Despite clunky gameplay by modern standards, there has been something incredibly satisfying about playing The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena in 2023.
A big part of that could simply be the ability to play through two complete and cohesive games in less than the time it takes to complete any recent AAA blockbuster, but I also think they’re legitimately good games that hold up well enough – especially for those that enjoy aggressive stealth, scrappy firefights, and that striking high-contrast, stencil-shadow look briefly popularised by DOOM 3.
To keep these features a manageable length – and to highlight the one you should play if you’ve got limited time – I’ll begin with 2009’s Escape from Butcher Bay remaster.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was originally developed as a tie-in for 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick film, so expectations were low. However, Starbreeze Studios and Tigon Studios – which was founded by Vin Diesel – were given the freedom to create a prequel set before the events of 2000’s Pitch Black.
The result was a prison-break narrative that, when not focussed on Riddick’s attempts to escape by causing as much mayhem as possible, provided some much-needed backstory to explain the source of his “eyeshine” night vision and his seemingly contradictory nature – albeit with some brief cutscenes shoehorned in to link it to the film.
The plot is not particularly novel for the genre or well-told – even with some distinctly cinematic and impressively voiced cutscenes – but it moves at a brisk pace and serves as both a great introduction to Riddick’s grim universe, and a means to push them from set piece to set piece. It’s one of the rare licensed games that are better than the film, and features a narrative packed with contrivances to keep things moving forward, ensuring even a few slower-paced sections never drag on for long enough to affect the gameplay pacing.
We discover life on the frontier is dangerous and often short, with colonists facing the elements and disease, hostile alien wildlife, supposed lawbringers with no oversight, and no shortage of criminals on the run from established systems. Everyone and everything looks weather-beaten, downtrodden, desperate, or menacing – be that prisoners, guards, bounty hunters, settlers, and even the infrastructure (the health stations are terrifying).
This is exemplified by the utilitarian, rusting, blood-stained, and supposedly inescapable Butcher Bay – a double-max “slam” run by the sociopathic Hoxies; a warden more than happy to allow his underlings and prisoners establish their own violent social structures, just so long as they don’t jeopardise lucrative bounties or slow down mining operations.
It’s the perfect authoritarian setting for Riddick to tear apart from the inside; full of verbose, self-interested antagonists unsettled by his calm demeanour, frugal use of speech, and brutal confidence in the face of their threats. Riddick deceives, manipulates, and kills prisoners and guards alike – albeit mostly those who had it coming – and no matter how many times he’s recaptured, it doesn’t take long before he’s out again and causing more chaos in an attempt to escape.
When it comes to the gameplay loop, Escape from Butcher Bay looks and feels like a first-person game from the mid-2000s, but offers a well-balanced mix of exploration, stealth, melee combat, and firefights. Like many of Starbreeze’s FPS, there’s full-body awareness that grounds you in the environment, and the game often cuts to third-person for several animations, presumably to get maximum mileage out of Vin Diesel’s likeness.
Many objectives feature a light role-playing element as you decide how to complete mandatory tasks to gain the information and tools you need, or decide whether you’ll take on optional quests – usually of the murderous kind – to gain some credits or smuggled weapons.
That said, Escape from Butcher Bay is first and foremost a stealth game, and that factors into most scenarios, be that remaining undetected during exploration or surviving a boss fight by sticking to the shadows. Riddick is quickly torn apart by gunfire, even on the lowest difficulty, and while it can feel unforgiving during a few trial-and-error set pieces, the game moves at a brisk pace with generous checkpoints and a stealth system that rewards aggressively exploiting the predictable and forgetful enemy AI.
Riddick moves almost as fast as he jogs while in stealth, with the screen and HUD shifting between white and blue hues to clearly indicate if you’re all but invisible or not. You’re encouraged to stay that way as often as possible through a combination of sticking to shadowed areas, timing your movement based on patrols, or creating your own darkness by destroying light sources – ideally with a silent taser that also works to lure guards and aid you in dispatching patrolling pairs, stunning one enemy while you rush down other.
If you can get behind someone for a silent(ish) neck break (or not-so-silent melee weapon kill) you can drag bodies into the dark to avoid alerting more clueless guards and disrupting their predictable patrol routes. It’s a distinctly game-y design, sure, but creates a satisfying rhythm as you methodically clear out guards in each new area. Even if you are spotted and need to go loud, the game is forgiving enough to have them return to their patrol route eventually.
During periods where you’re stripped of weapons, I’d also argue stealth takedowns are far preferable to direct melee combat, which uses a wonky block, parry, and combo system that feels too unreliable with inconsistent hitboxes.
It’s not exactly consistent with the films, but Riddick is the ultimate predator when using firearms, capable of dropping isolated guards with a burst or two, switching firing positions in the dark, and lining up shots on other panicked guards as they fire blindly. To keep things balanced, a biometric system limits their use and most feel powerful but inaccurate, forcing you to get uncomfortably close to enemies that alternate between popping in and out of cover, trying to flank you, or simply rushing you. A nice touch is that with Riddick’s eyeshine ability, fighting with the lights on is sometimes preferable, as muzzle flash or enemy flashlights can blind him.
Befitting the era in which it was developed, and another reason the pacing feels so brisk, is the constrained level design. It’s a mix of compact hub areas – think several small areas connected by loading screens – strung together by classic corridor-style levels, albeit sometimes with two potential routes to your objective. You can explore a few dark corners and side paths for collectible cigarette packs, but distractions are kept to a minimum, and frequent set pieces spice things up.
You’ll steal a guard uniform and explore their quarters looking for a target; you’ll tear up parts of the facility in a riot suit and later a rocket-spewing security mech; and – less enjoyably – you’ll battle through mutants in a sewer and annoying aliens in a mine. Riddick’s considerable bounty is used as an excuse to keep him alive despite the mayhem he causes, giving the developers an excuse to repeat the prison-break scenario twice over, before a final breakout leads into the action-packed finale.
Returning to an earlier point, Escape from Butcher Bay won’t feel like a particularly deep game if you’re fond of modern progression systems and bloated campaigns, with only a few health stations that boost your total HP and several story beats that’ll force you to re-acquire gear. But then, it doesn’t need extraneous systems to compensate for a slow or repetitive gameplay loop when it can be completed in 8 or so hours and pushes you forward with the promise of escalating chaos.
So many modern games seem terrified of letting you have fun from the start, presumably concerned they won’t be able to string you along for hours by drip-feeding snippets of entertainment. In contrast, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay lets tear up the prison from the start during a dream sequence tutorial, whetting your appetite for what’s to come. It looks and feels dated, sure, but it remains entertaining from start to finish – a feat few modern games can claim.
I played an Xbox 360 copy of Escape from Butcher Bay (as part of The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena release) on original hardware as it was never made backward compatible. You can still find second-hand copies for the Xbox 360 or PS3, or pick it up on the Xbox 360 Storefront until its closure in mid-2024. On PC, the game was removed from storefronts at some point but GOG offline installers are still available in the wild.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay Retrospective ReviewThe Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay Retrospective Review
- A rare movie tie-in that's better than the film
- A perfect introduction to the character and the world
- Brisk pacing, satisfying stealth, and overpowered set-pieces with firearms and mechs
- Dated but striking visuals coupled with quality voice acting
- Two sections that feature endlessly spawning mutants and aliens
- Some optional tasks have obscure solutions
- Second-hand sales and piracy will soon be the only way to play it