I suppose I’ve always been a sucker for stories where the paranormal becomes mundane. Ghostbusters and The X-Files probably started my interest here, but I’m thinking of more recent shows like Supernatural and games like The Witcher or Nocturne. Stories where besting the deepest horrors of the night really just comes down to arcane research and having the right artifacts on hand.
I similarly liked Keanu Reeves’ Constantine when it was released. I bounced off the comics pretty hard – you won’t have to look too far on the internet to find someone proclaiming that this film is nothing like the source comics, but for me, that was a benefit. Yet with nothing like the film beyond the film, I didn’t pursue the universe any further. To be honest, I’d kind of forgotten about it until recently – its 15th anniversary. After a recent rewatch of the flick, I looked into the PS2-era movie tie-in we’re talking about today. More specifically, its PC port.
The game never quite spells out its backstory, presumably expecting you to pull it from the film or the manual. John Constantine is a man born with the gift of “true sight,” allowing him to spot both demon and angel “half-breeds” living secretly among us. Through a loophole in the timing of his death, he’s now the only known mortal who can move freely between Earth and Hell. Hell exists as a ruined mirror of our own world, with demons re-purposing the rubble of various noteworthy locations to hold important artifacts – artifacts that Constantine gleefully snaps up like a chain smoking Indiana Jones. He uses these trinkets plus his abilities to stop nefarious demonic tinkering with the world of the living. The experience he’s gained has left him with reams of knowledge and mystical contacts that let him approach things like exorcism with the world-weary ennui of a plumber selecting the right wrench to stop a leaky toilet.
Constantine The Game does not follow the movie exactly, but weaves characters and ideas from it into an almost alternate-universe storyline. We begin as John has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer from his two-lighters-a-day smoking habit. While a critical plot line in the movie, the game never actually references this again. Instead, he sets off to investigate the murder of one Thomas Elriu – a known half-angel. John realizes Elriu was hiding (guarding?) something in his apartment around the time that small numbers of demons appear in the real world to attack him. We are repeatedly told that pure demons on Earth is breaking the “agreement,” should not be possible, and is overall a Very Bad Thing. How are they crossing over? For what purpose? What did Elriu have that’s so important that Hell would risk open war to get it?
You’ll control John in the form of a standard third person shooter. Environments are fairly linear, while an auto-updating objective notebook further keeps you pointed in the right direction. John’s world-crossing abilities are represented here through water puddles. Stand in one, play a four-key spellcasting minigame, and you’re thrust into the alternate Hell version of the level you’re currently in. Corridors that were blocked on Earth now maybe aren’t, or you can push objects around in one world to open paths the other. It’s light puzzle solving in the vein of Legends of Kain: Soul Reaver or A Link to the Past, but it works. It’s a nice break from the shooting, but it’s too linear to let you feel clever. Limiting the ability to very signposted portals means hopping worlds is nothing you’ll get the chance to come up with on your own.
Constantine in the comics was more of a magician and trickster. Constantine in the game is much more John Wick. Magic guns are your choice method of dealing with demons, from the bluntly-named “Holy Shotgun” to the “Witch’s Curse” pistols that the journal informs us shoot pebbles collected from the road to Damascus. Somehow, pebbles collected from the road to Damascus are commonplace and laying around office buildings and police stations in convenient boxes of ten.
Two weapons let you re-collect spent ammo – the bolts for the crossbow and the nails for the mildly sacrilegious “Crucifier” – and as such, these end up being your go-to choices for most of the game. The other tools in your arsenal are specialized enough that you’ll revisit them for particular enemies, but blasting demons with the Crucifier does start to get a little old – especially as weapons upgrades (like exploding nails) keep its power and usefulness up for the whole game. Using other guns is intentionally being less efficient.
John also learns offensive spells as the game goes on. You keep one “armed” at all times and can switch the selected spells with the bracket keys. Pressing X will slow time significantly as you go through a longer version of the spell minigame. Success results in effects like calling down lighting, a swarm of carnivorous bugs, freezing enemies in place, or instantly killing off a possessed corpse. Spell power slowly recharges on its own, or tops off more quickly by dropping demons and absorbing the blue orb they drop. Books to teach spells as well as extend your life an magic bars are loosely hidden within the levels. I do mean loosely. Precious console memory wasn’t wasted on filling out these levels with extensive secrets, so they’re usually hidden behind bookcases or small crevices and highlighted by a icon visible in True Sight mode.
Finally, John gets a small collection of side weapons to throw at any time. The most plentiful are the beakers of holy water he can chuck like grenades. They don’t appear to have any effect on pure demons, but half-breeds will reveal their demonic side and become easier to kill. Regretfully, you never have to suss out hidden demons. There’s one spot that you can (it doesn’t matter) but otherwise, any corpse you see is about to be possessed, and any human guard or nurse is a secret demon that’s about to start shooting. The Screech Beetle is the other major side weapon, too rare to freeze anyone besides a specific boss that requires it to kill. I also collected a “Moses Shroud” that will dust all regular demons on screen, but a FAQ says there’s only 5 in the whole game, confirming my belief that it’s too rare to know when to use.
WASD controls your movement while the mouse controls the camera. It’s a standard setup and works fine here. John’s pace is fairly slow – there’s no Run option here – but the levels are constrained enough that it rarely matters. You can’t jump, which is odd at first, instead pushing against ledges to hop over them or clearly-defined walls to climb them. Instead of jumping, John’s signature move is to slow time as he whips around 180-degrees and blasts whatever’s behind him. You look fairly cool if you pull it off, and ridiculous if there’s nothing there. Its major use is in taking on the old “charging, invulnerable enemy with a weak spot on his back,” and it does make these encounters much easier to handle.
Bearing in mind this is essentially a PS2 game, it looks pretty good. PC benefits are unclear – you have the option to select higher resolutions, but the textures don’t seem to increase in parallel. There’s a number of effects that can be toggled that all seem related to the Hell levels; heat shimmer, film grain, etc. Hell in the film looked like a version of Los Angeles that was being hit by a nuclear blast for all eternity, and the game replicates this admirably with period technology. Scripted moments of destruction cause rubble to crumble and bounce convincingly. About the only downsides worth mentioning are a pretty ropey glass shattering effect and some overall stiff animation.
Audio hits its mark with quality music and effects. The one semi-cheesy standout is the slow-motion “BEEEEEeeeeeoooooo” effect when John whips around behind him, sounding like its straight from The Matrix. Bill Hope (Gorman from Aliens) gives a stunningly authentic Keanu, while Tilda Swinton, Gavin Rossdale, and Max Baker voice their roles from the film. Notably, Angela both looks and sounds so thoroughly nothing like Rachel Weisz that I feel like it must have been some kind of legal requirement.
Overall, it’s a pretty average companion piece to the film. I would have preferred a completely unique story, but watching events unfold through cutscenes and John murmuring to himself is satisfying enough. You don’t entirely expand on or explore the world, mostly because – with the exception of everything related to Elriu – you’re following the beats of the movie too closely to make it possible. Yeah, you get to play with recognizable toys like the Holy Shotgun, but they’re so similar to other video game weapons that it doesn’t feel special. Yeah, you spend about half the game in Hell instead of the brief glimpse from the film, but it ultimately looks like any well-trodden apocalyptic game world. There are semi-hidden tarot cards in all levels that unlock bonuses, but this is the era where “bonuses” are just no-effort concept art and comic covers viewed from the main menu.
It’s fun enough though. Average, but competent. If you’re looking for more attempts to tie into the comics, or build the lore behind the movie, it’s not here. At a little over 4 hours on the normal difficulty, you’re in and done before any frustration sets in. The only point that really demonstrates a lack of polish are the stiff animations (especially when John gets knocked over), but overall, its forgivable. If you haven’t seen the movie, the movie’s a better use of your time. If you have and are interested, the game will probably meet your expectations.
Pairs well with the movie. Light puzzle solving. Competent action.
Short, with no good reasons to replay.
Balthazar: What happened to “turn the other cheek?”
John: You’ve got the wrong J.C.