Friday, January 12, 2018

Void and Rainbow (RAINBOW*.PK3)

by "Serious_MOod"

Serious_MOod started an authorial career on the unassuming, orthogonal Dark Side of Deimos in 2013. While S_M's following releases weren't staunchly traditional, neither were they wildly divergent from the typical Doom experience, especially when you consider that the alpha textures utilized in Beta Labs and BLABS2 have become a recognized theme in its own right. Color me surprised, among other things, with Void and Rainbow. It's a single level release for GZDoom published in 2017, featuring running and jumping and fighting and humping. Well, mostly the middle two, plus a healthy dash of Roy G. Biv.

Like the rest of the author's works, V&R lacks any sort of written story. Its protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to Corvus but there is nothing to suggest the player character's identity beyond his or her firearm skill. The setting appears to be out in space with both the stars and more importantly a planetoid resembling Earth visible to the naked eye. The locale is fueled by some sort of arcane energies, though, since it has an apparently breathable atmosphere even when you're navigating small constructs and floating islands that look like a Roger Dean album cover rendered by Lisa Frank. Is this the fabled Dark Side of the Moon?

Void and Rainbow is aesthetically similar to a style made popular by Ribbiks - taking one vibrant color and then juxtaposing it with earthy, muted textures. The difference is that Serious_MOod's chosen tone gradually changes, blending through all the colours of darkness until the cycle begins anew. No single screenshot could accurately portray what you see as you play through this level; it is not a static gradient, as is the case with The Golden Souls and "Rainbow Citadel", and the hue changes too fluidly to be mistaken for the theme of something like Stardate 20X6. It even extends to the ambient light cast by the various torches spread throughout the level.

According to the author the polychromatic experiment is the main reason for this level's existence but it's so much more developed than a one-note visual gimmick. Most of the action takes place within a large astral complex suspended in the ether, featuring flashes of transcendental terrain in between iridescent interiors. Some of the outdoor areas leverage precarious platforming across chains of floating islands. In fact, the isolated annexes that begin and end Void and Rainbow are exclusively comprised of such locations. Thankfully, navigation is made less treacherous by increasing the height of the player's jumps, adding a bit of float, and giving some air control. Falling into the nadir is of course a lethal experience but the first area with any real action serves as a great ice breaker for V&R's physics as most of the difficult leaps are crammed into it, plus the starry stairways that feature here and there.

As if it isn't surreal enough, S_M has included a handful of tasteful tricks to weave together the disparate parts of the level as a journey through folded space. Some of this is dropping into tubes that deposit you at distant parts of the map. Another is a silent teleport where you enter a dark alcove at the bottom of a tiny floating structure and emerge on the other side in the Rainbow Fortress of Doctor Lao. Perhaps my favorite bit is the northern gate, a portal revealing another silent citadel, this one shrouded in shadow. The more incredible moments call to mind the twisted geometry of Impossible: A New Reality, but with boundless color and appealing architecture.

Most of its monsters bear little apparent relation to Doom's. The mysterious, hooded gunmen bring Strange Aeons to mind while the dark imps no doubt suggest Cyb's Void. Arachnorbs appear as the spiritual successor to lost souls, their spiralling shooting pattern derived from Hexen's dark bishop. Even the mighty afrit features, though its explosive attacks and health are toned-down compared to its slaughtefest siblings, feeling more like a cacodemon surrogate. The rainbow realm is an ecosystem all its own. Near the top of the foodchain is the arachnorb queen, an unholy conglomerate of the Spider Mastermind and Duke 3D's octobrain that is painful to fight both because of the awkward area it appears in as well as its slays-you-dead psychic wave / bolt. Of course, you could always live dangerously and just try to ignore it or even goad it into fighting the also appearing afrits.

The true master of Void and Rainbow is the Phantom Lord and while the queen's locale seems unsuited for a confrontation, the final battleground has been tailor-made for the end boss. The scintillating specter releases energy from scattershot streams to a fountain of sparks to powerful, radiant blasts. Its arena consists of three tiers of scattered platforms. The bottom is strung together by variegated gossamer strands that you can run across and jump pads near the center of the first two will propel you to the next-highest plane. All of this is easily processed as the fluorescent phantasm is nowhere to be seen when you first arrive; to trigger the fight, you must take the jump pads up to the top level and then grab the rainbow cannon, a conspicuously-placed plasma gun stand-in.

Its encounter is difficult for a variety of reasons. The Phantom appears to be vulnerable only to rainbow energy and while you start out with 50 such charges already loaded in the rifle of richness the only way to accumulate more is to grab them as they spawn in on the three groups of islands. I think that they appear in a fixed fashion, but I was too busy moving around during the fight to memorize all but the very first such location. You have to be careful moving to the upper tiers as the floaty jump mechanics leave you vulnerable in hang time at the apex of your bounds. The platforms aren't very big, for that matter, and it's all too easy to accidentally back off one to your death in the heat of the moment. The boss also disappears and then reappears a bit further back whenever entering a pain frame, though you can really lay the heat on when it's spamming sparkles.

The approach that worked for me was playing defensively since it's pretty easy to make a smooth circuit around the bottom tier thus eliminating your exposure when floating by running the tight ropes. Then you can just wait out some ammo spawns and if feeling gutsy take a quick trip up to the top level to snag more energy or, if needed, health and armor. The largest, kidney-shaped island on the bottom is just about the best location for you to let the Lord taste the rainbow insofar as it gives you the most room to dodge sideways while you pour on the plasma. It's still a pretty dangerous fight since it doesn't take much from the boss to stall you mid-jump. Usually when I got hit it was while moving to the higher platforms due to the aforementioned hang time as well as the fact that there's only one jump pad per each of the bottom two tiers.

Your rainbow connection isn't the only puissance purloined from Doom 64. All of the weapons are tidied-up and animated versions of Midway's mechanisms, furthering the familiar yet alien feel of the experience. They don't behave too differently from their original Doom counterparts except for the chaingun, which trades a windup delay for faster firepower. And the chainsaw, I guess; it's a rapid-fire melee weapon but the attack rate is incredibly fast, causing it to chew through pain-stunned enemies at light speed. While they're a fair bit stronger numerically than the vanilla kit, you don't have the opportunity to appreciate the absolute differences since none of the original monsters appear.

The only real criticism I have to offer is that the interior segment in the second fortress looks kind of bland compared to the indoor sections in the main area. The use of three-dimensional space is sound and jumping around really feels like a digital playground - an artificial, uniform structure comparable to a laser tag arena. If everyone was running around in low gravity. Maybe that's for the best; I don't know how visually busy you could make it without further confounding the player as they bounce around inside the maze / gauntlet. It isn't always intuitive what the switches you just pulled did; the author uses a cam to defang one of the potential worst offenders, but I got jammed up a few times checking doors in the northernmost area with the ornamental tree catwalk.

But that's fine; while Serious_MOod may have worked to cater to the player by eliminating monster-free dead spaces (boring to action-oriented players), Void and Rainbow can still wipe those smiles away via a complement of environmental hazards. The biggest, of course, is the titular Tartarus lurking at the bottom of every region and which will slay you dead when you fall in. I'd also like to mention the crusher traps, though, appearing irregularly enough that you're never thinking about them when the snake in the grass strikes. You actually have to go out of your way to find one of them since it's found by jumping into a pit containing goodies. There's no reason to suspect it of holding anything, either; is it an early warning to discourage you from sacrificing yourself to inspect any of the others?

I like seeing an author who does not cater to the ego of the player and as frustrating as the Phantom Lord may have been to fight at first I'm glad for the experience as it's one I've never seen, much like the iridescent ideation that spawned this adventure. Void and Rainbow speaks of great things yet to come from Serious_MOod; I highly recommend it.


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