Monday, February 5, 2018

The Lost Seraphim (SERAPH.WAD)

Virgil started out making vanilla Doom maps including his passion project, AfterDoom 2, but he was also quick to experiment using feature-rich source ports. This started out with Boom in 2000 but accelerated to ZDoom for 2001's Lost Seraphim. SERAPH is a four-level minisode for Doom II and has some unfortunate realities resulting from the differences between the port it was ostensibly released for - v1.22 - and the inexorable progress of development. It's a shame because there are some pretty cool ideas in Lost Seraphim that contribute to an interesting early ZDoom era experience and the problems render it relatively inaccessible. Above and beyond the usual issues associated with Vick's level design, that is.

The story is a mixture of biblical and Doom's science-fiction, beginning with the rebellion of the angels as depicted in the Book of Revelation and expounded on in Paradise Lost. One of God's Seraphim nursed a grudge against Lucifer over thousands of years and in 2001 forsook Heaven, descending into Hell in order to exact divine, vigilante justice. The lone angel failed, though, and the enemy scattered his essence across the inferno. Confusingly, in Virgil's universe souls do not inhabit bodies but are instead linked actors operating on different planes of existence. The "lost Seraphim" is actually the soul of the Last Marine from the original Doom, posted at Yet Another Dimensional Gate Facility. The angel's decimation spurs you into entering a station whose teleporter is aimed at "Hell's core", prompted by a nameless vengeance. Lucifer knows you for what you are, of course, and counters your insolence with his own soldiers. Not that mortal peril is alien to you...

SERAPH was originally built for version 1.22 of ZDoom and if you want any chance at really enjoying it you'll need to use it. There have been so many changes in the way the engine handles things more than sixteen years since; using "recent" versions, you cannot reliably complete the first level and the third is flat-out impossible. The earliest stumbling block is reflected in the /idgames comments; for whatever reason, in modern revisions some of the monsters that are supposed to arrive during the blue key ambush teleport into a voodoo-doll scroller and get stuck. Since you have to kill them in order to trigger a script to lower the bars in front of the blue door, you'll get stuck. You can sometimes beat this by running a chainsaw to constantly wake up the monsters as they arrive. The whole thing works just fine in 1.22, even if the enemies are asleep, and is actually quite elegant. Ditto for the map transitioning script, which causes less ancient versions of ZDoom to bomb out to the console with a "no player 1 start" error, something I also saw in another old ZD mapset that I can't otherwise remember.

The other really big issue is a fatal flaw in MAP03 owing to differences in how ZDoom handles as gravity scripts and leaping out of fluids. Virgil intended for the player to leap onto a large island from the surrounding shallow "water" but as far back as 2010 (judging by forum posts made by Deathevokation) you are considered to be swimming when you start jumping so that you can't break free of the blood. While it might be possible to ride rocket splash up to the first tier, there isn't a reliable, feasible method of getting onto the platform without cheating.  The way modern ZDoom executes the gravity script is quite different as well. In v1.22 the way it's been tweaked leaves the impression of an added jump height. As of recent, however, it's floaty and low-gravity and has zero air control which makes for a frustrating experience. All of these things can be corrected by playing SERAPH in the ZDoom it was built for, but it isn't as simple as it sounds considering that I can only get the .EXE to run the first time it's executed in a given folder, afterward crashing on startup due to an inability to "set resolution to 320 x 200 x 8".

On a personal note, Lost Seraphim was actually one of the first PWADs I played when I started playing Doom WADs again in 2010. It's also the only one that I ever gave up on. I remember believing the difficulty to be really unfair, especially the number of revenants associated with the blue key. My idea about the opening level's difficulty has softened but the combat wasn't the final straw. That would be whatever the fuck is going on between how ZDoom handled the teleport wave in v1.22 vs. the then current revision. If I recall correctly, it was 2.4.1 as I remember when 2.5 released and there was a furor over the enhanced polyobjects. I was reluctant to even mention all of these things for this review since I anticipated the solution - use legacy versions of ZDoom for mapsets designed for them - being shouted at me as blindingly obvious. I'm not sure why I've internalized their development crew as being curt if not hostile; certainly, I've come to view many of them as quite friendly over the years.

Technical woes aside, there are some pretty wild things going on in this mapset. "Into the Portal" must be seen to be believed, breaking any sense of normalcy after the shiny yet pedestrian shotgun grind of the opening level. MAP02 attempts to simulate a demonic ambush within the raw chaos of the bridge between dimensions. Its first three stages involve fast, looping movement and uncertainty amplified by the way the monsters are used. The resulting chaos makes for one of the most stressful Doom experiences I've had in a long time. You'll suffer before you finally get your bearings and the moment you finish one track you're instantly dropped into the next. The third part of this sequence is by far the most harrowing and features a twisted, invisible track; scattered revenants on slow, transparent lift pillars; and disorienting, scrolling textures that make you feel like you're constantly falling. It's... intense, to say the least.

MAP03 is just as different as the first two are from each other. Most of its playing area is swamped in blood and the dry sections feature verticality navigated by an augmented jump height and featuring room-over-room platforms. Its open-air chaos layers hardships on the player. First and foremost is a slowing liquid, making you more vulnerable to enemy projectiles, and the island that you have to assault is staffed with an outer ring of revenants and an inner cadre of Cyberdemons. Throw in a loose assortment of cacodemons and a few pain elementals and you have a recipe for a severe player headache.

Virgil attempts to augment his usual grindy combat with a few custom armaments. For some reason this involved breaking the normal fist weapon (using it renders you permanently helpless), not that it would have been at all useful. His attempt at mitigating this hardship by providing chainsaws at the onset of every level is admirable, but psychological conditioning undid me on several occasions. The plasma gun is replaced by the "Seraphim's Touch", a fist attack that does massive damage. It will kill everything but the final boss with one hit, comically catapulting monsters backward, but on a handful of occasions I accidentally brought up the "regular" fist and used it since the touch hadn't been strongly associated with slot 6 in my mind. The only thing I don't like but which is an unavoidable limitation - ammo is consumed whether or not your punch connects.

The "Seraphim's Soul" replaces the BFG. It's much more awkward to use, though. The BFG-like projectiles it fires spawn the moment you press the trigger and moves at a glacial pace, becoming something more akin to a mine. When they do connect, the ball itself does the same massive damage as the touch on top of executing a regular tracer "blast". It's hard to use effectively in the big brawls that lead up Lucifer and when you do confront the prime perturbator your best bet is to use them like drifting mines. This will keep him pinned down on the other side of the field but still requires you to watch out for at least one of his attacks.

SERAPH still has a lot of Virgil's less endearing traits but apart from its technical issues I think that there are some things well worth seeing. The insanity inside the portal is among the more memorable Doom experiences I've had and what little exists of the faux-ROR platforming in the third area is pretty cool. Certainly, I'm interested in seeing how Vick's design sensibilities continued to evolve some three years later in Claustrophobia: The Walls Close In.

by Vick "Virgil the Doom Poet" Bobkov

First BloodMAP01
A spacious starbase level. I really like the cavernous aesthetic with the blue carpet, making up the majority of the map. Vick exhibits some interesting detailing in the subterranean storehouse and portal room, particularly the spinning light pole. Most of the action is pulling teeth since you'll be blowing through a lot of monsters that are either high HP or attrition zombies with the regular shotgun. By the time the SSG (and shortly thereafter the rocket launcher) is in your hand, the action's almost over. Well, I say that, but both the Spiderdemon and Cyberdemon will involve some painful double-barreled grinding.

MAP02Into the Portal
This has got to be one of if not the most stressful levels I have ever experienced. Virgil mixes psychedelic visuals and anarchic gameplay based around scrolling floors. You have to combat shotgun joust your way through four different stages, the first three being movement tracks. The initial one is pretty straightforward, just a pain in the ass because of how fast everything is moving. A revenant or Baron can pounce on you with nary any warning. The second is a clusterfuck of cacodemons and pain elementals that can get out of hand quite quickly if any of the meatballs are left to spawn. Their track is an infinite lane with damaging obstacles off the center line and monsters seem to disappear and appear without warning. The third is a soul-crushing nightmare as you must navigate a torturous, invisible pathway while under assault from a complement of revenants stationed on lift platforms. You will have to memorize the track's irregular path and make note of the one column you can hang behind in order to detonate any active missiles. As for the finale? A literal slog against an army of Barons and you can only soften them up using the rocket launcher. Shit, I'll take it over a repeat of skeleton skullfucking.

Mephistophelean BeautyMAP03
A brief sojourn through Hell in two parts. The first area has a pretty cool marble tower that you have to climb using your higher jump, augmented by an antiquated gravity script. It also debuts the Seraph's touch and you'll immediately use it to kill at the very least a Cyberdemon. The soul sphere grab teleports you to a sea of blood featuring an island of Hell nobles, a larger land mass ringed by revenants with Cyberdemons in its center, and a bunch of free-roaming cacodemons plus a few skull-spitting meatballs. It's a pain in the ass because the water slows you down enough to eat revenant homing rockets unless you travel at the very bottom, only surfacing to catch a breath. The Cybs are easy enough to dispatch using the Touch and nerves of steel. The big brawl inside the sanctum at the north end is a lot easier to weather since you're flush with cell ammo and thus the touch of death. You also don't have to maneuver through "water".

MAP04The Final Army
A boss level starting out in Hell, running through a decent-looking gothic crypt, and then ending in a fiery mess that's not too far from the "portal" aesthetic given the psychedelic scrolling columns. The ambushes leading up to the boss are brutal brawls featuring arch-viles among other things. Furthermore, while the Seraphim's Spirit is powerful the slow-moving projectiles leave a lot to be desired in such high-intensity encounters. It's going to be a lot easier if you carry over ammo from the end of MAP03, though, since you won't have to worry about the precision of your attacks. The finale is another Virgil Test of Patience. Lucifer, who looks like a Spiderdemon, first fires a BFG style projectile and then follows it up with a larger spread of flamethrower fireballs. You can sort of figure out the timing of his attack pattern and dart in for point blank hits but if you fuck it up he will instakill you. It's safer but tedious to use the central column for cover, deploy your slow-moving spirit bombs on either side, and when he attacks hide behind the pillar and watch his projectile. How else can you reliably avoid the tracers that will follow? The spirit bomb's knockback should keep him pinned down on the other half of the field.




  1. Virgil sure made some unique stuff.
    Also,i really like you blog,keep up the good work :)
    -Catpho(on doomworld)