Review: “Killing Time [PC Version]” (Retro Computer Game)

Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a look at a mostly-forgotten FPS game from 1996 called “Killing Time” that I finished a few hours before writing this review.

Although “Killing Time” apparently started life as a console game (from 1995), the PC port is apparently so different that it’s pretty much it’s own game (modern developers, learn from this!). So, this is what I’ll be reviewing today.

When I bought a DRM-free direct download of this game on GOG last spring, it was on sale and had been reduced to about £2. At full price, it’s about £7-8 or so on GOG. The Steam version, at the time of writing, seems to be marginally cheaper (at a little under £7). Both versions also include a MP3 version of the game’s soundtrack too.

But, due to both my computer and the slightly old-fashioned graphics system in the game, this review won’t contain any gameplay screenshots – since any in-game screenshots I took tended to glitch out like this when I took them, and didn’t reflect my actual experience of playing the game. This is kind of a shame since the best way to show what the gameplay looks like is to.. show what it looks like. But, written descriptions and a screenshot from the intro movie’s video file (from the game’s folder) will have to suffice.

So, that said, let’s take a look at “Killing Time”:

Note: This is a screenshot from the intro movie. As mentioned above, the gameplay screenshots glitched out to the point of unusability. Still, as intro movies go, this game has a really cool one 🙂

“Killing Time” is a horror-themed FPS game which revolves around an unnamed archaeologist visiting a mysterious island near Maine. His Egyptology professor mentions that the owner of the estate, Tess Conway, took an artefact from an expedition she sponsored and that the artefact’s last known location was her private island. However, ever since a “roaring twenties”-style party on the island in 1932, no-one has been seen there since…..

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that it is something of an acquired taste. But, like a lot of FPS games from the time, it was incredibly innovative and also included features that were at least slightly ahead of their time (eg: an open world environment, in-game FMV etc..).

The best way to describe this game is that it’s a bit like “Realms Of The Haunting” in that it actually contains a story and a large explorable environment. But, in terms of gameplay and graphics, it’s a bit more like “Doom” or “Duke Nukem 3D“.

The gameplay in “Killing Time” is something of a mixed bag. A large part of the game inovolves exploring the island and finding both keys and spirit vessels (you need something like eight of them to unlock the final boss).

One innovative feature here is that there are no real level boundaries – you can explore about half of the island from the very start of the game. Each segment of the island loads instantly (without needing a loading screen) when you enter it and, for the time, this was really innovative. The only vaguely similar thing from the same year is possibly “Realms Of The Haunting”, but even that had defined level areas in some parts. Seriously, “Half-Life” wouldn’t come out until two years after this game – and “Half-Life” did have loading screens between areas!

But, as cool as this is, it is also one of the game’s main flaws. Since you have to search for lots of keys and items, you literally have to search the entire game for them sometimes! And, as much as I love non-linear FPS games, this can get a little frustrating sometimes. At least when games like “Doom” or “Duke Nukem 3D” make you search for something, you only have to search a relatively small level, rather than an entire island.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the only walkthrough I could find at the time of playing the game was a series of videos on Youtube, rather than a more easily-navigated text walkthrough. Although you probably won’t get completely and utterly stuck that often, it happened to me at least four or five times throughout the course of the game.

On the plus side, the game actually features real time in-game FMV! Basically, there are glowing blue ghosts scattered around the game’s world and, if you walk into one, you’ll be treated to a very pixellated FMV movie that takes place in-game (eg: instead of displaying a full-screen video, the “video” consists of an “.Avi” file that has been converted into an in-game sprite). Or, you’ll get an error message. Or the game might crash. All three have happened to me. Still, for something made in 1995/6, this is ridiculously ahead of it’s time!

These movies deliver hints occasionally and, more often, they tell parts of the game’s story. The acting in these videos is relatively good and they really help to bring the game’s locations to life. One cool feature is that, in two locations, you can move the hands of a clock to see what happened in an area at different times of the day. However, the game isn’t exactly averse to including the same video in two or more different locations, which can get repetitive.

In terms of the combat, this game is reasonably good and as enjoyably challenging as you would expect from a 90s FPS game. The game’s various monsters attack often and in groups, and the amount of ammo available to you can vary throughout the game. It’s fun, furious and frenetic! Likewise, although the game features a vertical look system, it also includes a “Doom”-style vertical auto-aim system too.

Plus, if you use the default “Duke Nukem 3D”-style keyboard-only controls, the combat will probably bring back a lot of memories of playing FPS games during the 1990s 🙂

Although the game apparently includes options for mouse and gamepad controls, I haven’t tested either of these. Still, since this is an official version of the original closed-source game that has been made compatible with 2000s & 2010s – era PCs, it doesn’t include the features (such as modern-style controls etc..) that you would expect from a fan-made source port for an open-source game like “Doom” or “Duke Nukem 3D”.

However, the difficulty can get slightly cheap sometimes. The first half of the final boss battle is a case in point.

Although this boss battle features something vaguely similar to the Nemesis in “Resident Evil 3” (again, this game is ahead of it’s time here!), where you are chased through the mansion by a teleporting monster who can only be temporarily slowed rather than killed, it’s one of those puzzle-based boss battles that 90s developers were so fond of. But, rather than solving a puzzle in the room where the boss appears, you have to find and traverse several monster-filled towers throughout the mansion… whilst being chased by the boss (who gloats at you the whole time).

In terms of the weapons, they aren’t really that creative by the standards of the time. Yes, they have a 1920s/30s theme (like in “Blood) but they’re mostly just a copy-paste of the weapon scheme in “Doom”.

The default weapon is a crowbar (yes, before “Half Life”!) and you can get two pistols but, apart from that, they’re pretty much just the “Doom” guns with different sprites, sounds etc.. (eg: there’s a flamethrower instead of a plasma cannon, a BFG-like ankh etc..). You’ll probably be using the shotgun most of the time, on account of the fact that, although the tommygun is the coolest weapon in the game, it guzzles ammunition at a prodigious rate.

However, the weapon sprites are based on pictures of 3D models, which look slightly out of place when compared to the slightly more cartoonish aesthetic of the rest of the game. Yes, the monster sprites are also based on 3D models, but they have a less “realistic” look than the weapons do.

In terms of movement, this game is a little bit of a disappointment. Not only is there no auto-run option, but the running speed is relatively slow (especially given the distances you have to traverse!). Likewise, if you walk along the edge of a tree or a wall, you slow down slightly. Plus, the less said about the jumping system, the better! It’s more accurate to describe it as a “hopping” system than a jumping system.

Likewise, the game’s map screen is zoomed in so much (even when you zoom out) that it is virtually useless, which is especially annoying in a game that relies so much on exploring large areas.

As for the graphics, I really liked them. Although 1996 is most famous for “Quake“, which introduced proper 3D graphics to the FPS genre – this game uses good old-fashioned sprite based graphics, like in “Doom” and “Duke Nukem 3D”. I really miss this graphics style in games, so it was great to see it again. The game also has an art deco/ ancient Egypt-style aesthetic in many locations too, which looks really cool. However, there are also a fair number of rather generic-looking forests, corridors, caverns and sewers here too.

As for the level design, it’s something of a mixed bag. The game’s one gigantic level contains some fairly well-designed areas which show how cool 90s FPS games were.

These include areas where you’ll have to use your brain in order to work out what you’re supposed to do (eg: a clever hedge maze-style area where you have to follow a series of clues given by a ghost). These include areas which are perfect for more strategic combat. These also include areas where monsters can leap out at you when you least expect it. Some parts of the level design here are really cool.

But, that said, there are also some really annoying areas too. Several corridor-based areas can get confusing, one of the keys is hidden in a way more befitting a secret area (eg: a moveable pillar that is hidden amongst lots of non-moveable pillars. Good luck finding it without a walkthrough!) and there are even one or two parts that require you to use the game’s horrible jumping system. Plus, with important items spread out across the game’s map, the item placement and extreme backtracking can feel like padding sometimes.

In terms of the music and the voice-acting, this game is surprisingly good. The game’s soundtrack is filled with lots of roaring twenties-style jazz/swing music and more ominous horror-movie style ambient music. Both of these things really add a lot of atmosphere to the game, and there’s nothing quite like tommygunning zombie monsters to the sound of jaunty swing music.

But, one slight problem with the music system in the game is that the background music changes very abruptly when you move between areas, which can break the immersion slightly. Likewise, the voice-acting in this game is a little cheesy, but it fits in well with the vintage atmosphere of the game.

All in all, this game is an acquired taste. If you stick with it, then you’ll have a lot of fun. But, it has a fair number of flaws too. Still, compared to the generic military-themed FPS games of the modern age, this game has an actual personality. It’s imaginative and unique and, as I said, a lot of fun once you’ve learnt to put up with it’s shortcomings. At full price, it’s worth thinking carefully before buying this game. But, on special offer, it’s a no-brainer.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably get three and a half. It has flaws, but there is a good game hidden in there!

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