American Hero Review (PS4) – So Bad, It’s Almost Good
Originally cancelled in the 90’s, corny FMV game American Hero has been restored and released for modern platforms. The Finger Guns Review.
A quick history lesson for those who weren’t old enough to remember: Back in the 90’s, FMV games were considered to have one of the brightest futures of all of the gaming genres. Blending the nerdy aspect of computer games with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood movies, it was considered one of the most likely genres to break through into the mainstream. While most of them had been animated up to this point, FMV games were blowing up (and continued to do so until the late 90’s) and started to attract big name actors. Atari knew this, specifically a man named David Schwartz, who had developed and patented a new format for interactive movies called “GameFilm”. Unfortunately, the format didn’t get to the chance to become fully realised. The poor performance of the Atari Jaguar meant that both the projects that were being made using ‘GameFilm’ – American Hero & Caves of Fear – were cancelled and were never officially released. Until now.
The publisher Ziggurat Interactive have teamed with Empty Clip Studios to repair, restore and release American Hero for PC and consoles. The original footage was almost entirely complete when the game was cancelled so much of the initial spirit title has been retained. While some tricks have been played to make up for transitions which were missing, and it includes a new voice over recording from Timothy Bottoms, this version of the game appears to be true to the original vision. For better and for worse.
American Hero is undoubtedly an artefact of the 90’s. So much of this game simply wouldn’t get made today. The game starts in a strip club as the game’s protagonist, former military intelligence officer Jack Devon (played by 70’s movie star Timothy Bottoms), watches his favourite stripper gyrate on stage. Here, the lead is met by a smarmy army general who tells him that the nefarious Doctor Kruger is up to his old tricks again. Jack is seemingly uninterested in an evil plot involving a mind control virus until he hears that his ex-girlfriend Laura (played by Musetta Vander who you might know as Sindel from the Mortal Kombat: Annihilation movie) is involved.
Despite being crafted in the 90’s, American Hero follows a reasonably modern structure. As soon as that aforementioned scene plays out, you’re presented with choices to make. Words and a few seconds of footage are repeated on screen when one of these choices is present.. Press X when one of the options is on screen and it’ll direct the game along that path. You even have the option of not pressing anything at all. Each choice will send you down an arm of the branching narrative. It’s similar to many modern day examples from the likes of Wales Interactive, like Five Dates or Night Book.
There’s a an aspect of American Hero that was very innovative for its time and is still not used very widely today. Most of the choices in the game are binary and will represent two different personality types. Some choices are aggressive while others are nonconfrontational. In its most basic sense, they’re fight or flight decisions, pushing Jack to attack or retreat. The players choices between these two extremes effect Jack’s personality as he progresses through the game. Some choices are only available at some junctures of the game should you reach there with the appropriate personality level. While this underlying statistical data is common in most modern day FMV games, this would have been revolutionary in the 90’s.
No matter what you choose, the story that plays out in American Hero is one of the corniest, daftest and poorly crafted I’ve ever experience. I think almost all of that is intentional. The story leans into many tired, hammy action movie tropes and dials them up to 11. Very little is explained as you bounce from random explosions, chase scenes, scantily clad women to fight sequences with nameless goons. Punching a stripper because a disco ball is some how hurting your brain. Brawling with a woman who looks like she’s on the Russian shotput team around a bathroom. Wrestling a mad scientist on a cherry picker crane as it wobbles around. It’s just one whacky set piece after another and it does all of this unashamedly. I imagine if this game had released in the 90’s, it’d have fit right alongside the action b-movies like Mission of Justice.
The single best aspect of American Hero is the death scenes. If the player makes the wrong choices, Jack will die in a myriad different ways. Using practical effects, you’ll get to see the fruits of your poor choices play out in a load of very funny ways. The dry, matter-of-fact way that these play out is hilarious. Fail to outrun a truck and you’ll see a Jack shaped mannequin get smashed by 18 wheels, for example. Most of these deaths come out of nowhere too. In one example, a pair of thugs run up to you and ask if you’re Jack. You’re given the option to fess up about your identity or attempt to blag it and lie. If you reveal your identity, Jack will challenge them, starting to look wild and macho as he does so. That is until one of the thugs pulls out a revolver and wastes him. In another death, Jack and another character can crash a taxi into a school bus. “No kids, Our lucky day” the pair will exclaim before the car explodes while both of them are inside. If Jack meets a sticky end, it’s not game over. There’s a checkpoint system in place so you don’t lose all of your progress (more on this in a second).
While I think the death scenes are supposed to have a comedy element to them, there’s a tonne of unintentionally hilarious aspects about American Hero. I’ve had stitch from laughter at times because the game lands firmly in that “so bad that it’s good” territory, like The Room. There’s a monologue from Gustav Vintas (Lethal Weapon) that’s shot from such a weird angle that you can see every one of the villains incredibly white teeth. It’s both creepy and very funny. Henchmen opening fire on Jack can be seen simply shaking their machine guns to make it look like they’re firing. Some of the acting from the supporting cast is dreadful, but it’s done with such sincerity that you can’t help but smile. The game is so dated in some regards that I couldn’t help chuckling to myself – when Jack and Laura are trapped in a room with walls that are closing in to squish them, one choice of escape is to put on a sensual dance for the security guard. It’s so cringey that it goes all the way past awful and right the way to funny again a number of times during its full 1 hour run time.
It’s a shame then that the original footage in all of its corny glory couldn’t be included in a more modern day package with some present day touches. In most modern FMV games, you get the option to skip footage you’ve seen before, even in games that track background data on decisions like this game does. That’s not the case here. You’ll see the same footage repeated in American Hero, over and over. There are certainly sections of the game that present a number of rapid fire dangers to Jack too, often quite a long way into a chapter. Reach any one of the many death scenes and you’ll have to replay the whole chapter again.
This might have been avoided if American Hero had far more checkpoints. These aren’t as regular as I’d have liked which compounds the repetition.
The UI isn’t ideal either. Because of original 4:3 aspect that the footage was shot in, it’s presented on an old CRT in the centre of the screen. This is quite an ingenious way to retain the quality of the original – but there’s no reason the choices you make have to be smushed onto the TV screen too. The text is small and can sometimes be hard to read with what’s going on in the repeating seconds of footage. With all of the screen available, it might have been worth using the rest of the screen to better display your choices.
So American Hero puts me in a difficult position. While it’s great news that this quirky piece of history has been restored and released for modern day audiences, there’s no denying that this FMV game is poor compared even to its modern day peers. Don’t get me wrong – American Hero would have been way ahead of its time if it had released in the 90’s. But it didn’t. By todays standard, its corny, cheesy, clunky and a bit rubbish in places.
And that’s precisely why it’s so fun to play. Every cliched performance, every unexpected death scene featuring a poor mannequin getting destroyed, and every hammy line of dialogue is a source of amusement. American Hero might have been aiming to be an interactive action film originally but through today’s lens, it’s a comedy. A funny one, so long as you can push through the repetition. Play this game without trying to take it seriously and you’ll laugh along the way. Take it at face value and you’ll probably have a torrid time with it.
An interesting, unreleased relic from the 90’s, American Hero is a “so bad, it’s almost good again” FMV game that probably would have been ahead of its time if it had released when originally intended. Today, it’s corny, cheesy and clunky but that’s why it’s funny. FMV enthusiasts and those who would like a laugh will get something out of this.
American Hero is available now on PlayStation 4 (review platform), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC via GOG.
Developer: Empty Clip Studios
Publisher: Ziggurat Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we purchased a copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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