First Impressions: “Clive Barker’s Undying” (Retro Computer Game)

Well, with Halloween approaching, I thought that I’d take a look at an old horror game called “Clive Barker’s Undying” (which I bought for £1.19 during a sale on GOG last year).

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that this is more of a “first impressions” article than a full review. I’d planned to finish this game before I posted this review but, after getting somewhere between one-third and halfway through the game, I realised that I’d never finish it before Halloween without falling massively behind on my article schedule. Plus, I also found myself abandoning the game for other reasons that I’ll explain later.

I should probably also warn you that this review may contain a couple of (unrealistic) GRUESOME IMAGES. Likewise, the game itself contains FLICKERING lightning effects at the beginning.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Clive Barker’s Undying”:

“Clive Barker’s Undying” is a first-person shooter game from 2001. Set in the 1920s, you play as an occultist and ex- soldier called Patrick Galloway who has been living in exile from his native Ireland until he is summoned back by a letter from his old friend Jeremiah Covenant.

When he arrives at Jeremiah’s remote mansion, he finds that Jeremiah has been taken ill. Not only that, there seems to be some kind of family curse that has filled the creepy old mansion with ghosts and monsters…..

Well, it would be a very boring game if there weren’t ghosts and monsters….

My very first impressions of this game were extremely good. Even the main menu not only looked really cool, but also had ominously dramatic background music and some amazing flame animations for the mouse cursor.

Plus, for the elitists amongst you, there’s actually a framerate slider in the options menu. A framerate slider!

Not only was this a game that Clive Barker helped to make but it was also an EA game from the early 2000s. As much as EA deserve all of the criticism they get these days, there’s no denying that for a very brief period during the early 2000s they seemed to be the best for gothic horror games. I mean, they published the amazing “American McGee’s Alice” a year before this game! So, my expectations were sky-high.

And, for the early parts of the game, they were more than met. You begin the game by exploring a gloriously gloomy old mansion and it is still creepy to this day. Although there are a few scripted moments, a lot of the horror here comes from the frantic, claustrophobic combat and the general atmosphere of the place. Seriously, the early segments set in the mansion are how to make a horror game properly.

I LOVE the lighting here too 🙂

Seriously, I got a real “Silent Hill 3“/ “Realms Of The Haunting” vibe in this area!

Seriously, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that this location is still creepy to this day

Everything here is designed to ramp up the suspense. Whether it’s the fact that the lighting is dark enough to be creepy, but not dark enough that you get totally lost (eg: usually there is at least one lit area visible at any one time) or the constant sense of ominous suspense that gradually builds as you creep around the gloomy corridors in fear of your next monster encounter, this part of the game is scary.

This constant fear is amplified by the fact that you are occasionally attacked by powerful fast-moving monsters who will leap at you furiously.

Usually, your best bet is to get a headshot with your revolver in the few seconds you have whilst they are scampering towards you. But, of course, there’s usually more than one of them around at any one moment and you only have six bullets in your gun (and not enough time to reload if you miss too often..). This is how to add tension to an action-horror game!

Of course, once you see THIS, it’s almost too late…

In addition to this, Patrick also has several magical abilities that he can use (which use a recharging “mana” counter). The one you will be using most often is the “Scrye” ability – not only does this highlight enemies and allow you to see in the dark for a short time (with cool purple-tinted night vision no less 🙂 ), but it will also allow you to see things that you can’t ordinarily see.

Often, you will hear an ominous whisper telling you to use the ability and then, for example, a nearby painting will be transformed into a grotesque vision of hell:

Well, the game does have the words “Clive Barker” in the title. What did you expect? Unicorns and puppies?

However, as utterly awesome as the earlier parts of the game are – it doesn’t stay this way for too long. Even though there are some really cool locations after you initially explore the mansion, don’t get too used to them…

Seriously, this ominous floating building reminded me a bit of “American McGee’s Alice” 🙂

And just take a look at this gloriously gothic mausoleum 🙂

After a while, you will find yourself beneath an old monastery, and this is where I started to lose interest in the game. Not only do you have to trudge through endless dark underground catacombs (using the scrye ability every twenty seconds or so is practically mandatory…), but the game’s difficulty level goes from “enjoyably challenging” to “keyboard-smashingly cheap“. On “normal” difficulty, no less!

I’ve got six health points and skeletons have started spawning from this pile of bones. Skeletons that require expert marksmanship to defeat…

Not only does the game get more and more stingy with health packs and ammunition, but it also has a habit of spawning in lots of powerful monsters too. Many of these monsters require lightning-fast reflexes and/or precision aiming. Now, this would be ok if the game had a fast iteration time. But it doesn’t.

Every time you are killed, and it will happen a lot, you often have to sit through an unskippable 10-15 second death animation. Needless to say, this gets very old very fast. Other retro games like “Blood” can get away with being ultra-challenging because you can be back in the action about 1-5 seconds after you’ve died. Not so with this game…

This is a death animation from earlier in the game. Yes, these unskippable animations are creepy when you see them for the first time. Less so when you see them for the thirtieth time…

Eventually, this cheap difficulty and the sheer boredom of dingy catacomb after dingy catacomb just got the better of me and, whilst I’d planned to play more of this game before writing this article, I found myself skiving off and re-playing part of “Doom: The Golden Souls” instead. It seemed fifty times more fun than spending another hour of frustration in the catacombs….

What can I say? Fun wins every time…

Anyway, one strange feature of “Clive Barker’s Undying” is that it was designed for a future console port that was never actually made.

What this means is that there are short “loading” screens between some areas, and there’s also a spell/weapon wheel feature, which is actually quicker than cycling through your weapons and spells using the keyboard. Although these things are a little bit annoying, they’re hardly game-breaking problems. However, I noticed a fair amount of screen tearing whilst playing some parts of the game, but this might just be my computer.

From what I’ve seen, the game’s weapons are actually fairly good. In addition to a revolver and double-barelled shotgun (both of which require frequent reloading, which ramps up the tension), you can also find a “Tibetan War Cannon” which serves as an infinite-ammo freeze gun. Plus, I found sticks of dynamite and molotov cocktails too.

Of course, having played “Left4Dead2” quite a bit during my early twenties, I kept expecting Patrick to shout “throwing a molotov!“.

The “Tibetan War Cannon” is a golden dragon that spits chunks of ice! Seriously, I love how creative FPS game weapons used to be 🙂

In addition to this, you can find alternate ammo types for the pistol and shotgun (eg: silver bullets and incendiary shells) which can be very useful. Plus, one of the game’s spells allows you to shoot energy from your palms, and there’s a green stone you can use to repeal monsters. Seriously, I love how creative FPS game weapon design used to be.

The game’s monster designs are surprisingly good, with many of the monsters presenting a formidable threat to the player.

There are fast-moving “Howlers”, teleporting Lovecraftian horrors, invisible guards, powerful skeletons etc… Many of these monsters are vulnerable to different tactics and/or weapons. If they were used more sparingly, these monsters would be brilliant! However, the game will occasionally just spam these monsters at you sometimes. And, given how challenging they are, this quickly borders on unfair.

Seriously, if there were one or two Howlers here, it would be really fun! But, there are at least four….

In terms of voice-acting and sound design, this game is variable. Whilst the game’s music is brilliantly suspensful, the voice-acting can vary in quality somewhat – although this just adds to the vintage charm of the game. Likewise, the sound effects are all reasonably ok too.

All in all, wait until this game is on sale and then play the earlier parts of it. This game has a timelessly brilliant beginning, which is still utterly creepy to this day. The earlier parts of this game are atmospheric, suspenseful and a perfect example of a horror game. However, as soon as you start finding yourself in dingy underground catacombs, then save yourself the frustration and play something else instead….

If I had to give what I’ve played so far a rating out of five, it would probably get a three.

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First Impressions: “Firepower” By Judas Priest (Album)

Well, although this is more of a rambling “first impressions” article than a full review, I thought that I’d share my thoughts about the new Judas Priest album. Interestingly, I originally hadn’t planned to pre-order this album (mostly since I worried that it would be like the songs I’d heard from the band’s previous album).

But, then the music video for “Lightning Strike” turned up on Youtube and I thought something along the lines of “Even if this is the only good song on the new album, then I’ve got to have it“. So, I pre-ordered it (something I only usually do with albums by Iron Maiden and The Offspring).

This decision was confirmed to be a wise one when the official audio for “Firepower” appeared on Youtube sometime later. And, well, it’s finally arrived 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Firepower”:

Fun fact: This adorable fellow is called TITANICUS! *metalgasm*

One of the first things that I will say about this album is that it starts out astonishingly well. Seriously, I’ve found it literally impossible to listen to parts of the opening track (“Firepower”) without reflexively cranking up the volume, flashing the heavy metal horns and headbanging like a motherf… Well, headbanging a lot.

Seriously, this track is proper, intense “Painkiller“-level heavy metal. Not only that, many of the song’s lyrics are also hilariously ironic too (eg: “With open arms we fight for peace/We fight with FIREPOWER!!!!”). It is, at the time of writing, probably my absolute favourite song on the album.

The second song (“Lightning Strike”) is an absolutely perfect follow-up to “Firepower”. It’s the kind of fast, intense Judas Priest song that could also easily have appeared on their “Painkiller” album. Seriously, this song is Judas Priest. Literally, the only thing that could make this song even better than it already is would be if they’d added a couple of crackling lightning sounds after Rob Halford sings “…lightning to strike”.

The third song, “Evil Never Dies” is this really cool mixture between gloomier “Angel Of Retribution“-style Judas Priest and some of their slightly older stuff from the 1980s. Whilst it lacks some of the sheer intensity of the first two tracks, it is still quintessentially Judas Priest.

The fourth song, “Never The Heroes”, is another interesting mixture. Basically, the intro and chorus are epic, resplendent stadium metal and several of the verses are sung in a slightly quieter, slower, more understated and menacing way. Then the song builds up into a surprisingly epic mixture of the two styles.

The fifth song is called “Necromancer” 🙂 Needless to say, it’s another song that is reminiscent of the band’s “Painkiller” album 🙂 It also contains a few hints of their “Angel Of Retribution” album too. Seriously, it is literally impossible for a band like Judas Priest to write a song called “Necromancer” and it not be amazingly epic 🙂 Ok, “Firepower” is still my favourite track from this album, but this one is definitely in the top five.

The sixth song, “Children Of The Sun”, is another “Angel Of Retribution”-style song which contains a really interesting mixture of louder and quieter/slower segments. It also contains a few interesting hints of 1980s-style Priest too (eg: some segments very vaguely reminded me a bit of songs like “Nightcrawler” or “A Touch Of Evil”).

The seventh song, “Guardians”, is an instrumental piece that starts out as a slow piano tune that gradually rises in intensity until it perfectly segues into the opening of the eighth track (“Rise From The Ruins”).

This song is kind of interesting since, the slower and more solemn segments of the song reminded me a little bit of Bruce Dickinson‘s solo stuff (which is never a bad thing 🙂 ). But, the chorus is very much a Judas Priest-style chorus, which sounds like an interesting blend of “Angel Of Retribution” and some of their songs from the ’80s like “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll”.

The ninth song, “Flame Thrower” is more of an ’80s-style song. It’s occasionally a little lighter and slower than the song’s title would suggest but it’s still a reasonably good song, and it sounds like a modern version of a song that the band could have put out in the 80s. Seriously, this is a 1980s Judas Priest song made in 2018 🙂

The tenth song, “Spectre”, is another interesting blend of 1980s and 2005-style Judas Priest, with a few interesting vocal flourishes from Rob Halford (even including a brief spoken segment) and a few unexpected influences (is that a second of… dubstep.. I hear in the intro?) . Although the main guitar hook somehow didn’t quite seem like a good fit with the rest of the song, this is a wonderfully varied song that really shows off the band’s range.

The eleventh song, “Traitor’s Gate” starts with a menacingly slow guitar intro, before exploding in intensity. This is another intense Judas Priest song and is pretty cool, with the stand-out parts of the song probably being some of the guitar segments (which wouldn’t be out of place on the “Painkiller” album).

The twelfth song, “No Surrender” is…wow! This song is wonderfully ’80s 🙂 It’s slightly lighter in tone and it’s probably one of the more catchy songs on the album. The opening guitar segment also reminded me a little bit of an ’80s rock version of the intro to “Beheaded” by The Offspring, which was really cool 🙂

Plus, I love how Rob Halford’s singing style is a little bit more melodic for most of the song and then, near the end, the instruments fall silent for a second and he growls “…with no surrender!” in a really “Painkiller”-style way. It’s a really dramatic moment 🙂

The thirteenth song “Lone Wolf” starts out with a slightly funky and gothic intro, before turning into a distorted wall of guitars. But, this song seems a bit less varied and dynamic than many of the other songs. It isn’t exactly a “slow” or “quiet” song, but it isn’t as intense as I’d have liked. Still, I could detect a few subtle hints of 1960s/70s style Black Sabbath in this song, which is cool 🙂

The final song, “Sea Of Red” starts with a slow, acoustic introduction. Seriously, the early parts of this song are like a Judas Priest-style version of some of Bruce Dickinson’s slower solo stuff mixed with the song “Angel” from Priest’s “Angel Of Retribution” album. And then the song begins to build in intensity. This song ebbs, flows and crashes… like a sea.

All in all, my first impressions of this album are really good. It’s certainly on the same level as the excellent “Angel Of Retribution” and it reaches “Painkiller”-like levels of awesomeness during quite a few moments too 🙂 Ok, it would have been beyond amazing if the whole album had sounded like the first two tracks, but it’s cool that the band wanted to use a greater variety of sounds and styles in the album, and most of this works really well 🙂 Seriously, this is a heavy metal album 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get somewhere between a five and a six. Because, it’s 2018 and Judas Priest are still making songs that sound like stuff from “Painkiller” and “Angel Of Retribution” 🙂

First Impressions: “Blade Runner 2049” (Film)

Although I originally hadn’t planned to see “Blade Runner 2049” at the cinema, I had a sudden spontaneous moment of inspiration yesterday and decided to see it.

But, since I’ve only seen it once, this won’t be a full review. No doubt, after I’ve rewatched it at least once more when it comes out on DVD, I’ll have formed a suitably detailed opinion about and understanding of the film to be able to review it fully (although I’m not sure when I’ll post said review). But, I wanted to write about it now too.

So, this is a long, rambling “first impressions” article – based on just one viewing of the film. I’m still forming my opinions about the film, so this article will also help me with this too. It might also explain why this article is such a long ramble as well. This article will also contain a lot of comparisons between this film and the original “Blade Runner”.

“Blade Runner 2049” is a different film to the original “Blade Runner” in many ways. I’m still not entirely sure if it’s as good, better or worse. Although many of my comparisons here will sound negative, this is only because they’re the easiest comparisons to notice. But, even though some parts of this article may sound cynical, “Blade Runner 2049” is a very good film. But it is also a sequel to a perfect film.

This article will contain SPOILERS, but I’ll mostly try to avoid major ones.

Firstly, the story of “Blade Runner 2049” is really good. It’s deep, compelling and confident enough to move at a pace that feels right.

Yes, there are a few elements of the story that I don’t fully understand (I’ve only seen the film once, after all) but it keeps the complexity, humanity and depth of the first “Blade Runner” film. The film’s story also has several plot threads that are left intriguingly ambiguous too, such as a group of replicant rebels that the main character encounters at one point.

Like the original film, this sequel raises more questions than it answers. Interestingly, the film’s conclusion focuses entirely on a powerful moment of human drama, with the after-effects of both this moment and the greater significance of the film’s events left unshown – kind of like in the director’s cut of the original “Blade Runner”. So, it’s good to see that the film doesn’t spell literally everything out, and still leaves a lot to the imagination.

This film is actually a lot slower-paced than the original “Blade Runner”. Although there are some frenetic moments, most of the film has a surprisingly slow and contemplative tone to it. But, even though the film feels longer than it’s gargantuan 163 minute running time, this actually works in the film’s favour, since it almost feels like a TV mini series.

There are lots of lingering close-ups, silent moments and slow conversations. Whilst this is in keeping with the original “Blade Runner”, that film tended to use these kinds of moments slightly more sparingly in order to give each one a greater level of dramatic significance. By contrast, the cumulative effect of all of the many “slow” moments in “Blade Runner 2049” is to give the film a more intimate, artistic and human tone. This also makes the film feel more modern too.

The atmosphere of the film is very different to that of the original “Blade Runner” too. Although I still can’t think of a way to articulate this fully, it feels very different in many ways.

One example of this is how the city in “Blade Runner 2049” feels like a much sleazier and more vicious place (eg: nude holograms, high street brothels, anti-replicant graffiti, sweatshops, utilitarian architecture etc..) than the coldly indifferent, but warmly old, city in the original “Blade Runner”.

One interesting thing about the film is that the location design feels a lot more spartan than the intricately cluttered locations of the original “Blade Runner”. Although it is really awesome that this film reveals a lot more of the “world” of Blade Runner, it feels like all of this extra breadth sometimes comes at the expense of depth. The smaller number of locations in the original “Blade Runner” (due to the budget limitations) left a lot to the imagination and allowed for a much more focused aesthetic and atmosphere.

The set design in this film often feels a lot more spartan, post-apocalyptic and utilitarian when compared to the complex aesthetic of the original film.

Yes, there are still beautifully bleak cyberpunk cityscapes (including the Tyrell building 🙂 ), a kipple-filled “old future”-style casino (where Deckard now lives), some 1960s/70s style brutalist architecture and some interesting use of orange mist. But, on the whole, the film feels like a more minimalist “Blade Runner”, grounded more in post-apocalyptic realism than in awe-inspiring visions of the future.

A good example of this is Officer K’s apartment. Although the kitchen looks a little bit like the kitchen from Deckard’s apartment (and there are a few wall tiles that are similar to Deckard’s apartment), it is a rather stark, cramped and featureless apartment.

The bare walls are a cold shade of grey/blue, and the room feels cramped rather than cosy. Again, this might reflect the fact that Officer K is clearly a replicant. A fact emphasised by the fact that the only company he has in his apartment is a hologram.

But, saying all of this, the film’s stark location designs also serve as something of a blank canvas that places a much greater degree of emphasis on the characters and the story than on the world of the film. So, I can understand this creative decision – and, from this perspective, it works fairly well. This film is a lot more story-focused than the original “Blade Runner” was.

“Blade Runner 2049″‘s depictions of violence are both in keeping with and different from the original “Blade Runner”. One of the central themes of the original “Blade Runner” is that violence is almost always presented as slow, painful and ugly. It is meant to be shocking and aversive, rather than slick or thrilling. Whilst “Blade Runner 2049” stays true to this philosophy in many scenes, the violence in the film sometimes has a cruel quickness to it that sometimes feels a little bit too slick (but, other times, brilliantly emphasises the cruelty of certain characters).

Surprisingly, although I’ve been comparing this film to the original quite a lot, there are some interesting connections between the two films.

Deckard (who probably isn’t a replicant) actually makes a few appearances later in the film. However, the events between the first film and the sequel have turned him into a grumpy, bitter, paranoid old man who seems like a tragic shadow of his former self.

Likewise, the scene with Deckard, Wallace and a clone of Rachel is unsettling and shocking – but the dramatic value of this scene is left somewhat understated.

But, on a lighter note, the scene when Officer K visits Gaff in an old folks’ home is a pretty cool scene (with Gaff even making an origami sheep, perhaps as a reference to “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep”). Plus, one central object in this film is a small wooden horse that Officer K finds – which is a rather interesting parallel to the unicorn from the original “Blade Runner”.

Officer K is a really interesting protagonist. He’s a replicant Blade Runner, who knows that he is a replicant. This has a huge effect on the style, tone and narrative of the film. Although the film briefly shows him encountering anti-replicant bigotry during a few early scenes, his replicant nature is often a much more subtle and understated part of the film.

As a character, he’s also shown to be something of a blank slate too – often being something of a nice guy who is also brooding and tough. His curiosity, artificial memories and quest for self-understanding is also one of the main driving forces of the film.

The film’s main villain, Niander Wallace, really doesn’t get enough screen time. Yes, he’s meant to be an evil version of Eldon Tyrell, but he only appears in a couple of scenes – which kind of makes him seem a bit more like a cartoonish villain. An evil hipster with a god complex, a sadistic personality and a love of slavery. Yes, there’s something to be said for leaving his character slightly more mysterious. But it is interesting how he stands in contrast to the more paternalistic, but seemingly benevolent, character of Eldon Tyrell.

The film’s police chief is both similar and different to Bryant from the original film. Although she’s a lot more professional than Bryant, there’s a paranoid bleakness to her character which fits in really well with the atmosphere of the film. She mostly treats Officer K as an equal, even helping him escape from scrutiny at one point. But, she’s also something of a complex character since, during one drunken conversation, she almost seems to view Officer K as a novelty or a machine when asking about his memories.

A more interesting parallel between the old and the new film is how the film’s artificial memory designer seems to be a lot like J.F. Sebastian. The memory designer is ridiculously talented but, due to an auto-immune disease, she cannot leave Earth and also has to live in a futuristic glass bubble that is reminscent of the holodeck from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. As a character, she’s really interesting (and I’d love to talk about her more), but she really doesn’t get enough screen time.

As you would expect, the film has a lot of rather interesting themes and motifs that can’t be fully deciphered on a first viewing. For example, there’s probably some significance to the fact that one character is called Joi and another is called Luv.

Joi is shown to be a companion hologram who is designed to please her owner (and she goes from being a 1950s-style housewife who makes holographic food for Officer K near the beginning of the film to being the kind of brave co-investigator/companion that Officer K needs during later parts of the film).

Luv is shown to be a coldly cruel and sociopathic replicant who seems to be completely devoid of all love or emotion (other than perhaps anger or fanatical loyalty to Wallace). On a side note, she’s also something of an “evil detective” character, who contrasts perfectly with Officer K in this regard.

There are lots of interesting comparisons to make between Joi and Luv, but one is that they both represent opposite extremes of the concept of obedience (which links in to the themes of slavery, exploitation etc.. in the film). Joi is willing to risk her life for Officer K, and Luv is willing to kill if it furthers Wallace’s objectives.

There’s probably a lot more parallels and thematic stuff going on in this film but, again, I’ve only seen the film once. Hence the limited number of examples here.

Musically, the film is interesting – containing things as diverse as loud dramatic music, Elvis music and even a rather dramatic use of the “tears in rain” music from the original film. However, although the music fits the film reasonably well, it doesn’t quite have the consistency of Vangelis’ soundtrack to the original “Blade Runner”.

All in all, I’m still forming my opinions about this film. It’s a very good film. It’s a work of art. But it is also very different to the original “Blade Runner” in terms of characters, themes, atmosphere, visual design, pacing etc.. too.

First Impressions: “Shadow Man” (Retro Computer Game)

2017-artwork-shadow-man-first-impressions

First of all, this is (for reasons I’ll explain later) more of a “first impressions” article than a full review. At the time of writing, I’ve played this game for a few hours and have possibly looked at somewhere between a fifth and a third of it.

Although I’d vaguely heard of “Shadow Man” in the games magazines that I read during my childhood, I didn’t really discover it until a sale on GOG a few days before originally writing this article. Although there were mixed reviews on the site, the fact that it was a late 1990s gothic horror 3D platform game that had been reduced to something like 70p made the decision to buy it something of a no-brainer.

So, let’s take a look at “Shadow Man”:

shadow-man-logo

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that it has one of the most impressive introductory cutscenes that I’ve ever seen. I usually don’t care about introductory cutscenes, but this one really knocked me off my feet. As soon as you start the game, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” thunders in the background and you are treated to an ominous monologue from none other than Jack the Ripper:

Trust me, this is WAY more dramatic in-game.

Trust me, this is WAY more dramatic in-game.

Jack laments that his crimes have not produced the results that he desires and that, to continue his occult experiments, he must end his own life. However, before he can plunge a knife into his chest, he is interrupted by a rather suave fellow called Legion who asks him to design a temple to pain and suffering in the afterlife. Gleefully, Jack agrees and stabs himself.

Then, we flash forward to 1990s America where a man called Michael LeRoi is talking to a Voodoo priestess called Nettie. Michael is a “shadow man”, imbued with powers that allow him to cross between the worlds of the living and the dead. Nettie tells him that something terrible is happening in the world of the dead, and it is up to him to stop it.

Although it may not sound like much, the voice-acting, writing and gothic atmosphere of even the intro movie alone is astonishingly good. This is the kind of epic intro movie where you’ll easily ignore the slight clunkiness of the late-1990s 3D graphics because of the sheer strength of the writing and atmosphere.

The game itself is, as you would expect, an action/puzzle-based 3D platform game. You fight lots of monsters and solve occasional movement/item-based puzzles (for example, locked doors require you to collect a certain number of souls in order to open them).

The locked doors ALSO look like something from "Stargate" too :) The 1990s was TRULY a great decade!

The locked doors ALSO look like something from “Stargate” too 🙂 The 1990s was TRULY a great decade!

Unlike in similar games released at a similar time (eg: “American McGee’s Alice” etc..), you don’t progress through the levels in a linear order. In fact, there’s a rather large hub level and a fast-travel system.

You'll be visiting this place quite a lot between levels.

You’ll be visiting this place quite a lot between levels.

The only problem with the fast-travel system is that the game will also respawn all of the monsters whenever you revisit somewhere you’ve already been. Given that this is a game from the golden era of gaming, the combat is more on the challenging side of things.

In fact, the earlier levels are actually more difficult for the simple reason that you are only equipped with a weak pistol that requires something like ten shots just to defeat even one low-level undead creature. Yes, when you learn to use some of the game’s features (like the lock-on strafe feature), the difficulty drops slightly, but this is a game where every fight is a tense fight to the death.

Yes, even this small two-headed creature from the early part of the game is still a legitimate threat.

Yes, even this small two-headed creature from the early part of the game is still a legitimate threat.

But, although this game is a PC port of a console game, there’s a proper saving system which helps to mitigate the game’s high difficulty level. In other words, you can save whenever and wherever you need to. I honestly don’t know how people played this game on consoles, where there were probably fixed checkpoints or something like that.

In terms of the controls, this game is surprisingly (and refreshingly) old-school. Although you can (and should!) customise the controls, the game is exclusively keyboard-only. Even the combat uses a traditional “Doom/Doom II”-style vertical auto-aim system. Whilst this filled me with 1990s nostalgia, the lack of mouse controls might be disconcerting if you’re more used to modern games.

The gameplay and environment design in “Shadow Man” is both brilliant and not so brilliant at the same time. There are some really cool-looking areas in this game and, like all great games from the 1990s, the levels are the kind of non-linear things that actually require you to explore.

Dammit, why don't games look like this any more? Seriously, I love this style of lighting :)

Dammit, why don’t games look like this any more? Seriously, I love this style of lighting 🙂

For some bizarre reason, this part of the game reminded me of both "American McGee's Alice" and the first "Jak And Daxter Game", which is never a bad thing :)

For some bizarre reason, this part of the game reminded me of both “American McGee’s Alice” and the first “Jak And Daxter Game”, which is never a bad thing 🙂

 And THIS looks like something from the imagination of Clive Barker too!

And THIS looks like something from the imagination of Clive Barker too!

However, although you’ll have a lot of fun exploring the game’s world for a few hours, you might get completely and utterly stuck when you start encountering the first two of the game’s five bosses. These bosses reside in the world of the living and, from what I’ve seen, they’re demented serial killers who will often shout cheesy one-liners at you:

Yes, as the subtitles show, this guy is somehow hilarious and creepy at the same time.

Yes, as the subtitles show, this guy is somehow hilarious and creepy at the same time.

From what I’ve been able to gather from walkthroughs, you actually need a specific three-part item to beat these bosses. But, I haven’t been able to find out how to get two pieces of this item. In other words, the main reason why this is only a “first impressions” article is because I got completely stuck.

Yes, although the challenging parts of the game are usually extremely enjoyable, this part crosses the line from “fun” to “frustrating”. For example, the game itself only hints that you need an item to defeat the bosses after a long battle with said bosses. You’ll think that you’ve almost defeated the bosses, only for them to get back up and for Michael to make some cryptic comment about how he wished he could use his shadow powers in the world of the living.

All in all, despite the high likelihood of getting completely and utterly stuck after a few hours, I’d still recommend checking this game out for everything before that part of the game. It’s atmospheric, it’s thrilling and it shows off some of the reasons why the 1990s were such a creative and imaginative decade in the history of gaming. Plus, old-school 3D platform games on the PC are something of a rarity, so this game is well worth checking out for this alone.

If I had to give what I’d played so far a rating out of five, it would get just under a five. It’s almost perfect.

Mini Review: “VeryHard” ( WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ “ZDoom”)

2017-artwork-veryhard-doom-wad-review

Before I begin, I should probably point out that this will be more of a “first impressions” article than a full review of “VeryHard“. I’ll explain more later in the article, but I felt like this was important to point out first.

As usual, I played (some of) this WAD using the “ZDoom” source port. Interestingly, this WAD actually requires version 2.8.1 of “ZDoom” – which, by delightful coincidence, is fairly similar to the version (a slightly old experimental version that was obviously a precursor to version 2.8.1) that I use.

Anyway, let’s take a quick look at “VeryHard”:

screenshot_doom_20161021_125138

“VeryHard” is a set of seven “Doom II” levels. As the name suggests, these levels are meant to be evilly, fiendishly, diabolically difficult.

This is a WAD for people like myself who find borderline-unfair levels to be somewhere between absolutely hilarious and brilliantly fun. If you’re a new “Doom II” player, don’t even think about playing these levels. But, if you enjoy WADs like “Stardate 20X6“, “XXXI Cybersky“, “Swim With The Whales” or “Infernal Fortress” then you might enjoy this one.

From my experiences with this WAD, level one is actually beatable but level two appears to be (probably) impossible – not because of the quantity of monsters, but because an essential key seems to be nowhere to be found. Hence why this is a “first impressions” review, rather than a full review.

So, let’s start with level one. This level begins outside a giant underground train station and, once you are trapped in the station, the monsters start pouring towards you:

So far, so easy.....

So far, so easy…..

Of course, you’ll soon find yourself in a larger room that is filled with more monsters and several small kiosk-like rooms, which contain buttons that you need to press. Sounds pretty easy, right?

Oh, I forgot, these rooms are filled with Arch-viles..... and you'll need a blue key for one of the switches.

Oh, I forgot, these rooms are filled with Arch-viles….. and you’ll need a blue key for one of the switches.

Once you’ve managed to run, dodge and fight your way through this room and press the required switch, it’s time to get the blue key. This key is at the end of another corridor that contains, you guessed it, three arch-viles and virtually no cover!

Oh, hey there :)

Oh, hey there 🙂

When you’ve managed to press the button and hide behind the pillar, you might notice that – between cautious pot shots at the arch-viles – the pillar is descending. Once it’s descended fully, you’ll be able to grab the blue key.

The only problem is, of course, you won’t have any cover left. Likewise, the corridor takes more than three seconds to run away from. And, as any “Doom II” player will tell you, three seconds is about the amount of time it takes for an arch-vile to incinerate you.

So, after dying and restarting more times than you can remember, you’ll end up waiting for that one lucky moment when the arch-viles are too distracted by the monsters from the room you left earlier (and vice versa with the monsters) to bother attacking you.

But, when you’ve sneaked out of the corridor, you’ll be faced with a choice. You can either go back to the room with the blue switch the way you came from, or you can take advantage of a newly-opened shortcut near the station entrance….

 ...Which is also filled with monsters.

…Which is also filled with monsters.

After a lot of trial and error, plus some clever strategy, you’ll finally use the blue key on the blue switch and open a gate behind the room. Wow, what an exciting level! What? It isn’t over yet? That was only…. the easy introductory segment?

Oh yes! *Grins evilly* We haven't even STARTED the difficult part of the level yet!

Oh yes! *Grins evilly* We haven’t even STARTED the difficult part of the level yet!

Yes, the rest of the level is significantly more difficult. It’s a little bit reminiscent of the train station level from “Painkiller“, but with literal armies of revenants, tens of arch-viles and more than five times your recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C(yberdemon).

I wasn't exaggerating about the revenants, there must be at least 200 of them in this part of the level.

I wasn’t exaggerating about the revenants, there must be at least 200 of them in this part of the level.

Yes, luckily there's an invulnerability sphere hidden somewhere vaugely near here. You DID remember to find it, right?

Yes, luckily there’s an invulnerability sphere hidden somewhere vaugely near here. You DID remember to find it, right?

Yes, even this deadly close-quarters duel with a cyberdemon at the very end of the level is beatable if you are sneaky about it. You actually have to use the chaingun to ... wait a minute, you should probably work this out for yourself

Yes, even this deadly close-quarters duel with a cyberdemon at the very end of the level is beatable if you are sneaky about it. You actually have to use the chaingun to … wait a minute, you should probably work this out for yourself

Interestingly, this part of the level is also beatable. But, you’ll need a lot of determination, a willingness to experiment with different strategies, a habit of saving very often, a good knowledge of the “rules” of “Doom II” and perhaps a bit of luck too.

All in all, the first level is an absolute blast. It’s just about fair, despite looking extremely unfair at first glance. It’s an example of modern “slaughtermap” level design at it’s finest.

This level contains so many areas where good strategy and fast reflexes are more important than whatever weapons you happen to be carrying at any one time. Despite the often claustrophobic locations and the generic standard textures, it’s an utterly epic level that will have you quite literally cheering with joy when you finally manage to beat it.

The second level, on the other hand, isn’t so sophisticated. Sure, you’ll get to hear the soul-shaking sound of 10-20 cyberdemons roaring simultaneously. Sure, you’ll get to use the BFG a lot. You’ll even get to crowdsurf over six different armies of Hell Knights and Barons…

 Woo hoo!! This is awesome!

Woo hoo!! This is awesome!

And, yes, these sorts of epic things happen too. BUT....

And, yes, these sorts of epic things happen too. BUT….

.. In order to progress past the starting area of level two, you need to find a red skull key. Despite repeated replays of this area, using different strategies and lots of careful searching, I still haven’t been able to find this skull key. It might be there somewhere, but I certainly haven’t found it. In fact, it even eventually made me abandon this WAD out of pure frustration.

All in all, I’ve only played maybe just under a quarter of this WAD and, yet, the first level is absolutely spectacular. Yes, it certainly isn’t for everyone. But if ludicrously “unfair” levels make you laugh, or if you want a real challenge, then the first level of this WAD is absolutely perfect! It’s just a shame about the second level though.

If I had to give what I’d played so far a score out of five, it would get five for the first level and two for the second.

Mini Review: “Guilty Gear X2 Reload” (Retro Computer Game)

2017-artwork-guilty-gear-x2-reload-review-sketch

Well, it’s been ages since I last played a fighting game! Still, during a weekly sale on GoG a few days before I originally prepared this review last autumn, I noticed that the PC version of a rather interesting looking 2D fighting game called “Guilty Gear X2 Reload” was on special offer. Since it only cost about two quid during the sale, I decided to check it out.

However, this review is probably more of a “first impressions” article than a full review, even if it was written quite far in advance.

Note: Whilst looking over this review a few hours before publication, I’ve just looked online and apparently this game no longer seems to be sold on GoG (but, thanks to their sensible “No DRM” policy, if you’ve already bought the game, you can still play it). So, it seems like the only current place to buy a new copy of this game is on Steam.

I don’t know if this was the responsibility of one or both games sites or the company who made the game. But, regardless, this is the kind of silly corporate BS that has no place in a sensible and fair games market! If a game is sold online, then it should remain available wherever it is sold. It isn’t like physical shelf space is an issue. Plus, why would games companies and/or retail sites want to alienate potential customers and/or lose out on sales?

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Guilty Gear X2 Reload”:

guilty-gear-x2-reload-title-screen

“Guilty Gear X2 Reload” is a 2D fighting game from 2002-2004, which is a PC port of an updated version of a console port of an arcade game.

Despite it’s convoluted history, one of the first things that I will say about this game is that, despite a few flaws, it is probably the coolest and funniest fighting game that I’ve ever played.

 I'm playing as an androgynous goth character (in a vaguely "Blade Runner"-like version of Britain), who can not ONLY wield a giant scythe but who also has a pet raven and the ability to create "Silent Hill 3" save points! This is AWESOME!!!!!!!

I’m playing as an androgynous goth character (in a vaguely “Blade Runner”-like version of Britain), who can not ONLY wield a giant scythe but who also has a pet raven and the ability to create “Silent Hill 3” save points! This is AWESOME!!!!!!!

Yes! This is a fighting game that is all about heavy metal/ hard rock music, ludicrous weapons and comically surreal combat! Well, most of the time anyway – there’s also some cheerful, brightly-coloured settings and “moe” anime characters in the game that detract from the cool aesthetic, badass characters and wonderfully metallic atmosphere of most of the game.

Plus, some of this non-metal/non-gothic stuff can occasionally seem a bit out of place.

The “May Ship” is probably the worst example of this. It’s a giant plane that is filled with groups of cheerful children and brightly-coloured graffiti. It’s about as out of place as you can get in a metal/gothic-themed game!

In terms of the gameplay, it’s a fighting game. However, it’s certainly more on the challenging side of things.

When I started playing, I just did the usual beginner’s trick of randomly hammering the buttons and hoping for the best. This didn’t work as well as I’d hoped and it was only after I’d really focused on learning a few basic special moves for about two or three of the characters that I really started to become even vaguely ok at this game.

Even then, the boss battle at the end of the "Arcade" mode seems completely unwinnable, unless you've probably practiced for weeks.

Even then, the boss battle at the end of the “Arcade” mode seems completely unwinnable, unless you’ve probably practiced for weeks.

This game apparently has something of a reputation for having a complex combat system and it would be hard to disagree with this. This seems to be a game that has been primarily designed for fighting game enthusiasts.

Even so, the combat is still accessible to people who have only played the game for a few hours (despite the constant in-game “counter hit!”, “recovery!” etc.. notifications, which can often be puzzling). This is especially useful, given that the novelty value from all of the hilariously random stuff in the game will wear off after a day or so.

But this doesn’t matter because there are so many funny, quirky and downright cool special attacks in this game. Since “Guilty Gear X2 Reload” uses 2D graphics, the designers and animators had a lot more creative freedom and they use it in all sorts of amazingly cool, funny and bizarre ways.

Yes, even when you're getting thoroughly beaten by the computer, it STILL looks amazingly cool!

Yes, even when you’re getting thoroughly beaten by the computer, it STILL looks amazingly cool!

Hell, one of the characters can even summon the ghost from "The Ring" to block your attacks!

Hell, one of the characters can even summon the ghost from “The Ring” to block your attacks!

In terms of the controls, this game can be played using a keyboard or, apparently, a console-style controller.

Not having one of these controllers, I used the keyboard – although I had to reconfigure the keys into a more ergonomic and intuitive setup (eg: using the arrow keys for movement and the WSAD keys for the attack buttons, with nearby keys serving as the the shoulder buttons). Also, the only way to quit the game when you’ve finished playing is to press “F12”.

As for gameplay modes, there are quite a few different ones on offer here – which help to add some variety to the game. As well as the usual “arcade”, “VS CPU”, “VS 2P”, “Training” etc.. modes, there are also a few other innovative game modes.

For example, the “Survival” mode is actually fairly easy and fairly innovative. Although it’s game over if you die, your health replenishes between battles and – every now and then – you’ll get a “Daredevil” fight with a shadowy version of one of the characters whenever you score 20 more points.

This can happen mid-fight, so it's a also a good way of getting out of more challenging battles

This can happen mid-fight, so it’s a also a good way of getting out of more challenging battles

There’s also a story mode where you get English text/Japanese audio cutscenes between single-round fights with other characters. Plus, there is also a mode called “M.O.M” which is more like a “traditonal” survival mode (eg: you have one health bar that doesn’t replenish between fights), but where you gain coins for every successful attack that you make.

As I hinted at earlier, the character design in this game is varied to say the least. Although there are some really cool gothic, heavy metal, samurai and/or horror movie-style characters, there are also a few a slightly generic characters, and about three or four characters who look like they’re far too young to be participating in violent gladiatorial combat! Seriously, this game would have been better off with a smaller – but slightly more thematically coherent – character set.

If you’re a new player then, although it can be fun to play as some of the really cool characters (like I-No and Testament), the best character to start with is probably Baiken.

Not only does she wield a mid-range sword, but she also has at least three or four easily-learnable special and/or standard moves that can give you a fighting chance against most of the other characters (eg: the most useful one is to use the “heavy slash” attack whilst kneeling, since she will literally spin her sword around, striking anyone nearby 2-3 times with it within a second or so).

Plus, one of her victory animations is wonderfully sarcastic, and it’ll make you laugh out loud when you see it for the first time (she literally just sits next to her fallen opponent and starts casually smoking a pipe).

Another cool feature about the character design in this game is that the characters’ outfits will change colour depending on which button you press when selecting them. Seriously, each character has something like five different outfits. Although they’re all just palette-swaps of the same outfit, it’s still a really cool addition to the game:

This option will also sometimes change the character's hair and/or skin colour too. Still, it's not like every game lets you choose to play as a sarcastic, pipe-smoking samurai version of Elvira!

This option will also sometimes change the character’s hair and/or skin colour too. Still, it’s not like every game lets you choose to play as a sarcastic, pipe-smoking samurai version of Elvira!

The sound design in this game is very good, although the same cannot be said for the voice acting. With the exception of the in-game announcer and the text screens in story mode, most of the in-game dialogue is in un-subtitled Japanese. Likewise, one or two of the character names (Baiken springs to mind for starters) on the character select screen aren’t translated either, which can be confusing.

Yes, this is realistic and it adds atmosphere to the game. But, it’s kind of annoying when you can tell that the characters are making sarcastic comments to each other -but you can’t understand what they’re saying. Some English subtitles might have been a good idea!

Seriously, they were able to include subtitles in the story mode, so why can't there be any in-game subtitles?

Seriously, they were able to include subtitles in the story mode, so why can’t there be any in-game subtitles?

In terms of music, this game has one of the best soundtracks that I’ve ever heard. Literally every piece of background music in this game consists of instrumental metal/hard rock music. Seriously, more games should have a soundtrack like this \m/.

All in all, this game is incredibly cool, unique and fun. Yes, it would have been even better if it had had a more consistent aesthetic, a more consistent character set and more consistent location designs – but most of this game is still really cool.

It’s fast-paced, it’ll make you laugh out loud and it will make you feel like a badass when you play it. It isn’t a completely perfect game, but the parts that it does get right, it really gets right.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Mini Review: “Pinnacle Of Darkness” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ “GZDoom”)

2016 Artwork Pinnacle Of Darkness WAD review sketch

Well, I thought that I should probably review another “Doom” WAD, since it’s been a couple of weeks at least (and because the novelty value had finally worn off of “Brutal Doom” again). So, at the time of writing, I’m playing a “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD called “Pinnacle Of Darkness“.

Although this WAD is designed for modern versions of the “GZ Doom” source port, I ended up using the “ZDoom” source port instead. This is mostly because more modern versions of “GZ Doom” won’t work on my computer, whereas some slightly more modern versions of “ZDoom” will. However, apart from a few occasional graphical glitches, this WAD seems to work reasonably well with “ZDoom”.

But, to get the most out of this WAD, you will need a fairly modern PC – since I noticed some significant slowdown in later parts of the WAD (that makes it almost unplayable on older PCs). My computer can run “Doom 3” perfectly well – but, even after lowering the screen resolution, the framerate still dropped to single figures during some critical parts of the level – making the later parts of this WAD pretty much unplayable for me.

As such, I’m probably somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters (?) of my way through this WAD at the time of writing. So, this mini review will only reflect my impressions so far.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Pinnacle Of Darkness”:

Screenshot_Doom_20160412_112418

“Pinnacle Of Darkness” consists of one gigantic level with a new monster, new music and various new textures. Although I’m a fair way through this level, it’s worth bearing in mind that the download for this WAD is about 9-10 megabytes in size, so don’t expect a small level…..

I'm sure that there's probably still a lot more left to explore...

I’m sure that there’s probably still a lot more left to explore…

One of the first things that I will say about this level is that it is atmospheric. Everything from the ominously dramatic background music to the abandoned church that you find yourself in at the beginning of the level really add to the gothic atmosphere of this level. This is “Doom” as Romero and/or Carmack intended it to be – “scary, dark and fast” (I can’t remember whether it was Romero or Carmack who came up with this quote). And, yes, there are a few creepy moments in this WAD.

The best one occurs fairly close to the beginning of the level and it serves as a dramatic introduction for the level’s new monster. You walk along a corridor and press a switch but, when you’re walking back, the corridor is suddenly plunged into thick darkness. You can hear hidden doors slide open and the inhuman howling of an unknown number of monsters.

If you’re smart, you’ll remember where the exit to the corridor is and quickly run to it, so you can fight the monsters from a more brightly-lit area as they emerge from the corridor. This, of course, is when you come face-to-face with the “tortured soul”. Although I’ve seen this monster in other “Doom” WADs before, it’s always cool to see non-standard monsters, especially when you don’t expect them.

Although he's more powerful than a pain elemental, he's still considerably less annoying.

Although he’s more powerful than a pain elemental, he’s still considerably less annoying.

Visually speaking, this level is absolutely stunning. Although many of the new textures are included in a fairly subtle way, this level is filled with intricately-designed buildings, cramped courtyards, bewildering balconies and vast, sweeping outdoor areas.

This is probably one of the medium-size outdoor areas, but there are small and large ones too.

This is probably one of the medium-size outdoor areas, but there are small and large ones too.

This secret area almost looks like a gothic version of the landscape from "Blade Runner" :)

This secret area almost looks like a gothic version of the landscape from “Blade Runner” 🙂

This building looks really cool too :)

This building looks really cool too 🙂

In addition to this, the designer of this WAD makes full use of the features included in modern source ports – there are transparent grilles on the floors of balconies, there are floating platforms, there are underwater areas, there are 3D shards of glass beneath broken stained glass windows etc… Seriously, there’s a lot of cool stuff in this WAD.

In terms of level design, what I’ve played of this level has been astonishingly good. Although the level itself is absolutely gigantic, it’s surprisingly difficult to get lost or stuck during most of the parts of the level that I’ve played. All of the areas flow into each other fairly well and there are often all sorts of shortcuts between different parts of the level that can be found with careful searching. Like all great FPS game levels, the emphasis here is firmly on exploration.

And, yes, there are LOTS of places to explore here :)

And, yes, there are LOTS of places to explore here 🙂

As for the difficulty level, this WAD is certainly more on the challenging side of things. This might just be because I’d let my “Doom” playing skills atrophy slightly by mostly playing “Brutal Doom” for the past few weeks (I’d almost forgotten how challenging “Doom II” can be when you don’t have grenades, combat-based health bonuses etc…), but this WAD is considerably more challenging than I expected.

In the earlier parts of the level, this difficulty is achieved by only giving you a very carefully-rationed amount of ammunition and keeping some of the more powerful weapons away from you. In later parts of the level, this difficulty is achieved through both clever monster placement and the traditional method of including reasonable quantities of mid-level monsters.

This is a perfect example of both types of difficulty. The first time you encounter an arch-vile in this level, you are armed with nothing more than the basic shotgun and/or the chaingun. This particular battle is more of a game of strategy than anything else.

This is a perfect example of both types of difficulty. The first time you encounter an arch-vile in this level, you are armed with nothing more than the basic shotgun and/or the chaingun. This particular battle is more of a game of strategy than anything else.

All in all, even though the later parts of it can cause slowdown on older PCs, I really enjoyed what I played of this level. It’s brilliantly atmospheric, it’s enjoyably challenging and it also requires a lot of exploration.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.