You and your heavily armed squad step into the arena to face the end level boss who is suspended from the ceiling by hooks. This is Governor Cassus Vicus, an obese pervert whose been having a non-stop 3,000-year orgy of sex, torture and cannibalism in his self-made Hell. You point your machine gun at Vicus, whereby he laughs and reaches into his disconcertingly vaginal stomach slit, which opens wide to spill a glistening mixture of gore, pus and excrement right into your face.
Welcome to CLIVE BARKER’S JERICHO.
While Barker is best known as a novelist he’s proven more than willing to spread out to other mediums throughout his career, from painting to directing horror gems like HELLRAISER and NIGHTBREED. While not personally a gamer, he became interested in the medium’s potential while consulting on CLIVE BARKER’S UNDYING in 2001, where he helped smooth out numerous issues that pushed it across the finishing line. There was a limit to how much input he could add since UNDYING was well into development when he arrived, spurring him to develop a game from scratch.
That’s how JERICHO came to be, which came out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC back in 2007. The premise finds God’s aborted first attempt at creating a being in his own image trying to claw its way back into the world. This creature was so foul it was banished to a realm called The Box, but over the centuries it’s tried to break out multiple times. The game opens with the Jericho Squad – who are basically witches with guns – being sent to a city called Al-Khali to deal with The Firstborn’s latest escape attempt, but find they might be too late to stop it this time.
From the first ten minutes there’s no mistaking Barker’s distinct hand at work, from the intense amount of world building to the scenery being caked with blood and severed limbs. There isn’t one area that isn’t slick with viscera, and while the high levels of grue initially produces disgust, it becomes so overwhelming players fast become numb to it. There’s one section where the squad are wading through a literal river of blood, eventually encountering a giant beast comprised of hundreds of corpses; subtlety is not the mission statement of this game.
There’s no real way to talk about JERICHO without mentioning its lukewarm reception upon release. Despite selling decent numbers, it received mediocre reviews for the most part which killed chances of a sequel. Its reputation hasn’t improved much in recent years either, and it’s generally considered a misfire. That said, JERICHO has earned itself a small but loyal fanbase, who are drawn to the rich mythology, the identifiable heroes, the experimentation with gameplay styles, and the chance it offers to run around inside Barker’s imagination for a few hours.
The story is the biggest appeal: the squad travel across different time periods The Box (insert HELLRAISER gag here) has absorbed into itself during The Firstborn’s numerous escape attempts. JERICHO’S lead character is brutally killed in the first hour, leading to his consciousness being able to possess teammates. This mechanic allows players to control whichever squad member they wish, varying up the gameplay. They can use badass sniper Black, who can control bullets with her mind and has a nice destructive grenade launcher, or maybe Church, who can slice demons with her katana and cast spells with her blood magic. The game encourages players to mix things up, with certain characters being better equipped for different areas.
It helps that the team are an enduring bunch. They’re foul-mouthed, psychologically tormented and their dialogue can be cheesy, but they’re all distinct and easy to grow attached to. This connection helps players power through the big issues with the gameplay. First, the relentless waves of enemies are bullet sponges of the highest order, leading to teammates being wounded constantly. This forces the player to go around reviving them in turn, which spoils the flow of the combat. The A.I. for squad mates and enemies is faulty too, leading to many frustrating deaths. JERICHO is also afflicted with annoying gimmicks from that era of gaming, such as random Quick Time Events, where players have to mash buttons to fend off an attack. Since little to no warning is given before they occur, they almost always lead to death.
These drawbacks weight the game down, but JERICHO overcomes many problems by sheer force of imagination. Once in awhile, the player gets hit with a shocking visual, like the sight of dismembered – but still living – Roman soldiers writhing in agony while being crucified. There’s also the section where the squad fights nightmarish creatures inside a Coliseum, while the damned watch from the stands and cheer. The monsters hit the sweet spot between grotesque and oddly attractive too. There are the enemy soldiers from the World War II section; these hulking cyberpunk nightmares are really two soldiers fused together with a flamethrower for an arm. There are also the Crusader demons, who’ve taken the term “body armor” quite literally and sown their chainmail to their flesh.
While the story doesn’t spell everything out, there’s a healthy amount of backstory discovered in unlockable files. These reveal the childhoods, personalities and origin stories for the main characters, revealing Ross is haunted by the accidental killing of a child during a mission, that Black has repressed feelings for Jones or that vile Nazi villain Lichthammer used to perform psychic experiments, like forcing victims to dissect themselves.
The history behind each era is also fleshed out. For instance, it’s revealed an evil bishop is responsible for the carnage in The Crusades section, who believed The Firstborn was some type of God. He tricked the Pope into thinking he’d discovered the Garden of Eden in Al-Khali, so he marched an army of untrained Christian children out there, who were quickly slaughtered creating the river of blood and attracting The Firstborn. This level of detail adds so much, especially when the undead children rise and attack, trying to strangle players with their own intestines.
Barker did more than providing a storyline and a few sketches for JERICHO. He even admits he was something of a jerk during development, demanding sweeping changes and tweaks when he was unhappy. The developers tried scoring the game with heavy metal without seeking the author’s approval, so when he heard it he demanded it was immediately removed. He instead brought on Cris Velasco to compose an eerie, lush score that adds much to the game’s oppressive atmosphere. In the end, it seems Barker was right to be overbearing about it.
Each era has its own distinctive visual touch, though the game relies too heavily on dingy corridors and amber lighting. If there’s another area worth highlighting with JERICHO it’s that the game is rarely scary. Sure, there are tense moments – especially in the brief sections the team is divided – but it relies more on disgust than genuine chills. The abrupt ending is something even fans can’t defend since it really just stops. There’s a final boss battle, a brief cutscenem and then the credits suddenly roll leaving many questions unanswered.
Despite all the frustrating problems, there’s something too unique about JERICHO to entirely dismiss. A few refinements and tweaks, and it could have been amazing and sparked a whole series of adventures. Barker himself teased his concept for the next mission which would open with an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean with 666 children in the cargo hold. Sadly the (surviving) members of the Jericho squad have yet to reunite in any form, despite the amount of untapped potential in the concept. Maybe Barker will dust it off someday and make a great comic, short story or – Firstborn willing – remake from it, which is a prospect JERICHO’S loyal fanbase would certainly jump at.