Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Doom: The Golden Souls (GOLDENS*.PK3)

Doom is in no danger of running out of classically-styled megaWADs to play, but big modifications with big level packs are few and far between. 2013 gave us the esteemed Pirate Doom, but in 2014, ZDoom forum superstar batandy saw fit to mix equal parts Doom and Super Mario 64. The Golden Souls is a twenty or so-map megaWAD for Doom II that tries to shake up the typical run-and-gun experience on several fronts. As could be expected, a gameplay modification of this scope requires the GZDoom engine.

The story, delivered via a charming pictorial, concerns a mysterious mansion filled with paintings that UAC scientists - for no sensible reason - wanted to make "real". They accomplished this task by using a powerful and no doubt mystical energy source, the eponymous golden souls. Of course, the UAC can't do anything without having the hordes of Hell knocking at their door, and a bunch of demons come out through the paintings, kill everyone, and abscond with the souls, back into the realm from whence they came. The demons are apparently going to use the souls to do some unspeakable evil to Earth, but you can't keep a Doomguy down.

The base premise of Golden Souls draws from Super Mario 64. There is a big-ass mansion to explore, though there isn't a whole lot to see apart from the paintings, and each painting contains a level and a golden soul once you complete the objective, which basically means making it to the level's end or finding all of the red coins. Most of the doors are locked until you reach a specific number of souls, which makes for linear progression up until you reach the penultimate floor, which gives you your pick of four different maps. Well, if you find one of the secret levels, there's a bit more wiggle room, and there's a level outside the grounds that's accessible once you collect a certain amount of big coins, which are otherwise mostly for funsies.

The Golden Souls has its own particular feel, combat-wise, and that is slow. Batandy has completely overhauled the weapons, and while it's a somewhat refreshing take, some of the changes combined with the new monsters means gameplay that moves at a much less blazing pace. One of the major objections are the "evil plants", which lock down areas as bullet-sponge turrets until they are begrudgingly slain. Most monsters are a bit less annoying once you get the assault rifle, but you're still looking at dumping entire magazines into enemies to put them down. The tier 5 and 6 weapons are a bit of a let down, since the cannon is nerfed compared to its Doom counterpart, and the nail gun is a situationally useful weapon that nonetheless cannot measure up to the plasma rifle in terms of utility. You do get the kickass rainbow railgun, though, and as long as you've got the ammo, it'll do the work for you.

The rest of the new monsters are mostly for flavor. Lost souls show up as Boo-like incarnations in the creepy mansion levels and are another symptom of the slower-paced gameplay as you have to turn away from them to make them momentarily vulnerable. The disappearing / reappearing magikoopa-type things are another source of speed bumps, though if you catch them with the AK, you can probably stunlock them for the duration of your magazine, killing them right at the end. There are also little bastard crabs in the few places you go underwater that are hard to draw a bead on and will peck away at your health if you hang out on the bed. I think the Snifit dudes are one of the better additions, though underutilized, with different fire patterns depending on their colors. The ubiquitous cannons are neither here nor there but are generally a nice way of shaking up the platforming.

A few surprising decisions... No zombies, for one. The only hitscanner you'll run into is in a fairly pedestrian boss fight. Also, most of the Doom II cast is absent until the very end of the mod, where you see arachnotrons leading up to the semi-final boss fight and mancubuses all over the place in "Rainbow Citadel". No pain elementals, though, and no arch-viles. Maybe the former is just to distance the lost souls from their regular incarnations, but I can't see why pain elementals would be a big threat in these levels, especially after acquiring the rainbow gun. The arch-vile, though, I can understand, given Batandy's love of large, open areas. They certainly aren't missing for ammo concerns, since later on you can nick into a shop and stock up at the cost of all those precious coins you've been saving up, plus health and armor.

I feel torn about the level design. Sometimes, Batandy nails it in spite of the simplicity of the geometry, as is the case with maps like "Starry Night". Some more polishing would have gone a long way, though. Very rarely does the look of Golden Souls approach contemporary standards of architecture or detailing, but it makes up some of the gap in sheer retro fever, whether the author is evoking Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong Country, Castlevania, or Ducktales. There are some neat Easter eggs here and there, whether it's the bananas in the barrels of "Jolly Jungle" or the "Meet the Beatles" LP. Certainly, the sheer novelty of the experience with its music note blocks and big coins and bullet bill obstacle courses is enough to sustain The Golden Souls through to its finale. I hope that the layouts have a bit more... substance, for lack of a better word, in the sequel.

The Golden Souls is pretty cool but it can only get a lot better as Batandy gets more experience under his belt as a level designer. Certainly, it brings an experience that's rarely if ever seen in Doom, and I hope he continues to plumb the depths of console gaming as it's a fresh perspective on what has become comfortably familiar gameplay. I just hope that the next iteration is a bit... faster.

by "Batandy"

The hub level, drawing obvious comparisons to the castle of Super Mario 64. It serves its main function with gusto, though some polishing would have gone a long way toward making a more positive impression. As it stands, the actual level geometry is really boxy and basic... as befits a level aping a Nintendo 64 game. It's cute, though, and the track from Secret of Mana is a great choice for building atmosphere.

MAP01Happy Gardens
The geometry is pretty basic, but the level is pretty upbeat and cute. The only thing that drags it down are those fire plants, which take around eight shells a piece to kill and lock down whatever area they're guarding. The big indoor room is where you'll have to sort out your major action, clearing out one side or the other, The side with the cacodemon is where my money's at since it doesn't have one of those fucking flowers. A lot of platforming here to get you prepped for the crazy stuff that's to come. I love the golden cacodemon at the end.

Dejavu HallMAP03
You can visit this obstacle course from Hell via a secret exit in "Happy Gardens". The first and third rocket gauntlets are about moving really really fast while the second is geared toward precision jumping which is a larf when Doomguy is so slide-a-riffic. In any case, when you make it through, you get some health and ammo and then have to face down a Cyberdemon. Not providing an assault rifle seems like a huge oversight since you're handed a ton of bullets for one and it's very possible to "unlock" this map before seeing "Vanilla Hills", in which case you should just give up and go to MAP02 before stepping foot in here. That is, unless you like punching Cyberdemons to death.

MAP02Vanilla Hills
The author shows off the wide outdoors with this series of buttes converted into an obstacle course. It's fun to find out the red coins and figure out tricks like the one on the cliff face which when approached from a different angle makes things substantially easier. The assault rifle is a handy upgrade that nullifies the enemy challenge, but you'll still have to prove yourself worthy of navigating classic bullet traffic to reach the farthest coin. Some cool features shown off here, like swimming up the rainbow fall.

Sorbetto BeachMAP05
This is a more open layout exploration red coin map in a festive beach theme. There's a pirate ship, underwater tunnels, and tons of coral. The actual topography is very simple and the fire flowers get an upgrade in threat as their attacks are no longer affected by gravity. All the flower power in the underwater tunnel makes it a slog to get through; the big cannonball criss-cross pit is decidedly more interesting, if ultimately harmless since there are a few areas where the bullets do not intersect. Have fun with those sand crabs.

MAP04Fall Weather Castle
A straightforward map that debuts the annoying robed wizards. "Fall" borrows inspiration from those classic Super Mario World castles with walls you can cling to and jump off of (fuckin' cool) and those huge crushers. It's superlinear, of course, though there are a few big coins tucked away here and there. The outside wall is pretty barren. The boss starts out boring and while Batandy tries to vary things up you're still pretty much circle-strafing to victory, just changing out rockets for bullets once projectiles become unfeasible.

Daring DesertMAP06
Another linear level, this one Egyptian-flavored. The cacti are a cute touch and the mummies feel appropriate. I'm not sold on the shadow things but I guess they might be the closest thing to phanto masks the author had without outright theft. It's a pretty easy level and the needle gun makes short work of most of these monsters. The cacti are probably the most dangerous thing given how narrow they seem. Next to the quick sand, that is. You'll be forced to dive into the sand in the shifting wall section so I hope you have enough health, especially if you want to go hunting for big coins.

MAP07Ghost House
More undead monsters but the haunted house feels slightly more freeform and the graveyard breathes a little life into an otherwise stale, boxy layout. There are a bunch of cool tricks for the red coins and secrets that give this level a bit of an edge. The lost soul / boo gimmick is obvious but pretty annoying to deal with. Well, the rocket launcher takes some of the sting away, but they're just as good as the evil plants at killing the pacing.

Starry NightMAP08
Sometimes, all you need is a simple texture scheme and a gorgeous backdrop; in this case, Van Gogh's "Starry Night". It's kind of like a slight update to "Vanilla Hills", but with the inclusion of the shadow sorcerer enemy, a dreamy musical track, and music boxes. The inevitable music box bounce parade is kind of annoying if you're after those sweet, sweet coins, but bullet-sponge fire flowers are the worst thing you have to worry about. Just a pretty and mellow level. Notable for the appearance of the very cool rainbow railgun.

MAP14Free Falling!
Bonus level! Fall through the sky and grab as many coins as you can. I don't think there are any secret objectives, so if you're running low on coins for health and stuff you can come back here and grab a few. Cute.

Creepy ChateauMAP10
Funnin' on Castlevania. Thankfully, the ghosts do not reappear. Andy could have thrown more detailing around the rest of the map; it's kind of a shock moving from the opening hall to the rest of it. The level is full of higher-HP enemies and just when it's starting to feel like a grind you get the semi-auto shotgun, a nice upgrade in firepower. The sewer section is a nice way to vary up gameplay. Unfortunately, you get the very grindy, very lethal Gargoyle as the boss monster. Sure, I feel challenged, but I also feel like I'm one slip up from being roasted by its laser-breath, not to mention how useless projectile weapons feel. The dude is just too jerky to get solid hits on.

MAP09Crayon Creek
A big, spacious level that (for me) debuted the snifit-like dudes. The biggest dangers are all the snipers hanging out on the plateaus and the waterfall area gauntlet, where revenants plus slowing water makes for a very dangerous combination. The rest isn't very tough, but you have your work cut out for you at that waterfall switch, not to mention all those crabs running around on the riverbed. Some nice scenery, here. Don't miss the golden cacodemon.

Jolly JungleMAP11
Taking some cues from Donkey Kong Country for this level, starting on some boardwalk, moving into a cavern, and then a jungle gauntlet. It's a pretty simple adventure but the bits of flavor, like the barrels exploding into health-restoring bananas or the secret plunge into the bonus round area, offer a lot of charm. The phonograph complete with Meet the Beatles is another cute touch. Most of the challenge is in the platforming segments since progression is incredibly linear, but there are a few areas where a distant revenant rocket might catch you unaware.

MAP16Jumpmaze Challenge
Another platforming gauntlet in the same vein as "Dejavu Hall". This feels more manageable to me, though, for whatever reason. It's got jumping and it's got bullet dodging and it's got jumping while bullet dodging and it's even got a section where you jump into water and have to keep floating while navigating the torpedo fields. Why mines are used as an obstacle, I have no idea, considering they're easily cleared away by a handful of rockets.

Dark Side of the MoonMAP12
The same basic premise as "Sorbetto Beach", but I think the reduced gravity and topography is a bit more fun to navigate. The biggest surprise here are the mines, which are pretty dangerous but easily solved with a rocket blast. The caged cube is a neat feature, and pretty intimidating if you're running low on rockets at this point. A friendly neighborhood cacodemon took a lot of the sting out for me. The installations are pretty basic, but it's what I've come to expect. That disappearing wizard trap in the northwest one is pretty hectic but I forgot that I could have been spamming spikes the whole time.

MAP13Lucy In the Sky With Coins
by "Duke Nume"
This level looks really cool but will be a nightmare for those players that despise platforming in their Doom... who will have quit this mod before they reach here, to be honest. It's islands floating in the sky with absurdly tall waterfalls and floating castles and even a trip to the bonus ship in the sky if you can find it. The open layout coupled with tiny move space makes all of the enemies more dangerous, particularly the revenants; thankfully, that also means you can sniper everything away with the rainbow cannon if you have the time. Scripting bits like the castle battle are really fun and distract from the basic geometry of some of the locations like the yellow plank building. The bullet bill area will drive you up the wall, though.

A level that absolutely plays to the strengths of the PWAD's features while simultaneously obscuring the underwhelming architecture in a style that invokes Super Mario Bros. 3. The fire flowers are once again the most annoying monsters you'll encounter here, with your accumulated firepower making short work of the rest of the enemies seen. Nothing will really get out of control but the last real effort on the demons' part involves cacodemons spawning in a spread-out string, which may let one of them sneak up on you.

I think we could have got something better than a black and white clip show with stronger monsters. The hub has a nice theme going, though, and the end was a nice surprise. After a boring, by-the-numbers Spiderdemon fight, you wind up in an unusual IoS fight that flies into Kirby Super Star territory. The whole thing is quickly navigated with the rainbow railgun, but the absence of the health bar adds a bit of mystery and urgency to things.

Space Ghost HouseMAP18
A third take on the spooky mansion theme, but this one is floating in the ether. "Space Ghost House" is a bit of an improvement as far as all the theme rooms go but it's another level where platforming is the primary difficulty as you deal with ugly scenarios like the floating bookcase area and the spectral chasm to the east. This level also debuts more varieties of the ubiquitous annoying plants, found now on ceilings and with spots. The other thing you'll find are gargoyles, pint-sized versions of the boss from MAP10. Supposing you're not rolling around in rainbow ammo, they'll be a rough fight.

MAP19Rainbow Citadel
This is it, the final challenge. The mancubuses finally show up, plus a few packs of blood fiends which will come as quite a shock. It feels less like a citadel and more like a whacked-out astral village but it's pretty cool, all the same. As is usually the case, the most dangerous monsters are barons and revenants standing a long way away, but your trusty rainbow gun should be able to sort them out. In spite of all the open air there's plenty of encounters for the nail gun to shine, too, which was a nice surprise. The real thing to dig is the rainbow jump - very fun.

Thank YouMAP21
A true, after-the-fact bonus level with a cute message for the player and handful of golden cacodemons to chase down, not that you're strapped for cash.


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