Sleeping Dogs: Nightmare In North Point – Trick Or Treat?
If you’re sick to death* of boring zombies and pretentious vampires prancing around and ruining your halloween with their shambling bloodlust and sparkles, why not spend your next halloween in China. Forget regular boring ghosts, China has Hungry Ghosts, spirits of the dead who return to the mortal realm on certain special occasions to slake their unquenchable thirst and insatiable hunger for mortal food. There’s even a festival held specifically to provide these ghosts with libations and snacks to ease their time in the afterlife. And Vampires? F*ck those wimps. China has Jiāng Shī, co-called Hopping Vampires made from reanimated corpses, possessed mortals, or just straight up demonstuff who drain the life out of the living. While hopping. Look, it’s scarier than it sounds.
Both monsters, or at least some very funny approximations, populate the first meaty Sleeping Dogs DLC pack, Nightmare In North Point. A stand-alone mashup of Wuxia and Asian Horror tropes, players get to roam the streets of a Hong Kong overrun by supernatural terrors and, as often as possible, deliver an epic beat down to said terrors as though part of HKPD training involves fighting demons. At turns funny, fast-paced and drenched in mocking humor, it’s a departure from the serious and gritty tone of the main game, and that alone is reason to be excited for the future of Sleeping Dogs. Alas, the story is a bit thin, and the side missions a bit repetitive, but even if it doesn’t live up to its promise, it’s still a fun, and definitely very inexpensive way to celebrate Halloween. And one that also suggests good things to come for Sleeping Dogs fans.
Sleeping Dogs: Nightmare In North Point (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC [reviewed]).
Developer: United Front Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Oct. 30, 2012
MSRP: $6.99 (520 MS Points.)
Set outside of the normal Sleeping Dogs continuity, Nightmare In North Point is in a sense an extended tribute to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but with kung fu fighting taking the place of extremely sweet choreographed dancing. Wei Shen has taken on of his girlfriends, ‘Not Ping’, to see a horror film, and while leaving they’re suddenly attacked by the ghost of a dead Triad gangster named Big Scar Wu. Having escaped from the underworld, Wu wants to take over crime in Hong Kong, and in the meantime exact a little revenge on the Triad gang who killed him in the first place. Wu unleashes an army of the undead to possess and/or harass the citizens of Hong Kong, then kidnaps Not Ping, giving Shen the incentive he needs to kick some supernatural ass and bring non-supernatural order back to the streets of North Point.
That’s basically it. The rest of the add-on is fairly straightforward. Shen must first collect ingredients for a special tea that will give him supernatural powers. He must then deal with the ghosts of the three Triad members he killed during the events of the main game. Finally, he must defeat Big Scar Wu personally, then burn what remains of his body in order to guarantee that Wu stays in the underworld where he belong. Hopping demons, flashy battles and some rather grim jokes ensue.
Nightmare In North Point turns out to be a lot of fun. For starters it breathes some new life, er, death, into a game that, while fairly great, was also a bit light, especially near the end. It’s short – it probably has 2 hours, maybe 3, of new content – and you’re playing a significantly nerfed version of Shen, with only basic fighting skill and none of the abilities you’ll earn over the course of the main game. That might feel to someone who’s already beaten the game like a drag, but it guarantees that new players won’t feel incapable of enjoying what is supposed to be a inessential, but unique experience within the Sleeping Dogs-i-verse, so it’s not really a problem. Mainly, you’ll explore the city from a new perspective, engage in some fairly entertaining martial arts battles, and even laugh a few times. That last point is particularly important. Nightmare isn’t a parody, like the zombies in Saints Row The Third, but it also isn’t a grim downer like Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare. Instead, it’s a action packed look at failure, and that’s kind of great.
The gangsters returning from the grave? They are all people who Shen has already killed, or simply lacked the brains and cunning needed to survive the cutthroat world of Triad life. Big Scar Wu is particularly hilarious. In life he was a much feared gangster whose antics got him killed. To punish him for various mistakes and oversteps, his Triad enemies ground his body into cat food. As a result, everyone in hell calls him Smiley Cat. There’s a pretty great scene in which he’s assembled his undead gangster army, but cannot convince them to call him anything other than Smiley Cat. Hearing his desperate, pathetic demands to be addressed correctly is one of the highlights of the DLC and of Sleeping Dogs as a whole.
I was also struck by the attention to tiny details from Chinese folk tradition. The Jiāng Shī behave as you’d imagine, based on their description, as do Hungry Ghosts. There are even peach wood swords, which in real life are essential to Taoist exorcisms, scattered around North Point, and they’re the most effective weapon against the undead. Nightmare is also full of uncharacteristic levity, At one point, a Jiāng Shī complains about how stupid human names are. Seriously. And throughout the pack, one of Shen’s dead Sun On Yee friends (I won’t spoil who) returns just to, you know, hang out and stuff.
There are other nice moments, like the process of strengthening Shen to battle the undead which has him concocting an herbal tea made, in part, with antifreeze (“all magical tea uses antifreeze!”, you’re told). Or ‘Hell Shrines’, the pack’s replacement for Health Shrines from the main game, where you burn currency as an offering to the dead so they’ll have money in the afterlife. Do enough of them and you’ll increase the chances of causing enemies to burst into flame when you kill them. Nightmare is full of nice touches like that. Still, as much fun as it was, Nightmare In North Point has a few missed opportunities that should probably be taken into consideration for the next bit of story-based Sleeping Dogs DLC.
What Falls Short
The biggest problem with Nightmare In North Point is that it’s a bit too short and a bit too scant. There are only 5(ish) main-story missions, and they’re essentially the same thing: go to a location, get a short cutscene, engage in kung fu battle with demonic enemies, and repeat. The sameness of each mission, aside from location, makes the thing feel much shorter than it actually is, especially as battles are essentially pattern-based exercises in rote learning. This problem is particularly obvious with the side missions included as part of the packet. These missions has Shen travel to a point where a gate to the underworld has opened. You have to defeat all ghosts and Jiāng Shī to close the gate, and these missions are largely distinguished by how you go about it. In some cases, you have to shove the ghosts into the gate to close it, but in others, you have to defeat a Jiāng Shī mini boss. Either way, it’s largely the same.
The story is also underdeveloped. Cutscenes are utilitarian and seem to exist only provide information as efficiently as possible so you can get back to more fighting. Shen is practically a voiceless protagonist, having only a few lines. The majority of dialogue is reserved for Smiley Cat, and while that’s fine, it also makes you feel rather disconnected from the story. Worse, the game misses the opportunity to make some very obvious, and potentially easy references to the horror classics it’s obviously influenced by. For instance, Nightmare ends with a very blatant reference to thriller (I’m sure you can imagine what it might be), but in the middle of the game it doesn’t take advantage of a battle inside a nightclub to make an even better reference. This might sound unfair, but it’s another instance in which the pack feels, not cheap, exactly, but undercooked.
Still, Nightmare In North Point comes in at a very low price that makes it, even with its flaws, totally worth it. It isn’t destined to be a classic expansion on par with Undead Nightmare, but it’s a breezy, fun way to get more out of a very solid game. It also bodes well for future DLC; even with all its problems, it really does add value to the overall Sleeping Dogs experience. One hopes that all future Sleeping Dogs DLC will at least be this high concept. I may have wanted more from it, but it’s always better to want more of something. Especially on Halloween.
Final Score: 80/100
* Get it?