Is it possible to review this without talking about Heretic and Hexen?
I’m gonna have to try, since that was a long time ago and the only things I remember about them are (1) that I used cheat codes and (2) those dark wizard guys that made a great creepy whisper sound effect.
Maybe it’s me; or maybe it means they weren’t that memorable. The market hasn’t exactly been flooded with fantasy FPSs in the intervening years, so there’s probably a reason for that; and as you play this game you start to appreciate how far these things have come since the old days.
One difference you see immediately with this throwback style is that they don’t spend much time telling you what’s going on. No cinematic introductions or detailed backstory. Nope. They read a portentous quote, hand you an axe and you get busy killing guys. I’ve heard a lot of portentous quotes like that, so I have to admit I wasn’t paying full attention to this particular one, but I assume there’s a gathering darkness spreading across the land and maybe a prophecy or something. Anyway, I’ll just take the title’s word for it that they’re evil and get on with it.
The low-key setup isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Drowning the player in a bunch of tedious exposition and bad dialogue can be even worse. Still, it would have been nice if I felt like I had some kind of goal here, even if it was just “demons from Hell have invaded your space station. Shoot them!”
Half-Life didn’t have a ton of melodrama either, but you always knew your objective; and you could draw an unbroken line between where you were, where you started and where you were headed. It really kept you grounded in the task at hand.
Without any story or characters, the world itself has to do the talking. There needs to be a visceral sense of identity and progress to the levels and some obvious, tangible goal to tie it all together–breaking seals or assembling an artifact or storming the bad guy’s castle or whatever. I think that’s what’s really lacking here.
It doesn’t help that they get off to a slow start. The first few levels are just plain bland, without much to distinguish them visually or interactively. It finally perks up a little when you hit the sun temple part. That’s when you actually begin to notice the architecture and feel a bit of awe at your surroundings. There’s this neat section, for example, where you fly up inside a giant spire, battling enemies all around you.
And I’ve gotta hand it to them, things really do come to life in the forge level. You’re outside at night, surrounded by mysterious machinery and immense, turning gears. Bright red lasers are piercing through the shadows and fog from all directions. It’s a very striking scene. Likewise, the mage part is gorgeous. Of course, then they catch a bit of Last Level Syndrome where they pull out all the stops trying for the grand finale and it ends up being a little too much.
Even when the level design is firing on all cylinders, though, you’re still adrift with no over-arching purpose to motivate you. I mean, there’s no antagonist to defeat. Nobody to save–at least, nobody you can put a face on. No clear objective at all. So what else is there to pull you in? The combat itself?
Like the environments, the enemy designs are all over the place, ranging from I Have No Idea What I’m Looking At to, hang on, let me describe this. There are these dark wizards. They appear floating in the air–robes, hoods and all that. A miniature sun blazes to life in their hands. It’s slowly eclipsed in shadow as they chant in a deep, ominous voice. When it’s completely dark, they launch it at you and it explodes. Ok, that’s almost worth the price of admission right there.
As for the weapons, they don’t have much “oomph,” except for the default axe which I never used and the globe-launcher thing when it’s powered up. Most of the time you’re hosing down evildoers with this weak-looking little staff, which is by far the best weapon but feels pathetic. It’s not like firing a rocket or a railgun or a sniper rifle or something where you get a real sensation of concussive force and feel like you’re actually doing something. I don’t know. Maybe it’s harder to create that with spells. Is that one reason there are so few fantasy FPSs?
It all makes me think that this style, venerable though it is, might be better left in the past. It’s decent enough overall, but I spent the whole game looking for something really outstanding to grab onto and for the most part I never found it. Except for those dark wizard guys.
Twenty years from now that’s probably all I’ll remember about this one, too.