Saturday, February 7, 2015

Swim With the Whales (SWTW.WAD)

Ribbiks loaded up two barrels of ultrahard slaughter goodness and blasted them into Doomworld in 2013. Stardate 20X6 felt like a more conventional if claustrophobic take on the genre, showering everything with the color purple. Swim With the Whales, which came out toward the tail end of the year, is a smaller outing that tackles a different shade on the color wheel - blue. This time, you're stalking through ancient, forgotten fortresses at the bottom of the ocean. The final total comes out to four levels (one "bonus") for Boom-compatible ports, the likes of which you've never seen... until now.

Right out of the gate, Ribbiks is up front about the difficulty. UV is almost exclusively for experts and insanely overpowered gameplay mods, as was largely the case with Stardate. The two gameplay styles aren't exactly the same, though. I mean, the economy of encounter design is there, but SWTW offers up a smorgasbord of secrets and feats of platforming that made me feel kind of like I was playing a Jim Flynn level, just with horrifying firefights instead of cryptic puzzles. Oftentimes it's plain as day where the alcoves are; it's figuring out how to get to them that's the problem. And that's where a large part of the difficulty lies. These hidden areas grant access to power-ups, ammo, health, and early weapon pick-ups (!), and if you either don't know where they are or can't figure out how to find them, you're going to have a bad day.

That's a large part of why its gameplay stands separate from its forbear, at least in my mind. Stardate is pretty up-front about fights and while there are a few optional surprises spread out over its course, there aren't a lot of essential tricks required to get the job done, beyond whatever it takes to end a firefight. Having knowledge of all the secrets of SWTW, though, will tip the balance in your favor with every discovery. It just makes the whole experience feel more... involved, for lack of a better word. I love engaging slaughter maps on UV since great authors rarely paint by numbers, and when you mix it with a more adventurous style as far as exploration goes, I'm getting the best of both worlds.

Visually, Swim With the Whales is NOT just Stardate 20X6, but blue. A lot of the difference is due to the more intimate surroundings, but the big factor aesthetically is the contrast of bright blue on dark black, a prominent but powerful motif that especially stands out in the little annex areas you visit... particularly the scene of the finale. I also like how Ribbiks gives the areas unique bits of flavor, like the onion domes in the rocket launcher secret of MAP02, and all those wonderful structures outside the bounds of the playing area that serve as daunting eye-candy. Surely, Ribbiks has done a lot of fantastic work with this texture pack... I can't help but hope there's more to see, though.

Another interesting choice is the atmospheric opening, a monster-free MAP01 that lets you adjust to the color scheme, though it can't prepare you for the combat that is to follow. The dive into the depths is a great effect, and while it's cool to get a map pack full of action, works like Back to Saturn X have reinforced in my mind the value of sheer atmosphere in establishing a sense of place. MAP31 is conversely a fun toss-off created as a vehicle for its music track, paralleling Stardate and its use of "Better Off Alone". The fact that its encounters are tightly condensed into a handful of brawls makes it more approachable than the rest of the set, but don't let that fool you into thinking they're any less tricky.

You should absolutely play these maps, and just because I'm too pigheaded to turn the difficulty dial down doesn't mean that you can't. The wonderful, watery world of SWTW is worth a visit and leaves me in anticipation of what experiences Ribbiks might draw out of his next color of choice. Don't miss out on this.

by "Ribbiks"

MAP01The Deep End
A gorgeous, haunting prelude to the descent. Already the new color theme is driven home in a dark splendor; I love the contrast with the gray / black rock. The only challenge is a little bamboo pole section to the blue (well yellow, technically) key. The lights wrapping around the elevator shaft are phenomenal. I'd love to play an adventure level in this vein.

Ride the DolphinsMAP02
Ribbiks opens up with an immense fortress, deep in the ocean. "Ride" is intense and claustrophobic; every section of the castle feels handcrafted in terms of its encounters. The upshot is that it's flush with tons of secrets to help you out Figuring out the opening took me a little bit - finding the SSG and then later quickly hitting the top and letting the Cyberdemon clear out the ground floor. Once you get the ball rolling, you can work your way around either side of the castle. The next memorable battle is the infamous Spiderdemon fight, which I didn't find as impossible as I'd heard, but maybe it got nerfed. Running around to the the north side and then back behind the imp stands, then shelling the wave of Hell knights and arch-viles into oblivion, seemed to work out for me just about every time. The duo of Cyberdemons is a much more infuriating firefight, with the scrolling floors often teleporting them into the center of the room just when they shoot their rockets at you. Very dense, very fun. Grabbing all those secrets might have helped, though.

MAP03Swim With the Whales
In some ways, the title map isn't as hard as I had expected. It would be a flagrant lie to suggest that I could do this whole thing on UV without dying, though. This is a gorgeous, crumbling ruin built on a dead volcano. The monster count isn't immediately intimidating coming hot off Stardate 20X6, but the challenge is definitely there, and a lot of it is baked into secret areas you'll do well to find. The monster placement is as exacting as anything I've played by Ribbiks, with revenant snipers covering a lot of the open areas in tricky spaces and the player in general just being pushed into corners with the maximum amount of pressure you can stand and then some. Pretty much every one of these fights could do with a writeup; they've left that much of an impression on me. I'll try to pick a few favorites, though. The black key - which enables an important Cyberdemon telefrag - comes with a really nasty fight that forces you to clear your very limited real estate so that you can soak arch-vile blasts on one of the revenant pillars until things quiet down. I also liked the courtyard fight, mostly because I exploited the distant Cyberdemon into sniping and tethering some of the foes before I kicked things off. The arch-vile / baron battle in the courtyard overlooked by the rocket launcher pillar was one of my major sweats, but I eventually pulled out a winning solution. The northeast chamber is probably the worst, though. There's just something about dodging all the arch-vile fire while waiting for the monsters in the switch room to clear out that feels absolutely oppressive. None of the stuff in the final wonderland was so taxing, largely I think because the arch-vile shenanigans feel more forgiving. There are so many cool fights and secrets that cutting this short feels insulting, but, play it yourself!

A goofy slaughtermap that starts out with a SWTW-ified view of "Entryway" and quickly moving into the absurd with the congested encounters. There are four big ones, and you can go any which way. I'd suggest taking the Cyberdemon / Hell knight clusterfuck out first, since it's fun to squeeze around him after you get the Hell knights to eat a rocket and then let the rest work itself out. The northern fight isn't too bad, it's just chaotic with the wall snipers and the monster drip feed. The finale is a hilarious zombie slaughter which has some real pressure depending on how much health you've lost. It's gonna be hard to escape completely unscathed with all those rifles pointed at you, but you can do it!


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. Hehe, I was wondering which of the fights in map03 would give you the most trouble... The black key brawl is certainly notable, but I think the Cyber / crusher room with the BFG9000 stands out the most for me. This is so random, anything can and will go wrong in the blink of an eye.... :)
    I think SWTW shows how much Ribbiks improved in terms of designing more "rounded" and curved shapes. These maps are absolutely gorgeous, and deserve a play even on -nomonsters. Even the automap view are incredible...

    Anyway, cool, your review gave me a nice break time before resuming my playthrough of skillsaw's Valiant.

    ( Also you might wanna check the map31 screenshot link )

    1. i swear to god that my links are changing in blogger after i post, it seems like this happens every time

  2. Crumpets is a good set of smaller maps by Ribbiks too, with lots of brown this time around!

    @William Huber Have you been enjoying Valiant?

    1. Crumpets is indeed a very good collection :)
      The latest map is quite dark and frightening.
      It obviously feels unfinished as of now, though. It would need maybe a couple more maps, or a grand finale in the vein of Stardate 20X6's "Magnus". We'll see what Mr. Ribbiks has in store for us.

      As for Valiant, yeah it's damn great. As I said on the Doomworld forums I think skillsaw took some bold choices in the gameplay department by altering some of the core Doom monsters, and usually I'm not too keen on this kind of stuff, but in Valiant it works well.
      The maps are wonderful, they bring a large degree of thematic variation and have a lot of care put into them despite being speedmaps ( for the most part ). Valiant feels like a modern Scythe II but with even more custom monsters this time.
      It's also nice to see some of the cool custom sprites made by members of the ZDoom community put to good use. Also the final boss is epic.

      Valiant came off as a complete surprise for me, and I like that.

  3. ^I guess maybe it should be moved into the Valiant review, now that there is one.

    SD 20X6 and SWTW are both impressive slaughter wads that most people will find over the top on UV, but HMP offers a much more enjoyable challenge for all and the architecture is both unique and beautiful.

    1. its really rewarding to just -nomo these too imo

  4. This one and Stardate are beyond my understanding/patience as far as UV goes. I've taken the opportunity to play some more doom now, because vacations are rare, but awesome. And I can clearly say those maps are not to be played on UV by anyone who does not have some expertise as far as slaughter scenarios go.

    I like to compare these to sunlust and it is clear to me that sunlust does a better job at easing the player into its difficulty. Here, as well as in Stardate you get pwnd hard as soon as there are monsters around, unless you know what you're doing.

    I watched some vidoes to see how others approach certain scenarios and once you "emulate" what they do, you kind of get an insight as to what the author has intended you to do. For the rather uninclined, like me, it comes down to trial and error as soon as the action gets thick.

    I can perfectly understand that some folks are thrown off by maps like these.