Thursday, June 23, 2016

Strange Aeons (STRANGEAONESV53.PK3)


(This review is an expansion and edit of my review for v3.x of Strange Aeons. The original is still available here.)

Strange Aeons was originally released in 2015 as a three-episode megaWAD for the original Doom. Since then, Impie has added two additional episodes, bumping it up to a full 45 levels and including a patch so that it can be run in either Doom OR Doom II. As it requires ZDoom, it's something much more than a plain ol' Doom mapset; its almost exclusive use of textures from Chasm: The Rift, coupled with a few new weapons and a basically brand new bestiary, puts it right alongside the other "total conversions" of yore... and recent memory. It also has a plot, set up in the PDF and expanded in the end text of each episode, so you're free to get as invested as your imagination will allow.


MacDee's primary influence is H.P. Lovecraft, but the context of this adventure has almost nothing to do with Cthulhu and everything to do with his Dream Cycle, as laid out in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. The Dreamlands compose a vast fantasy world that can be entered by those that dream. Interestingly, they are a place of potentiality, as powerful dreamers are capable of influencing its very reality if they so choose, and as is hinted at, the exact nature of the Dreamlands varies from dreamer to dreamer. That might explain why this particular iteration exhibits more futuristic technology than that of Randolph Carter, who was Lovecraft's semi-autobiographical protagonist.


While Impie's protagonist is not Lovecraft's, the two share some similarities. He is a dreamer, of course, or he would not be travelling through the Dreamlands. He is also plagued by a fantasy of a beautiful city, wrought by the tablets of Kadath. However, while Carter was seeking out the gods of the Dreamlands, the hero of Strange Aeons is in search of his recently deceased son, who was among those witnessed in the beautiful city of his dreams. As he makes his way across the hostile hinterlands in a quest to rest his heart, he must battle countless eldritch horrors and discover the truth behind his visions.


I do not think that the Dream Cycle readily adapts to the context of a first person shooter like Doom, if only because Lovecraft was an author of suspense and setting. Impie has wrought five distinct episodes using Chasm's resources, and while they certainly work, he has a ways to go before he can tap the engine to create a set of truly awesome adventure maps that would take it a step beyond feeling like a serviceable Doom clone. On the other hand, Strange Aeons is very much playable and its relatively short levels make for a pretty quick experience, allowing you plenty of time to get used to the author's selected monsters.


The Shattered City is composed of ancient and futuristic buildings floating in the ether, the eerie graveyard of some cosmic cataclysm. These levels are the shortest of the bunch; falling into the void isn't lethal, but instead routes you back to firmer ground. After that, The Stagnant Fortress, a rusty fortress from a bygone era with machines that run off the gory spoils of war, complete with semi-friendly ghouls that will join you in battle. Then, a journey to an echo of the past as preserved in The Land That Time Forgot, a vaguely Egyptian setting replete with beastmen and the walking dead. Lastly, after an altercation, you are exiled to The Plateau of Leng, a snowbound interdimensional nexus where you will discover yet another truth about the nature of your journey.


Out of the Aeons was added in 2016 and, while it concludes the Traveler's journey, its position in the narrative is more of a coda, framed years after your harrowing ordeal. It seems that your sister's son is suffering from horrific nightmares of a nature you are all too familiar with. You lose touch with him when crossing over into the Dreamlands. Journeying into the Underworld, your ghoul friends quickly inform you that the boy is being used as an anchor for Cthulhu who is attemping to escape the not-death of its own dreaming. The struggle is no longer for your family, but for the sake of all things on Earth not bound to the inscrutable whiles of the Great Old Ones. Your ultimate destination, then, is R'lyeh itself.


Impie has assembled quite the cast of characters to populate the more inhospitable portions of the Dreamlands. Many are rough analogues of monsters from Doom or Doom II, but sporting some level of increased danger. The machinegun maniacs are mostly enemies in the first episode and continuously fire until you're out of their sight. The Men of Leng are basically shotgun guys, but faster, and can be found pretty much everywhere you go considering their status as interdimensional Predators. You'll encounter their Chieftains in the fourth episode, toting dual shotguns and just being dicks in general. Devils are, refreshingly, just more violent imps, throwing two successive fireballs. Flayworms are basically demons, so you've at least got that going for you.


The flesh spawn are faster, less durable lost souls, but they are only ever found in packs. Grells are erstwhile cacodemons, about half as healthy but toting a slowing, poisonous fireball and a bobbing flight pattern that makes them tough to hit with rockets. Demon wizards are the supreme flier, fairly durable and firing erratic waves of magic. The Nemian Lions don't appear until E3, but they are basically Hell knights with half the health (thank goodness) that can block damage and have two different fireballs. The death incarnates are recolored revenants, but they behave like anything but, considering that they have fast, straight fireballs and can only be permanently killed when they explode, releasing an explosive kamikaze Hades Sphere in the process, though you can find these independent of their hosts. Explosions have a much better chance when dealing gibbing damage. And, of course, the Spiderbaby, a smaller version of the arachnotron that fires shots that aren't quite railguns, not that it's any comfort if you're caught off-guard.


Among the more exotic enemies, the skeletons of E3 are the simplest, except that you can't permanently kill them with any conventional weapon. The Spawn of Glaaki look like something you might find in a trash compactor and behave similar to Hexen's lurkers, with the caveat that they occasionally pop their eye above water and are a bit more durable. The infamous nightmares make themselves visible when they attack, but are bound to the ground, unlike the mysterious star vampires. Both can be attacked while invisible, thankfully. Then, of course, there are the colossal spiders, fleet-footed nightmares that will turn you from hero to meat in precious few seconds if you let them get close enough.


Strange Aeons also has a selection of boss monsters to contend with, two of which show up as normal opponents. Shadow beasts are annoying to take down with firearms since their reaction to pain causes them to fragment into screaming green souls that bey for your blood and then rematerialize somewhere nearby. The dholes are much worse, though, recognized by the tremors in the earth. They attempt to pop up from underneath you, and if avoided, fire sprays of slowing toxins. Their erratic movements make them difficult to dispatch. The last two horrors are Mythos powerhouses, but you'll only need to slay one of them outright, even if you have to do it twice in the same fight on UV. You cannot afford to have either get too close if you want to escape the Dreamlands.


The fifth episode adds a few new horrors to harry you on your quest, mostly relevant to the Cthulhu plot. Deep ones are basically imps that throw poison fireballs, maybe a little more durable, while the Innsmouth Looks shoot fast fireballs and feel pretty strong... and annoying when they turn tail and run after their health reaches critical levels. They're not nearly as irritating as the dimensional shamblers, though. These gangly ET-looking fuckers attack by instantly appearing next to you and then striking. They're harmless if you can indefinitely run in the opposite direction, but such situations rarely crop up and you may be dealing with as many as two or three at a time. They're not too tough when you get them with the AK-47, but their appearances usually feel like cheap shots. The final beastie is the star-spawn, a towering terror that fades in and out of the Dreamlands and throws fast homing projectiles that are pretty accurate. Apparently, they can also revive monsters like the arch-vile, but given the number you won't be standing still long enough to study their behavior in any great detail.


To combat this cast of cosmic catcallers, Impie has given you a few new tools. The scepter of souls used to be found only in E3 and E4, but since v5.0, it replaces the pistol. It's basically a chainsaw with a good bit of reach. The AK-47 replaces the chaingun and is a pretty good weapon for any normal occasion. The Yithian lightning gun replaces the plasma gun, but can only be found in each episode's secret levels, which makes it practically a nonentity for pistol start players. Lastly, the arbalest, which doesn't do a whole lot of damage but has ripper projectiles. Plowing through multiple monsters would be a boon if a lot of them weren't so dangerous. In the realm of powerups, you can snag temporary infinite ammo, double fire rate, and the mutant sphere, which turns you into a berserk smashing Hulk at the cost of tearing out of your armor and leaving you with full health once the rampage is done.


The combat of Strange Aeons is marked by two major elements. The first is exposure. There are a lot of enemies that are either hitscanners or shoot superfast fireballs, and the author tries to paint a fair number of topographical oceans to relate the landscapes of the Dreamlands. Some enemies - the grell, nemian, and others - can also slow you, robbing you of what maneuverability you may have. The other part is the unknown. Nightmares and star vampires will occasionally show where they were, and while they are vulnerable even while invisible, you'll still have to find them before they find you. The dhole is only truly visible and vulnerable when attacking. The Spawn of Glaaki function much the same way, though like the Hades Sphere, they occasional come out of hiding to give the player something to shoot. There's also the shambler, which instantly appears somewhere adjacent next to you as part of its attack. The two skeletons and the special guest monster won't even stay dead using conventional methods, with it only being a matter of time before they pop back up and crop up somewhere else.


Together, they work to give the megaWAD a pretty slow pace, which is right in keeping with something founded upon Lovecraft's dark fantasy and cosmic horror. However, the opponents are too numerous to really evoke a sense of cryptic dread, and I believe that most players will find a wealth of annoyance in the invisible monsters and other things that just won't stay dead, plus the super-fast and super-lethal Leng Spiders that dominate so much of E3 and E4, to be superseded - but not replaced - with the friendly not-neighborhood shamblermen. If any of these are hot-button issues for you, well, there's always the difficulty slider! HMP is pretty much the baseline difficulty, I think, given that the difference on E3M8 means battling an extra copy of what is purportedly a unique, ancient evil... plus a pint-sized version.


I dig the atmosphere, but I could have done for some more music tracks. Granted, any more .OGGs would bloat the filesize up even higher, but ten tracks spread out over 36 levels pretty thin. The fact that most of Doom's textures are nowhere to be found helps build that alien atmosphere, much in the same way as Xaser's dead.wire. The architecture and layouts are simple, but serviceable, and the author manages to get a few really unique experiences in there, perhaps most notably the crawling "Juggernaut" in E2M5. There's also a pretty cute homage to Maniac Mansion and The Legacy: Realms of Terror in E4M9, complete with nasty purple tentacles, plus an island level based on Myst in E5M9.


Strange Aeons isn't the sort of tour de force I would hope from something drawing inspiration from Lovecraft's Dreamlands, but I dunno if any author is really capable of doing that over a whole 45 level megaWAD. Impie certainly tried, and while I may have been rebuffed on occasion, I was certainly drawn into the Traveler's sympathetic quest. Perhaps you will be, too - "onward--onward--dizzily onward to ultimate doom through the blackness where sightless feelers pawed and slimy snouts jostled and nameless things tittered and tittered and tittered."





STRANGE AEONS
by Mike "Impie" MacDee

EPISODE ONE
THE SHATTERED CITY

The TravelerE1M1
Your very brief intro to Impie's first episode. It's got a sort of shantytowns on floating islands aesthetic and while the enemies are more lethal than your standard "Entryway" clone, you're still somewhat eased into the action and some of the ruder surprises, like the Men from Leng who ambush you from the rooftops. The trip from the tablet to the dream world is handled pretty well.

E1M2Resident Evil
A slightly more substantial trek, mainly because you've got to navigate the compound around which this level is based. The gate puzzle tripped me up at first. Along with the monster count comes the nightmare, an enemy I really despise. Learn to exploit them as best you can, or you'll be nursing more suckerpunches than you can handle. The big wave of beasties once you open the garage door comes as a bit of a surprise, especially with the conqueror worms from Freedoom, but it's a welcome jolt of action since you're toting the powerful AK-47.

Shooting RangeE1M3
Okay, abandoning the floating islands for a second so that you can journey through this desiccated military installation. Ditching the exposure of the shattered city for a straight up corridor shooter seems like a nice change of pace, but this shooting range harbors a sewer segment complete with more nasty monsters, slimy spawn that you can only shoot when their eyes are poking above the water or they attack. It makes for a tough ambush when the water level lowers, setting four of the cretins on you in close quarters. I was also surprised by the skull sorcerers, cool-looking monsters that you'll want some kind of cover.

E1M9Haunted Hospital
A surprisingly brutal experience due to an overabundance of nightmares and, in the other world (a mirror universe accessed via the main office) , death incarnate. The latter are black skeletons that go down in a few shotgun hits but have superfast energy strikes and self-resurrect unless you gib them, which you won't be able to do unless you land a lucky berserk punch. With this knowledge, you are more than capable of ending all of them, but it's a Herculean task given the limited health in the other side. The Yithian Lightning Gun appears in a secret cavern with some ominous spiders; it isn't hard to reach, but if you find your way back to the normal world before you snag it, you won't be getting back.

Cowboys and IndiansE1M4
Returning to Impie's city / void theme for a good ol' fashioned shootout. This is an incredibly action-oriented level; I'm assuming that the "cowboys" are those stagecoach gun-toting Men of Leng while the Indians are the fireball-tossing devils. This level is built on exposure to both kinds, perched on rooftops and roaming free, with the occasional grell. It's also got a lot of secrets, including a BFG, funnily enough. It's pretty easy to get gunned down since you're assaulted from all sides from the beginning, but you shouldn't be out too much as long as you respect your enemies... and maybe make a couple of trips to those islands off the main map for those medikits. Fun stuff; the Shattered City is starting to come into its own.

E1M5Highly Terminal
Branching out to use some more interesting architecture. You begin with a choice, and it's possible to pick the wrong one, since the left teleporter leads to what is initially a dead end. The right one leads to a manic open-air shootout where the combination of shotgun guys and riflemen will have you scrambling for some sort of cover and a gun that you don't have to pry from the hands of your enemies. Things quiet down once you've thinned all the hitscanners out and you're free to do the back and forth once you raise the bridge to the imp tower. The demon wizards are kind of effective in their first ambush, since your free space is limited, but they're easily handled on your descent from the guard tower. Cool little level.

Island HoppingE1M6
Similar motif as the previous level, but with less real estate... and less monsters. Starting out will be the hardest part, outside of a nasty crusher trap that's only accessible via a secret. Your limited maneuverability heightens the feeling of exposure, but it barely has a chance to linger since the level's over in a flash, the hardest part being caught on one of the small islands while fending off six demon wizards in a bit of a pincer attack.

E1M7Halls of Madness
A hardened defence post built on the side of an asylum. It's nice to get another crack at the hospital theme without the billions of nightmares and nigh-immortal skeletons. The initial fight is a sort of running of the demons thing, except with worms, of course. Worms figure pretty heavily into this level's action, so you'll probably do a lot of running around at first while you sort out the ranged attackers, after which you can just round them up and use fist or firearm. Starting the player on a berserk pack with the cell door flying open is a great way to kick things off.

DeathedralE1M8
A boss level in two parts. The first act involves finding all three keys, which are accessed via walkover buttons. One opens the main door while the other two open their respective side doors. Each room has a death incarnate to contend with, which is pretty annoying, since I wasn't interested in seeking out the rocket launcher (if there is one) while under duress. Filling the hallways with the Men of Leng isn't particularly interesting, but it's better than immortal skeletons! The boss fight pits you against shadow beasts, horrid fish-dragon-men that occasionally erupt into tortured, green phantoms and then re-materialize elsewhere. As is usually the case, situational awareness - and maintaining a healthy distance - will lead to a solid, if lengthy, victory.


EPISODE TWO
THE STAGNANT FORTRESS

E2M1Beast Depot
Much more action than "The Traveler" with just as much atmosphere, since you start out in some kind of an outpost with monsters in vats and an alarm blaring. "Depot" is, like "Halls", pretty heavy on the worms, but it's a good way to break the player in. It's also got a friendly ghoul who will fight the red key guardians on your behalf, though mine did not survive both battles.

Power StationE2M2
Impie throws E1 conceptions out the window with this pretty substantial ruined base level with waste, nukage processing, and the first occurrence of the mutant powerup, which lets you hulk out and punch the shit out of some stuff without really caring. There's a rocket launcher locked in the semi-secret yellow key shack, but by the time I grabbed it, I'd already killed everything in the level. The FleshSpawn come as a nice reveal, paired up with an infinite ammo powerup to let you cut loose with the machine gun. The wave of monsters at the exit is... not particularly threatening. Still, a pretty cool turn.

E2M3Ore Devourer
A moody industrial complex with a minor labyrinth worth of conveyor belts that smacks more of some bureaucratic nightmare a la Brazil than anything else. Death incarnates show up toward the latter half, but the rocket launcher - and end-of-scroller crushers - will make dealing with them pretty straightforward. I like the glimpse of the underground tunnel in the northwestern part of the level; it gives the setting a bit more depth. I also think that these long corridors are pretty much the last place you'd want to fight the spiderbaby.

The Marrow EngineE2M4
Another slice of the eldritch factory, with the twist that they're not processing ore, but bodies as you navigate more lengthy conveyor belts but with crushers on the paths. The north area has more of a wide-open blood sewer vibe but it's really dangerous because of the devils all along the north wall (which you won't be able to effectively handle until you snag the blue key), the shotgun guys running around on the main platform, and a team of arachnobabies in the island chamber. Oh, and a couple of shadow beasts, but only one of them is a real threat. Impie gives you the BFG in a telegraphed secret, and it's pretty handy against any number of encounters you might have left... including the immediate fleshspawn ambush.

E2M5Juggernaut
A very cool level that takes place aboard some kind of enormous sandcrawler. It's a nice setting for a corridor shooter as you move between the left and right treads and even has a little bit where you get on top of one of the treads and fight off a couple of worms while you make your way to a previously sealed room. The ghouls make another appearance, and if you unleash them early, you'll probably get a lot of mileage out of them. Mine got eaten by shadow beasts. There's also a great opportunity to cut loose with the mutant powerup on a bunch of devils and a few spiderbabies, always a plus. Outstanding.

Petting ZooE2M9
A massive outdoor level that also marks a return to the Shattered City theme. While you'll still have to endure some Men of Leng, most of the threat comes from projectiles flying in from long distance, the product of devils and grells penned up in the zoo. There were two pretty dangerous parts for me, but I have only myself to blame for mishandling the nightmare battle. The huge influx of devils, worms, and Men of Leng when you step into the red key enclosure is a different issue, and if you don't slay the hitscanners fast enough, you'll be on a short trip back. A nice change of pace.

E2M6Eldritch Research
Another take on the base / nukage setup a la E2M2. There's a bit of exploration involved and while you'll hit a couple of dead ends as you poke around the author ultimately links them back to the outdoor docks / warehouse area. It's a pretty blasty level, opening up with a prime opportunity to cut loose with the Hulk powerup, which by now you'll know to go tear up everything you can. The northern area with the power array is the scene of a pretty good fight against a bunch of fleshspawn, feeling like a wave of langoliers. There's also a secret path along the outer edge of the level that eventually gives way to an invul sphere, but I think that you'll be locked out if you linger since you've only got one shot at it.

Underworld GateE2M7
A pretty simple map, but it's at least one cool setting. Most of the action is centered around a big series of triple bridges out in a large, toxic cavern. It's the site of an enormous clusterfuck that uses gratuitous numbers of arachnobabies and demon wizards to keep you moving and terrified through several waves of monsters until you've secured all the keys and can return to the opening area. The final bit is more of a "Tricks and Traps"-ish series of scenarios required in order to snag the skull keys and deal with another Bruiser bros. type scenario. Also, props for using the grells in the opening area, since you need to leap across some gaps in order to progress and their slowing poison may make this difficult.

E2M8Siege of Pnath
A good ol' fashioned slobberknocker, against all manner of beasts and aided by a cadre of ghouls. The hulk-out powerup is pretty handy, but all the enemies can quickly chew through your health if you're overwhelmed. Eventually, they'll be rounded up in the center and easily slain, leaving you with the grisly task of defeating a trio of dholes, gargantuan worms that want to pop out of the ground underneath you and spit acidic slime. Given the space that's needed to accommodate them, it's simple enough to abuse the invul sphere to burn all your rockets relatively unmolested and then run the outer edge of the arena while you chip away at the last of their health. The ending is a bit of a shock... but pretty cool.


EPISODE THREE
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT

Altar of BloodE3M1
The intro to the third episode is a pretty good sign of things to come, debuting lethal normal enemies like the Leng spider (with a very nasty bite) and several assaults by star vampires, which are functionally "nightmare" versions of the worms, except they can also fly. This one's a bit short on ammo because the scepter of souls is available at the beginning. It's basically the chainsaw, but it's got quite a bit of range, so it should be useful on most of the monsters as long as you keep your distance. The bit with the water raising to the powerup is a nice hint at parallel action in the other area with water in it.

E3M2Monster Manor
A rude awakening awaits in this level, as it debuts the animated bones of warriors long dead. Unlike the death incarnate, these things cannot be permanently killed by gibbing, so good luck dealing with that. The Nemian Lions are much less annoying in contrast; even though they can shield themselves, they stay dead. The setting is a river valley that runs between two ancient complexes. There are a couple of big surprises, but the skeletons are the main source of pressure, since you'll always be on the lookout for them, and they tend to jam up the northern side, including the northwestern room / teleport arena.

City of Lost SoulsE3M3
A large level with tons of terrain to cover, starting off with the lake at the beginning followed by the city built into the side of the hill and leading up to a literal arena battle. While it's pretty open-air, Impie has deigned to avoid throwing too many hitscanners at you. The most tedious aspect of this would be cleaning the slugs out of the water, but it's not a big deal, and if you wait until you snag the scepter - which comes fairly late in the progression scheme - it'll be pretty systematic. It's got a lot of gotchas, like the bunch of spiders that boil out of the berserk pack cave, and a big mess of monsters that teleport in when you enter the building locked by the red key. The arena is really easy to handle since the author affords a mutant powerup at the onset, with an infinite ammo to boot, so just Hulk out and punch the shadow beasts out in a couple of blows, respecting the fact that their clouds of tormented souls are still very dangerous.

E3M4The Gondola Grotto
A different setting... An ancient sewer. It's also the first appearance of the dholes as regular monsters, but any sane attempt at taking them on is going to involve exploiting any edge against eldritch horrors that you can. If you want to soak in the Lovecraft atmosphere, there's no need to stick around and kill them; flee under the blessed freedom of terror (and possibly return with a secret BFG found at the end of the level). Most of the rest of the enemy count is tied up in a few pockets of fleshspawn. Except for the sinister sewer section, and maybe the opening firefight in the grid 64 columns, it's pretty unremarkable. Dig the Moai-ish statues.

Lions DenE3M5
Another ruins complex, but gloaming with meaty opponents, particularly the lions, not that you didn't already guess by the name. It's a moody level with a few good surprises and another arena scenario in the northeastern section, though Impie once again declines to lock you inside, so you're always free to step back a bit and gun down the devils and demon wizards and Nemians at your leisure. The big ol' fleshspawn hoedown at the switch room... not so much. The western room has a gate maze thing goin' on which is a decent puzzle element. Also, the secret level exit is here, and is the natural outgrowth of a mechanic you would have had to endure to finish the level in the first place. That big spider next to the little spider tunnels was a bastard move, but I can respect that.

E3M9Tomb of the Dark Pharaoh
A secret level housing a secret boss sealed beneath a ruined Sphinx. This is one cosmic horror you won't be able to run away from, but Impie tilts the scale pretty heavily in your favor by shoving a Yithian lightning gun in your hand and a ton of ammo as well as an invul sphere once the festivities get underway. The High Priest Not to Be Described is a slippery little shit, but as long as you keep moving (and maybe bring in that blue armor from the level's one secret) you ought to be okay. I managed to pin him down partway through the battle and keep him from moving or retaliating, so you might be able to, too.

The Vampire TroughE3M6
Impie creates a labyrinth of terror that is exploited through three separate waves. The first is just managing the Men of Leng and lions that stalk you, supposing you're starting with a pistol and not something you took from E3M5, let alone the lightning gun from E3M9. Once you've got them sorted out, you discover that the yellow key unleashes a shadow beast... and not long after, two others behind two other doors in the labyrinth. The last surprise is of course the packs of star vampires locked behind the bars, and given the layout, it's going to be tough to feel safe, at all. Even when you're done, there's a bunch of spiders holed up in the exit chamber and parts beyond, so tread lightly and carry an AK-47.

E3M7Proving Grounds
A level with several gimmicks. All of the major progression is done on the plateaus that form the level's upper tier. The lower tier is swarming with spiders ready to hatefuck you, and making any headway is going to unleash more, so beware. The other thing is that the four main plateaus are accessed by the same teleporter in the starting area. Watch the skull move from pillar to pillar; that's the direction you'll be heading when you step on to the pad. There's only one return, so look out for the creepy-crawlies. Apart from them, the difficulty is between the low health and exposure while being terrified of doing anything in the trenches.

FlytrapE3M8
A return to your nightmare from E2M8... This is a big battle against the Spinners in Darkness, though looking at the mythos, neither would seem to be Atlach-Nacha in truth. In any case, the horrible spiders are very fast, spit both poison and fire, and make tons of little spiders. There's also a medium-size version, sitting on the rapid fire powerup. Killing the big ones will leave a medium-size one in its place, but they're not quite as durable, and dragging out the two infinite ammo powerups over the duration of your rapid fire plus rockets ought to be enough to kite them to death, provided you don't do something boneheaded and back into a corner or skirt a column and blow your own damn self up.


EPISODE FOUR
THE PLATEAU OF LENG

Cold and StrandedE4M1
The first glimpse of E4 has a lot of similarities with the base structure of E1, just with houses on the wintry hills rather than floating in the void. However, the spiders are a more prominent adversary, and you get your first glimpse of a Leng chieftain, As could be expected, your biggest threat is exposure to hitscan attacks, but the spiders are just as credible a danger. Oh, and be on the lookout for the secret exit. It's not difficult to find.

E4M9Maniac Mansion
And now for something completely different... Except, Impie has already done self-resurrecting monsters to death. The purple tentacles aren't much different, but they're pretty cute. You can shut them up in any one of the rooms or engineer an "accident" in frame of said door, since squished tentacles will not be returning to plague you. They add pressure to the exploration and puzzle-solving portion of the level, which apart from tentacle survival horror is all you got. Grabbing the blue key involves a trip to the basement and a battle in the ether beyond worlds, after which the rest should fall into place. The Yithian lightning gun is beyond the impossible teleporter morass, but you need to backdoor it using the yellow keycard, which can only be acquired with all three skull keys, one of which is secret. So, uh, good luck, and beware the tentacles!

Hell Frozen OverE4M2
Bears a passing resemblance to the layout of E3M2; that is, two bases bisected by wilderness. Teleporters join the structures, so it's not as hard to get around. There are a boatload of devils and Men of Leng to slay, so between them and the spiders (and that one spiderbaby sniper), you've got your work cut out for you. The star vampires do a pretty good job of sneaking up on you given the open-air layout.

E4M3Twilight Meat Train
This has sort of the same visual gimmick as "Juggernaut", but the visual is far less impressive since it's nondescript trains instead of an enormous, rolling war machine, and Impie abandons any pretense of a corridor shooter for a series of teleporter-fed arena brawls as your hated foes teleport from the cars on the other tracks. The opening can be pretty dangerous, but there's a Hulk powerup in a secret off the very first room that you can use to get started. Things really heat up at the head of the middle track since the sheer number of Men, devils, worms, and even chieftains is potentially overwhelming, not to mention the spiderbabies coming to roost. Couple that with erratic ambushing chieftains on your way to the back and it's very easy to attrition out in a short amount of time. Climbing on the nose of the train for the soul sphere was pretty cute, though.

The BiospheriansE4M4
Now, here's a cool idea, a rendering of what those sinister Men of Leng are up to. This is some sort of "biosphere", preserving something of the rugged terrain of E3, minus most of the undead, and the adjoining village. The actual biosphere isn't that interesting to battle through, considering most of what you'll be doing is running around in circles so that you can avoid getting massacred by the dhole. Save a few rockets so that you can put down the troublesome death incarnate whenever they crop up. Also, there's a boatload of hitscanners to deal with; the overseers. Don't get cocky.

E4M5The Salt Mines
Not really feeling the salt, but it's a decent romp regardless. You start out in a Leng complex, hunt your way through some spider-infested tunnels in order to open some gates, and then hit the main drag, a winding pathway through guard towers so that you can get access to the switch that raises the teleporter near the entrance. While there are a few arachnobaby snipers and a dhole thumping around, it offers some pretty decent action, provided you keep moving. The end battle is against a shadow beast as a surprise, but you ought to have plenty of rockets by then, especially if you abused the mutant powerup.

AlcatrazE4M6
Sort of like a prison complex. A lot of the restrictions are pretty abstract in their execution, but I would probably bitch if I were fighting through a realistic layout, so there's that. It's mostly switch hitting and corridor shooting, with a few nice touches like the Leng Chieftains dropping skull keys, plus a lengthy secret trip outside that ends with you killing a dhole and earning a soul sphere. Not too bad, with some distinct architectural motifs.

E4M7Devil Canyon
Another slice of Leng wilderness in a pretty cool if fairly brutal outing. The goal is to raise the bridge to the exit teleporter, but to do so, you'll have to endure all manner of nightmares, including several packs of spiders, one of which near the end has a baby spinner (!) while you are under siege from death incarnates and imps (!!!). The naturalistic architecture is taken up to a slightly higher notch with some pretty cool lithic structures. You'll also have to do a lot of mountain goating if you want to find all of this level's secrets, including the supremely handy rocket launcher. A solid sendoff to the finale.

The Crawling ChaosE4M8
The final boss, with an optional path if you want to snag some blue armor, provided you don't mind fighting some spiders and nightmares. If you didn't already get a chance to fight Nyalarthotep in E3M9, here he is again! The rules are different, though. My first instinct was to just fight The High Priest Not to Be Described, but given that you're not kitted out with any powerups and that rockets are essentially worthless in this sort of a fight, I decided to embrace Plan B - slay the enemies on the columns, since every time all four die, a new type is teleported in. Once you get to and slay the Lions, whatever sustains Nyalarthotep on Leng evaporates, and you're free to go Home.


EPISODE FIVE
OUT OF THE AEONS

Rigorous MortisE5M1
Easing the player in with a nice little facility in the wasteland. For whatever reason, it's crawling with skeletons in addition to the usual chaff, but all is easily laid to waste with the staff and the shotgun, though the secret AK-47 might take the sting out of the Death Incarnate encounter. The bodies make for a nice, ominous opening and some of the details like the outdoor area and the little storage facility keep the base from feeling too bland.

E5M2Drought Station Acheron
Odd, coming on so hard and fast after the relatively laconic E5M1. It's another base level, but with some water this time, and a shrine that hints at your ultimate end. Health is pretty scarce when beginning, so all those roaches and vulgars - I mean, Innsmouth Looks and Deep Ones - have plenty of opportunities for cheap shots, not to mention those Leng bastards. There's a miniboss fight against two Dimensional Shamblers, proving how annoying - and lethal - instant teleportation can be. The final cavern, with the ceiling lights, looks really freakin' cool. The big brawl on opening the exit door is pretty heavy, but it should be a cinch if you grabbed the secret rocket launcher. If.

The Vaults of ZinE5M3
Easing off the monsters for these blood-flooded caverns. Well, I say easing, but you'll have to fight through at least three shadow beasts and a bunch of those demon wizards toward the end. The former will really fuck you up in the final battle since their invisible forms - while the green wraiths stalk you - take up precious maneuvering space. The secret rocket launcher will be indispensable, particularly with the infinite ammo powerups scattered about. The blood gorge, gruesome tunnels, and bloodfall make for some nice set pieces. The secret exit might drive you mad. It's a timing puzzle, but you'll have to teleport to it from the trigger area... Very cool map, and you even get a ghoulish buddy!

E5M9Mysterious Island
Just like E4M9 cribbed from Maniac Mansion and... The Legacy: Realms of Terror, this level draws inspiration from Myst, a game most people my age are probably aware of, but which I never played. It's a largely atmospheric and mostly obvious switch hunt as you visit the various locations around the island. There aren't a great many actual puzzles, falling more into the realm of timed switches for secrets like the lightning gun, but the mountain painting revealing the Death Incarnate solution is pretty neat. I never did figure out what the light tower switch was for. All of your real combat will come as a result of handling the four western buttons; since the monsters released are not at all ruinous, with the possible exception of the dimensional shambler that guards the rocket launcher, I'm assuming that this is one "puzzle" that must simply be brute-forced.

Man Flesh ProcessingE5M4
This level has more of a temple feel. Blood floors factor in again, but there really aren't enough rad suits to handle the big corridor leading to the yellow key forge. Now, if you figured out the soul sphere or mutant powerup secrets - especially the latter - you'll be doing much better for yourself. The fights are fairly straightforward, with a few packs of devils and hunters plus a couple of Death Incarnates spread throughout. A shambler holds the red key, another potential source for player attrition. Lots of action; not a whole lot of mitigation outside of the secrets.

E5M5The Valley of Death
This is a pretty cool underground cavern setting. While gloaming with snipers, if you keep your cool and use your ghoul buddy as best you can, you shouldn't have too much trouble. Well, there is that moment when a handful of Death Incarnates boil out of the wall, but I had found the secret invul and saved it for the red key grab so I was doing pretty well for myself. The optional cavern to the north is a cool touch, with the first dhole fight of the episode. The layout and the infinite ammo powerup when combined with the rocket launcher should put it down. The eastern area is a neat combination of pseudo-claustrophobia and time pressure as you run through the pillars in the blood with the rad suit, focusing on the shadow beast and trying not to get hung up on the spawn of glaaki, I also like the interconnectedness by emerging on the exterior staircase you saw when you first entered and then wrapping around to the exit teleporter.

Cthonian PlanetE5M6
Using the teleport-connected "Nirvana" style for a series of isolated encounters. "Cthonian" will be difficult for its abundance of Death Incarnates, Dimensional Shamblers, and Dholes, the last area a large, alien wilderness with the three Dholes and five or so Shamblers. While you do have an invul sphere, it's far enough from the other two powerups - a double fire and infinite ammo - that you can't really cheese the big guys. It'll be handy for those fucking evil ETs, though. While most of the level leaves me cold, I really enjoyed the look of the finale, looking alien enough to skirt the boundary between dreamland and nightmare.

E5M7The House of Dagon
Impie's penultimate level has some pretty cool scenery going on. It's also the toughest from scratch, requiring you to either ditch a shadow beast in the beginning area or go ahead and punch it out with the berserk pack. There's an enormous clusterfuck in the rocket launcher area involving three shamblers in a relatively cramped space; your best bet if you go in with low health is to off a few with some lucky rocket launcher shots and then slay the last one with the AK-47. I like the purposeful nature of the House of Dagon, as far as it gives some character to the monsters with the feasting room and chambers which are obviously mostly in use by the Men of Leng.

R'yleh RisingE5M8
The final showdown. Thankfully, since Cthulhu is still asleep, you only have to deal with its dreaded spawn. They're still pretty big bastards, and their super-fast homing plasma balls will probably do some damage while you clear out the initial horde of Dagon-worshipping trash. Besides homing projectiles, the spawn do this annoying thing where they disappear and then reappear, so keep your distance because you are much worse off at close-quarters. Just make sure your rockets count, or alternatively, activate the infinite ammo powerups through the switch chain so that you don't have to worry.



BONUS LEVEL

E4M7Crypt of the Elder Things
This was the original E4M7 before a pretty substantial rewrite. Impie takes a pretty simple architectural motif and drives it as far as he can. This level is a large, outdoor space that's criss-crossed by a bunch of Leng catwalks. As such, there's a large amount of threat due to player exposure, whether it's the hitscanners or the shadow beasts on the edges or other unsavory things. Flipping the power switches dumps more beasties onto the patrol circuit, including those near-railgunning arachnobabies, but between the powerups and all the ammo and health, you should be good to go. Curiously, the level's namesake is actually found within a secret, accessed via a bit of mountain goating, which there is plenty of to be had.

FOR THROUGH THE UNKNOWN ULTIMATE CYCLE
HAD LIVED A THOUGHT AND A VISION OF A
DREAMER'S BOYHOOD, AND NOW THERE WERE
RE-MADE A WAKING WORLD AND AN OLD
CHERISHED CITY TO BODY AND TO JUSTIFY
THESE THINGS.

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2 comments:

  1. E5M9's tower switch is the breaker switch for the shuttle generator. If you open the ship door, but fail to make it in time, flipping the door switch again won't do anything: you have to flip the breaker first, then try again.

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    1. i don't recall it working like that when i played the map, but perhaps i was blissfully ignorant and hitting the switch out of reflex. i am pretty sure it was just a bunch of basement dives until i made it though

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