One big Gothic family: A critical review of “Darkest Dungeon” (2016)

You might think this blog would save something special for a day when Halloween herself lines up with our posting schedule. Well, you’d be right. Sorta RPG sorta turn-based strategy maybe rogue-like if I’m getting my terminology correct “Darkest Dungeon” is, uh, a dark fantasy dungeon crawler. It also happens to be one of my favorite recent discoveries, a perfect translation of nihilistic pulp Lovecraft that manages to sidestep most of the contemporary Lovecraft dressings. Intriguing.

Like the corporate world, “Dungeon” is all about team management, albeit in a fantasy/horror way. The plot concerns a crumbling manor built upon a series of catacombs that may lead to unspeakable horrors from another world. Those horrors have been spilling into the countryside, and you’re in charge of cleaning up the place. Not personally, of course. As the last living scion of the estate, you let your purse strings do the talking. The cleaning is done by squads of hired heroes – shifty mercenaries, misguided zealots, callous mystics and warriors with nothing left to lose – who march through swamps and ruins and attempt to map, burn and kill anything in their path. You steer them through ever-shifting levels representing the labyrinthine surroundings of the mansion, overseeing their combat, health and sanity.

Overseeing combat and health is pretty straightforward. Heroes fumble around enemy-haunted levels until they bump into the things going bump in the dark. In combat, they can attack, heal or inflict status effects on enemies. Sanity is a different affair. Well, it’s not quite sanity. The developers – who emigrated from Backbone Entertainment, a somewhat generalist developer with a vague specialty in updating old games or franchises to new consoles – were adamant that “Dungeon” would not have a sanity system the way a number of psychological horror games have over the years. Instead it’s stress, which gets its own bar like health.

Heroes can acquire stress in combat by taking sudden heavy damage or being attacked by psychological, rather than physical, attacks. They can also take stress outside of combat by encountering frightening random events or if the lights go out. Arguably, the stress system is just a sanity system in overdrive. Instead of jarring interface screws, you get management screws, with heroes who’ve undergone terrific stress breaking down mid-combat and skipping their turn, injuring themselves or demoralizing the other adventurers. The system is logical, tense and brilliantly executed.

The character classes undergoing this stress all mesh, which is actually surprising. The game doesn’t take place in any specific time or space, and the heroes reflect this. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, fitting neatly (and not so neatly) into a tank/assault/healer/support system, but they also have their own cosplay periods. Medieval characters like a Crusader, a Plague Doctor, a Leper king and a presumably lost Renaissance festival musician are in lockstep with Gothic tropes like a Highwayman, Grave Robber and lycanthrope, not to mention an Occultist who straddles the 19th and 20th centuries. On paper, it shouldn’t work. In practice, it does.

It probably helps that there’s a unity of style. It’s most apparent in the visuals, which all follow a somewhat lo fi woodcut/Mike Mignola presentation. The outlines are sturdy and dark, and the color scheme is muted, all stone grays and burnt reds and woodsy greens, with occasional splashes of sunset purple and neon blue to suggest an otherworldly ill health.

Part of the unity is that same blend of dark fantasy/Gothic/cosmic horror tropes is present in the environments. The individuals dungeons crawls are set in a dark forest, a haunted mansion and an oceanic grotto, the latter of which contains both ghost pirates and Deep Ones. Enemies likewise span sympathetic genres, and your team of hired heroes will face human highwaymen, resurrected skeletons in armor, mutated fairy tale giants, giant spiders and unplaceable monsters from beyond the stars because you touched the damn artifact, didn’t you? There are also a ton of spooky details to keep up the atmospheric pressure. The pirate cove is populated with alien bunches of coral and rotting whales. It took me a couple of times looking at that level’s rest screen to realize there was a corpse flopping out of a wrecked ship.

There are a couple of audio touches that neatly tie everything together too. The music is at points stately, jarring and operatic, which is fantastic and fitting. But the real sonic star is the narrator. First off, the writing (by director Chris Bourassa? I’m not certain about that) is perfect. It is absolutely Lovecraftian in both rhythm and word choice. Just check the prologue: “salt-soaked crags” and “damnable portal of antediluvian evil” aren’t directly lifted from Lovecraft, but they might as well be. The narrator is voiced by Wayne June, whose articulation is – and I hate using this word – epic. His voice is deep and thick, and he takes the performance seriously, so what might sound silly with a different set of pipes is absolutely appropriate. Vincent Price and Christopher Lee would both be proud.

The script, acting and music all melts together in a stewpot of pessimism. The narrator provides commentary during combat. Victories are met with admiration, caution and dismissal. Defeats are wearily acknowledged. The narrator is not someone you phone when you’re having a rough day. The music stings back this up. Even victories sound grim.

In fact, the final stylistic thing that ties all the disparate elements is the mood, which is nicely crushing and apocalyptic. It’s interesting. Everything feels inevitable, both victory and some certain as yet unknown defeat. This blog loves that mood, as there are too few games that so fully commit to a pessimistic atmosphere while still making it seem organic. Go figure, a game called “Darkest Dungeon” is not a happy one.

Still, if I had to call out “Dungeon” on one thing, it might be that it does its job of downbeat atmosphere a bit too well. I have similar feelings about “Dark Souls” actually, that the crushing atmosphere is so ingrained into the gameplay that it makes caring and wanting to continue difficult at points. “Dungeon” is similarly hard. Even when you win a dungeon crawl, it takes a toll on your heroes. Most of them leave levels with gameplay disrupting personality neuroses and STDs. Management extends to the hub – a town below the estate that’s just waiting for a shipment of torches and pitchforks to come in – where you upgrade heroes attack and defense, as well as cure them of their ills at the sanitarium, or reset their stress at the bar or local meditation center. If you haven’t been grinding enough heroes, you can find yourself with nothing to do while your A team has the night off.

Then there’s always the chance that your team will wipe, and your heroes – including a level five crusader who you’ve been grinding for hours – will all die in one fell swoop. And that’s a perma-death, by the way. In theory, a few bad, or just poorly managed, runs can cut your roster of useful heroes in half, crippling your progression. And the game expects you to wipe. Literally. You get an achievement for it.

The saving grace of “Dungeon” is its relative speed and simplicity. Wiping only takes minutes, but getting back into the game can be a quick operation as well. It’s as simple as hiring a few more heroes and tossing them into the grinder. Load times are usually short, and since everything is based on immediate dungeon crawling, you don’t have to wander aimlessly around a map. If you’re sufficiently soaked with resources, you also have a chance to hire more experienced heroes right off the start, cutting down on some of the grinding.

What’s more, “Dungeon’s” lessons are brutal, but at least they’re clear. For boss battles in particular, I always knew why I was wiping. Why did I bring an Antiquarian to a boss fight? Why didn’t I bring adventurers who could hit the back row? Characters died, but lessons were learned. In short, it was always fair (except that one fucking time I attacked the wrong fucking enemy by complete fucking accident, fucking fuck, the boss was one fuck-diddly-yuck strike away from keeling over… fuck).

Most of “Dungeon’s” combat is simple enough – walk around, fight some dudes, follow the strategy you’ve developed based on your team – so it runs the risk of getting samey. Arguably, it’s the tension that spices things up. Boss battles in particular, where fights can stretch out, feel satisfying upon conclusion, but so can simply getting to the end of a level when you’re a sliver of health or stress away from losing a character.

“Dungeon” is difficult – which makes sense given its Gothic atmosphere, cosmic horror themes and commentary on stress – but it’s not unfair. If I’m to be fair, I must admit that I’ve sunk hours into it and I haven’t beaten it yet. It’s possible that at some point I will toss my controller aside and, much like the heroes on screen, silently scream in rage and fear at the crushing gameplay and slow progression. However, I think I’ll stick it through. Style and atmosphere welcomed me in; clever gameplay and tiny victories keep me going. Despite the dark and downbeat mood, I think the brightest takeaway is that I’m still playing.

Cosmic romance: A critical review of “Call of the Sea” (2020)

One interesting phenomena of the last few years has been the effort to reclaim H. P. Lovecraft from H. P. Lovecraft. As knowledge of the author’s influence has grown, so has the realization that he probably wasn’t someone you’d want to hang out with, unless you were a fairly WASP-y gentleman with a limited to-read list and certain opinions about neighborhood line… or just a nice Jewish lady with authorial aspirations. What can I say? Life is weird.

There have been multiple passes at Lovecraft pastiches that challenge our reading of the original texts, frequently from a political point of view. This blog has read and seen a few. Some are good, some are not, but that’s a discussion for a different post (I haven’t even started “Lovecraft Country”). For now, let’s talk about a different take on re-reading Lovecraft: the graphic adventure game “Call of the Sea.”

I think it’s important that one of us – us pulp thriller people, that is – review this game. Most reviewers have declared it not a horror game, but no one has bothered to examine why or what the implications of that are. But we ain’t most reviewers.

“Call of the Sea” is the story of Norah Everhart, a woman who’s looking for her husband because he went missing while looking for a cure for a mysterious illness that’s left Norah’s hands looking like last month’s bologna. Basically, there’s a lot of looking going on (what do you expect? It’s a graphic adventure game). Norah’s search takes her to an island in the South Pacific, long shunned by the locals due to rumors of dark gods or cannibal cults or something else that makes good neighbors. Norah discovers her husband was there, along with an entire scientific expedition, all of whom were searching for something. Coming to learn what it was will tie together the expedition’s fate, Norah’s illness and the true history of the island.

Since “Call” is a graphic adventure game, it seems fair to examine it as we have similar games in the past, considering it on the merit of atmosphere, story and puzzles. This is a good way to approach “Call,” because it starts with arguably the strongest element. To play only the first level is to see why so many reviewers left this thinking it was not a horror game. It is a marvel of color. Almost everything is vibrant: daylit beaches, sunset-soaked mountaintops, jagged shipwrecks, rain-flecked jungle camps, gloomy underwater coral reefs, cool blue and damp gray stone temples.

Even when the game leans closer to horror – there are serious suspense vibes in the second and third levels, as well as some nicely unsettling images during the game’s climax – it maintains an illuminated atmosphere, one that never feels inappropriate for the setting. Some quick research reminds me that French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin, known for his bold color choices, spent a lot of time in the South Seas. This blog can’t say for certain that developer Out of the Blue was influenced by Gauguin, but there are serious Gauguin vibes coming off the game.

Everything looks interesting as well. It’s not realistic at all – there’s a reason why there are no human models – but it’s pleasantly blocky in a comic book kind of way, with the still images on in-game documents perhaps evoking an EC Comics-style. The visuals are seriously assisted by a superb orchestral soundtrack, composed by Eduardo de la Iglesia, which is intelligent and eclectic, romantic and subtle in the right spots.

I wish I could say the same for the story. It’s predictable at best. There’s likely no Lovecraft fan in the gaming chair who won’t know what’s going on far in advance of Norah. There are a few cute shout-outs to the author that border on goofy, but whatever. They’re better than publisher Raw Fury sneaking their logo onto ancient island puzzle mechanism.

At worst, the story seems contrived. Norah’s illness is a particular standout. It’s described as debilitating in recollections, but it doesn’t seem to stop her from gallivanting around the globe and solo hiking up uncharted islands. It doesn’t help that I don’t like Norah. Some of her dialogue is smartly written (“I wasn’t sick; I was homesick”), and it’s delivered professionally enough, but a lot of it is just exposition. She also has a habit of commenting on the things I’m not interested in, and she’ll do it for a while.

The standard for Lovecraftian heroes in gaming for this blog is Jack Walters from “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.” Fans of that game will recall Jack commented on everything, even if it was just to say there was “nothing of interest [there].” You couldn’t get him to shut up, but it made sense. Norah spends most of her time filling in blanks I never asked to be filled. It’s not natural. Norah doesn’t want to know about the signs of violence or decay, but she’s willing to tell me three times over about a sacrificial knife. I already figured out it’s important for a puzzle, so tell me more about the world instead. I guess one could chalk it up to Norah being alone on an island, but she rarely seems nervous. It might be a bit unfair, but when there’s only one character in the game, everything she says is going to stand out whether you like it or not.

There are also the endings, for there are two, which this blog will now spend a couple of paragraphs discussing. Both endings are easy to achieve with save scumming, but even if they weren’t, they’d still feel sort of unearned. For them both to work, Norah has to realize something in a hurry, so she does. Again, it feels very convenient. One ending, the one I expected to be the most natural for this story, comes across as lackluster. It’s the bigger, splashier ending, so it requires the visuals to sell it, but the visuals in this game are never intensive. The ending accordingly comes across as shallow when it should be expansive. It’s showing us nothing the game hasn’t already revealed, bigger and better; here at the end, it’s displayed with less urgency and intrigue. It simply is for about 20 seconds, then credits.

The second ending is quieter and more bittersweet, and it ends up feeling far more organic. That’s interesting. Perhaps it makes the events of the game itself feel unnecessary, which is something that rubs some people the wrong way, but it’s a better fit than the “big” ending. I don’t mind. Perhaps my frustration with the other ending is because, like everyone kept telling me, “Call” really isn’t a horror story, and I should be thinking of it more like a romance.

Here’s a novel observation. A lot of Lovecraftian pastiches are packaged as detective fiction (the aforementioned “Dark Corners of the Earth” and “The Sinking City” to name a couple), but there are only two detectives this blog can think of in Lovecraft’s original work: Inspector Legrasse in “Call of Cthulhu” and Detective Malone in “Horror at Red Hook.” They’re both cops even. And yet, private detectives are the go-to for these kinds of stories.

On the contrary, there is more fantasy – low Gothic, high Gothic, even Romantic – found in some of Lovecraft’s original work. The Dream Cycle and much of his poetry fit that profile, but it’s far less frequently tapped by pastiche writers. To be fair, Lovecraft’s sense of mystery lends itself quite well to detective fiction, but for a purist, there is actually nothing wrong with a game like “Call of the Sea” relying on the fantastic rather than the horrific. So perhaps there’s more to “Call’s” story, if not its delivery, than I give it credit for.

I’m rambling about genre. Again. Where were we? The puzzles. They range from OK to not great. Most of them are harmless, pretty direct backtrack-and-put-the-thing-on-the-thing puzzles (at one point, Norah muses things are starting to feel like a scavenger hunt. She’s not wrong). Only a few stick in the head, like the lens aligner puzzle in chapter two (although that’s partly because it’s a shout-out). Then there are a couple that absolutely awful. The bongos? That wasn’t a puzzle. It was a glorified game of Bop It. I also gave up on the last one, the squiggly star chart thing. I knew what to do intellectually, but I just wasn’t interested in brute forcing the alignments, so I went with a walkthrough. I’ll hand in my graphic adventurer gamer card at the door.

Ultimately, I cannot really recommend “Call of the Sea” as a thriller fan. In fact, I’m a little iffy on recommending as an adventure gamer. The story is thin, and the puzzles are weak. However, I admit that if you’re already interested, there’s little reason for me to dissuade you. The game’s presentation is top notch, and its themes are not as much of a revision of Lovecraft as most reviewers seem to think. It’s not quite cosmic horror, but it is cosmic romance.

Second infestation: A critical review of “Warhammer: Vermintide 2” (2018)

This week saw the release of “Back 4 Blood,” a kinda “Left 4 Dead” clone – excuse me, spiritual sequel. That makes this weekend a perfect opportunity to talk about a different “Left 4 Dead” clone/sequel: “Vermintide 2.” Technically it’s called “Warhammer: Vermintide 2,” but are you honestly going to remember that? Am I? Curiously, the first game is the one with the more complex title…

“Vermintide 2” is in many ways is a textbook example of what a sequel can be. It is much of what the first game was and then some, and for fans of the original game, that certainly means something. Some of it’s good somethings. Some of it’s infamous by now amongst the fandom. How does this admitted fan feel? To see where I fall on the spectrum, keep reading. For now, best to start at the beginning.

This blog actually really likes how “Vermintide 2” opens. It’s a tutorial set in a Skaven jail complex that reminds players of “Vermintide’s” excellent use of music to direct combat and motion. The game will return to the setting for the finale, giving everything a satisfying roundness. Also, the explanation for how everyone survived the extended conclusion of the last game, where they looked pretty screwed, is no more explicit than the tagline for “Crank: High Voltage,” which is very Vermintide.

Anyway, post-jailbreak the gang heads over to a crumbling tower somewhere and uses it as a staging ground for various strikes against the Skaven, who are not working alone. They are now joined by a clan of Chaos Warriors (Warhammer’s version of Vikings, for those not in the know) courtesy of the Skittergate, a rickety spatial portal large enough to transport an army. The less-than-heroes must use their disparate skills and moxie to destroy the portal before the ratmen patch it up, assuming they can stop bickering and shooting each other – elf mains, I’m looking at you.

I am an elf main, by the way. I acknowledge we can kind of suck.

At its core, “Vermintide 2” is pretty close to its predecessor. The game is still a dark fantasy cooperative hack and slash, hub and mission based, with a loose story line that can be followed by playing the campaign straight through or ignored by jumping into random missions where one is paired with an already active party of players. You are one of the same five heroes: a disenfranchised soldier turned mercenary; a dwarf with a stronger taste for booze than duty; an elf who quit her post following disturbing visions; a witch hunter who makes even other witch hunters feel uncomfortable; and a fugitive sorceress with a penchant for burning stuff. Missions consist of beating way your through hordes of enemies of varying degrees of hurtiness, from down-in-one-shot to holy-shit-how-can-that-be-fair. You will likely die along the way. See? Nothing’s changed.

Where “Vermintide 2” instead makes itself distinct is in its dressing. There are a lot of fancy new outfits for the old mechanics to wear. For example, every hero now has a special rechargeable ability to manage, on top of a variety of swappable passive perks. Heroes also have careers, alternate skins that sport their own special moves and passive perks, which translate to different styles of play. For example, Dwarf Rangers can focus on the class’s tank-like qualities as an Ironbreaker, or forego range and defense almost entirely as a Slayer. Most classes now feature a melee oriented, ranged oriented or support career, with a couple of glass cannons thrown in for fun. And for those with the time, currency and inclination, developer Fatshark tosses a new one into the game every now and again.

All the old enemies are back, as well as a few new ones, including shield rats, ratmen berserkers and flamethrowers, and a new breed of rat ogre. There’s also the Chaos clan, made up of squishy and crunchy infantry, at least one eldritch abomination, and a couple of annoying magic users (seriously, Plague Monks and Blightstormers can suck it). All of that means players have to develop more flexible strategies to confront a more diverse cast of foes. Completing missions successfully now awards chests, where you can win multiple weapons and trinkets, hats and shirts, deeds, whatever those are…

OK, I’ve been dodging the question: Are these new additions good? For the most part, yes. Everything in “Vermintide 2” clicks. It feels like a natural expansion of “Vermintide” the first, and that’s typically what one wants in a sequel. Since the core elements to the game are largely the same, the core enjoyment is the same too. It’s still tense to anticipate – and ultimately wade through – a tide of vermin. It’s still frustrating to wipe, but rarely so frustrating you don’t want to try again (assuming you have another 20 minutes to burn). And it’s still very satisfying to snatch victory from the bewhiskered jaws of defeat.

The game still looks right. It has that goofy Warhammer sense of size and fetish for skulls. The environments are big and twisty, all crumbling stone and dripping moss. Enemies look weird and threatening, and they have organic idle animations. There’s even weather patterns this time around, which is a nice touch and can make the same mission feel fresh on another play through.

The pacing of the game is good too, with some missions leading up to a set piece or boss fight that feels earned. There are a couple of stinkers, like some explosive barrel fetch quests (never this blog’s favorite in the first game), but they’re more than offset by a shuttered temple of Sigmar, an unholy ritual in the catacombs of a hospice, a solo siege, a city turned upside down before your eyes, some zany vampire high jinks in a piece of DLC. Actually, psychological horror fans should take note of that last one for its interesting interface effects. Cosmic horror fans too should pay attention to the last mission of the campaign. There’s the same old dark gods and occult science, along with a spontaneous mutation and Arctic weather (bet you thought I’d forgotten the cosmic horror theme already, huh? Warhammer has always been a little cosmic horror).

The soundtrack – both music and audio cues – is as strong as ever, emphasizing gameplay as much as setting the scene. The dialogue and voice acting are still top notch as well. The banter between heroes is worth the price of admission. Even big bad Rasknitt (he’s also back, despite previously kind of dying) gets a couple of choice lines. The characters are all given a little bit more of background, and while there might be some signs of growth, behind that they’re all still awful. That’s nice. These remain the people sent to do the job no one else signed up for – or even heard about.

On the player side, communication on the console has been improved courtesy of a wheel of dialogue options. There is now nothing stopping you from requesting ammunition, pointing out enemies or just saying hello, since the wheel can be brought up at any time (although the thick of combat is rarely the best moment).

The new elements are fun to mess around with. The special abilities are flashy looking, and the passive perks are fun for stat masters to stack. This blog settled on a couple of favorites as far as hero careers go – Waystalker, Huntsman and Bounty Hunter, in that order – but while I rarely stray by now, the temptation to dust off some of the others is always there and easy to satisfy.

In case you haven’t figured it out, “Vermintide 2” generally has a “more is more” approach. There’s more gameplay elements, more enemies, more story, more RPG mixing and matching, more prize boxes plummeting from the sky in a glitzy display. What it doesn’t have, which “Vermintide” apparently did, is focus.

I see more than ever there was a downbeat elegance in “Vermintide’s” simplicity. You were handed something sharp or heavy, pointed toward some rats, and told to go nuts. That was pretty much it. The difference between the hub areas says a lot. In “Vermintide” it was a shadowy and claustrophobic tavern, indicating quiet desperation. All that was between you and the apocalypse outside was a splintering door and a questionable coach driver. “Vermintide 2’s” hub is a spacious and well-lit tower, made airy by time and neglect. It’s vertical, above the fray, with impressive views from the roof and an arcane portal downstairs to zip you to your destination. It’s not a bad atmosphere. Just different.

There are a lot of new environments and locations in “Vermintide 2,” but the game loses some of the consistently dark and green Halloween vibe of the original. One novel difference I noticed was how the games were peopled. In “Vermintide,” the towns were vacant, the farms abandoned. Some players complained about this, suggesting a town devoid of even corpses hurt immersion, but I started to dig it upon replay. The environment is drained of everything but ratmen, and it’s eerie and very end-time. It made me question the motives of the enigmatic handler Franz Lohner. He’s always talking about safe houses, starving peasants and armies that need support, but we never see any of that. Under his direction, are we doing anything worthwhile? Is it all an act of desperation or perhaps even trechery? Well, in a couple missions of “Vermintide 2,” you have to rescue people. The character models look a little chunky, but I guess that answers the question of where everyone was: chilling in “Vermintide 2.” OK then.

None of this should make it sound like the game is worse. Think of it like the Mad Max movies. “Vermintide” is “Mad Max” – gritty and compact, a punch to the gut. “Vermintide 2” is “The Road Warrior” – expansive and expressive, a firecracker going off in your hand. I definitely like “The Road Warrior”; I just happen to like “Mad Max” a little bit more.

In a way, none of this matters. It has grown increasingly difficult to find human players and random matches in “Vermintide.” The sequel, by contrast, is both newer and still receiving a pretty solid amount of support (kudos to Fatshark for that). Accordingly, I’ve spent many more hours in the sequel, where I mostly spoil random people’s games by getting myself surrounded and killed on some difficulty level that is clearly inappropriate for me. All in the name of fun. It’s a good game.

Ah, I haven’t even mentioned the most important change, which is there is an offline mode now. Praise the Comet. It neatly solves our philosophical dilemma regarding the previous game and ownership, and I can’t tell you how happy I am about that.

What fresh hell is this: A critical review of “Doom” (2016)

What is there left to say about 2016’s “Doom”? The game was universally liked, but it wasn’t exactly a goldmine of philosophical or psychological depth. After being lauded, there wasn’t much left to say. But lack of purpose has never stopped this blog before. I’m sure we’ll think of something.

Is “Doom” a horror game? Is it sci fi? Is it a cosmic horror game? The answer to these questions is likely “no,” “I don’t think so” and “kind of, but not really.” However, considering why that’s all the case is an interesting endeavor in itself. “Doom” can help us define those genres by what it is not or what it might have been, rather than by what it is.

The plot of “Doom” is worthwhile to discuss only in terms of getting it out of the way. You control the Doom Slayer, who was found in a Hot Topic sarcophagus in hell. That gets taken to a super futuristic research base in space, which is, as the Doom Slayer discovers when he wakes up naked and clutching a pistol, under attack by shambling undead and fire-spewing demons. You’ll likely figure out what to do with that pistol pretty quick.

There is something else brewing – energy stolen from hell by a corporation that seems a bit too naive to be completely evil – but none of it makes sense. There are ghosts ala “Bioshock” to display some of the backstory, but their presence has no explanation I can remember. There’s a kind of betrayal at the end, but it’s the wrong character doing it. There was a perfectly appropriate one who could have, and it would have made narrative sense, but I guess the game is more interested in hitting genre marks than having an organic story. Everything culminates in a clumsy sequel setup. Huh. I reckon id Software and Bethesda must have been pretty confident “Doom” would do well. Better focus on yanking that trigger.

So sure, the story is crap, but the some of the characterizations and dialogue are a lot of fun. It doesn’t hurt that the voice acting is all done with appropriate pulp passion, particularly your cyborg mission control – the giant and cartoon-fingered Samuel Hayden, voiced by Darin De Paul. The environments are all fun too, in a Halloween outlet store kind of way. The surface of Mars is dusty and desolate, the base is a blood-splattered mess, and hell itself is all cemetary cobblestone, twisted bodies hanging out of walls, floating platforms, gooey lava and lots of chains. It’s never the most creative, but it always fits.

To be fair, “Doom” is a player focused game before anything else. It doesn’t want narrative to slow down gameplay, so the story never has to be sturdier than a collection of cliches. The gameplay itself is simple to pick up – weapons don’t need to be reloaded; climbing ledges after a jump is automatic (on consoles at least); secrets will be marked on the map. Checkpoints are usually before something big, so if you die in the midst of combat, it only takes a minute to get back into things. The name of the game is speed.

Accordingly, “Doom” is not really a horror game. In fact, perhaps no Doom game is really a horror game, except maybe the claustrophobic and atmospheric “Doom 3” (I can’t talk too much about it though; this blog only played the demo back in the day). As a genre, horror is about making the protagonist – and by proxy the audience – feel vulnerable and lacking control, bewildered and afraid. In games, this is typically done by limiting the player character. Ammunition and health are scarce. Environments and gameplay mechanics don’t allow a lot of freedom of movement. Lighting makes it difficult to see. In some titles, even looking at enemies too long can cause special damage or disorienting effects.

“Doom” has none of this. The lighting is not the best, but it’s never oppressive (except that one time I got trapped in a room because I literally could not see the exit). There aren’t many jump scares either, despite the opportunities being there. Most important, you are always in control of the situation. The Doom Slayer never feels fear or vulnerability. If anything, demons fear him. Resources are never scarce. Need health? Tear off a zombie’s leg and beat it to death via a special kill, and health tokens pour out. Running low on ammo? Fire up a chainsaw to split a demon in half, and it bleeds bullets. The demons hit hard, but the Doom Slayer hits harder. The speed of combat is yours to set, as long as you don’t mind choosing between fast and very fast, all to a pumping metal soundtrack.

“Doom” isn’t really sci fi either, at least not the sci fi we now expect from the genre. “Doom” doesn’t ask any forward looking “what if” questions. Even the one question it appears to ask – what if a corporation found a limitless supply of energy, except it came from hell – isn’t a point to ponder; it’s the entire plot. If “Doom” is sci fi, it’s very vintage, more in line with Flash Gordon serials or adventure novel-esque space operas than H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip K. Dick or anyone else who wrote in the genre and used an initial or two.

And yet, the genre dressing of “Doom” cannot be ignored. The vehicle by which we experience the action adventure carnage feels very much like those genres. It’s not a horror game per se, but it does utilize a lot of horror tropes: drooling monsters, Gothic environments, nightmarish landscapes. The same can be said for the sci fi. The Doom Slayer portal hops around Mars, communes with cyborgs and collects outlandish energy weapons that can vaporize otherworldly opponents in seconds. “Doom” is perhaps best labeled a supernatural or science thriller. It thrills more than it horrifies, and while it never bothers to ask any metaphysical or psychological questions, it doesn’t mind using the trappings of both genres to do its thrilling.

But here’s the interesting part. If by some chance someone convinces me that I’m wrong and “Doom” is actually a horror game, then it is quietly a cosmic horror game.

Despite sometimes taking place in hell, the previous Doom games never threw around their metaphysical weight. “Doom” 2016 has no misgivings about it, hinting at misguided cults, eldritch and antediluvian aliens, and something akin to eternal recurrence. In all this, humanity is but a blip, a checker on a black-and-white board, waiting to be shoved by the next primordial power that be. In fact, humanity only attracts the unhappy attention of these cosmic forces by trying to play with their toys.

Shoot, this is becoming an analysis rather than a review. Is “Doom” good? That depends. Do you like breakneck gunplay, light platforming and watching demons burst into puddles of gore and spare teeth under a space marine’s boot? If so, then “Doom” is likely for you. If not, then I dunno man. Go play some lame-ass phone game or something casual and leave the real shit to the gamers.

That’s not to say “Doom” is without weaknesses. There are a host of guns, and while it’s fun to experiment, every gun does basically the same thing. You’ll likely find your favorites and stick to them (or the game will find them for you – it seemed awfully fond of shoving the starting shotgun and machine gun into my Doom Slayer’s hands). By the time you have access to a variety of weapon mods and challenges to upgrade stuff, you’ll likely have already found your gunplay groove.

The difficulty pacing seems rather flat. I was playing on normal (in Doom style, it’s called “hurt me plenty”), so maybe I should have taken a more challenging setting. I was definitely dying, but less as the game went on. There are only three bosses, all with pretty killer intro cinematics. But while the first boss took me the better part of an evening to topple, the next took less than an hour, and the final only took two tries. Perhaps the quick gameplay had me fooled, and I was dying more than I realized. The action tends to blend after a bit.

At its worst, the gameplay of “Doom” is solid but repetitive; at its best, it’s pure rhythm. If you can get into that, “Doom” is rewarding like the best old school arcade games. It’s thrilling and intoxicating, very capable of coaxing “just one more try” out of players when they fail, and a fist pumping blast when the Doom Slayer, a sliver of health remaining, tears victory from the jaws of some fresh hell beast.

Dice with the universe: News October 2021

Greetings ghouls and gamers, and welcome to October. Let’s talk about what we’re going to be talking about for the next month…

Ah, that sorta spoils things, don’t it? Yeah, it’s games still. But given that we’re in the most important time of year for thriller fans, it makes sense to really focus on the horror games. No more pussyfooting around. Actually, this blog wants to spend the rest of the year on cosmic horror, so cosmic horror games is going to be the place to start.

Cosmic horror is, of course, a kind of mashup of psychological horror and sci fi. It’s sci fi in that it tends to bring in alien or interdimensional forces – that would be the cosmic part – but it’s less interested in biology or technology, and more interested in the crushing psychological impact such forces have on the tiny and fragile human psyche – that would be the psychological horror part.

And who says this blog ain’t educational?

We’re going to be exploring games that explore those concepts up until Halloween, with some mild deviations. Expect a little dark fantasy here and there, maybe some other genres. It’ll be a liberal understanding of the definition for sure. But don’t worry – there will be Lovecraft.

After that, we’ll be transitioning into film, maybe a little television, but still from a cosmic horror perspective. There’ll be another theme though. Everything will be revealed. It’ll be interesting. Well, I find it interesting. You’ll have to find out.

Sorry that this is less news and more cryptic hints. If you’re out there, tonstant weader, and you have any general questions, comments or requests, lemme know. I wouldn’t mind seeing the news here take on a more interactive component. In the meantime, happy pumpkin carving.