Friday, December 27, 2013

Unholy Realms (UR_FINAL.WAD)

I've bugged a lot of people about a lot of projects, but I think I've ridden Doomworld Forums superstar Brian "Snakes" Knox's ass more than most. Unholy Realms started up back in early 2010 and has been kicking around during the majority of Knox's mapping career, finally seeing release in 2013. It's a limit-removing megaWAD for Doom II that gets some more use out of the Community Chest 4 texture pack, now fairly well known, but still appreciated to give these works some flair beyond plain ol' vanilla textures. As far as story goes, Knox emulates his forbears with a quick blurb about sections of reality being pulled from Hell and merged in the vision of the Icon of Sin, with you setting out to end shit before it all goes to Hell.

Put this up next to Four Maps and see if Snakes doesn't die of embarrassment. The dude has come a long way, and while Unholy Realms doesn't contain much of the scope that Knox is capable - exhibited in his "Malebolge" from Doom 2 Unleashed - UR is more of a testament to the gameplay that Knox enjoys the most, namely fast, relatively short levels where the length comes from challenge. It's invited comparisons to Scythe and Vanguard and though Knox himself cites specific inspirations for each level, two major influences he names are skillsaw and Joshy, both of whom incidentally have contributed one map each to help Knox out.

Unholy Realms is heavy with arena-style gameplay, and I don't mean that pejoratively. Two major hooks you'll see are levels where you start out in the wide-ass open, exposed to enemy fire from every direction, or instances where you're locked into a single area for a short amount of time while Knox forces you to fight a relatively unique combination of enemies, being careful to vary height and composition. The monsters are thick and you'll be kicking their corpses aside to make room for more as you chew through these levels. A few offerings buck the trend, most noticeably "Ashen Layer", a pretty demanding Tyson level that follows a death exit. The other major outlier is a team map from valkiriforce and deathevokation, the secret MAP31, that plays like a pretty badass '96-'97 level. I think Khorus's secret map is close enough to short, punchy gameplay that it's not too distant... Though it pretty much is an extension of KSSHT.

Snakes has always had the combat down pat, looking at the way the levels play out, or maybe they've just been playtested to Hell and back. I've been spoiled, though, after playing his Midnight Tek Frenzy, which outshines a fair number of these levels in terms of visuals, almost certainly due to when they were produced. They still play fantastic, though, and compare pretty favorably to other one-man megaWADs produced over a similar timeframe. It would have been great to wander through a multitude of map themes, but I'll take what I can get. It has a pretty kickin' rad Hell episode, and it's not like Snakes doesn't pull some cool shit in the first half of the WAD.

It's been a long time coming, but now that it's here, I can thankfully say that Unholy Realms kicks ass. It's full of addictive, challenging gameplay and does its damnedest to keep you on your toes for the full experience. I was definitely hooked. And now, maybe, Snakes can get back to the aspects of the Doom community he enjoys the most, like not having to keep thinking up map ideas for Unholy Realms. If you enjoy Scythe-style arena combat at all, you owe it to yourself to give this megaWAD a shot.

by Brian "Snakes" Knox

Water TreatmentMAP01
Short underground MAP01 with a fair bit of water and some great lighting / architecture. Some people might find "Entryway"-length MAP01s wasteful, but I love levels at this length, and I'm sure they'll only get harder. You might run out of bullets before you grab the shotgun; speedrunners will probably dance past some imps to swing back and off them with a stronger weapon.

Get to work, kid! Snakes hands you the chainsaw and to be honest I don't remember the last time I used it this much. You've gotta be fast and aggressive in this crate map if you want to make it out alive, especially with all the demons and spectres stomping around. There's enough pressure put on you that you might just let the shotgun rust until the end. I also realized the difficulties of the blockmap bug plus chainsaw, so be careful where you're swinging that blade or you'll get chewed on. Opening trap was a nice surprise.

Nukage Processing ZoneMAP03
Something with a bit more normal length but some crazy visuals like that trip through the yellow computer core. There's also a friendly little jaunt into the outdoor area, complete with a cloud of cacodemons to test your newfound rocket launcher on. The commandos and sergeants are the most dangerous monsters, here, though the nastiest fight is at the very end which you'll know is coming. I think that the lack of health in the nuke pit is a bit of an oversight but I bet if you're quick enough you can hit the switch and then jump back on the bridge before it rises out of your reach.

MAP04UAC Courtyard
Lots of big, open firefights. True enough, the map is dominated by a big ol' courtyard, which you originally cross through on a bridge. You'll visit both sides to grab both keys, all the while Knox spawns like a hojillion beasties to keep you occupied, both on the upper edge and in the pits. Don't be afraid to use the rocket launcher; there's enough ammo for it and you won't get the SSG until you're almost done. Not sure which fight I'd call my favorite, probably the madcap shootout in the hole with the SSG pedestal.

Slime DepositoryMAP05
A slime map where Snakes steps up his ambush game. You're gonna get up close and personal with beasties on several occasions, the first basically surrounding you with demons and a revenant as backup, another running out of real estate you have to clear if you want to take your time with those hell knights. You've also got some hallways to clear, but don't think it'll be easy. That said, finding the berserk / backpack secret and hidden SSG should make things go by much smoother.

MAP06Sewage Entrypoint
Some flat out dirty tricks and traps opening with a teleport imp clusterfuck and whirling from things like a potential ghost generator, that blinking baron / hell knight fight in the courtyard, and the Spiderdemon, which can only be safely taken out after you've lured it from its garage and run around. Snakes is super rude but he makes you think on the fly and adapt as the shit hits the fan over and over again. Exciting stuff.

Passage UndergroundMAP07
More sewers with some full-blown demonic influence. Snakes has some nice moments whereupon returning to rooms everything goes to Hell with some infernal imagery here and there. There are a few big open fights where target prioritization pays off, with an early pain elemental and areas with stationed revenants / mancubuses where taking a select few out quickly makes the resulting carnage much easier. The arch-vile fight, boring, though creepily hinted at. The raising nukage melee, infighting incarnate.

MAP08Research Complex Beta
This infested base is crawling with monsters, all poised to ruin your day in various nasty ways. Each route redirects you back to the outside shootout section, which gets some new monsters in a different vein. The first time it's hitscanner Hell; the second, an uncomfortable arch-vile. The last is just a bunch of arachnotrons, but it's kind of awkward with the limited space. Cramped fights make evading revenants tricky and at one point you're boxed in, either acting quickly on a mancubus or suffering the consequences. Devious and delicious.

Metallic BloodlineMAP09
More corrupted techbase in a layout not unlike "UAC Courtyard" where two open-air pits are bisected by a player walkway. That's only two thirds of the picture, though. Snakes has you constantly under assault from a variety of locations. You'll come to expect the teleport battles but the monster closets are always a welcome surprise, like the dual pain elementals that you'll be tempted to off with the rocket launcher, and that hell knight squad in the poison pit. The east annex is a fun little loop to play through though its final ambush is nothing to be worried about... Apart from sneaky commandos.

Things get a little weird with this crazed-up techbase. There's a lot of blood, but I'm mainly thinking of the more cinematic segments, the craziest being the yellow key grab, which turns the lights out, then making the player wholly aware of a mess of monsters teleporting to some future location that you'll soon be aware of. It's great, and actually kind of terrifying the first time around, plus the pair of pain elementals you fight in the dark. The finale is a mess of monsters plus one arch-vile you'll have to handle, always a hand-wringer.

Atmospheric and unforgiving, and with a choice! Do you love the SSG, or the plasma rifle? For stunlocking and zero blockmap mishaps, the plasma rifle can't be beat, but I still love me my SSG. Whatever you pick, you won't get the other, and it'll be your main weapon to the very end, through an "Afterlife"-esque arch-viles in the darkness battle and a teleporting Cyberdemon showdown. The secret berserk pack and soul sphere are very handy, especially if you're trying to save ammo vs. close-quarters pain elementals (and pesky demons). Get dangerous.

MAP12The Other Side
Taking things in a slightly different direction with this heavily Plutonic outdoor level with at least one obvious homage to "Onslaught" and, if I'm not mistaken, something from Vanguard in that pillar you cross to the switch that lowers the blue key... It's a very intense level that pits everything against you at the start. You'll have to secure the rocket launcher - after finding it - to make any real headway against the various bits of entrenched opposition, namely that huge ring of mancubuses in the back and the revenants / Hell knights in the main yard. Just save some rockets for the arch-vile after the red key...

Temple of LeviathanMAP13
A watery temple, where the lake divides southern and northern parts of the structure. All of the major action centers around the lake, and as before, you're better off clearing out what trash you can with the shotgun and saving the bigger dudes for the rocket launcher when you grab it. The initial clear is a little tricky, but the second is more dangerous what with mancubuses perched on the major platforms and you having to weave through some bamboo-pole crushers before joining the action in earnest.

MAP14Drifting Complex
Uh, shit! I dunno what to call this, a "Post Mortem"-lite? From the moment you arrive virtually all the free space is occupied by monsters in one form or another, and you've got to clear some carpet before you can take a breath and gather your thoughts. One key grab is the secret SSG, which is two relatively safe teleport jumps away; it should help you immeasurably, though you still have a ways to go before getting something actually helpful like the rocket launcher. There are plenty of enemies in the poison drink to screw up your jumps, and Snakes isn't afraid to send some arch-viles your way to make you panic.

Ravine of the HatedMAP15
Ah, yes, something in the vein of Orin Flaharty, but dialed up to ten. "Ravine" isn't incredibly difficult but it has its moments. There isn't a lot of safe ground at first but as you grab your armaments and dispatch the turrets you should have a better time of it. One major sticking point will be the tiny tower initially staffed by revenants; as you play on, you'll find a few other surprises re-manning things. Both blood-inundated sections are especially dangerous, though the Cyberdemon battle in the eastern room is my favorite as the gallery becomes flush with Hellspawn, forcing you to gallivant in the gore.

MAP31Destructive Infinity
by Adrian "deathevokation" Hanekom and Michael Jan "valkiriforce" Krizik
deathevokation and valkiriforce fill the first slot with this quick and dirty little somewhat-nonlinear fortress that wouldn't feel askew inside a modern-day Memento Mori. The castle is cramped and the monsters are many, but most of them are itty bitties handily dispatched with the SSG, or the plasma rifle, which has plenty of ammo (though you may want to save a bunch of it for the end). It's also lousy with secrets, not that you need any of them, because this level sends you straight to MAP32. Nice job, dudes. I wonder who did what...?

A Charming KhorusMAP32
by Adam "Khorus" Woodmansey
Could have wound up in KSSHT and I wouldn't have guessed otherwise. It's a pretty cool map, if a little tight on ammo until the very end, when you have a whopping 400+ cells to kill the Spiderdemon and his lowly arch-vile gate guardian. The mid-arch-vile that blocks your jump back to a huge Cyberdemon infight party is probably one of the most dangerous moments, especially if you're low on ammo, so save some rockets for his ass. Very fun, very hectic. Very Khorus.

A fun romp where monsters are installed everywhere but the water is safe to run around in. The main problem is in killing the most troublesome installations and managing your way toward the most helpful upgrades, the biggest being yet again the Swiss Army rocket launcher. Snakes throws some more enemies into the drink every now and then but nothing quite compares to the initial feel of dodging a hojillion fireballs while you try to scrounge up some weapons.

Missing Gamma SectorMAP17
A fairly large base level in the middle of the orange void with tons of monsters to slaughter. Snakes is at his nastiest with tricky arch-vile placement, whether it's the two he puts on the ground after the blue key grab or the leader of the revenant horde immediately after. Two really fun fights, my favorite being the ring of imps and mancubuses, which sets you up thinking of something maybe a little tamer. The other is an out and out monster slaughter with a central Cyberdemon that is mostly solvable with infighting. Unfortunately, the Cyber is on a pedestal, so getting him to mop up all the hell knights is a laborious task.

MAP18Of Brick and Crimson
Feeling kind of Plutonia-ish except more forgiving as you spend a lot of time in non-damaging blood. It's all about clearing the yards before you start grabbing keys, and only one of the fights is very tough, kind of a remix of the arch-vile pillar battle from MAP17 but with imps and revenants walking along with a fair bit harder. Some cacodemon / pain elemental pairs might sneak up on you if you're not careful. 

Borough of BloodMAP19
Things get even more hectic in this little firecracker. It's essentially like "Drowned", where the majority of the playing area is available for you to dodge around in, but has a handful of buildings to explore, even though they aren't the scene of any major encounter. The main weapons are all available from the start if you know where to get them and will help in removing some of the nastiest thorns, particularly that shotgun / arch-vile tower to the west. I feel that the hitscanners are at their worst - not for any abundance but for their understated presence. At least, up until you die.

MAP20Rite of Passage
A big, long arena fight that dumps new monsters on the player with every key press. The stakes are upped each time, with highlights including a pack of arch-viles, two Cyberdemons, and a couple of waves of cacos. Wise players will intuit the early BFG grab. One of the gimmicks - the imp / hell knight / revenant pillar - feels tired the second time around. I could have used something more threatening; after all, it comes with a pack of hell knights. Still, simple and fun. I'm surprised the cage didn't get more use.

Ashen Layer (Purgatory)MAP21
Hello world! Your first foray into Hell takes advantage of your lack of weapons by throwing you into a Tyson nightmare. You've got to run past three demons, two imps and two revenants before you can even think about using your berserk pack, and if you don't find the secret rocket launcher, things like the mancubus and baron will be awkward to take down unless you're a Tyson grandmaster. Challenging for me, at least.

MAP22Halls of Fallen Undesired (Lust)
Interesting opening color scheme with the gray, red, and brown marble. "Lust" starts things off at a much more relaxed pace. Sure, you've still got to dodge in to grab some weapons, but they're the SSG and rocket launcher, and you actually get to use them, plus Snakes is kind enough to give you some arch-viles and other worthy foes to vent them upon. It's always an arch-vile... The highlight is of course the courtyard fight, which makes things very tricky as you clean out one corner of skeletons, grab the powerup, and then lance on through to the other taking advantage of the resultant infighting to mop up the losers plus pain elementals. Diabolical.

Cliffs of the Consumed (Greed)MAP23
Some molten lava falls to marvel at while you run from the demons. And yeah, it's another one of those levels, with the rocket launcher tucked just out of reach on a ledge with some revenants, and you've got to figure out how to get there while avoiding immolation from any of a variety of sources. Ammo conservation is paramount as necromancers return to a variety of locations to wake the dead. There aren't any major traps, though on two occasions you'll get mobbed by a group of nearby skeletons, an odd echo. It's a pretty desperate beginning; hunkered down in the pools in the cave, I was pretty excited as I whittled down the last of the chasers prior to grabbing that hard-fought rocket dispenser.

MAP24The Keeper's Castle (Gluttony)
Uh, a bit harder, here, in this marble fortress inundated with blood. The opening is everything you know about running and shooting, and when you get on the inside, things ease up with some nice SSG play. The yellow key ambush isn't as bad as it could be when you know to race the spectres as the pain elementals are unfortunately bound by the railings, unable to retaliate. The second half makes up for it, though. Trying to coax the two arch-viles from the blood pit without dying is a feat in and of itself, though you can maybe get the Cyberdemon on the battlements to tether some monsters with his rockets. You do get a prime opportunity to telefrag him, though.

The Bitter Fortress (Anger)MAP25
This little corner of Hell is, uh, the corner of a castle, defended by a bunch of monsters. If you check the corner, you'll find a handy invulnerability artifact, but it isn't there to ease the opening clear. No; you'll want to save that for when you have to go flip the switch behind the Cyberdemon at the very top. That's not just because his rockets will cook you alive, but... You'll find out when you flip it. Ammo is kind of tight, as is becoming standard, with all those cells slouching toward the BFG grab near the end. Infighting works, but not as well as it could since there are so many tiers of play.

MAP26Village of the Unblessed (Heresy)
A larger, more open area a la "Dockside", but it's got a Hellish flavor and feels more populous, with many more triggers that unleash monsters into the playing area. Try and get the Cyberdemon into the fight as early as possible; he's a great help in sorting out some of the key ambushes. The monster packs don't have a lot of character, usually either a wave of pain elementals with cacodemons or a bunch of ground troopers including revenants, but in this level of exposure, it's pretty fun, especially when you're tracking down all of the weapons, which are all unlocked by switches.

Serpentine (Violence)MAP27
by Paul "skillsaw" DeBruyne
A visually massive semi-traditional Hell level dominated by the red rock and orange magma outdoors, courtesy of skillsaw. It's a very fun play with a somewhat unusual beginning, emphasizing the looping intertwining of the layout. The best thing to do is pretty much run past most of the monsters, grab the SSG from its little perch, and then fall back to the beginning, where DeBruyne's made some changes to the stuff you just ran through... At least you get to fight back with the SSG! There are some cool slaughters like the blue key rocket fest and the demon / arch-vile bit with the BFG, a pretty tricky trap. The end kind of runs out of steam, with you flushing revenants from repeated pairs of alcoves while waiting on your rad suit timer and raising a sequence of pillars to the exit. Still - very fun, and with some exploratory fun to boot.

MAP28The False Man's Keep (Fraud)
Snakes' final normal level is a badass obsidian keep set in another Hell-hole that's filled with all kinds of nasty beasties, serially placed in the most compromising manner. Have fun trying to clear out the plasma rifle pit or get any kind of headway whenever you grab a key. It's not frustrating, but it's tough, and the secrets go a long way toward helping you out. As always, Knox is a master of arch-vile injection to keep your blood pumping, with one batch of the sorcerers fronted by demons and commandos, and when you have revenants beating down on your side, you'll know some semblance of fear. Sweet.

Snakeskin Treachery (Treachery)MAP29
by Josh "Joshy" Sealy
As per usual, the hardest thing to do in a Joshy level is staying alive long enough in this Hellish organic keep to figure out where you have to go. "Snakeskin" is a Rubik's cube of teleport ambushes and monster placement that never lets up. From beginning to end, you will be challenged, though some of these fights are understandably easier from the others. The baron / Cyberdemon fight early on is one of my faves, as is that Cyberdemon duel across the gap in the northern yard. Come to think of it, there are a heck of a lot of Cyberdemons in this level; hope you're good at BFG bumping! Punishing, but rewarding - a fair mistress.

Knox's take on the boss shooter leans toward the grand finale approach, with the action taking place in an enormous Hellish landscape dotted by a few fortresses you'll have to navigate, all the while monsters pouring in from the boss shooter. The keeps aren't that challenging, though there are a few timed puzzles that might catch you off guard. It was more frustrating for me than it should have been because I failed to grab the plasma rifle while jolting past the mancubuses, plus it seemed every time I got on the pole there was a lost soul in the air directly above me. Once you know what you have to do, though, it's just a matter of time.


This post is part of a series on
Doomworld's 2013 Cacowards

The Top TenBest MultiplayerRunners Up
Back to Saturn X: Episode 1EyedeaInterception
Doom 2 the Way id DidSamsaraHadephobia
Unholy RealmsEon DeathmatchHellbound
ZDoom Community Map Project: Take 2Best Gameplay ModHigh / Low 5
Fuel DevourerProject MSXSoulcrusher
KuchitsuMordeth AwardStomper
Forsaken OverlookZDCMP2
Stardate 20X6Mockaward
Pirate DoomExtreme Weapon Pack
Swim With the WhalesMapper of the Year


  1. Great review :)

    I found a few tidbits you wrote in here to be quite interesting. Namely, the Onslaught reference in Map12 was something I did not do consciously - as a matter of fact, I actually had to play both maps again to realize what the similarities were! Must've been something I kept in the back of my head at the time.

    I'd say Map28 was the big success of the whole wad - beautiful, *almost* expansive in certain aspects and just plays like a fiddle. Map17 is a close second, though I should have altered the final fight for the official release (truth is, I kinda wanted to punt the thing off of my hard drive, heh) There are certain tweaks that I'd make to this mapset, especially if I'd started it a year later. That being said, I'm very happy and proud of its completion and the reception has truly overwhelmed me. In its own small way, it's gotten me to start playing Doom frequently again. I'd previously thought that passion to be completely dormant right before I started Map24.

    Thank you for the review. I always appreciate your thoughts on various projects :)

    P.S. - Four Maps certainly suffers a bit of "old shame" for me, but probably not as much as Doom Jr. does for Cyb :P

    1. 17 and 28 are definitely among my favorites. Overall, I love it when maps play like rubik's cubes, whether the puzzle is in surviving the fights or the less popular Eternal Doom descendants. UR does not disappoint and makes me want to put Scythe under my belt. And, heh, I kind of want to give Doom Jr. a review, if only because no other acclaimed author went through such a shitwad period.

  2. There are only a few real standouts, but almost every level is well made and good fun to play. A job well done. :)

  3. Almost every level in here is quality, even if I can only name one or two standouts. Guest mappers are welcome to. Very good short to medium size but hard map megawad, it was worth the LONG wait.

    1. yup. i particularly like the guest maps - they do a neat job of breaking up Knox's relentless death arenas

  4. Good one-man megawad of solid maps. Only - recent years have been active with one-man megawads so it could easily be argued that Resurgence, Going Down, and Valiant all top this one. Sunlust quite possibly too (although it has 2 authors).

    1. the only one of those mapsets that really compares to unholy realms is resurgence, and that's only because of the holdovers from Surge. if you want bite-sized arena action in the style of Scythe II, you can't do much better than Unholy Realms. Swift Death has a vaguely similar scope but its execution is vastly different

    2. I agree Resurgence is most comparable, but I don't think any of them completely don't compare at all. Going Down has some short hectic maps and some arenas (I will admit the atmosphere and often the author's overall 'style' is extremely different though). Valiant has tons of fast paced action and mostly not too long maps.

      However I wasn't really intending to draw comparisons between UR and these other wads at all; I was just mentioning a lot of the other impressive one-man (or duel effort i.e. Sunlust) megawads that have popped up just in the time span since UR was released. Comparable or not in style, I still think they all give competition to each other.

    3. in which case, why stand to denigrate Unholy Realms, unless you have some kind of a "one man megawad" fetish?

    4. It's not a criticism at all, just more a comment saying there's been a few other impressive one man megawads recently as well. Not an implication that UR isn't impressive