Monday, April 13, 2015


Back in 2011, when this blog was in its infancy, I had privately asked Doomworld Forum superstar Phml for a copy of his work in progress, PhmlSPD. Though I intended to review it, the work languished on my hard drive until... now! Some four years later, I doubt that PhmlSPD is an accurate gauge of the author's skills as they currently stand, but it's an interesting look into the growth of his talent. Interestingly, it also has a place as an undeniable influence on Doom's co-op scene. PhmlSPD formed the foundation of the cheekily-titled Chillax, an over-the-top co-op slaughter megaWAD that has become infamous for its ridiculous monster counts, and made its original debut as PhmlSPD v1.4, before polite askance by the author to remove his name from the project led to the change to the Chillax we all know and keep at arm's length. The last official version of PhmlSPD is a fourteen-map PWAD for Doom II, to be played Boom-compatible ports.

There is no plot, really. Phml was just making levels under self-imposed time limits as a means of improving his craft. The gameplay reveals his predilections toward slaughter-based gameplay, which should come as no surprise to anyone who's followed the slaughter scene. Phml has contributed to both Slaughterfest 2011 and 2012 (both of which I am deeply wary) and tons of playtesting time and demos, though how much of that is pre- and post-PhmlSPD, I can't say, and I'm not willing to do the research to figure it out. All that experience with slaughter stuff means that he has a fair idea of what is reasonable to expect of a player in such outings.

More importantly, there's a commitment to a specific gameplay ideal that attempts to accommodate two broad but different levels of skill. Phml strove to include enough leeway that a player who enjoys slaughter maps but is not necessarily proficient could eventually beat the levels using tactics that tend to slow progression to a standstill, like slowly plinking away at snipers from afar after popping out from cover, or funneling enemy hordes into choke points that leave them more or less protected. The other end of the leeway gives enough room for experts to work their magic and clear the levels at a much faster pace, though at increased risk to themselves. It's... an interesting design decision, one that I don't often see laid out so explicitly.

Phml tries pretty hard not to lock players into what have come to be known as Scythe-style death arenas. In these instances, you're trapped in a limited space with monsters pressuring your personal space, the only way out involving enduring the firefight until whatever locked you inside releases, whether it's a timed door or a switch you have to use yourself. With Phml, the only thing you have to fear is acting too slow versus an approaching horde. MAP08 and MAP10 are good examples of this phenomena, but you have a lot more playable area to run around in than a death arena usually affords. If you pay close attention, you'll find that there's generally a way to beeline to the BFG, even if figuring it out cold is far-fetched. That plays into accommodating speed runners, though. Any speed demon worth their salt should already know the mechanics of the level and use that knowledge to build a route.

It's... still not something I'd recommend to people that don't like slaughtermaps. All of the lightning-fast excitement comes from having both the technique and knowledge to keep yourself in the thick of action on a more or less constant basis. The techniques that allow less skilled players to eke out their victories run counter to action-packed entertainment and slow gameplay down to a crawl in exchange for superior survivability. As far as I know, the author hasn't changed the monster composition on lower difficulties; instead, ammo, health, and power-ups are liberally thrown at the player. This cuts down on biting your nails until you grab the BFG, but it's not like the floor is carpeted in invul spheres. There's still a very real chance of getting overwhelmed.

Phml may not approach the level of grandeur and sadism that many of his slaughter compatriots are capable of, but PhmlSPD shows an appreciable knack for hammering out a sort of workman-like slaughter gameplay that I can certainly appreciate. Does he have his own Combat Shock waiting in the wings? Only time will tell. Thanks for the deaths, man.

by "Phml"

A short, back and forth level that sets the tone with a Cyberdemon in the opening room. It's tempting to grab that invul off the bat, but you'll want the berserk pack, too, so that you can deal with the demons and other unsavory things lurking behind the door. Play punch-out as fast as you can through the rougher beasties and then enjoy a leisurely game of revenant circle-strafing before returning to off the Cyberdemon, secret plasma rifle in tow. Phml wisely adds cacodemons to the mix, though, which is a doubly confounding element. The end run of imps... not so much. A nice warm-up. I dig the opening room and the reuse for the second visit.

This level is a bit more direct in its challenge, offering up a running of the skeletons alongside a demon pincer attack that drives you to one of several extremes. I pushed through the east side, grabbed the plasma rifle, and then made my stand, which turned out pretty well since some of the revenants got caught up in the BFG cage annex. Things mellow out after that, with an imp blastathon topped off with a Cyberdemon, but my favorite bit is the BFG sweep in the northern section. It's not simple, by any means, but you can handily manage clearing up to the invul and then grabbing the rest of the ammo to light up the remainders. I imagine the true test is doing things quickly, considering the Cyberdemon / arch-vile pack / Spiderdemon roadblocks that immediately follow.

Not quite as thrilling. I suppose it's ultimately leading up to a grand combat scenario between a bunch of Cyberdemons and a bunch of Spiderdemons, but I just can't get excited about this one. The outer thirds of the circle populated by enemies are easily boxed in, and that describes most of the encounters, including the grand cacodemon rocket fodder chamber. The end of level fight is cute, though. Entice the Cyberdemons to slay all the Spiders, then run the gauntlet to grab the invul and blast them all to smithereens.

And now for something completely different. This vast chamber, populated with barons and demons, poses a difficult conundrum, and anyone going in blind is sure to have a fun time figuring out where to go. The smart money is on a blazing BFG pickup, though, after which you can kind of start clearing space in earnest. Snagging the combat shotgun and rocket launcher will be significantly easier with the death cannon in hand, but it's still a lot of meat to chew through, and the layout is hardly accommodating. It's worthwhile as a mental exercise, though.

I really like this map. The start is a confusing running of the imps with teleport lines and a wandering Cyberdemon. Then it's on to the weapon cage fights, some of which are easily solved with the berserk pack, and some of which require just a tad more finesse. If you pass the southern challenge, you'll unlock the BFG, which is very handy - nay, necessary - for the Hell knight mob that dominates the final arena. You don't really get to play the pack against multiple Spiderdemons since they tend to gum everything up, but you can set them up against the pressure plate Cyberdemons to soften things up for the final few BFG blasts.

More of a slaughtermap, but it feels slower-paced. The slow trickle of Hell knights in the exit chamber doesn't really work to me, but the rest is kind of "Tricks and Traps", just not literally, with keep-away keys and an enormous swarm of cacodemons and pain elementals, and a decent descending elevator fight whose player-controlled pace robs it of most of its efficacy, nevermind the fact that the chambers of Hell knights, revenants, and barons are easily shelled into oblivion. It's a bit of a slow burn, but pretty enjoyable. Make sure to save that invul in the main chamber for all the meat sitting behind the red key door.

Another challenge gauntlet. The opening has you ousting mancubuses from islands to collect your essential weaponry; afterward, you're running up a series of tiers as you desperately avoid a horde of cacodemons closing in from behind. Your eventual end still pits you against an arachnotron shooting gallery, but you can utilize a Cyberdemon to your advantage, and there's way more room to fight gasbags. The rest of the action is ho-hum, the biggest bonus being rocket punching some revenants after you grab the semi-secret invul sphere. I'm not sure what's going on with the Cyberdemon, there; he doesn't seem to be useful in any capacity.

An enormous slaughtermap. You're likely to suffer from encounter fatigue given that three of the spokes on the center island are basically identical. Having all three awake at the same time is a recipe for disaster as the influx of monster flesh will no doubt have you scrambling for just a little area to move in, and you might completely miss the couple of pain elementals or arch-vile, which are potential victory spoilers. At the end of each spoke is a clown-car building that pours out revenants until it releases a couple of Cyberdemons. If you don't know the BFG bump, you might be in trouble here, and in the finale, where you must push your way through at least ten of the fuckers while you're under the influence of an invul sphere, not unlike MAP06.

And now for a little light action. The fights are much smaller and more manageable; the big decision is whether to go for the BFG off the bat, where you'll have to deal with a cadre of arch-viles. The long way involves exploring the east and west wings, probably leaving the boss-monsters alive, after which the arch-viles will be a non-entity after some switch-fu. Some rune-inscribed squares block monster movement, which is a neat gimmick, though it doesn't really get a chance to shine as a major component. The two-pronged assaults at the blue key are a nice way of putting pressure on the player; the final room is kind of a clusterfuck, but you have enough BFG ammo lying around. Use it.

Well, it's considerably more fun watching Skepticist's demo of this level than to actually play it cold. There's clearly an intended route that maximizes the amount of time you're slinging rockets or firing the BFG, but the alternate style of play is just as valid, supposing you can hold out against the hordes of imps and other unsavory things. The keys activate some decent utilities for stymieing your enemies, especially the crushers. One BFG is available "early" if you do the speedrunning route; the other will be behind the Spiderdemon in the main chamber if you can survive that long. The one thing you'll for sure want to do is punch through the brick wall of Cyberdemons so that you can partake of the plethora of cells hiding in the exit chamber. Or, uh, just leave the level, if that's your thing.

Thankfully, Phml offers another breather map, even if the uninitiated will be resorting to a ton of demon berserk punching. The experienced will know that each of the skull keys unlocks goodies accessed from the starting room in addition to the key points of progression. The big secret for those who fully explore the grid 64 arch-vile tunnel is a BFG, but it was the very last weapon I got, and only after killing everything else. There aren't any big bads waiting to blast you in this one, just a bunch of inopportune arch-viles that you should still be able to weather. The descending elevator with simultaneously teleporting enemies is a cool moment.

Another high body count, but the design of this level feels more straightforward, at least when compared to MAP10. The main chamber will be the scene of death of many Hell knights, barons, and some arachnotrons, with plenty of opportunities to splatter the occasional arch-vile. At the very least, the commandos are confined to trenches that are quickly and ruthlessly reaped with the BFG, leaving you with all the big guys. The finale is yet another Cyberdemon BFG bump fest, but lightly concentrated. My main faux pas was not realizing that the mancubus pillars surrounding the exit platform that guard the invul sphere did not have to be leaped across. You can do it, though!

There's no way around it; this map is a grind. It's still playable, though, and somewhat enjoyable, provided you know one key piece of information. You only need one skull key in order to unlock the BFG. I would ignore the east and west doors and head north. The yellow key is tucked behind a maze of Spiderdemons; taking them on without the big gun is pointless. The red key invokes a literal forest of arch-viles and spectres that, again, you'll want to have the BFG for... and at least one of those invuls. The blue key is the most straightforward as the only thing you have to stare down is a solid wall of Cyberdemons. Phml has these tiered arrangements in the corners that are full of Hell knights to the west and revenants to the east. There's plenty of plasma ammo for you to fight your way to the top and a megasphere / invul combo which you can use at your leisure. But, uh, it's pretty grueling taking on a total of five corners of the damn things, especially since the adjoining architecture is pretty much identical. I think you have to be pretty committed to playing slaughtermaps in the first place, though.

The last map from the set is... a mapping challenge! I think Phml succeeds about as well as he could have hoped, though using the huge hallway of doors is not one of the level's finer moments, even if it's understandable as a way to prune all of the player's bullets, forcing him or her to use the chainsaw for most of the combat. It's more or less an order of operations level; you need the megasphere to endure the toxic blue key run, but grabbing it teleports you back to the northern chamber and turns all those shoot to open barriers into crushers. The only real snag you're likely to encounter is the arch-vile / pillar finale, but I'm pretty sure that you can make a blitz to one of those main pillars and dodge the burn... or just save the soul sphere until you're ready for the last battle.



  1. After Phmlspeed, IMO Phml eventually did go on to creating the level of grandeur in one of the slaughterfest megawads that exceeds 99.99% of the maps I've ever played... but it was waaaaay above my skill level, hehe. :P

  2. Hey! Thanks for the review. It's pretty impressive how on point you are in discerning intent.

    Reading through the map descriptions makes me a little embarrassed about the lack of polish. But then, "best" is subjective. My idea of fixing things up might have entailed removing aspects other people liked. The wad is probably more interesting in this experimental state, failures and all.

    Instead I wanted to go for a remake of sorts. The idea was to snatch some distinctive architecture from each level, and build an expanded version out of it, along with a gloomy twist. The whole episode isn't happening, but sf2011 map25 is a proof of concept.

    Not mapping lately, but if I have a change of heart, you'll be the first I get in touch with for any TITLEPIC-related needs. ;)

    1. thanks for the comment! i'm intrigued by the "proof of concept", since there are occasional snatches of wicked cool architecture bound up in the killing fields.