prior to Butcher Bay, most of which had received very little attention or acclaim. This all changed when the developer was chosen to work on a game based on the character of Riddick around the same time that the new movie was being made.
The development for Escape from Butcher Bay was completed in just 18 months, making its quality an even bigger surprise, though to be fair this still constitutes a longer development time than for most licensed properties. Essentially, Butcher Bay was developed alongside the film Chronicles of Riddick, with Vin Diesel and the director David Twohy both contributing to the plot and character design of the video game. Diesel also had a hand in rewriting and reducing some of Riddick's voice lines, as he felt that the character was speaking too much in the original draft.
To make matters even more complicated, previous projects and various cancellations had left the studio in financial trouble, leading to massive downsizing during Butcher Bay's development. All in all, Starbreeze went from a 80-person studio to just 25 during this time. With this in mind, it's almost a miracle the game turned out as great as it did.
Upon release Escape from Butcher Bay received highly positive reviews and while it wasn't financially the success Starbreeze and the publisher Vivendi hoped for, it did put the studio on the map as a talented game developer that could create excellent games in relatively short timeframes. Partially thanks to this the studio landed a contract for developing a game based on The Darkness comic series, as well as guaranteeing the developer's continued existence.
A few years later the team would go on to create a direct sequel to Escape from Butcher Bay called Assault of Dark Athena for the next generation of consoles, and while doing so it also remade the first game with updated graphics and included it in the Dark Athena release. The sequel would prove to be almost as good as the first game, and with both games included in the release it's definitely worth seeking out. In 2009 most of the team that worked on Butcher Bay would leave Starbreeze and go on to form MachineGames, a studio now famous for creating Wolfenstein: The New Order and its sequels.
Why Was Escape from Butcher Bay Forgotten?
There are a few notable factors for why Butcher Bay has mostly fallen out of memory in the years following its release, at least as far as I could figure out. One of the most obvious is perhaps the fact that the film Chronicles of Riddick that was released essentially at the same time as the video game underperformed at the box office and was generally rather poorly received. As a result, whatever boost the film might have offered the video game was greatly reduced, not to mention the fact that the film's lack of quality hurt the name value of the game as well.
Many people likely perceived Escape from Butcher Bay as just another poor movie tie-in, rather than an entirely separate story that just happened to carry the name Chronicles of Riddick. In fact, it's possible that carrying that name may have hurt the video game as well. Not only do video games based on movies have a rather poor reputation in general, but being attached to a film of the same name that wasn't very well received in the first place made it very difficult for Butcher Bay to succeed.
Of course, the fact that Riddick ultimately wasn't the most well known character despite the upcoming second film being marketed as a big budget action film (Pitch Black had been a commercial success, but was still at most a cult classic with a dedicated yet relatively small fanbase) didn't help. Considering this background it's understandable that the video game was ultimately overlooked by most people despite the great critical reception.
Curiously, the initial sales for Escape from Butcher Bay were actually quite good. They were never massive, but it seemed that the game would turn out to be fairly successful, especially for a studio as small as Starbreeze. During its first few months on the market the title sold several hundred thousand copies on the Xbox, but eventually sales began to dry out, finally settling at 450,000 copies sold worldwide. The PC version fared much worse, selling just a little over 30 thousand copies after six months of availability.
What Makes Escape from Butcher Bay Worth Remembering?
Besides the fact that it is to this day one of the best movie-based games ever made, nearly every aspect of the game still holds up extremely well. The graphics are naturally the one element that isn't quite on par with titles on more modern platforms, as even the enhanced remake of Butcher Bay is already almost 10 years old. Even so, the game's wonderful visual design and its great use of shadows and light help immensely when it comes to aesthetics.
The rest of the game is still pretty much just as good as it was at release. The sound design and voice acting are both excellent, with Vin Diesel's performance as Riddick being a genuine standout and one of the best voiceover performances in video games in general. Other actors do a great job as well, perhaps most notably Cole Hauser deserving a mention for reprising his role as Johns from the film Pitch Black. The soundtrack has some very nice tracks to it as well, though it may not stand out as much as some other elements.
The story is another great element in Butcher Bay, detailing Riddick's backstory before the events of any of the films in a way that feels perfectly in line with the world and story the films had set up, while still creating its own identity throughout and having its own style and tone. Much of this comes from the game's more intimate and often claustrophobic setting, showing most events from just Riddick's perspective, while the films featured numerous point-of-view characters.
In the end, though, the real star of Escape from Butcher Bay is its gameplay, which combines elements of stealth and action with what is still quite possibly the best example of first-person melee combat in video games. The weakest of these are easily the action elements, and the game generally does encourage taking the stealthier, more methodical approach. Using guns just doesn't feel as satisfying or well implemented as the rest of the gameplay, though it still works fine.
Stealth is expertly implemented, with the game's use of shadows playing a huge part in how the player can approach different situations and ambush enemies without them ever noticing. Riddick's eyeshine ability, which allows him to see in the dark, is also crucial in these sections. Escape from Butcher Bay also contains some adventure elements, as the player can interact and speak with various other characters within the prison to find out information and progress through certain sections.
Finally, the first-person melee combat system is exceptionally well designed. Unlike in most games where these systems often end up feeling like the character is just swinging at the air somewhere in the vicinity of nearby enemies, the system in Butcher Bay has a certain sense of weight and responsiveness to it that makes it stand out from other games.
The best way to play Butcher Bay is to get the enhanced remake that comes with Dark Athena. It's still relatively easy to find for a fairly cheap price and as an added bonus you'll get another excellent game for the price of one. Used copies of the game are still quite widely available to this day on both the PS3 and Xbox 360, but the PC version might be a bit more difficult to find, especially as the gog.com version was delisted just last year apparently due to licensing issues.
Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is a game that most people missed back when it was first released, and even with the later release of the enhanced remake alongside Assault on Dark Athena, it never really gained the recognition and attention it would have deserved. If you're one of these people, I strongly recommend going out of your way to get your hands on the game.