Review: Project Warlock

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Retro FPSes have made a huge resurgence in recent years, buoyed by the success of titles like DUSK and AMID EVIL. The tricky part is that those games recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of their inspirations, building on the former and dodging the latter. It’s not an easy thing for indie developers to do, but the creator of Project Warlock was able to deftly maneuver those pitfalls to offer something truly special. Building off of some of the simplest FPS designs, this throwback shooter dials up the style and chaos to capture the best of its genre.

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Not even the store page bothers much with the story of this one, so I won’t either. You’re a warlock, you hate evil, and you have guns. 60 stages of monsters, demons, aliens, and assorted baddies stand between you and the source of darkness itself, and all of those things happen to be allergic to bullets. Your arsenal of shotguns, machine guns, launchers, and cannons will be put to the test by the monstrous hordes, but upgrading guns and complimenting them with magic will make you a fearsome force indeed. Only by wading through the viscera of your foes and slaying their grotesque commanders will you reach the goal of your quest, and subject the evils of the world to your will.

I think that might be more poetry than you’ll get from the DOOMish between-episode splash screens, but the story is just an excuse to send you to dungeons and hellholes to exterminate everything. Each episode of 12 levels has a theme like “castle” or “ice” or “hell”, with levels bundled together into small clusters of two or three to complete at once. Between these clusters you return to your workshop to upgrade your weapons and unlock spells with points you find, and raise your stats and earn perks from leveling up. It’s always nice having gratifying character progression in any game, and here it gets you more health, more ammo capacity, and weapon upgrades like burning shrapnel shotguns and supersonic rockets. I should also mention that the “warlock” aspect of your character is a bit of an afterthought. Magic is quite powerful, but you’re much more of a gunslinger with spells than a sorcerer with guns.

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No matter what tools you use to frag your foes, there will be no end of foes to frag. Levels have dozens upon dozens of enemies to battle, in all sorts of combinations and arrangements. The episodes have unique enemies from each other to match their themes, and while none of their behaviors are particularly ground-breaking, they offer a wide variety of approaches to combat. In particular, some creatures do different things depending on how damaged they are, while others have no compunctions about harming other enemies in their quest to annihilate you. Combat itself is simplified by the levels being essentially flat-elevation maps akin to old Wolf3D, but even on a level playing field there will be huge arena battles and tight corridors to navigate while taking on powerful beings. And the weapons feel incredible to use, a little weak on the sound side but absolutely devastating in how they splatter or incinerate their targets.

If anything, your overwhelming arsenal might make the game a bit too easy. I played on Normal and died I think twice the entire game, and one of those was from falling into a pit. Part of the problem might be how much of the upgrade points are hidden away in the game’s ridiculous quantity of secrets, meaning the main game has to be balanced for players that get very few upgrades. Fire upgrades especially can delete even the biggest foes, reducing them to ash before you even see their other phases. This extends all the way to the bosses, massive 2D beasts that can be chumped with liberal applications of fire or explosives. They also look a bit funny as enormous sprites that always face you, though that’s an artistic decision I fully support. Common enemies have absolutely incredible animations and the whole game is beautifully bold and chunky, so I’ll accept some awkward bosses in exchange.

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The most important part is just how focused Project Warlock is on being fun over all else. There are no awkward puzzle levels or super annoying enemies, just a classic reliance on collecting keys and pushing buttons to open doors you already passed. Those levels are always full of squishy enemies to bleed out all over the place, leaving very few lulls in the fast-paced action. Honestly it feels like the most action you can wring out of this older FPS style, an elevation of a genre that had mostly been left behind aside from corner cases like Bunker Punks. In the same way that DUSK improves on Quake and AMID EVIL improves on Hexen, Project Warlock takes the gameplay of Wolf3D to newer, bloodier, and more thrilling heights.

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