It’s not very often I get into the FOMO-fuelled side of game collecting. But if there’s something I’m a huge fan of I’ll make an exception and be a sucker. During the final E3 as we know it, Devolver Digital premiered their last prerecorded lampoon of Nintendo’s Direct video series where new games and products get announced. Of course in their parodies they have their own zany storyline going on and do in fact, still tell people about the new stuff they’re publishing.
PROS: A fantastic shoot ’em up with some humor by the folks who gave us Gato Roboto.
CONS: The music could be better. The protagonists’ sprites look bland. Controversial launch.
SECRETS: There are a lot of unlockables for such a small game.
In a more controversial move, Devolver partnered with Special Reserve Games for the subject of this review. There would be two different physical releases you could only get through the SRG store, and once their fulfillment was made that was it. They did two batches, one during E3, and one a bit later. But that was it. The game’s branding even touts “Only Physical. Never Digital.” But going this route over a mass-market production also really limited the number of buyers, which no doubt would include many a scalper. Which there were. When the game got announced there were already listings on the site with insane prices.
But how is the game itself? If you were lucky enough to get an order in like I was, then you’ll find you’re actually getting a pretty great title. If you were not, however, not all is lost. I’ll be telling you why at the end of the review. Which will be shorter than usual, because the game isn’t very long. Made by Doinksoft, the studio that brought us Gato Roboto, Demon Throttle is a shmup. Or Shoot ’em Up if you will. It’s blended with some Run ‘N Gun elements. Your characters are on foot. You shoot demons down as if they were troops in Capcom’s seminal Commando. But by and large, it’s a shmup. The screen auto scrolls vertically, and you have free reign most of the time. It reminds me a bit of Dragon Spirit or Gunbird. Shmups where you pilot a person or creature instead of the more traditional spaceship or vehicle.
Where Doinksoft differentiates things further is in how the game plays. Instead of always hovering over everything you are still traveling on foot. So you’ll have to shoot not only enemies but huge swaths of scenery in the hopes of finding power-ups and life replenishments. You’ll find a lot of the staples you’d expect in the genre. There’s a temporary shield that acts as an extra point of damage. There’s a mace that acts as an orbiting option that can take out enemies. There are speed-up icons that make you move faster. And there are others that benefit your characters in different ways. That’s right, characters. You’re not just flying solo. You have to take control of two characters.
You get introduced to them in the opening movie. It’s made of cinema screens, replete with lo-fi voice samples to emulate the thrill of playing The Adventures Of Bayou Billy on the NES. You find yourself controlling a cowboy, who wants revenge on the head demon for “Kissing” his wife. You’ll also control a vampire who wants to get back four magical chalices the demons stole. And it’s here you’ll start the game.
The game is a short, but brutal four stages. You’ll go along blasting away demons and scenery until you get to the boss. It sounds par for the course, but remember you control two characters. You swap between them by pressing X. You can jump onto scenery or over bullets with B. Shoot with Y. While A fires off your bombs. The cowboy gets dynamite, while the vampire gets homing daggers. When piloting the cowboy you’ll shoot in a straight line. Six bullets at a time, and you can take five hits before dying. When using the vampire, you’ll get a crossbow that acts as a spread gun. And you’ll only be able to take four hits before going down. If both characters die, it’s game over. Demon Throttle has no continues.
The lack of continues or 1Ups really makes the game a challenge. Demon Throttle is tough. Fortunately, the game does have its own take on the Konami code called the DoinkSoft code in the manual. It doesn’t give you thirty lives though, it just starts you out with a shield for one extra point of damage on each character, and gives each of them two lives on every stage instead of one. The game is still going to kick your ass. Like many of the toughest shooters, it’s a game where the more you play it, the more enemy and power-up placements you’ll remember and improve over time.
The other feature that will help even the most frustrated player is the leveling system. Each of your characters gets experience points for killing bad guys. So if you try to kill as many bad guys as possible you’ll level up. Each character can get up to level five before being maxed out. And you’ll want to do that. The cowboy will shoot extra bullets and gain speed shooting. The vampire’s spread will be further and become more powerful. Each of the four bosses has a different series of patterns to memorize and maneuver around. Oftentimes, including moments of bullet hell.
When you finally do beat the game it’s probably not over. Because there are two endings. Remember those chalices the vampire wants back? Each stage has a secret stage in it a la Dragon Spirit where you need to uncover a stairwell. Run into the stairwell and you’ll be in an underground cave stage unique to each main stage. Defeat that stage’s boss and you’ll get the chalice. But you’re still not done because it takes you back to the current level’s midpoint and you have to finish that stage to go onward. So in a way, you actually have to beat 8 stages on two lives per stage. Four lives with the cheat code. Also, the stairs are in a different place every run. Beating the game unlocks a hard mode too, where you play remixed stages with far more enemies in them.
Over time and multiple plays, you’ll unlock a bunch of cute extras. With different screen borders you can enable before your play-throughs, as well as a sound test and even a bestiary. Once you unlock that, you can find hidden meat, or as my pal, Hungrygoriya says, “Meatsticks”. Find that, and then the game will put you into a random battle that plays like a turn-based RPG battle. If you defeat that monster they’re unlocked in the bestiary where you can read more about them. And I should mention if you have a friend over, you can play a two-player co-op mode where you each control one of the characters. One or both of you may like the CRT filter left on.
So DoinkSoft squeezed a lot of extra stuff to keep you going back to the game. Even a harder mode unlocks when you do manage to clear it. As with Gato Roboto, they went for a specific retro look. Where the previous game had a lot of monochrome DOS, Apple II, and Commodore 64 influence, Demon Throttle is very much an NES influence. There’s a similar color palette to it, the stages have that early NES look, while the pixel art for the enemies, bosses, and cinema screens are dead ringers. DoinkSoft clearly has a lot of love for the post-crash years of North American gaming. And as in Gato Roboto, they still appreciate crass comedy. Demon Throttle has its share of dirty jokes. And they’re pulled off well. In my several hours of playing through to the bad ending, I also never ran into any major technical issues.
The soundtrack and effects aren’t as memorable as they were in Gato Roboto, but they’re still good. They fit the motif of the game well, and the echoey effects that a lot of the NES games Rare made are here. Every now and again, there’s even a little bit of C64 SID influence, but it sounds very NES 95 percent of the time.
Now earlier, I said if all of this sounded good to you, you don’t have to fear that you can’t ever get it affordably. After playing through it on stream a nice person pointed out to me that there is a wider release coming and you can pre-buy that on Amazon. People who do will get a download code for Gato Roboto. What you won’t get in the wider release are the extras that the initial Special Reserve versions came with. And these extras were stickers and an instruction booklet for the base version, while the extra ten dollars got that stuff plus a fancier box for the premium version. The SRG limited releases were also numbered. Mine is 1,275 out of 10,000 for example. It’s a nice showpiece, but unless you just have to have every conceivable variation of every game for your Switch, just nab the wide release when it launches in September.
Overall, Demon Throttle is a fantastic time for any shmup fan or anyone looking for a retro-styled challenge. It’s just too bad that neither Devolver or SRG really made an equal attempt to let people know it wasn’t going to be impossible to find after enthusiasts and resellers got their copies. Still, if you stumbled upon my review, let people know they don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on something they can buy for $29.99.
The steep difficulty and potty humor won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. But if some crass toilet or sex jokes on par with something out of Family Guy or South Park don’t bother you, you may want to give it a look. if you’re looking for a challenge not seen since the days of quarter-munching Toaplan games and not afraid to blister your thumbs, you might want to give it a try. Demon Throttle is a fantastic little game, marred by a marketing misfire. Hopefully, there will be an official “Hey! don’t worry guys, we made plenty!” follow-up campaign.
Well coming off of a round up of old-school inspired shooters coming soon, this time out we’re looking at relatively recent one. Hellbound is a game that wears its DOOM fandom on its sleeve. Almost to a fault. But can it hang with id Software’s long-running demon slaying series?
PROS: Visual Fidelity, Rock solid controls. Fast and fluid combat.
CONS: Lack of personality. Bland vocal performances.
MOTHER#$%#^*: Our hero loves to cuss for the sake of cussing.
Hellbound has a lot of really awesome things going for it. It looks spectacular, almost as good as the recent DOOM games. It plays as fast-paced as the recent DOOM games. It has some pretty great locales. It’s got a pretty good variety of enemy types. And there’s all kinds of little nuances in it you’ll likely appreciate.
In short, it’s very fun, and the majority of people who pick it up will likely enjoy their time with it. But there are some caveats with that statement.
Before I get into them though, Let’s go over what you get here. Hellbound as you can probably tell by now, is a shooter inspired by DOOM. Its protagonist isn’t a Space Marine stopping an invasion from Hell through a teleporter experiment gone awry on Mars. Instead you’re a being known as Hellgore who was a soldier killed on Planet Hell, and was resurrected for the sole purpose of revenge. The entire populace was wiped out by a being known as Ferlord, and his army of demonic minions.
With that quick setup Hellgore begins his mission of carnage and bloodlust. While the game definitely references the original DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D in its marketing, it clearly feels more akin to the 2016 version of DOOM. The level designs are pretty good and do offer some of that classic colored key hunting. But much like DOOM 2016, the overall size and scope of the maps are much smaller than they were in 1993. And while you will have to backtrack to a few previous areas to use that red key you just found, the jaunts are much shorter, leading to a more linear, modernized feel.
That in of itself isn’t a bad thing. The stages do have a nice flow to them, and there are even a couple of puzzles that will likely stump you. But it isn’t the same thing as it was in the old games that inspired it. In the original DOOM there were stages you could conceivably spend two hours on looking for secrets alone. That isn’t to say there aren’t some clever secrets in Hellbound because there are. A good number of them too. And while things aren’t as free as they were in DOOM 1993, that doesn’t mean there’s no exploration. This isn’t the hallway, cutscene, hallway formula of some of the blockbusters of recent years either.
Where the game begins to fall short is that there isn’t a lot of its own personality. While the main character (voiced by Artie Widgery) puts out some nice delivery, the dialogue at times is just crass for the sake of being so. I know there was a lot of shock value in some of the glory days of early PC FPS games. But something about it doesn’t seem genuine. Even though it’s very clear that everyone involved in making this poured their hearts and souls into doing so, in some ways it feels tied a little too close to DOOM. In the best and worst of ways.
In the best of ways, it’s that it nails the action. As I mentioned it has a very DOOM 2016 feel although you don’t have a melee attack or skill tree system. But all of the guns are DOOM style mainstays. You have a pistol, a shotgun, a beefier shotgun, a minigun, a plasma rifle, and a rocket launcher. They also have one weapon, the Head Crusher which is basically a baseball bat in lieu of the Chainsaw you’d have in DOOM. Of course if all else fails, you can still punch demons. The game also has soul orbs that are basically the super health orbs from the original DOOM. These give you up to 200% health. Then they veer a little bit into QUAKE territory by giving you a Hell Damage icon that is effectively Quad Damage. So a lot of enemies will explode, and harder targets go down faster for a time. Then there’s the Hell Skin which is basically the armor version of the damage icon. Finally there’s the Hell Speed which makes you run even faster.
On the flipside though, the character designs are largely DOOM stand ins. And while that wouldn’t be a bad thing, the characters are clearly meant to resemble their DOOM counterparts. The former humans are probably the biggest divide in design. But the Vladers, Karnals, and Pygons are very clearly Imps, Pink Demons, and Cacodemons from id Software’s frontrunner. So much so, at times you might find yourself wondering why you’re not playing DOOM 2016.
I don’t want to make it sound like this game is a bore though, it truly is not. It is good. The gameplay is exceptional at times. I only wish it differentiated itself just a little bit more. One thing some people won’t like however is the short length. It’s about the length of a single episode of one of those games it takes its inspiration from. Fortunately the gameplay is there. So for many, you’ll want to go back and replay it on a higher setting for more of a challenge. And if you still need more after that, there is a horde mode where you can choose an arena and see how long you last.
Ultimately, it has enough entertainment value to keep you going through it. By the end of the game I found myself hoping there was more. And that’s a good thing in a way, because it held my attention. It’s a really fun shooter. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the personality of something like DUSK or AMID EVIL. Yes those games were also inspired by old games, but they had environments, characters, and designs you can more easily get behind. DUSK had great horror elements in its simplistic look. Even though it took its shooting cues from QUAKE, it still felt very much like its own thing. Hellbound doesn’t. It feels more like a glass of RC to DOOM’s glass of Coca-Cola. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the best of these titles can stand on their own merits. And while Hellbound is excellent at what it does, it isn’t going to be something you might play over the game that inspired it. Even with voice samples, Hellgore isn’t as interesting as Doomguy.
I know I’m talking in circles now, so to recap: Hellbound is a very fun DOOM-like that you’ll really enjoy if you’ve already played DOOM 2016 and DOOM Eternal to death and want something very close to their template. But I wouldn’t get it over DOOM 2016 if you haven’t played that already. And there are other retro-themed shooters with more personality, games that stand out more than this one to consider. My hope is that they’ll continue Hellbound though. Perhaps a sequel that expands upon the excellent gameplay here, and comes back with some more original characters and locales. There’s a fantastic foundation here. It just needs a little something to stand out from the crowd of similar games also inspired by the games that inspired it.
For full disclosure I was given a copy of this game from a friend who worked on this one. But that doesn’t sway my opinion on it, and I was not monetarily compensated for writing this review. All thoughts presented here are my own.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and write a review. Hours at my regular job have been consistently high, and while things haven’t changed much in terms of the number of them I’ve been pulling, my schedule has been inconsistent. So I’ve focused more on getting some streaming in at night as playing games has always helped me decompress and talking to people who may hop in is usually a good experience.
PROS: Character design. Level design. Controls. Mechanics. Soundtrack.
CONS: A couple of cheap moments.
DON’T: Mistake this for a F2P mobile game port.
One of those games I streamed recently was Get-A-Grip Chip, an interesting game on Steam where you play as a robot who has to look for batteries using a magnet. It was given to me by a friend who did some of the work on it. It’s pretty fun. “Looking for batteries with a magnet? That’s supposed to be fun?” I can hear some of you asking. Well as simple as that sentence was, it’s a more complex idea with a lot of little ideas packed inside of that idea.
I’m told, that early on while working on something else, the team at Redstart Interactive found one really fun feature they had implemented, a grappling mechanic. They spent so much time on tweaking, and experimenting with it that they ended up building an entirely new game out of it. This game is ultimately what that game became. That story reminds me a lot of how a lot of Nintendo development stories go, start with something fun, then build the game, the world, the characters, and story around that. It works for Nintendo regularly, and it honestly does work here.
At first glance you might not see it. Visually, it has the crisp, flat, cut-out tones of something you might find on your cousin’s iPad. And what I mean by that is not the quality of the artwork, sprites, or character designs. All of these are very good with a blend of color depth and detail you might see in a South Park episode. Simply, that the way it is displayed could be perceived as a mobile title due to many of them having a similar look at first glance. That said, the world, the characters, and overall artwork is really good. And you’ll find a wide variety of different settings and environments in this factory as you play through this game. There are a few cutscenes in the game and these seem to have a more animatic vibe, animating a couple of frames to give you a sense of what is happening rather than a full-fledged FMV or animation. It’s something I’ve seen in many games lately even bigger ones. Monster Prom does it, Even Street Fighter V does it with its character story ladders.
Speaking of story, the one we are given here is that a company called RoboCo Manufacturing is making robots. Something I think is probably obvious. What isn’t obvious are the lack of failsafe measures. Because an accident happens on the line, a giant gear gets embedded in one of the manufacturing robots and this causes its programming to go haywire. This in turn causes the machine to go proverbially insane and begin blasting everything with death beams. One seemingly sentient robot named Chip needs to escape, but not before saving the ever so cute, also seemingly sentient batteries who look like Duracell gone Chibi.
Anyway, Chip has very limited mobility. He can move left, or right. In some cases up, or down. But 90 percent of the time left or right are your options. But Chip also has a magnet you can shoot short distances to latch onto things allowing you to swing around like Bionic Commando. The comparison to Capcom’s classic arcade game, its many home ports, NES pseudo-spinoff and even the newer ones that came out in the days of the 360 are appropos.
Because a lot like that series, this one will focus an awful lot on swinging around. Rivets, hanging rebar, there will always be something you’ll have to latch onto. Now while Bionic Commando focused on combat being an action game, this one goes more for mascot platforming. I was reminded of a number of them. Kirby came to mind because of the exploration element. While this is often far more challenging than Kirby, you still are going to be looking at ways to find creative solutions to seemingly complex problems. And some of them will not be so much seemingly complex problems as they are actually complex problems.
On the easier side of the scale, figuring out where the hidden batteries you need to save are is usually as simple as looking for a misshapen piece of wall. Or a sliver of a rivet just peeking into view. Actually getting to some of these batteries is quite a different story. Sometimes, sure, you can just roll behind a slightly off center looking wall and rescue your Rayovac friend. Often times, these paths will lead to new and far more challenging means to rescuing the battery in question. If and when you do successfully save a battery, you’re not in the clear because you still have to get them to the next checkpoint. When you do save one, the HUD will come up on the screen, and in the top left you’ll see a battery count. Each stage has ten batteries to save.
Now while you don’t have to save every battery to clear a level you do need to find so many of them to truly get further in the game. There are five floors, represented by levels of the building currently in the process of being destroyed. Each of the floors has five stages and a boss battle, each of which have the aforementioned batteries hidden within. Save enough batteries and you’ll unlock the next boss battle. It’s something that along with some of the boss battles, reminded me of Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams. In that game, you need to collect so many gems on your first run to unlock future stages, and also like that game there are sections where some grave danger initiates an auto scrolling section. The boss battles here are often like those sections in Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams. A wall of lava, acid, or other nefarious substance will follow you forcing you to rush through as fast as possible without perishing.
Doing that in of itself can be pretty daunting especially considering you have to do all of this by grappling. Doing all of that, and getting all of the batteries requires some Godlike reflexes and quick witted thinking on your feet. It is here, that I also really have to commend the games’ level designs. They all have a great blend of thinking fast to solve problems, and also trying to execute things, and discerning patterns as fast as possible. It really does lend itself well to speed running. But it also doesn’t really feel unfair except in maybe one or two instances where the game drops an unexpected enemy or obstacle your way. The game controls fairly well too with the WASD keys moving you, and you can use your mouse to aim your grappling hook. The game recommends using a game controller, so you may find that moving with a D-pad instead of keys on a keyboard is easier for you.
Get-A-Grip Chip also gives you unlimited lives, so the only thing that can ever really stop you from being able to beat the game is a lack of perseverance. It’s the kind of game I can see anyone really enjoying as you can clear the game by sheer determination. But I really think those who love a super difficult game will find a lot to like too, as trying to get some of the batteries rescued requires a LOT of dexterity, especially near the end of the game where you have to solve puzzles and solve them FAST. One nice thing is once you’ve saved a battery you don’t have to save it again on subsequent attempts. So you can 100% the game by focusing on only the batteries you didn’t find in previous attempts. Speed runners will get a lot of mileage out of this title though because trying to get through each stage in a really short period of time without dying is going to be quite the feat.
Clearing the game does also give you a satisfying ending, and it even shows you how many of the batteries you were able to save before escaping the collapsing factory. I quite liked Get-A-Grip Chip. Save for a handful of moments where they surprise you with an obstacle you have no way of knowing is coming, it’s generally very fair. When you die, more often than not you’re going to know it’s because you were unable to grab that ledge fast enough, or didn’t wait for that electrified lever to fully discharge or any other number of things. Everything is defined pretty well too. There was one instance later in the game I didn’t realize a background object was not a foreground object I could land on. But that could have easily been me being a dope.
And through it all I found myself really enjoying the soundtrack. There’s a pretty good variety here too. While everything could probably fall under the umbrella of Electronica since there are clearly a lot of compositions that were made on a computer that also would be far too much of a simplification. There are a lot of elements of different genres and subgenres here. Sometimes you’ll get some Techno. Sometimes there are moments that will feel more New Wave. Other times there are background songs that are decidedly Hip-Hop, or Heavy Metal. All chosen for appropriate sections. It’s pretty cool stuff, and as it turns out you can also buy the soundtrack on Steam too if you enjoy it enough to listen to beyond the scope of the game.
The characters are pretty cool, and it does a lot with the color palettes it employs. And with the control scheme I could easily see a sequel or prequel where they expand on some of the ideas presented here. I could even conceive a scenario where the company could potentially make a homebrew style version for older consoles and computers seeing how the set up works essentially on two sticks and a button. Seeing an Atari 2600 version, a Commodore 64 version, NES version, even a Colecovision or Intellivision version could be interesting. But now I’ve begun to ramble. The point is, Get-A-Grip Chip is one of the (to borrow a phrase fromMetal Jesus Rocks ) hidden gems on Steam. If you’re looking for something a little bit different give it a shot.
It’s finally here. It’s hard to believe, but Serious Sam 3 is almost 9 years old as I’ve started typing this. Over that time there has been a lot of concern with many fans. Many wondered if it would see the light of day after Croteam had such luck with the beloved Talos Principle and then their VR efforts with Serious Sam VR games like The Last Hope, and ports of The First and Second Encounter to VR. From there it was a sporadic blip or two. A quick quip to say it was coming, or news that the writers of The Talos Principle would be writing the storyline to this game. A couple of years ago we got the first trailer, then not much of anything. But then leading up to the release, we suddenly saw several trailers.
PROS: Legion System. Writing. Added Features. Classic gameplay is retained.
RIDE: Piloting Werebulls and Khnums is one of the most fun things you can do here.
Those trailers got a lot of people psyched. And shortly after I began my initial play through, I saw a few people lamenting the game. And I couldn’t understand why. When first starting the game I had a pretty exceptional first impression. The game has a slew of options for tweaking graphics, performance, audio, and more. The game does a pretty good job of pre picking options based upon your hardware configuration when it does its initial scan. But if you want to lower things for performance, or raise things to make them look as good as things allow.
That said, the requirements for Serious Sam 4 are a little bit beefy. While they’re nowhere near the level of hardware you’ll need for some of the AAA multiplatform blockbusters from the likes of Activision, EA, or Ubisoft, you won’t be able to get by on a potato machine. You’ll need at least a 64-bit quad core processor running 2.5Ghz or better, 8GB of memory, an nVidia GeForce 780 or better on the graphics end. If you prefer AMD graphics you’ll need a Radeon 7950 or better. The video cards have to have at least 3GB of Video memory on them and even that might be a bit anemic. The game will take 40GB or more of hard disk space. According to the game’s Steam page that should let you run the game at around a 720p resolution at 30 Frames per second (approximately 1280 x 720). Things may not look so sharp for those with an older computer but a 1080p monitor resolution or higher. Particularly if you want to run it full screen.
My computer (the one I played the game on) contains an AMD Ryzen 9 3900X, 32GB of RAM, and a 1TB M2 SSD along with an nVidia GeForce RTX 2080 SUPER. So I actually exceeded the recommended requirements a little bit. Be that as it may, I did have a couple of issues I’ll get to later in the review. But most of the time, things seemed to run the way they ought to. At least through the first half of the game anyway.
When the game begins we’re treated to an interactive introduction where the characters in the story can be seen talking. Or rather their reflections of themselves talking on broken satellite panels and spaceship debris floating above the Earth’s atmosphere. Things then shift down to the surface where we see a massive battle going on with the tens of thousands of enemies that Croteam promised us we would see. And to their credit, it’s one of the coolest things you’ll see in a video game. As I said, this is an interactive scene. In engine. Not a cutscene. You move around, fighting the hordes of Mental’s minions. It’s a short-lived moment though because you’ll be knocked out by a giant monster. Once this happens, we’re sent back a few months before this scene takes place.
This sets up the storyline by The Talos Principle’s writers Jonas and Verena Kyratzes. And if you thought that the deep, philosophical writing style of that game would be repeated here, and overshadowing everything you would be wrong. Here they go for a Direct-To-Video Dolph Lundgren vehicle, and it fits the series’ mix of violent, gristly action, and tongue in cheek effectively. Much like Serious Sam 3, this game dabbles in expanding the world of Serious Sam by introducing some newer characters as well as fleshing out some background ones a little bit more.
But the game never makes you delve into any of it if you don’t care to. You can skip every single cutscene the game has to offer if you choose to do so. One of the earliest characters you’ll meet is Kenny, who is basically like the Orko to your He-Man. He’s a comic relief character but almost in reverse. What I mean by that, is when the game introduces the other members of Sam’s team over time, you’ll find most of them have the 1980s action movie vibe about them. They crack one-liners while blowing away hordes of enemies. Kenny is more like a traditional rank and file soldier. Not a chiseled, gritty veteran (Though the game has one of those), but a character with an almost straight-man comedy role. Over time, the characters become an Expendables-like ensemble. The storyline basically starts right before the events of Serious Sam 3 so we have another prequel. A prequel to a prequel. But the story is honestly pretty entertaining.
One of the highest ranking officials in Mental’s army, Lord Achriman has all but conquered Earth. But he is constantly being annoyed by the small uprisings around the globe that keep him from putting a period on the end of his proverbial sentence. Throughout the game’s cutscene’s and in game background audio he fills the role of Half-Life 2’s Dr. Breen. Appearing on TV and Radio to spout off his propaganda and thinly veiled attempts to get the human race to just give up and let him have the last 10 percent of Earth as well. Sadly, as of this writing the character doesn’t seem to have a credit for the voice actor. But it’s easily one of the best performances here. Obviously, John J Dick reprises his role as Serious Sam, and he does it as well as ever.
Over the course of the game you’re tasked with helping a Priest, Father Mikhail get to the Ark Of The Covenant, so that the human resistance can use the Holy Grail to defeat Mental’s forces. This is another fantastic character who is well-written and somehow both grounded and over-the-top. A lot of the humor they sprinkle in is also over-the-top. Over-the-top without doing anything that very many would find too offensive either. Not that I’m debating comedy here, rather saying I didn’t see anything very sensitive people on any spectrum would be too bothered by. And honestly, when it’s funny, it’s really, really funny. I genuinely laughed several times during my playthrough. The characters are all likeable, even the villains, and the story even throws you a few curveballs here and there. Some you’ll see coming. But some will honestly catch you by surprise.
But don’t think this is going to be a game of escort missions, or boring fetch-quests. Well fetch-quests that don’t involve getting a key or other item you don’t really need. This is still very much a Serious Sam game. Though we’re given a number of new features here as well as find a few other features from previous games expanded upon. First off, Serious Sam 3 introduced a melee kill system that DOOM 2016 perfected in the eyes of many. It’s returned here, and it feels like they’ve given iD Software the kudos here because this will feel very similar. That said, some of the melee kills here are more involved than you might expect. They’ve also implemented a point system similar to DOOM 2016. Over the course of the game you can find these blue glass orbs. You can then use these to access a skill tree, and you can use the points to unlock abilities. And its used to great effect here. You’ll want to use these too, because Serious Sam 4 is the most challenging installment yet.
That’s because of something Croteam calls the Legion System, a software engine enhancement they’ve created that (as I mentioned earlier describing the intro) allows the game to display tens of thousands of enemies at once without a massive resource drain (most of the time. more on that later). As such there are a number of times throughout the game where you’ll be killing more aliens than ever. And while they are only that insane number a handful of times throughout the campaign, most of the time you’ll still be going up against more enemies than you did in the older games.
For those new to Serious Sam as a series, many have made the mistake of thinking of these games in the same vein as classic twitch FPS games like DOOM, Quake, or Duke Nukem 3D due to the fast gameplay, crazy weapons, and wise-cracking protagonist. But while those certainly inspired elements of the games Croteam’s series shares more in common with classic twin stick arcade games when it comes to level design. Where DOOM often has tight corridors, monster closets of a dozen to thirty most times and few massive arenas, Serious Sam does not. Serious Sam’s missions and maps share more in common with something like Midway’s Smash T.V..
You’ll often start in an area that gives you health items, and perhaps a weapon. You then leave that area and enter a large arena or vista. Here, you’ll be swarmed by many, many enemies. Often times it numbers in the hundreds. That’s not to say the games only put you in giant maps or sections with enemies. Each of them do, in fact put you in smaller structures, or areas with thin hallways, or mazes with a smaller number of enemies. But unlike other FPS games, it’s almost relentless. There aren’t very many moments where you can let your guard down in Serious Sam games, and Serious Sam 4 is no exception. Serious Sam’s enemies are also more vulnerable to some weapons than others. So it’s a constant management on the fly requirement as you’re always switching weapons as you confront different enemy types in the same massive wave.
Serious Sam stages are always quite large when you take into account the fact that with the exception of the second game, you can go almost anywhere within reason to hunt for secrets and other items. You can still very much do that in Serious Sam 4. But instead of just blindly roaming around for hours, this time stages have alternate missions that going off the beaten path will lead to. The game does mark these, and puts up little descriptors telling you what lies in store for you if you succeed in finding it. Often times it pays to take the risk, and go for these. They’ll have little cutscenes often times to set things up in the story to explain why Sam isn’t just going for the goal. Sometimes you’re getting something for a citizen, other times you’re trying for some meta storyline stuff. But in any case you do get useful things for doing so.
Among these are some of the new items you can use in combat. One of these is a thermos that basically gives Serious Sam super speed like the shoes in the other games did. The difference here is its been combined with Serious Damage from the older games. So you’ll outrun enemies, and have four times the stopping power. Another one of these items is effectively bullet time. So you get a splash of Max Payne in your Serious Sam 4. And it benefits you greatly when you’re fighting in some of the larger scale events and you need that extra time to dodge the 486 rockets from the 56 Scrapjacks that just warped into the battle. Then there’s the Black Hole Bomb, which like Mega Man 10’s, sucks all of the on screen enemies into a black hole. A fun, and well-executed take on the classic smart bomb. Finally there’s the tactical nuke which is more or less a flashy smart bomb.
Throughout the game you’ll also find audio logs, text files, and other things that fill out some of the story details the cutscenes and voiceover might miss. They do manage to do a couple of funny fourth wall breaking jokes here too. But by the end you’ll probably find a lot of it endearing. They’ve done a great job in the action and comedy side of Serious Sam.
Beyond that, they’ve once again retooled many of the classic enemies, and given them some noteworthy updates to their looks. In most cases, they’ve built upon their Serious Sam 3 counterparts, blending some of the more contemporary horror and sci-fi feel with these fantastical characters. But at the same time, they’ve brought back some of that classic, silly feel from the old games here, reminding us of just how not serious, Serious Sam is. This is reflected in the bright colors, and crazy designs of some of the newly introduced enemies. There are vampires that scream at you like Sindel, the Draconian Pyromaniacs that shoot fireballs with flamethrowers, and The dreaded Processed, a bunch of mutant Prisoners who swarm you and shank you with knives.
Combine it all together with far more numbers than you’ve ever seen previously and we’re talking quite a few dicey moments. Especially if you find yourself in an area with very limited ammo or health drops. Which happens a couple of times at dire moments in this game. It’s one of the handful of issues I had in my initial run. There are a couple of large scale fights where you simply will not have enough supplies on hand to survive. While this can happen to you even in the old games, in the old games it’s usually the result of you being a little too callous and free wheeling with your ammo. Here, these fights are going to be especially hard if you come into a situation with only four rockets, and find that there is a scant two, rockets flashing in the field waiting to be picked up. Now don’t misunderstand me. This is not a frequent problem. But when it happens, it really hurts. To remedy this the game does have a couple of options to help a little bit.
The first thing you can do, is save, and save OFTEN. That probably goes without saying. But if you can go back three or four rooms, pick up the right ammo again, then try to get back to the point you’ll have trouble with without using it, that’s something. The second thing you can do is use the aforementioned perk system by choosing options that will make enemies drop ammo for your currently held weapon when you kill them, or give you 1 to 5 percent health back if you dispatch them with a melee attack.
The third thing is one of the newer features, and that is headshots. If you can hit the enemies square between the eyes it does big damage. Most of your small enemies like the Processed, and Octarian foot soldiers will die in a single hit. Some of the medium enemies will take four to ten. Like the Scrapjacks. Large enemies like the Khnum will have you admitting you’re boned no matter what you use. Though you can use the perk system to allow you to ride some enemies like Werebull or Khnum as vehicles. This is honestly pretty cool.
Other ways to try to work around that are to save the aforementioned Black Hole Bombs, Bullet Time, and Nuke for the most dire situations. There’s also a health syringe I forgot to mention. It falls under that category as well as the enemy on enemy gas canister I also forgot to mention. This gas makes the enemies fight each other for a short time. So if you find some of those be sure to save them up for when those undefeatable waves turn up. One last power up I forgot to mention is the decoy, where quite humorously, a hologram of our hero skates around and fakes out the enemies causing them to shoot at it instead of you.
Some may complain that these are ways to make some of the game easier. But considering the fact that you’ll often fight several hundred to a thousand enemies, you’ll be glad they’re here. Despite ALL of those workarounds, there will be some moments where there just won’t be enough extra ammo or health lying in the area. So try to conserve ammo wherever and whenever possible.
One of the other things Croteam mentioned is just how large they can now make maps as well as their new vegetation system. Well there is one massive stage where you’ll be able to see it in action as it does indeed display a bevy of bushes, flowers, and trees. Unfortunately this is the stage where a lot of the technical problems reared their ugly heads in my initial play through. The first of these was a strange A.I. bug. I ran into an encampment of enemies where none of them moved around at all whatsoever until I shot one of them. Not a major problem in the grand scheme of things, but still odd enough. And it could make things a little too easy. This is also the stage where you’ll get to use a few different vehicles. These are some truly fun moments, especially when you can use them in combat.
Near the end of the stage, I started to get some of the other issues. There were a couple of weird pop in issues where the game seemed to suddenly have issues loading higher quality textures, and I also had some brief stuttering in a large scale battle. This wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow had it not been the one and only time I really saw it happen.
While I’m talking about the look of the game here, I’ll address one complaint I’ve seen come up a few different places online, and that is how the game allegedly doesn’t look much better than Serious Sam 3. That, in my opinion, isn’t entirely true. While the main characters look slightly better than the ones in the last game, the enemies here look FAR more detailed, and varied. The lighting here is greatly improved, and one also has to remember that this game renders an obscene amount of enemies at any given time, which likely requires as much power as rendering some of the Hollywood visuals present in some other new releases.
Some of the revised characters like the Gnarrs, Headless Kamikazes, and Scorpions look markedly better than they did in the previous game, and a lot of the new combatants have a level of detail that will simply amaze you, especially when there are 25 of them among the 400 other creatures charging at you. like the flying Kalopsys’ Brain stems or the wrinkles in the Processeds’ orange jumpsuits. Even the weapon models have some really nice textures on them that add a sense of realism to them. Environments also look noticeably better than they did in the last game. Especially thanks to the enhanced lighting effects.
Now that isn’t to say, that the game looks on par with some of the AAA games out there, but again, that is offset somewhat by the impressive animation and enemy counts. The other thing to consider is that development did stall for the creation of The Talos Principle, and the VR Serious Sam games. So it’s likely that they enhanced their existing software technology rather than create an entirely new iteration of their Serious Engine.
One part of the game that is undeniably fantastic however is the soundtrack. Damjan Mravunac really outdid themselves this time, giving us not only a lot of awesome new songs that fit the motif of each stage they appear in, but some remixed versions, and reimagined versions of classic songs from The First Encounter, The Second Encounter, and Serious Sam 3. One of the ones that especially stuck out to me was the Vatican Fight music that played during the lead up to an epic boss fight involving a Gundam in Italy.
Boss fights in Serious Sam have always been these grand scale, larger than life fights and the ones in Serious Sam 4 really up the ante. Almost all of them involve fighting skyscraper sized behemoths, and even the ones that don’t will still require some level of puzzle solving skills. This is especially true when you get to the last couple of them where mere brute force won’t be enough to take them down.
Once you do clear the game, there are a couple of factors that will likely lead to replays if you find you really enjoyed your run. The first of these are the side missions. Any of the ones you might have missed are still there for you to experience. So if you’re the type who likes to do everything a game has for you to go for, this gives you a great reason to play it again. The other thing is the multiplayer. Like previous Serious Sam games, you can go through the entire campaign in Co-Op. This makes an already fun game even more so. Unfortunately , this time around you can only have four players. This is likely a concession for performance concerns. But coming from previous titles where sixteen people could play together, it can be a little bit disappointing. Still, this is the perfect kind of FPS to play with friends of all skill levels as everyone can contribute to slaying down the hordes of skeletons, kamikazes, scorpions and harpy menace.
In closing, Serious Sam 4 is a terrific entry in the franchise that mostly follows the familiar formula that made the series beloved. It’s simplistic but brutal blend of arcade mayhem and difficulty is as fun as it ever was. And most of the new ideas, imported features from other games, as well as the clever writing and voice acting really accent the proven formula nicely. It really will give you some moments that will wow you, and it will genuinely make you laugh when it throws some humor your way. That said, the bugs, and performance problems that crop up three quarters of the way through the game can be pretty annoying at times. If and when you run into any of them you’ll either have to try to tweak the game settings, and settings on your computer to compensate if they happen to get pretty bad for you, or (In the case of A.I. inconsistency) you’ll have to find a way to cheese your way through. As of this writing, Croteam has said they’re looking into these problems and hope to have patches out to fix them. But as it stands they can mar an otherwise wonderful game. The other thing I would be remiss to not mention is that if you’ve played one of the older games and didn’t enjoy it for whatever reason, this won’t change your mind. While I feel they really improved on some things here, it’s again, still very much a Serious Sam game. The core concept is centered around clearing large waves of enemies to advance, and if that isn’t your thing, this probably won’t change that.
Problems aside, I still found this game incredibly enjoyable. It’s easy to recommend to franchise fans because of how fun it truly is, and I can even recommend it to newcomers who are looking for a fast-paced action game experience. Serious Sam games have their own unique flair and feel. They’re not in the Doom, Quake, or Duke Nukem 3D area of classic shooter despite the large amount of action they provide. But they’re nothing like any of the various military themed shooters, or the popular hero arena shooters out there either. This one also has a number of new additions that you may find yourself wishing the older entries had. Serious Sam 4 is a bad ass game hampered by some hitches that will hopefully be ironed out sooner than later. But even with its problems, it’s more than worth playing through. Especially if you have a couple of friends looking for a co-operative experience who are also willing to buy a copy for themselves.
Castlevania is one of the most popular IPs in Konami’s arsenal. Along with Contra, it’s one of the series that made the company a household name in the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Over the last few years, a few independent studios have made games clearly inspired by Castlevania. Like the Bloodstained which were actually made in part with Koji Igarashi. The person who helmed many of Castlevania’s entries. Many of these Castlevania inspired games took their influences from either the earlier action platformers or the later adventure style games.
But today’s game is much different. The focus on Dracula, monsters, and other environments Castlevania is known for is here. However, the story, execution, and gameplay elements have some influences that are clearly from entirely different places. And while that might make some looking for a Castlevania-like take pause, this is something you really might want to check out.
PROS: Character design. Soundtrack. Play control. Visuals. A different take on Dracula.
CONS: At the end of the day the story is a bit basic. Minor bugs. Can’t adjust audio.
BLOODSTAINED: The Castlevania-like series does have a small link here.
Wallachia: Reign Of Dracula is a seven stage campaign with some of the best 2D assets and gameplay you’ve seen in a game of its nature. You play as a woman named Elcin. She’s trained to be a top archer, marksman, and swordfighter. One day, in a scene straight out of Star Wars, she comes home to find her family’s home destroyed and her relatives’ charred remains. Upon learning that Vlad The Impaler was the one behind it as well as the subjugation of the inhabitants of Wallachia she sets out to find her missing sibling and get revenge on the bloodthirsty Dracula.
The game’s narrative takes a slightly more historic approach here going with some of the Romanian histories around Vlad The Impaler. As such the game downplays some of the more fantastical elements Castlevania and Bloodstained celebrate. You don’t see flying medusa heads, reanimated skeletons, or movie monsters. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be seeing any horror elements or strange enemies. There are a few moments where you do indeed see some pretty crazy stuff. But the characters do try to downplay some of it with their dialogue.
The voice work in the game is very good too. Two big names are here: Kira Buckland and Robert Belgrade. You may not know the names but you know some of the work they’ve done. Nier: Automata and Castlevania Symphony Of The Night were pretty big games they respectively appeared in. I was also surprised to learn well after I’d bought the game, my buddy Mike Levy of Dude You Haven’t Played This Game and XVGM Radio had a small part in the game.
All of the voice work is performed exceptionally well, which is why it’s a bit of a disappointment the story breaks down to a simple revenge arc. There’s nothing wrong with that mind you. The gameplay doesn’t really need something that requires analysis or interpretation. But it would have been nice to see the story go a little further with the historical context it dips its toes into. Still, it keeps you entertained, you’ll like the characters presented here, and the sketched and inked cinema screens do a good job of moving things along between stages.
So what do you do in this game? You kick people’s asses in a matter that perhaps only Teela could rival. Elcin is armed with a bow and a sword. You can jam on the arrow button to rapidly shoot off arrows, or you can hold it down for charge shots. You can attack at melee distance with your sword button and once you’ve collected enough orbs you can have an NPC jump in with an assist. Some of them give you temporary invincibility, others beef up your attacks for a short time. The coolest one is probably summoning Minvu, your pet wolf who can clear a medium-sized villain or wave of enemies with a dash. You can cycle between which helper you want to come to your aid with a shoulder button press (assuming you’re on a controller). The other shoulder button lets you cycle between alternate arrows you can pick up. Some are more powerful, some are spread shots as well as others still. All of which can be charged. If that wasn’t enough the NPC helpers do different things if you collect even more orbs and you hold the UP button while selecting them.
You can also find general power-ups that make your arrows and sword stronger or let you charge shots faster. Each of the locales takes two or more forms. You’ll find every two areas or so the environments will have a mild change until you get to a boss before moving onto the next stage. This does a great job of conveying that each of these stages is a journey. Most of the stages do not play like the typical Castlevania game though. While there are still war-torn castles, areas of wilderness, and abandoned villages, you’re not going to be taking sluggish walks up flights of stairs or feeling heavy jumping between blocks. Instead, the game moves along at the pace of games like Revenge Of Shinobi and Rolling Thunder. You’ll have to carefully traverse each stage, memorizing enemy types and placements while using your arrows to dispatch them. Some of course you’ll cut down with your sword when they get too close. Sometimes you can find alternative ways through a section but in general, it’s a linear experience. One that will require some trial and error. This is where the Rolling Thunder influence comes to play a bit as there are soldiers of different color schemes that will attack you with their own specific attacks. They can often come from the background to attack you like in Namco’s classic.
All of these influences make Wallachia stand out because it isn’t just trying to be a Castlevania NES trilogy-like or a Symphony of The Night sendup like some of the other games have been. On top of that, there are some autoscrolling sections and other additions that keep mixing things up. Boss fights are especially fun as at first, they will seem insurmountable. But eventually, you’ll figure out the patterns and be able to move onto the next challenge.
As great as the gameplay, performances, and the soundtrack truly are, there are a couple of small things I had some problems with. The first problem is the audio. Yes, I just praised the soundtrack and sound files. But this is one of a few examples of a game I’ve reviewed where you can’t change the volume level. That’s going to make it something streamers will have to tinker with on PC to try to make it so their audiences can hear them and the game audio at the same time.
The second problem I ran into was on the level select screen. The game has one small bug. When I chose the level 0 bonus stage before going on to the first stage for the first time, the game crashed. After I played through a couple of levels, it notified me I’d “Unlocked” the bonus stage, and then it worked fine. Hopefully, a future patch will fix this and add a volume option. That said, I like that it had an option to map your controller buttons. So at least you can make things comfortable in that regard.
There are a lot of things to love about the game though. The gameplay is terrific as I said earlier. The soundtrack is great. Graphically it looks like it could be on the Amiga 1000 which is pretty much an instant win. And there are even a couple of neat things to do when you beat the game. There are more bonus stages you can unlock when you beat it based on the difficulty you choose at the beginning. But you can also unlock a special costume and that’s Miriam’s gown from Bloodstained!
Overall, I really enjoyed Wallachia: Reign Of Dracula. It’s a tough, but fair action game with elements from several genres and retro games. I can highly recommend checking it out whether you’re a hardcore Castlevania fan or just someone looking for something different. The slightly more historical look at Vlad The Impaler and his possible inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula character is also a nice change from the often fantastical, Hollywood horror version of the character we’re all used to. This is still very much a video game version of the character, but one that stands out.
(Full Disclosure:A review copy Steam key was provided by Super16bits. All opinions are my own.)
As big as independent games have become over the last 15 years, there are many, many games that get lost in the sea of titles. Some of these titles are put out by very small studios, many of which are even one-person operations. Today’s game is from one such small studio. Sakura Stars is a bullet hell shooter from Super16bits, and it’s something shoot ’em up fans may want to look into.
CLASSICAL: Hopefully you like classical music because the OST entirely made up of it.
When a demonic threat arises, a team of three appears to fight the menace. After a brief introductory paragraph, you’re greeted with the title screen. Sakura Stars is a shooter that allows you to choose between two girls and a raccoon. Each of the characters has their own attributes. It hearkens back to some of the classics of old in this regard. Games like TRUXTON, UN Squadron, or Strikers 1945.
One of the girls can shoot a single shot. The second girl can shoot a double shot. The raccoon can fire a handy spread shot. And while the first two characters give you two lives, only the raccoon will give you three. Honestly, if you’re new or lapsed to the genre you’ll really want to start with the raccoon.
The game is relatively short, only going on for four stages. But don’t let the short-run dissuade you from considering this one because Sakura Stars is tough. There are no continues, nor are there any 1-Ups. At least none that I found in my time with it. And when I say this is a bullet hell shooter I mean it. There are bullets everywhere. Each enemy type will fire anywhere from one to ten bullets in a myriad of patterns. Destroying enemies will often create another ten bullets in the explosion. If you were hoping for an 8-bit era horizontal Giga Wing with anime influences you’re in luck.
At the end of each stage, is a boss encounter. These are anime-inspired demon girls who do insane bullet hell attacks. Much like the rest of the game it’s going to be a war of pattern memorization as you try to avoid getting hit while doling out enough damage to defeat the bosses. All in all, it’s easy to describe the core concept. But it’s also going to take you many, many attempts to get anywhere close to beating the game.
The game gets a lot of things right. I loved that it had a fairly memorable regular enemy or two. Flying space eyeballs with optic nerves flailing around and flying tengu faces are prevalent and have several different flying patterns. Sometimes they’ll come in horizontal rows, other times vertical. Sometimes they’ll zig-zag about. Early on, the eyes don’t shoot at you at all, but by the second stage you can expect a volley of bullets flying at you.
I liked the rather large sprites of the playable characters and their different firing mechanisms. But there were a couple of small things that I felt could have been done differently or improved. First of all, while the large character sprites are nice, it’s going to take you several deaths and restarts before you realize that their hitboxes are actually quite smaller than the characters themselves. You really have to navigate the characters’ eyes. If their eyes or the small circumference of pixels around them get hit, you’ll die. But hands? Feet? Hair? Bullets pass right through them.
Once you get used to that, it becomes a much more manageable game. But that still doesn’t mean it will be easy. It’s still a pretty challenging if short game. Maybe not to the degree of the hardest Toaplan, Treasure, or Cave shooter, but still pretty challenging for what you’re given. Keep in mind you’re not going to see the crazy options, multiple power shots or other items you’ll get in those major names of yesteryear. That’s another reason why this one is such a trial. The other thing that seemed a little off to me though is really the balance between the first two stages. After dying a ton, you’ll begin to realize you can breeze through the first level without firing a single shot. As I said earlier, the eyeballs don’t fire at you at all, and the Tengu faces’ shot patterns can be navigated. Plus you avoid a ton of bullets by not killing anything. Because killing things creates more bullets. You still have to kill the boss to progress however.
But all of that goes out the window in the second stage as everything does fire at you and the challenge makes a large jump rather than an incremental one. It could have perhaps helped players get a better handle on the game’s rules had it been a little different. Be that as it may, I still enjoyed my time with the game. I could nitpick about the bosses’ minimal animations or the game playing chiptune renditions of classical music as it doesn’t seem to fit with the look of the rest of the game to me. But that’s exactly that: nitpicking.
There is one thing I wish the game had though, and that’s a deeper options menu. You can’t really change the volume at all. It would have been nice to have music volume, effects volume, or overall volume settings. Especially if you want to play the game on stream. As is, you’ll need to figure out the volume in your own PC settings or streaming software if you do stream. There’s also nowhere to remap buttons. Though it is nice you can use an Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller without a problem. I was actually able to use my Horipad for my Nintendo Switch without any issues.
In conclusion, Sakura Stars is a solid effort from a studio that has only one previous game on Steam. Hopefully, a fleshed-out sequel or future project can iron out some of the minor issues I had with the game because overall it’s a fun, challenging bullet hell shooter. If you’re looking for something a little bit different or something small to play between some other games you may just want to give this one a look.
Well I know I’m once again way behind schedule and probably hemorrhaging eyeballs faster than Ric Flair would bleed in his wrestling matches. Not that it is anyone’s problem other than my own. But when there’s a scare, you’re told you’re essential and said essential gig is the one that pays regularly, online endeavors have to take a back seat. Well, that or you quit. But that wouldn’t leave me with many prospects. So we have to count our blessings, prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.
All of that said, I pray for everyone affected by this pandemic and hope those who haven’t contracted it never do. Personally, I know a few people locally whose relatives were infected and it hasn’t been easy for them. It’s been said a billion times, but unless you’re completely out of food, don’t leave the house. And if you are, go to the store, buy two months worth of stuff and go directly home. It isn’t worth the risk. I had a customer complain they had to spend time with their kids. I couldn’t believe it. I told them to appreciate the time with them now rather than regret not having the time when they’re in their 90’s lamenting the fact they never spoke to one another.
Anyway, I was fortunate enough to find some time to stream a couple of nights last week. So I managed to play through two games and I thank any of you who dropped in. Whether you chatted me up or just lurked. The first of these was today’s game. PROJECT WARLOCK. While the second was BLAZING CHROME which I will get to in a future review. PROJECT WARLOCK (Which demands an all-caps introduction. It really is a cool sounding name. Like something out of the B movie selection in the action movie section in the video store, we had back in 1993. But I’ve gone on a tangent.) is another in a line of games that pays homage to First-Person Shooters of yesteryear. But this one takes a little bit of a turn by going way back. Way, way, back to the earlier games put out by id Software and Apogee.
PROS: Great level design. Great characters. Great aesthetics. Customization!
CONS: Some people aren’t going to like having a lives system.
SURPRISE!: The game loves to throw a few curve balls from time to time.
Many games, of course, are inspired by DOOM, Quake, or Duke Nukem 3D. Some of these have even gone as far as run on those games’ classic engines. But this one goes back even further. Back to the days where every room was designed with cubes and 90-degree corners. Catacomb Abyss, Wolfenstein-3D, Blake Stone: Aliens Of Gold are the types of games this one takes much of its inspiration from. However, the game runs on Unity, and as such isn’t completely bolted down to those games’ limitations. However, it sticks to most of them while allowing for different ceiling and wall heights as well as elevators. Plus there are some nice skyboxes and interactive sprites and textures. The end result is something that feels like a combination of the aforementioned games and Rise Of The Triad. A classic that was born of a heavily modified Wolfenstein-3D engine.
Unlike Rise Of The Triad, there aren’t any bizarre cultic terrorist organizations portrayed with digitized actors in the vein of Mortal Kombat. But you will be gunning down many, many enemies, collecting boatloads of treasure, and looking for many secrets. For those who have never played any of the First-Person Shooters prior to DOOM, this game may seem fairly restrictive at first. This hearkens back to a time when FPS games only had one set height for the floor. There were no stairs. There were no cliffs. It was rare to even see a puzzle involving switches. Secret areas were accessed by physically moving cubes of the environment back so many paces. In short, these were mazes like you would see in an early arcade game like Berzerk or in Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein (A game inspired by Berzerk that in turn inspired Wolfenstein-3D) but in the first person.
That meant hours of pushing on walls for those who wanted to find every conceivable secret in between blasting enemies. A lot of that experience has been recreated here. But it also has a couple of modern conveniences that make the experience a lot more interesting as well as enjoyable. For starters, this game has a contemporary control scheme. Back before Quake gave us this control scheme, most FPS games were controlled by using the arrow keys to move forward, backward, and to turn. You would fire by pressing CTRL, and if you needed to strafe you had to hold the ALT key while pressing left or right. The Spacebar opened doors. Even today, many people will download a source port when they buy a classic game like DOOM because going back to that setup feels archaic. Even to many veterans who are used to it.
Project Warlock eschews that and retains the WASD, and a mouse control setup we’ve enjoyed since 1998. Be that as it may, this is still very much inspired by those pre-DOOM years so you won’t be jumping or crouching. But don’t worry, because these limitations actually forced the developers to get far more creative. Which is quite common when creating anything. Intentionally limiting yourself means inventing new ways to implement ideas you really believe in and Buckshot Software has done a phenomenal job with this game.
While the limitations may sound like a bad idea to some, they’re done very well here. Level designs are quite elaborate here and can get really deep. You may think you’ve hit a brick wall in finding the exit, then retrace all of your steps to find a door that was hiding in plain sight. Or you may think that secret you discovered was a monster closet because it was, but getting through it got you a weapon earlier than expected.
The art design goes along with very well. They have done a fantastic job with all of this. Each of the game’s episodes has a completely different setting with a cast of enemies to go along with it. When you first start the game you’ll go through an initial stage that gets you acclimated with everything while being a surprisingly challenging stage. Frankly, it’s one of the toughest parts of the game. But you’ll want to press on and defeat it because things will become more manageable over time.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a small fortress stage that acts as a hub level where you’ll be able to level up your abilities, weapons, and choose missions. It feels a lot like the system in Bioshock, except you don’t have to choose to harvest Little Sisters and tick off Big Daddies. As you play through the game you can find stat building icons and you’ll also level up by mowing down hundreds of enemies. After so many stages you’ll find yourself back here, where you’ll be able to spend those upgrades on beefing up weapons, spells, and abilities.
The game gives you two styles of assault. Traditional weapons you’d expect like guns or grenade launchers and Magical weapons like you would see in a game like Heretic. The magical weapons and spells use mana while the traditional weapons use their own ammunition. Over time you’ll begin to make yourself bigger and better as you increase your health bars and add crazy enhancements to your arsenal. For instance, you can turn one weapon into a rail gun, or make a wimpy handgun go from a pea shooter to a hand cannon.
This actually means that earlier stages in many ways can seem more difficult to clear than some of the later ones. But this doesn’t make things feel insurmountable, rather it gives the game an RPG like affair in the sense that when earlier enemies that felt unkillable go down in a far more reasonable amount of time. Project Warlock also calls back to the old id/Apogee days by having episodes. Each episode has a few ranges of stages within them and culminates with a boss fight. Each episode also has its own particular look and feel. The first episode features a lot of horror and fantasy themed characters and settings. The episode after that goes for an icy tundra theme with winter stages, and enemies like abominable snowmen and creatures stuck in panes of ice. Other episodes have ancient Egyptian themes or industrial sci-fi themes. The final episode homogenizes all of these together.
After a predetermined number of stages within each episode, things will take a break to send you back to the hub for more leveling up. Keep in mind the episodes have to be played through in sequential order. You can’t play them at your leisure the way you can in Wolfenstein 3D. At the end of each episode, the related aforementioned boss stage opens up and commences. Some Boss fights in this game do move beyond the typical “Shoot the Cyberdemon until it dies” meme battles you remember from games like DOOM. All of them are visually creative and have a number of things going on. One of the battles takes place against a giant Sphinx that goes in a different direction you might expect it to. Another boss implements a switch mechanic in its combat. Overall, these all come off as very memorable due to the combination of terrific character designs, sound effects, and attack patterns that really make them stand out.
In between episodes, the game takes some influence from DOOM by giving you a full-screen essay on what happens with your character’s following exploits. The game also does have a few really interesting options to go along with the entire package. One cool feature the game has is something that has also been done in other indie games. But usually, they’ve been completely different genres. That feature is the ability to put on different filters to emulate the look of older platforms. There are palates for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Nintendo Game Boy, and others. The game also has a CRT filter for those that want it. But rather than a simple on and off toggle, you can set a number of meters for the level of detail you want. You can also set variables for how pixelated you want the game to look.
Admittedly, some of the retro settings can actually make some of the enemies harder to see, so in some cases, the game can become more difficult than it otherwise might be. You can also put on some more contemporary special effects like Ambient Occlusion. In short, the game does give you a lot of options if you’re into customizing the look and performance of your games.
This is also another game that has a fantastic soundtrack. Jerry Leha and Luke Wilson have put together a list of songs that fit the world of the game perfectly with a mix of Heavy Metal, New Wave, Industrial Electronica, as well as some orchestral elements blended into each of them. It’s a great game!
Not everything in the game is as good as it could be. As I said, the optional filters can sometimes make things hard to see. The other thing some might not like is that the game retains a lives system from the days of Wolfenstein 3D. So, unfortunately, you won’t be able to press a button to quicksave the way you’ve been doing since the days of Quake. If you die, you’ll have to redo everything you have in that stage up to that point. Fortunately, there are ways to find extra lives, and updating your arsenal will definitely mitigate that. Still, these won’t be considered transgressions by everyone. Especially for those that might point out how a quicksave feature could be abused by constantly pressing it after killing each and every enemy.
Ultimately though, this is worth picking up. It’s a great blend of Pre-DOOM conventions and modern conveniences of the genre. One that you really have to see to believe. A number of games today take inspiration from DOOM, it’s less common to see them take it from Wolfenstein 3D. The fact that this one does and does it well makes it really stand out. With it putting in current things like a WASD and mouselook control scheme it makes it still feel like a contemporary game when playing it. It’s got awesome art design, great characters, imposing bosses, and a solid leveling system. But be aware it does have a couple of early conventions you may not be used to if you weren’t around for the glory days of early id Software and Apogee.
A couple of years ago now, a small independent action platformer got some attention. Slain had a brilliant art style that was combined with a soundtrack by Celtic Frost’s Curt Victor Bryant. If you wanted a video game that instantly made you think of Heavy Metal music, Slain could easily come to mind. It had a botched launch as there were a lot of technical problems. But the developers truly did overhaul everything to do customers who backed the game justice. And with Slain: Back From Hell they largely succeeded.
Valfaris is the new game from Steel Mantis. Much like Slain, it has a gristly, horrific art style. It too has a soundtrack by Curt Victor Bryant. But it seems to be advertised as more of a Contrainspired game rather than a Castlevaniainspired one. Did the folks at Steel Mantis give us an exhilarating Run N’ Gun that old-school NES era Konami fans the experience they remember?
PROS: Builds on everything the developers learned when making Slain.
CONS: It’s a triumph! But it isn’t quite the Contra-like the trailer teases.
METAL: Everything you see and hear screams “Crank it to 11 & break off the knob!”
One thing you can absolutely tell if you’ve played Slain before playing this game is that Steel Mantis learned many good lessons from that process. Right on the title screen, you can notice some cool details. Just like Slain, it oozes Heavy Metal. Your character is dressed like a Warhammer 40k Chaos Marine. There are mountains of fossilized remains of people and creatures everywhere. And you can notice a faded 3D render of the face of the protagonist as if it were made for an early Windows 95, PlayStation, Saturn, or Nintendo 64 game. It brilliantly blends the eras of the 16-bit and early 32-bit and 64-bit processor powered consoles.
Upon beginning the game you’ll see a cut scene setting up the story. As Therion, you’re off to a mysterious space station; Valfaris upon it reappearing near a red giant. It was once your home and with its discovery, you decide to investigate. Upon landing on the citadel world it immediately becomes apparent that evil forces have taken it over. So right out of the gate, you’ll be confronted with enemies.
Now while many might think of this game as a Run N’ Gun in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug, it really isn’t. You will be getting many cool weapons throughout the game, and you will be shooting a lot of stormtroopers, monsters, space insects, and more with them. But it doesn’t have that constant, “Go! Go! Go!” pace of a Run N’ Gun. Save for a couple of enemies that actually spawn enemies and a couple of auto scroller moments you can take moments to breathe. And while the game’s stages are linear, there are a number of hidden areas you’re going to want to seek out. In reality, it feels somewhere in between Konami’s two biggest franchises of that bygone era.
Basically, it builds on the core gameplay introduced in Slain, and it does so beautifully. It feels very refined in the melee combat. Of course, all of the game’s enemies have an entirely different speed. So while you can indeed, expect to use parrying to your benefit you can’t expect it to be predictable. In Slain, knowing exactly when something was about to hit you was, strangely enough, easier than it is in Valfaris. Fortunately, parrying isn’t quite as necessary as it was in Slain, although there are definitely some moments where it is beneficial. So beneficial in fact, you’re going to want to get that timing down for when these moments come up.
So like Slain you have the ability to swing melee attacks, and you have a block button. The block can not only block attacks but as mentioned can also parry attacks if you hit one a split-second before it hits you. Underneath your health bar is a second bar that is tied to the blocks. Killing enemies with a melee attack can often refill it by dropping blue mana. This meter will deplete when you block attacks, and some enemies have powerful attacks that can take it to zero after one block! So there’s another reason to try to master parrying.
Of course, the big addition to the gameplay here is the shooting. The game starts out by giving you a laser pistol and a lightsaber. But as you play through the game, you’ll discover newer weapons to use. Some of these are out in the open, but other ones will require you to find secret rooms or alternate paths in levels. Which is why the game never really hits the pace of a proper Contra game. You’ll need to take your time to look for these visual cues. It definitely is a bit peppier than Slain though. And while this game doesn’t have as many one-hit deathtraps in the background as Slain did, you still have to pay a lot of attention to the background. Some enemies really blend into the scenery and can knock you into pits, pools of acid, as well as other deadly places.
Speaking of scenery, again, I have to point out the painstaking detail of the graphics here. There is a brilliant use of color shading and terrific palettes for every possible section. The environments are wide and varied in Valfaris. One moment you might be in a war-torn battle station. Another, you’ll be in a space bug-infested jungle where even the vines are sentient and lethal. Each stage has a multitude of bosses, most of which are insanely difficult while at the same time being completely fair. When you die in this game, 95% of the time you know it is your own fault. There are a handful of times where a Boss will pull a cheap trick at the last second or the rare platform that looks wider than it actually is. But on the whole, everything feels on the level. So the game fosters an environment where even though you’re going to die a ton, you’re also going to feel determined even if you find you’re getting mad at yourself for messing up.
Obviously, the soundtrack goes along with everything perfectly, as Curt Victor Bryant returns from Slain to continue the shredding. Honestly, the music in this also feels a lot more varied than in Slain, as he touches on the many subgenres of Heavy Metal. There are orchestral moments that lead to a Symphonic Metal opus. There are classic Power Metal moments, Speed Metal tracks during some intense moments, and more. There isn’t much in the way of vocals here, but it’s totally fine. In fact, vocals might even distract from the action going on at any moment,
And like Slain, you can expect to see a lot of intense, unsettling animations as enemies explode into gibs, get cut in half, smashed by parts of the scenery and more. Getting back to the gameplay, there are also Super Weapons you can use that also uses the mana the blocking function does. These do a lot of damage while consuming a lot of your meter so you may want to use it sparingly. In my playthrough, I tried to use them mostly for the more intense boss fights. Of which there are many. All of the weapons, the melee ones, guns, and super guns you find can also be upgraded at checkpoints. Throughout the game, you’ll find special items you can use to do so. Each of these can be leveled up to around four times and the cost to do so increases each time. As you play you’ll really want to think about what weapons to upgrade. Each weapon is effective on all of the enemies, but some are more beneficial on some than others. So there’s an element of Mega Man here for you to consider as well.
When you do clear the game it will give you a pretty satisfying ending. Throughout the game, it definitely leaves some nods to Slain, but you don’t have to have played Slain to understand what is going on here. After the credits roll you’ll be given an end screen showing you how many times you died, how long it took you to beat the game as well as how many items you’ve found so that you’ll be inspired to play through the game again. It does try to get you to at least attempt a 100% completion run.
While as of this writing I didn’t see it on my physical Switch version of the game, the game’s Steam page does list a New Game + mode being added to the game. So if you want an even bigger incentive to go back to it once you’ve beaten it, you potentially have one. Ultimately though, even if you only play through it once you’ll feel very accomplished. This game pulls no punches. Even the most grizzled video game veteran will be challenged to the nth degree. But again, the whole thing generally feels fair. When you start to notice patterns and understand what you need to be doing things don’t feel so frustrating. They make you feel more determined. You can win the day, you really can. Valfaris is one game you should definitely look into. It’s gorgeous, sounds amazing and is filled with challenges. Just don’t come into it expecting a Contra-like. It is more of an Action-Platformer than Run N’ Gun. But still one of the best experiences you’ll have.
In recent years we’ve had a few high-profile games that hearken back to the early days of the PC FPS. There was a pretty great Rise Of The Triad reboot, a few years ago. Bethesda brought back DOOM, and New Blood Interactive has hit it out of the park by publishing DUSK, and AMID EVIL. But where all of these games bring back the elements of old using modern technology, Voidpoint went for the new game in the 1990s mold a different way. They actually went with technology that was released in the 1990s.
PROS: An excellent use of the 1996 3DRealms Build Engine in an all-new game!
CONS: There isn’t much for you beyond a terrific single-player campaign.
JON ST. JOHN IS BACK: But not as the gun-toting action hero he made famous.
Ion Fury had a few swerves on the lead up to release. When I bought it in Early Access eons ago it was called Ion Maiden. And it was one bug-ridden demo level. Once the issues were hashed out, it was one excellent demo level. But it hit other speedbumps like a potential lawsuit from a major record label and Iron Maiden because of the letter “R”.
But a lot has changed since then and now that the game is officially out we have a new name, full-fledged campaign, and some other bonus content for good measure. Voidpoint also built this entire game on the very same technology 3DRealms used itself for Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior. The game runs in a modified version of Build Engine that works under the modern Windows 10 environment. No need to fire up DOSBox, or write a batch file. It runs natively.
But they didn’t just reskin a bunch of Duke 3D content. Everything here is all new. A cast of wild and inventive new enemies. A bunch of fun and interesting new weapons. A plethora of crazy new enemies to turn into gibs. A slew of stages that will have you really thinking about how things work in between volleys of enemy waves and hellfire. They did a lot to push 23-year-old video game engine technology beyond what was thought possible. It even simulates some room over room scenarios with some clever tricks as Build technically was never designed to do so. We wouldn’t see that until iD Software created Quake.
So the game is technically impressive, but how is the gameplay? Honestly, it’s quite good. If not for a few things I’ll get to later on, this could be the game people wanted Duke Nukem Forever to have been. You play as Shelly Harrison, the protagonist of the little-known twin-stick shooter Bombshell. Ion Fury is technically a prequel to that game. In any case, Shelly is after a mad scientist Dr. Jadus Heskel. Like many fictional insane villains with a Ph.D. Heskel has an army of twisted designs and is bent on taking over the world. He also has many acolytes in his group. So you can expect to go up against every sci-fi, and Saturday Morning Cartoon enemy trope you can think of.
There are the cultists, zombies, cyborg ninjas, terminators, demons, death bots you would expect to face in a game like this. But there are a lot of other hidden surprises. But the game also gets points for being a bit more original with the designs of most of its rogues’ gallery. You’ve seen these kinds of enemies in many games over the last four decades. But they do have terrific, original costumes most of the time. Though there are a number of them that do not differentiate themselves from the henchmen in the late-night B-movies that inspired them. Though the ankle-biting enemies in this game will likely infuriate you as it can be impossible to see these heads with spider legs when they’re clipping behind 2D scenery sprites like trash cans or trees.
Regardless of that annoyance, the stages in this game are very well thought out. As you get further in the game they become pretty intricate, rivaling some of the biggest maps from DOOM, Duke Nukem 3D, and Shadow Warrior. In late-game stages, you’ll often find the familiar color-coded keys bring you back to earlier areas or open up previously inaccessible paths. Simply trying to complete some of these can take you close to an hour. Possibly more. Then there are the secret areas. Some of them are obvious. If you’re going down a hallway, and see an air vent you may as well shoot the cover off and climb into the air duct. But others can be rather obtuse.
If you’re just looking to blow through the game without worrying about finding every last secret and Easter egg, it will still take you a considerable amount of time to do so. As I’ve mentioned before, these levels are quite large with intricate paths. Then there are the set-piece moments peppered in. These are the times where you’ll hear Dr. Heskel taunt Shelly while the game introduces a major puzzle, new enemy group, or a boss encounter. These are done exceptionally well by the actor who brought Duke Nukem to life in Duke3D; Jon St. John. Here, he does a fantastic job of portraying a stereotypical supervillain. Even if the rest of the game doesn’t do much to flesh out the character, Jon St. John makes up for it a bit with some great delivery.
And while Jon St. John isn’t reprising his most famous video game role, there is someone bringing you the snarky one-liners. That’s Valerie Arem. She’s the voice behind Shelly Harrison and Harrison brings the B movie quips as well as Duke Nukem did. Whether she’s blowing up cyborgs with bowling bombs, discovering new weapons or interacting with things in the environment you’re going to hear some great line delivery. Sometimes the game may replay them a bit too much. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. It really does feel like you’re playing a Duke Nukem 3D spinoff.
Of course, the modern standards that have been added here also make the game much easier to play than the old Build Engine games in their vanilla forms. But it won’t be an easy game. When you’re not facing hordes from recently opened monster closets, you’ll rack your brain trying to figure out which path to take in the maze you’re currently in. And again, the visuals are all new in spite of running on modified old tech. The gritty textures and sprites will feel both new and familiar. For younger players who never experienced Duke Nukem 3D or Blood or Shadow Warrior back in the day, it might just give you enough understanding of why those games are considered classics while giving you a fantastic new experience.
All told you’ll spend anywhere between 7 to 20 hours clearing the campaign, and for the completionists out there you’ll spend even further trying to get every last secret. All while jamming to some pretty great Electronica by Jarkko Rotsten that hearkens back to those 90s DTV films that used to adorn the video rental store walls.
When you clear the campaign there is a horde mode to play, but honestly, it feels pretty weak compared to the main game. Even if it can’t compete with the massive player bases of things like Overwatch I think a Deathmatch or Capture The Flag mode would have been much more fun. Barring that, an actual Co-operative campaign option would have been even better, giving players more replay value as they could play with friends on a second or third playthrough.
Still, for what it is, it is a fun ride that gives you what it advertises; a fun, modern shooter built to appeal to the classics on a classic engine. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in playing, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy your time with Ion Fury. It’s a very well-made game that does what it does well. It pushes old tech to the limit while providing FPS fans with a new game. You’ve seen a lot of what it does before, yes. But it somehow doesn’t feel derivative. It’s a fun game with a cool protagonist.
Conan The Barbarian. The Beastmaster. He-Man, and The Masters Of The Universe. Swords and Sorcery were a staple of the 1980s action genre in nearly every medium. Even in the realm of video games where we saw hits like Golden Axe and Rastan. The 8-bit powered computer scene had ports of these as well as games based on the aforementioned properties. The biggest being the Commodore 64.
PROS: Challenging. Recreates the look, and sound of a C64 Accurately.
CONS: Hit detection on traps could be a little more forgiving.
ONE LIFE TO LIVE: Like the title of a defunct soap opera, you have one life.
The Commodore 64 is one of the greatest platforms of all time. There were thousands of games released on it. Some are even coming out on it today. Black Jewel is not a C64 game, but it is a terrific sendup. From the moment you start the game you’ll see the unmistakable BASIC screen load the game. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear you were running an actual C64 image file in an emulator. But you’re not.
The game’s developers were heavily inspired by the classic computer, and it shows. The game’s video introduction sequence mimics the classic loaders of the ’80s showing off flashing colors, a detailed splash screen for the title, and music. And immediately the soundtrack will enamor anyone who hears it. Gianluca Pappalardo is the name credited with the soundtrack and they succeed with flying colors here. The music not only fits the Barbarian action hero vibe the game goes for but accurately simulates the sound of the SID chip as well. Despite being a game for Windows, it sounds like it could have come from the Commodore 64’s Sound Interface Device.
So it’s been established this game accurately mimics the look and sound of a Commodore 64 computer. But how is the actual gameplay? Here, the game continues that Commodore 64 inspiration. Black Jewel is an action platformer that requires meticulous planning in order to get through each scenario. It’s got the exciting battles you’d expect from something like Rastan, yet you’ll need to treat each stage as if you were playing Another World. While there are no puzzles, you still kind of need to see each room as a puzzle.
At the beginning of the game, you’re told the story. It isn’t very deep. But it doesn’t need to be. An evil warlord named Darkor has stolen a Black Jewel. A mystical artifact that has allowed him to terrorize the land and enslave its inhabitants. As Ryan, you take up arms and go on the quest to save the land by reclaiming the Black Jewel. Of course, this will involve killing Darkor.
This is all much easier said than done. Because Black Jewel is a tough game. As I’ve stated before this is heavily inspired by early computer games. The controls are simple enough. You move left or right with the arrow keys and press the *D* key to swing your sword. And you’ll be pressing up to jump because there were only one button joysticks in 1983. You can, of course, use a controller with the game, but you’ll still be pressing up for jumps.
The game moves along at a perfectly fine speed. But keep in mind you’re a big, lumbering barbarian. So you’ll have floatier jumping than in something like Mega Man. The scenes are also modeled after the flip screen mechanics of early home computer games too. Remember, scrolling games didn’t become the standard until the latter half of the decade. The level design in Black Jewel is also built off of the history of the time as well as the appearance. And frankly, it’s very good.
Each stage is made up of several rooms, each taken up by a screen. Each of which will have an enemy to dispatch or an obstacle to overcome. When you’ve completed it, you can go to the next one. Some of these will be simple things like jumping over spikes. Other times you’ll be tasked with killing two bad guys while avoiding fireballs. This is the kind of stuff you would see even in adventure platform games in 1994. Black Jewel will not only test your action game skills but your puzzle-solving skills too. Again, despite not having what many would call puzzles.
At the end of each stage, you’ll fight a boss. Each of them has to be dispatched in order for you to continue. Most of them can be pretty tough as they utilize a couple of attack patterns. They’ll sometimes throw you a swerve by switching them up when you least expect it, so you really have to be on your toes. Defeating them opens up the next stage. It’s here you’ll notice something. Stages do not get splash screens or other introductions. You will just see the scenery change. Also, it won’t take you long to notice something else. That giant sword at the bottom of the screen is getting shorter.
That sword is actually your health meter. When it’s gone, so are you. Game Over. You have exactly ONE LIFE to clear Black Jewel. When I said this game was tough, I wasn’t lying. Now that doesn’t mean that it is impossible. It can be beaten. It isn’t a long game. And it even has health potions to restore your meter to varying degrees. Some will fill it 25% others 60% and others will top it off. That said, one ought to pay very close attention to what is going on at any given time. Because you can take damage without realizing it.
My one main problem with the game is it doesn’t quite go far enough in showing what is a background, or what is a deadly trap you shouldn’t step on. Oh sure, you’ll figure it out too late eventually. But that also means you’ll be back at the title screen. Now some things are obvious. Skulls and spikes usually mean trouble. But another object might seem innocuous until your sword starts draining. Also, you should keep in mind when something does hit you, to back away immediately. You do not get to take a hit, fly back, and get 3 frames of invincibility as in some of the classic action games you’re used to. If you’re standing on a spike, a pixel too deep into an enemy or a boss that sword will be a mere hilt in seconds. Fortunately, you’ll find you can skip over some of the bad guys instead of fighting them. But this does not work on bosses.
Still, considering that Oscar Celestini set out to make an homage to these early Commodore 64 action-adventure style games, Black Jewel is a success. The animation is phenomenal. The sprite work and backgrounds are amazingly detailed. Plus everything looks so true to the C64’s 16 color palette and aside from a full widescreen image, it’s almost 1:1 to the untrained eye. I won’t lie, at times the gameplay might feel a little rough around the edges for people used to faster-paced arcade slashers. But once you’ve died a few times, and gotten used to the mechanics it becomes a remarkable game.
If you grew up gaming on a Commodore 64 this love letter will very likely appeal to you just from the look and sound alone. If you didn’t, it’s still a pretty fun game. The combination of action and adventure elements are great. There’s a balance between hacking up bad guys and planning out how to get through each room with as much health left as humanly possible. You can’t just rush into it like you would a Golden Axe machine set on Freeplay. And yet it isn’t so cerebral you’ll need to do math equations. It requires both approaches and a bit of patience. It’s highly unlikely you’ll clear it on your first attempt or even four-hundredth attempt. But it doesn’t wear out its welcome by going on for hours either. Black Jewel may be tough, it may be esoteric. But to borrow a phrase from famous YouTube star Metal Jesus Rocks, it certainly is a “Hidden gem.” You can pick it up on Steam if you like what you see here. Overall, I can recommend you do.