Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dark Castle (DARK_C.WAD)

Vick Bobkov aka Virgil the Doom Poet has two major claims to fame. He was a single level contributor to Paul Corfiatis's 2002: A Doom Odyssey and managed to worm his way into the Plutonia 2 project during its early stages. Vick got his start in the source port era and while his first release, Black and White, makes no mention of other executables, Dark Castle targets the Boom engine and more generally limit-removing source ports. Virgil's most active year was 2001, but this three-level minisode also referred to the author as an appetizer was published in 2000. Dark Castle is definitely an accurate title, but as they say, the devil is in the details.

Virge grudgingly offers a narrative that borrows a lot from Eternal Doom. You're not the original  marine but a child born after 500 years of constant conflict with dimensional demonspawn. The latest and greatest weapon in the war on the wicked is time travel, or at least it would be if Hell didn't quickly take control of the machine and use it to invade during the year of our Lord 1100. Of course, the first thing the monsters would do when establishing a foothold in the technology-deficient past is build a great big fuck-off castle to serve as a base from where they can raid neighboring villages like feudal fiends.

Bobkov has not left much of an oral legacy and the gist of what I've heard prior to playing this set has not been flattering. Dark Castle makes for some interesting screenshots but it feels like the levels - especially the first two - have been built without any regard as to what the author would use to populate them, afterward cramming them full of monsters like a child's playset. The first level hurts even more because Vick could not come up with an interesting way to progress through the titular set piece and seems Hell bent on forcing you to see every square inch in the most perfunctory fashion. As a result, you run back and forth on the outer and relatively featureless side of the castle's moat, then do the same thing on the opposite shore and one last time when you finally get onto the battlements. The inner yard and its relative freedom comes as a breath of fresh air.

"Inside" is just as linear but a bit more interesting because its crown jewel is a series of four midtexture bridges stacked on top of each other, predating Jonas Feragen's "Mind Trap" from Hell Revealed II. The utterly cramped hallways weaving you through the nexus occasionally give way to more open fights that are fun in spite of themselves. The main one I'm thinking of is the enormous library featuring in MAP02's northeastern corner and the large, open hall immediately outside it. The Cyberdemon fight in the west has its perks, too, since you can either grab the upper BFG and bump him to death or go the super shotgun grind route which still requires a bit of maneuvering skill since the layout of the room can offer some resistance if you play aggressively (i.e., try to keep your gun constantly trained on him).

I'd actually think about stealing some of Virgil's ideas here, though none of them have anything to do with the level's combat. He uses a pitch-black cheat to transition you between the upper and lower tiers of MAP01 and hide the nature of the Cyberdemon room until you grab the megasphere. I also like the two tiers of floating skull rocks in the corner rooms of MAP01's battlements. Not much else, though. I'm not fond of Virgil's personally-written MIDIs supporting MAP01 and MAP02; I prefer the former to the latter, however. I wonder if it's pure coincidence that MAP03, which was the most fun experience for me, used a song sounding like a Mark Klem track.

Vick suggests that you play DARK_C on Ultra-Violence but if you're not into grinding down demons in often claustrophobic corridors then you might want to pick a lower skill level or give the whole set a miss. It's not unplayable but I would be hard-pressed to recommend it as it is more about its window dressing than the way it plays. If you're just dying for medieval-themed maps, though, this might be right up your alley.

by Vick "Virgil the Doom Poet" Bobkov

Outside Dark CastleMAP01
It's a castle exterior, alright, and you'll know it in pornographic detail by the time you're done. The outer yard and battlements are some of the most banal gameplay I've seen in a long time, diligently shotgunning loads of high-HP monsters to death as you duck their withering fire. I had some excitement during the aerial wave with the two pain elementals but that was because I didn't know if I would be running out of ammo. The most fun I had was vs. a pack of mancubuses on the ground floor, putting my dodging skills to the test as I stuck it out. The interior is okay with a nice midtexture floor but the combat shotgun vs. the Cyberdemon feels just as padded out as the rest of the map. The nadir: playing peek-a-boo with the Spiderdemon right before the end of the upper tier.

MAP02Inside Dark Castle
The guts of the fortress are cramped, rectilinear, and loaded with meat. Vick has several neat set pieces to his credit, first and foremost being an impressive array of four midtexture bridges crossing a cistern of cinders at both the cardinal and inter- directions. The descent into the dungeons sets the tone for the rest of the piece, though, including desperate rocket shelling an arch-vile and slowly shotgunning a trio of Barons as well as surprises every step of the way. The library segment dominating the eastern portion has combat that's fun in spite of Virgil's predilections, mostly due to how much room there is. The enormous stacks chamber is the best though some weird invisible monster pedestals that I suspect are pop-up traps gone awry weigh it down. The Cyberdemon room is shaped just weirdly enough to throw off your dodging. The BFG trap seems like an unusually cheap shot but if you know what's coming the arch-viles quickly become nonentities. A grueling slog.

A Portal to Hell...MAP03
Now this, this is alright. Virgil ditches the cramped interiors for two outdoor yards, the first of which is full of metal columns and ripe for infighting after you slay the sole arch-vile. Provided you're mindful of the hitscanners, of course. The second area is a glowing red Hellscape framed in a limitless expanse of cooling embers. It's kind of tricky since there are arch-viles placed in strategic locations but the worst thing you can do is get overconfident, especially since the Cyberdemon is in an odd place unsuited for BFG bumping. A welcome coda.



  1. Those screens with the individual levels are wrong,look like they are from some E1 style wad? Definitely not this.

    1. They are leftovers from PhobosDeimos Anomaly, from which I copied the framework. I can't fix this right now but I'll see about correcting it when I get home in the morning.