Friday, December 14, 2018

Realm of Shades (ROS.WAD)

NokturnuS has never been explicitly enshrined in the Doomworld mythos (at least, up until Doomworld's 25th Anniversary!) but he has two claims to fame. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment is his "Black Wind of Mayhem", which tied for first place in Doomworld's 10 Sectors competition and was only relegated to second by way of a tie-breaker. The other bit is assisting Chris Lutz with 2002's Caverns of Darkness alongside Emil Brundage, aka "NaturalTvventy". Pedro is a post-Golden Age author whose name frequently crops up in underrated lists much like Angelo Jefferson and his Number One Kill: The Next Generation. Most of this retroactive hype comes from Realm of Shades, a seven-map episode for Doom II that was released in 1998.

ROS does not have an associated story; it is presented as a series of abstract playgrounds that look vaguely like sprawling installations and are in the possession of a heavily entrenched infernal opposition. There are no level names and the stations don't have any sort of utilitarian features beyond the occasional interjection of waste / water collection infrastructure. If I had to ground them somewhere in the Doom universe then it would be as part of some sort of fortified bastion of Hell on Earth, maybe a city but more akin to a massive military complex. Its demonic denizens warped the compound, shaping it into a lethal labyrinth of traps and ambushes so as to better secure their foothold in this reality.

There isn't a lot of continuity in texture themes within the levels themselves which gives ROS an oldschool flavor. When combined with the size I'm reminded of the works of Rick Lipsey (Final Geometry / Polygon Base) or on a lesser scale Bill McClendon's Triple-Play.  Some of them obviously come from Quake, others Plutonia, and a few like the crates are completely alien to me. None of these "themes" ever really solidifies or takes over, though, so the way in which they've been crowbarred into the PWAD feels reminiscent of TNT: Evilution in that they stick out like a sore thumb when they appear. Such is part and parcel of the elusive 90s "charm", though.

For me, Realm of Shades is about a tug-of-war between two different combat sensibilities. The initial brunt of the monster placement is weighted toward tactical movement. You'll find tons of hitscanner sniper pillboxes and other features. They aren't set up to instantly kill you but you'll feel pain if you disregard the threat and don't think about how to move through your often spacious confines. You will have to face down some really nasty ambushes, though, and while folks may turn their nose up at the rocket- and BFG-fueled slaughter of MAP07 they'll have to get through MAP04 first and it's the nastiest of the set.

And how! Its finale is as bad if not worse than the apex of the high skill-ceiling mapsets of recent years, except I think that I can get a read on something like a Ribbiks encounter and feel as though I'm moving in the right direction. The ending of Bloodstain's "Slaughterworks" may be a more apt comparison, the main difference being that as horrifying as MAP04 feels its difficulty is frontloaded since its worst aspect _must_ be killed as soon as humanly possible. This leaves the cleanup in prime position to serve as a fountain of frustration due to errant lost souls or failing to dodge the Barons. If you think it sucks getting killed after slaying the arch-viles, try finishing only to realize that you have a scant 2% health left... with the red key sitting in the middle of a nukage pit.

The lock-in ambushes are something special but these levels really shine when NokturnuS turns tactical movement on its head and transforms the entirety of the playing area into an ambush zone. Nowhere is this as strong as MAP02, where the installation has a surrounding outdoor area. Right about the time you think you have it on lockdown the author dumps a metric ton of cacodemons into your hard-won airspace. They can travel pretty much anywhere to surprise you thanks to the layout of the interior building. It's not as oppressive as, say, the climax of Sverre Kvernmo's Eye of the Storm but these moments are enough to get you scrambling which is an interesting change of pace since Puicón otherwise seems keen on giving you as much time as you desire to ponder your next move.

The combat is at times unusually prescient but Realm of Shades's flow - or more appropriately an apparent lack of any concern paid toward it - is perhaps the biggest thing that divides it from today's tougher levels. NokturnuS throws the player a bone here and there with teleporters that return you to nexus points or naturally routing you to the next major step but you are generally left to your own devices as far as where you can explore. This gives the experience an air of the labyrinthine less because of any absolute obfuscation and more the process of building a mental model so that you can intuit your next move. There's something really satisfying to me about deciphering the inner-workings of a Doom map; your mileage may vary.

Realm of Shades is a pretty cool late-90s mapset. I'd recommend playing it on a lower difficulty if you're looking for something more typical of run and gun action since the monster count practically doubles between Hey, Not Too Rough and Ultra-Violence. If you're spoiling for a challenge, though, or just like chewing your way through a ton of meat, then NokturnuS has got you covered.

by Pedro Francisco "NokturnuS" Puicón

A great opening that dumps you into the hotseat with the outdoor yard since you've got to keep moving and killing until the only thing left to worry about are those revenants. This later turns into a total killing field with an influx of two different monster hordes, both of which are mostly zombies. The southern section has a cool sort of cavernous, industrial aesthetic and while it's a little awkward to move around in - since the main path follows the periphery - it's still cool to fight through if slightly problematic should you manage to fall into the nukage. At least, when I managed to find and take the teleporter back the first try left me in the middle of the zombie / revenant reinforcements. It's got one of those different sides / alternate locations things going on, though, so you're not entirely screwed. Very fun.

An enormous sandbox-style sort of military complex. There's one main interior building and a couple of annexes toward the outdoors. Exposure is the name of the game; it's dangerous to go outside since there's a Cyberdemon wandering around and multiple balconies loaded up with hitscanners, tending toward commandos. You make the exterior safe by tooling around the interior and finding the right vantage point to root out the zombie bunkers. Of course, it all goes to shit the moment you grab the blue key and trigger an enormous cacodemon ambush. Thanks to the open layout, they can pretty much find their way anywhere... including the interior of the base.

This is one of those abstract installation levels, sort of like Polygon Base but with the scale and space of 1KILLTNG. You can start investigating in several directions, organically exploring the layout. Just be wary of some pretty meaty opposition, revenants in particular. One of the major highlights is a sewage trench that's both long and deep and has cacodemons down below waiting in ambush while a cavalcade of skeletons and arachnotron overseers stands on the other side. It's a completely unnecessary but memorable experience. My favorite bit is the cage match ambush that NokturnuS flushes you into with those revenant monster closets. You're actually much safer off than you might think provided that you don't cook yourself while trying to pound rockets through the bars.

TimeofDeath says "that last fight in map04 can go to hell". Keep this in mind as you continue to battle your way through an exacting hornet's nest which appears to be staged in some kind of underground nukage station. The monster placement is the most unforgiving I've seen in a long time; I felt suspense with my every footstep. You need all three keys in order to leave and each one has its own memorable fight. The blue has my favorite gimmick since you can open up the closets in any order you like, provided you know the triggers, and this also frees up other creatures from further away who then dutifully saunter toward your location. The yellow is quite claustrophobic but its difficulty has nothing on the red key battle where you have to take on five arch-viles, a horde of Barons, and a handful of pain elementals in what is essentially an open yard. You have a little bit of cover but it won't last long and surviving is less a matter of perfectly positioning yourself and more your good fortune in having the remaining archies interested in killing the other monsters instead of you. When it finally clicks it's magical, but I have to agree with TimeofDeath. My hat is off to Belial for demoing it.

The placement is still pretty devious but this installation is downright relaxing compared to the previous level. I think that the real challenge is in unravelling the layout and conquering its secrets. There are two BFGs to find and either one will come in handy considering two Spiderdemons as well as an ambush in the blue UAC room that is practically built for it. The second Mastermind is an okay fight since it has Barons on the ground with Hell knights up in the corners to give it a dynamic angle. I probably had more fun horsing around in the expansive outdoor blood area given its handful of cacodemons / pain elementals. The scale of the encounters is, for the most part, pretty small and includes a tactical crate warehouse as well as a host of closets in the sewer that are augmented by a teleporter drip feed of beasties. They're meant appear to be falling from the pipe in the ceiling.

This is a really fun mostly brick and metal outpost. As with MAP05 there are a couple of hidden BFGs but they show up in some neat secret annexes. You get a taste of the mobility of cacodemons from MAP02 but it's mostly at the opening when you're too scared to probe too deeply in any given direction. I think that tactical movement and clearing is more important here than anywhere else. The central corridor behind the red key door is loaded with arch-viles and commandos plus a few other thick monsters. Advancement is dangerous, to say the least. The elevated catwalks right before the exit room make for another perilous place; it's a very cool area because (and not in spite) of all the corner snipers and beefy Hell nobles. You can really cut loose with the rocket launcher and the optional room behind the yellow door gives you a moment of prime BFG zerg slaughter.

Full on slaughterfest, here, and tons of health to match. You can go nuts using the rocket launcher and BFG and while the forces may seem a little scattered the bottom will eventually fall out. I like the mancubus / arachnotron usage and while it won't be straightforward for some players - having to perhaps visit each wing twice - it's a nice use of sector machinery. I think that my favorite fight is the eastern annex when you return to the ground floor and have to deal with the horde that's waiting for you at the bottom as well as all the arachnotrons in the periphery. The big ambush triggered when finally breach the first door before the exit is quite a panic and requires judicious use of both the BFG and the rocket launcher. Clearing out the upper hallways is a little bit of a pain but not so bad since they're all in a nice line for you to shell into oblivion. Don't get cocky on the grand marble staircase! You're almost there.