Tuesday, July 3, 2018


by Kristian "Ebola" Käll

Kristus started his authorship with pretty much the most ambitious project possible, a megaWAD total conversion. Codename HYENA: Killer Machine likely established its legacy mostly with the purveyors of the weird. The work that followed is what made him a Doom community legend. Phobia was originally released in 2001 and then greatly expanded over the course of five years, eventually published in 2006 as Phobia: The Age. Both were made to be experienced in Legacy but the original is a MAP01 replacement for Doom II. You may be wondering why I'm playing the single level release when there is, one may dare say, a superior version available. Blame it on an interest with its editorial history.

This first iteration does not have much of a framing story. The player is an unknowing entity in a hostile, alien world and the motivations of the powers that be are open to interpretation. The gist of the setting is something like a cross between Doom and Hexen II insofar as you are grabbing quest items and bringing them to important locations to open up further progression. There's a hint of eldritch abominations when the Old Gods are mentioned and a reference to Greek mythology with Pandora's Box.  Just what corner of reality do you occupy where you are challenged by a physical embodiment of the Malleus Maleficarium?

Phobia's ultimate origin comes from an EP titled Limits released by one Marc Pullen. Also known as "Fanatic", his Doom career included both maps as well as music ranging from Hacx to Gothic DM II to the QDoom TC, bringing the magic of Quake to the Edge source port. The 2001 EP had a profound effect on Kristian. Possessed by a fey mood, the surreal world contained within this WAD sprang forth. Käll ultimately included a looping section of music from Limits as a standalone track. I'm not sure how you're meant to pair it with Phobia but I just opened it up in my media player of choice and let it run while I played. It's diabolical and kind of exotic at 00:23 and the sound sort of reminds me of Unreal or Deus Ex so I guess that the tone resembles the works of Alexander Brandon and Michiel van den Bos... to paint with a very broad brush.

All of the difficulty settings are labelled NIGHTMARE! but there are very important and counter-intuitive differences in the way 1 and 2, 3, and 4 affect thing placement. The choices formerly known as I'm Too Young to Die and Hey, Not Too Rough are the place for people who enjoy classic Doom II action and pacing with more ammo, guns, and monsters. Hurt Me Plenty is adventure mode, meaning that it is primarily about exploring and performing blind fetch quests since there are no enemies apart from an ambush and you can't possibly defeat with the ammo given to you. Ultra-Violence has fewer monsters but is more oppressive in its challenge, by which I mean that it has less ammo, no super shotgun, and feels like it fields a higher proportion of meaty monsters, especially in the Malleus Malificarium's sanctum. It boasts quite a congregation; don't play on UV unless you're itching for a grind.

The combat is almost entirely incidental, whittling down imps and chewing through walls of Hell noble flesh. There are three exceptions that I could misconstrue as major pitched battles. The first saddles you with four Barons in skill 4 (and you'll probably want to dodge through them) while ending up as a protracted Cyberdemon showdown in ITYTD / HNTR. The placement in the southeastern annex on UV is a veritable wall of monsters guarding the statue's courtyard which is itself eerily vacant. Skills 1 and 2 are far more restrained, provided you don't run afoul of the Malleus's pair of priests. The final big fight features an elite imp variant that's quite durable and shoots revenant rockets but you are in no way obligated to stick around and fight them out. In fact, you need to run through the horde just to initially survive.

Phobia looks freakin' gorgeous. If it ever inspired other people to make levels using the same theme then I haven't seen them in my seven or so years of playing Doom mods. One might draw parallels between this and Void, perhaps, but while Cyb talked it up in his write-up of the Top 10 WADs of 2001, he does not reference it in his list of influences. The setting is a hostile Cthonic world - stone and dirt plus a fluid that looks like lava but which is internally and disturbingly referred to as blood - under a starless sky. Small pockets of fire are everywhere and while they are sometimes contained within braziers, they are usually coming straight out of the ground (and appear to be offset incorrectly - probably a consequence of some seventeen more years of source port development). They won't hurt you, though. Most of the action takes place in a temple structure that appears to be carved into the sides of a fissure and which heavily abuses pillars.

The artificial structures have a very strong identity with large, open chambers and numerous reliefs. The latter depict humanoid beings who bear a superficial resemblance to imps. The biggest, most obvious difference is that the creatures don't have spikes coming out of them. They also look fairly peaceful. Whether the two are related or not, Doom's demon troopers appear to be the inheritors of this unearthly dimension as you they're everywhere, not to mention the few hanging out in the not-so-secret wooden hut located at the end of the ruined bridge. Discrete sections of this universe defy the laws of physics as we understand them. I'm thinking mostly of the large eastern chamber with the floating tiles that you have to platform across to reach the star key, but there is at least one other (secret) example to be found.

Phobia's theme would be a powerful enough hook on its own but it has a bunch of scripting to accent its otherworldly atmosphere. One of my favorite little touches occurs early on, where a "natural" archway collapses, its pieces falling into the water. A pair of bigass swinging doors presages the inevitable if awkward Cyberdemon encounter. I'm also enamored of Pandora's Box. Fun with RoR floors allows the lid to "open". You have to close it to dispatch the distracting but otherwise inconsequential phantasms. It's my favorite exchange of the entire PWAD, I think. The item quest stuff isn't quite as interesting but I did enjoy the teleport activation effect.

The thing that haunts me the most about Phobia is actually very specific - the fluttering black and white "banners" found in the second teleport chamber and the void room with the plasma gun. It strikes me because it reminds me of an eerie visual from Junji Ito's Hellstar Remina, which I realize was published some three years after this. Apparently it's an original piece of art by Kristian, in which case it's easily one of the creepiest things I've ever glimpsed in the Doom engine and probably would be whether I'd read Ito's manga or not since it was the style and not the context of the scene that stuck with me the most. Great, horrifying job. If The Age has more of this then I'm split on whether or not I want to play it.

Legacy is a bit of a different animal from the relative ease of drag and drop I'm used to. I don't know which features it had as opposed to ZDoom at the time but OpenGL, room-over-room geometry, and fragglescript were probably a big part of it. Graf Zahl loved Phobia enough for him to include some rudimentary support in GZDoom but I opted to stick with the intended port because of comments that describe its  corona effect as essential to its aesthetic. If you decide to go down the same road then I want you to keep two things in mind. Getting Legacy set up isn't too tough but it will be an alien experience if you're not used to using command line switch parameters. I suggest something like -file phobia.wad -opengl -nomusic.

The second thing is a crippling bug that occurs on a regular basis and may only be pertinent to my particular experience. Occasionally there's a frame skip and the engine locks in whatever the last movement command was until the direction is repeated. This does a great job of ruining the more tightly-balanced gameplay moments as well as causing you to spontaneously leap into the fluid found in the exterior areas. When it grabs your mouse movement you'll find yourself rotationally jerking in excess of 90 degrees. It didn't seem to happen much while I was moving around the ledges at the very end of the level so I'm guessing that it isn't playing nice with my graphics card, which while not top of the line in TYOOL 2018 is eons beyond the creme of the crop in 2001.

All quirks aside, Phobia is really cool and I'm looking forward to see how Kristian developed the theme into 2006's considerable expansion, even more so since Marc created a soundtrack specifically for it. It's definitely worth the minor inconvenience of setting up Legacy to see it. Mostly, I'm amazed that the author managed to channel all the raw creative energy seen in Codename HYENA to create such an immersive experience.


This post is part of a series on
Doomworld's Top 10 WADs of 2001

Sin CitySlayeR
Null SpaceDoom Resurrection
The Darkest HourEquinox

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