Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Odessa Series

as featured in Super Serials


As I mention in the beginning of my review for the first Odessa map, it feels weird to be able to write this article. I've joked about it several times, but I didn't seriously think that I'd ever be in a position to play the rest of the (released) Odessa series. And, yet, here I am, and while it's not exactly what I expected, I'm happy to have experienced them all the same. For a long time, these levels were effectively banned from redistribution, as all of them had a clause restricting them to Compuserve. Eventually, the service changed its scope and with it went the entire user PWAD archive. The only way you could play any of the Odessa levels besides ODESSA14 was, funnily enough, via the shovelware PWAD scrapes that Evans's clause was meant to hinder. Any discussion of them inevitably led to heated exchanges on Doomworld, where authorial intent is followed to the letter.

Knowledge of these PWADs would have all but died out were it not for Evans's return to the community around Doom's 20th anniversary. Like contemporary Chris Klie, Bob was surprised at the level of interest displayed for his part in the rich tapestry of Doom. After some begging, though, we badgered him into chasing down his own personal backup of the Compuserve Action Games library (which has other delights not yet seen). So here I am, having played the entire finished bits of the Odessa series, and having learned that "Silures", one of two levels he submitted to Eternal Doom, was another entry. Which one? Only Bob knows. Does that make "Excalibur" Odessa 18?

Odessa didn't really start out with a story, but Evans eventually developed a loose narrative that connects the levels together. Like a lot of contemporary works, the demons of Doom become the "aliens". It's not a cohesive adventure; rather, the maps you fight through are like a series of vignettes detailing your adventure across a nondescript world. I think, given everything that's said, that you're Doomguy post-Doom II wandering across the planet after Hell on Earth. It's a popular subject; after all, there are plenty of mapsets that focus on cleaning up the remnants of the invasion, most memorably in my mind Memento Mori I and II. Only Evans knows how the whole thing was supposed to end, but if it was even half as crazy as "Excalibur" I'd like to see it.

If you aren't familiar with Evans's released output (Eternal Doom plus Odessa 14), here's the skinny. Bob loves Doom puzzles, and in the context of Doom, that means twisting the very geometry of the level against the player a la Jim Flynn, to point toward a kindred spirit. Flynn had his own abstract style, though, where Bob's levels look and feel largely like typical maps. You're going to have to fight and claw your way through to every exit, mostly trying to unravel the switch puzzles and secret passages that have each level blooming from the start area. The closest modern parallel I can think of is a game like La Mulana, which is dominated by obtuse puzzles in its own particular design language. I love La Mulana, but many people do not like La Mulana in their Doom.

Still, these levels are not nearly as puzzle-dense as the works Evans would put out toward the end of his career. Every Odessa level besides 14 was released in 1995 and 1996, and the only one that matches "Silures" and "Excalibur" in terms of sheer frustration is Odessa 7, which figures as it was the sole publication in '96. I'm guessing that Evans was tending toward dense puzzle-play as his tastes matured. These later maps come as a kick in the teeth, though, as Evans tends to hide your weapons, making the securing of them an achievement in and of itself. "Excalibur" is certainly his masterpiece as well as the most polarizing thing he's ever released. If you've wandered through its enormous castle grounds, then you know what I'm talking about. So, it's nice to see that while the rest of the Odessa series doesn't quite resemble the Rubik's cubes of Bob's (as of right now) last works, they certainly point the way toward them, some more so than others.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that modern players look at maps like these and think of them as ugly relics of Doom's twenty-year history. Doom has moved on, they think, and the sleek, intuitive layouts of recent releases like Back to Saturn X point the way toward the future. Don't get me wrong; I love BTSX, and I want to play its upcoming episodes just as much as anyone else. I think there's room for puzzle play most foul in Doom's current canon, though. Some authors are deathly afraid of losing the player; the assumption is that when the player becomes lost, they will abandon the level altogether. Me, though? I'm just getting started. I think that some level of frustration is part and parcel of the experience, but it spits in the face of things that facilitate Doom's run and gun gameplay, like map flow. What I'm really trying to say, I guess, is that I wish more authors had a freak flag like this to fly, because I'd be there every time.

by Bob "Odessa" Evans

The first stop on your journey is some kind of base that fields an arena where the monsters run their darker sports. Of course, it's up to you to put an end to their festivities. Being one of the earliest maps, it's also one of the roughest, but Bob has a good handle on memorable locations (like the coliseum itself, though it doesn't spring to mind as having any classical inspiration) and he's pretty good about letting loose more monsters into the areas you have to backtrack through. You'll still have to run back to the preparation area several times.

Also dubbed "Oasis", this is less paradise and more waterlogged outpost of misery. The architecture is a little more evocative (with the north really reminding me of Heretic's "Docks") and there's some cool height variation going on in the eastern section along with more demanding puzzle play. It's also loaded with hitscanners, so be on your guard as you explore. You'll see the location of all the keys when you start. The trick is in making them accessible - and then remembering where they are.

This stranger leg of your journey leads you to a fitness club which counts among its residents one of your dearly deceased friends. It would seem surreal if it weren't another day in post-apocalyptica. "Fade to Grey" has a neat facade but the interior is all base, labyrinthine not quite in layout but in the way you unravel it. The opening vista has a neat flagpole effect and there's a cool run with the hall o' crushers. It's a little on the easy side, part of which is Evans holding back his own monsters, but I'm sure you'll find a few surprises lurking about.

"Kastle Baron" should seem like more familiar fare if you know Evans from his more widely-available releases. It's a large, infested fortress, filled with all kinds of puzzles and obtuse navigation elements that you must solve if you wish to make it to the exit. About the only thing that doesn't mesh with the medieval feel is an E2-style storage area filled with crates. It's also got some memorable if not exactly effective traps, though the demon cage stands out in my mind as a pretty memorable encounter. 

It's easy to see why this was the last Odessa level released before ODESSA14. "The 6 Keys of the Asmod Monks" is devilishly in both fights and, of course, puzzles. Getting all six keys will push you to the limits of your resources as well as patience. Evans doesn't disappoint in visuals; there's plenty of '95-era eye candy to be had, including a phantasmic fiendish silhouette. He also manages to work in some clever linedef scripting that makes it appear as though monsters are coming at you from secret passages deep within the recesses of the infernal monastery. It's definitely frustrating, but if you can stomach it, you'll have a ball.

"Landing Zone" eschews Evans's vaguely gothic settings to start with, since you're infiltrating an alien space / airport that the "natives" say has been in operations for a decent stretch of time. Once you get inside, though, it's largely Hell castle madness as you find out just what the demons / aliens have been shipping, some of which has been delivered in enormous crates. As always, there are some stumbling blocks when it comes to progression, once of which held me up due to some inconsistencies with the portrayal of purposeful oddities... if that makes any sense. That aside, it's a very cool adventure.

This time we skip ahead to an earlier Evans effort, a massive underground base known only as "Sojourn". The monsters are well aware of your arrival, though, and it's going to be a tough cleanup. The big gimmick here is the deliberate show of the BFG early on in your exploration, in a chamber only accessible after running a gauntlet of completely optional areas that make up the east section of the map. Things move along pretty well once you open it, but finding the switch that does so will be the trick to pull off. There are a lot of nice, if "primitive", visuals making up the level's major areas.

"Chambers" is one of Odessa's more story-driven maps. This time, you're tackling another alien fortress, but this one is infamous for its high-tech torture chamber where the monsters are tormenting some of your comrades. The execution kind of resembles ODESSA11 as there's an optional section with a BFG, though getting the key to it is anything but intuitive (unless you're a puzzle map veteran). The torture chamber itself will abuse the player as well, since it's a one-way ticket until you figure out the various puzzles required to clinch the red key and send you on your way.

This is actually the second of the Odessa levels to be released, as late as it comes in the lineup. "Anaxis Courtyard" is another huge castle / tech amalgam whose major feature, as Evans would have you believe, is an early-accessed courtyard, the site of a pretty hectic imp / Hell knight / commando crossfire that is thankfully bisected by the thick borders of a bridge. That's not the only fight that leaves a sting, though, and the puzzle elements are crowding in already after what was a relatively lean ODESSA_1.

Standing as Evans's last-released level, "Savage Morals" is a culmination of his mapping tendencies. It is a large, dense, tricky castle that is unlike any of his other levels in its sheer ballsiness when it comes to the opposition you'll face. The combat is about as demanding as the puzzles, though not really on the scale of Hell Revealed. It's also loaded with lots of gorgeous architecture and plenty of custom textures, which puts it on a level only occupied by his Eternal Doom levels. And, well, ODESSA14 is a bit easier to solve than those, making this perhaps Bob's most accessible level to modern Doomers, all things considered.

According to Evans, "Silures" began life as an Odessa series level. It's a fusion of metal and classical fantasy architecture that's as dense as it is packed with monsters. It has a variety of frustrations. All of the higher-end firepower (super shotgun, rocket launcher, plasma rifle) is tucked away in secrets. The SSG and RL are part of the same branch early on in the level, so if you're feeling outgunned, take a step back and thoroughly plumb your explored locations for better weaponry. Like ODESSA11 and ODESSA12, it's also got a lot of optional areas to explore, plus a secret exit (that's just for bragging rights).


Sure, it's not actually part of the Odessa series, but it's basically one in spirit. "Excalibur" is an incredibly expansive castle map and even harder to solve than "Silures", requiring you to find six keys in order to exit to the final battle. The castle grounds feature a variety of scenarios and examples of Evans's imagination, and while the map isn't packed tight with bodies, what's still kicking around are among the tougher monsters Doom has to offer. Most of these puzzles kicked my ass. I managed to find everything up to the yellow keycard solution on my own, but I threw in the towel around there, and that's after two and a half hours. One particular neat gimmick has Evans sending arch-viles back into the main hall when using the keys. Thankfully, you're not lacking for health. Medikits may be in short supply but there are plenty of megaspheres to be had. Just sit down, take your time, and if all else fails, look the solution up.

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