Thoughts: Amid Evil

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Despite the marketing blurb, Amid Evil doesn’t feel much like Hexen. It doesn’t feel much like Heretic either — I played both of those games back when they came out1 (or the shareware/demo versions, anyway), and they were considerably slower than Amid Evil’s breakneck combat pace. No, the game that Amid Evil most reminds me of is Quake, despite — in fact, precisely because of — its dark fantasy trappings.  Much of Quake’s art and enemy design famously came about from an aborted attempt to adapt id Software’s long-running D&D campaign into a video game, and so it had gothic castles and undead knights rubbing shoulders with grimy firebases filled with shotgun-wielding grunts. Similarly, Amid Evil has plenty of evil mages, stone golems, and vine monsters, but it also has a few levels which are inhabited by robots and lit by lasers. The mix of technology and fantasy is a little different, but it’s there, and when you combine it with nearly all of the player movement and a little bit of the weapon design being lifted directly from Quake, you end up with a game that feels like a direct successor to it.

It’s because of that Quake feeling that Amid Evil stands out from the growing horde of reheated retro shooters. It’s certainly why it hooked me in so readily. Starting a new game and jumping into Amid Evil’s hub area felt comfortingly familiar, like putting on a favourite overcoat for the first time in winter; of all the games I’ve played over the last couple of years that have attempted to capture the essence of what made Quake Quake, Amid Evil is the one that has come the closest in terms of look and feel. Still, while I personally found that quite pleasing it’s not really going to mean anything to anyone who wasn’t around for PC gaming in the late 1990s, so: does Amid Evil have anything to offer beyond a fairly basic appeal to the nostalgia of thirty-something gamers?

As well as copying Quake thematically, Amid Evil copies it structurally too: it doesn’t waste any time with a story beyond a disembodied voice spouting nonsense at you for a few seconds when you start the game. The first thing it has you do is pick a difficulty setting by leaping through a portal, which then takes you to a hub area filled with more portals, each of which leads to a three-level episode capped off with a boss fight. Each of the seven episodes has its own unique setting and enemy types, and each level within an episode will take around 15-20 minutes to complete. This gives you 21 levels and 6-7 hours of gameplay time, which is a reasonable proposition for the £16 asking price just so long as the majority of the levels are good, the majority of the enemies are fun to fight, and the majority of the weapons are fun to use. And I am pleased to announce that Amid Evil nails it on all three counts, more or less. There’s one dodgy episode where the architecture is dull and the level layouts are pedestrian and the enemy behaviour is incredibly annoying, but honestly that’s also about par for the course for a Quake-inspired shooter.

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Enemies can be quickly summed up, as while they do differ in small and important ways from episode to episode they all fall into fairly standard FPS archetypes — the small melee enemy that charges you, the bigger enemy that throws things at you, the floating enemy that spams energy bolts at you etc. etc. However, one consistent design principle across the lot of them is that there isn’t a single hitscan weapon to be found in their clutches. Everything they fling in your general direction has a travel time, which makes it dodgeable, which places an extreme emphasis on player movement, which is a great way to utilise the classic Quake breakneck run speed and guttural “HUUAGH”-fuelled jumping. And as far as your own weapons go, you technically do have a hitscan weapon in the form of the lightning-spewing Voltride trident, but it needs to be kept on target in order to do any significant damage (which is tricky considering how quickly a lot of the enemies move) and is mostly useful for sniping stuff at extreme range. As for the rest of your arsenal, it consists of:

  • The classic Axe. Surprisingly powerful for a default melee weapon and will pull nearby enemies into melee range prior to giving them a good thwack.
  • A staff that fires weedy-looking blue blobs. Pretty much a direct copy of the first weapon you get in Heretic and just as weak, but with one important difference: the blobs have limited homing capability, which makes this an actually good weapon for shooting down nimble flying enemies when you want to spend more time concentrating on dodging their return fire than you do worrying about landing your own shots on target.
  • A sword that slashes out a green arc of energy. The arc is quite wide and can hit multiple enemies; it can also shoot down enemy projectiles. The width of the arc makes this another good weapon to use when you don’t want to worry so much about being precise with your targeting; it’s more powerful than the staff, but you’ll miss more shots so it’s best used against ground targets.
  • A stick that fires planets. No, I don’t know how or why. All I know is that it’s a reskin of the Quake rocket launcher and has the same absurd level of utility, to the point where it would be the default weapon if ammo wasn’t so scarce and there weren’t so many flying enemies.
  • A mace that flings forth a tight cluster of ice spikes. Basically a shotgun that’s also useful at range. Kills most things in 1-2 hits and has plentiful ammo, but is utterly useless at hitting anything that’s not either standing still or running straight at you.
  • The BFG-9000 from the original Doom, except it’s dressed up as a weird bundle of purple ribbons. Otherwise functions identically: it spews forth a gob of purple energy that travels forward a short distance and then zaps everything in a wide radius with energy tendrils that’ll likely one-shot them.

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Mostly these weapons are, again, existing FPS guns dressed up a little bit (or in the case of the rocket launcher and the BFG, not even that). However, the interesting thing Amid Evil has done with the tweaks it’s made is to make every single one of them situationally useful. It doesn’t have the problem actual retro FPSes did of there being weapons that were objectively better than others. You’ve got the usual ammo limitations — ammo in this game being represented by coloured mana pickups — but you’ve also got tactical considerations of matching the correct weapon to the enemy type and the combat space you’re in, especially since health pickups become increasingly scarce in later episodes and picking the wrong tool for the job can mean taking a lot of extra damage. There is still a natural gravitation towards the weapons on the 4-7 keys as these offer the most natural bang for buck, but I regularly found myself pulling out the axe and staff even towards the end of the game if the situation called for it. Big fights had me switching between 2-3 weapons very very quickly to try and kill off enemies as quickly as possible and make the environment a little less reminiscent of lategame Devil Daggers.

Curiously for a game that’s trying to capture the feel of the first-person shooter circa 1996, Amid Evil is almost bereft of powerups — they exist, but every single one of them is buried in a secret location and you won’t use them in the normal run of play. This is because they’ve effectively been replaced by Soul Mode, which is represented by a little meter that sits under your health gauge. Killing enemies causes them to drop souls. Picking up souls charges the Soul Mode meter. Once it is full, Soul Mode can be activated to supercharge whichever weapon you’re holding: the rocket launcher now fires supernovas, the BFG now fires black holes, the mace becomes a flechette bomb launcher and has its fire rate increased, and so on. This lasts until the Soul Mode meter is drained, at which point you’re back to square one. In other words it’s basically like having Berserk Mode on tap where every weapon is turned into the Doom marine’s fist, but it’s not quite as good as it sounds thanks to the way Amid Evil parcels out its enemy spawns, which are linked to progress through the level. A typical room full of baddies will normally take 1-2 minutes of frantic shooting to clear, but once you’ve activated Soul Mode you’ll shred them in less than 20 seconds — and then it will have run out by the time you get far enough into the level to trigger the next enemy spawn. Probably if you know the levels you could chain spawns together quite nicely, but on your first time through there’s going to be a fair bit of timewasting while you figure out where to go next and it makes things a bit too stop-start to really make Soul Mode feel good; it always feels like a bit of an anticlimax to run out of targets while the Soul Mode meter is still two-thirds full, and to then have to let it run down while you wander around looking for the door leading to the next bit of the level.

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So the weapons are well-designed and the enemies are fun enough to fight — but not outstandingly so. Amid Evil executes on both elements competently enough, and judging by the number of games I see that screw either or both of them up I probably shouldn’t underestimate the amount of effort that has gone into making Amid Evil’s combat acceptably fun, even if it is a rather workmanlike brand of fun. Still, while it’s a competent take on the Quake brand of first-person shooting it’s not what hooked me into playing through Amid Evil until the final credits started rolling. The thing that hooked me, the thing that Amid Evil does that goes beyond mere competence into “actually pretty damn good” territory, is the level design, both in terms of how they look and in terms of how they’re laid out. Each episode has its own design concept and accompanying visual theme, and thanks to being put together in the Unreal Engine the levels look very sharp despite the pixelated retro filter that’s been slapped on everything.  As I said at the start of the review, there’s one episode that’s a bit dull — it’s mostly just a standard set of FPS levels with no real unifying idea tying the levels or the level design together, and it’s here, where the level design isn’t really providing any backing for that workmanlike combat, that Amid Evil starts to wear dangerously thin. For the rest, though, it’s really nice that the level design is somey fairly high concept stuff that goes far, far beyond just providing a series of boxes for you to shoot enemies in.

The Sacred Path is a set of three levels that has you ascending a temple, featuring a level that’s essentially a single giant room that has you running through small antechambers and tunnels around the outside to find keys, activate bridges and travel higher and higher until you reach the top. The Arcane Expanse is an episode that leverages its magical conceit to the utmost, with the levels suspended in mid-air above a raging magical storm, filled with gravitationally implausible waterflows and winding pathways along wooden beams that curve in ways that suggest they’ve been grown rather than carved. The Forges is a moody, dimly lit set of levels comprising a lot of industrial machinery and brutal metal architecture, and filled with menacing robots who fire red-hot sawblades at you. The Astral Equinox is a set of buildings embedded in an underground cave system, with plenty of water around to reflect the ethereal moonlight that suffuses the entire episode. All of the episodes are striking in unique ways — the shit one is striking because it’s so shit compared to the rest, but that’s still unique — and each episode has at least one stand-out piece of design, from the revolving maze-like chamber in (I think) Solar Solstice to the crazy orrery platform jumping in Arcane Expanse. Amid Evil is certainly a fan of cramming unusual shapes and geometry into its level architecture across all of the episodes, giving many of the levels a weirdly non-Euclidean feel. Even the less immediately architecturally arresting episodes still have an interesting layout with interesting routes and which look good enough that they brought to mind pleasant memories of seeing the Egyptian environments of Serious Sam for the first time2.

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But the really clever thing about Amid Evil’s levels is that they remain fully parseable by a human brain in spite of this seemingly unconventional approach to their design. This is because they’re secretly linear constructs; there is only ever one way to progress forward, and while it might take you a while to figure out what it is — usually because the levels are fond of wrapping back around on themselves in three dimensions — the game will usually give you a big hint by spawning a bunch of enemies in the room or doorway that’s just opened up. This subtle breadcrumbing is 100% necessary because there’s no map of any kind and so you have to keep track of everything in your head, but it works nearly every time; there were only a couple of occasions where I found myself totally lost, and even then I managed to figure out the way forward after a few minutes of going back and forth to try and find what I’d missed. And so Amid Evil gets to be the best of both worlds: its level design feels appropriately mazelike for a retro shooter, but you’re never running in circles getting increasingly frustrated because you can’t figure out where the Red Keycard is (which is what happened to me the last time I tried to replay the original Doom).

Does Amid Evil do anything wrong? Well, yeah. The developers have done a fine job on what I assume was a thin budget while still hitting nearly all of their targets for look, feel and general gameplay, but there’s some weirdly lumpy bits that don’t feel like they were fully thought through. Amid Evil’s bossfights, for example, are extremely puzzling. Each episode is capped off by a bossfight in a dedicated arena level where each boss has its own gimmicks and attack patterns; these are encounters which have had a lot of care and attention lavished on them and which certainly don’t lack for polish on a technical level. The problem is that there’s only two of them (out of seven) that actually take into account the existence of Soul Mode; having an on-demand Berserk mode usually meant that these bossfights lasted a matter of seconds as each boss was melted by a series of supercharged black hole blasts. It’s yet another way in which Soul Mode, while a nice idea, doesn’t really slot into the wider game very well for various reasons; it always feels like an “And also you can do this!” feature instead of something that’s properly integrated into the core gameplay. I also didn’t understand why the game insisted on taking all of my weapons away at the end of each episode and having me start each new one with just the axe; this might be how Quake and Hexen did it, but what usually happened was that the first level of each episode would throw three or four weapon pickups at me in the first few rooms just so that I could fight with a decent range of combat options. It might be the easiest way to put together an episode so that it’s completely standalone, but that didn’t make it any less odd in light of how up-to-date Amid Evil secretly is in terms of the rest of its level design.

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For £16 it seems churlish to complain too much about Amid Evil’s missteps, though. For that much money I’m willing to forgive quite a lot, and Amid Evil’s mistakes are mostly individual mechanics that don’t really land instead of outright failures that constantly drag the game down. The one serious stumble it makes is the bad episode3, as this was a good 45-50 minute stretch where I wasn’t having much fun and was basically just trying to get it over and done with so that I could move on to something that was hopefully better; if there had been another such episode I’d probably have a much harsher opinion on Amid Evil, but fortunately the rest of them were moderately enjoyable at worst and so the bad episode was quickly forgotten. It’s not the most ambitious of games, but then it probably shouldn’t be; it doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel when there’s already a perfectly good Quake-shaped one available, and is a good example of an indie team setting themselves a development target that’s realistically achievable with the resources they have to hand. That’s something that really shows in the final product: Amid Evil is a very solid and very polished retro shooter that succeeds in being more than a mere nostalgia trip, and if you’re in the mood for the sort of thing that it’s offering you could certainly do a lot, lot worse.

  1. A mere 23 years ago.
  2. Which is a game that I need to go back and replay at some point because it’s arguably the progenitor of the retro shooter genre.
  3. The Sentinel one with all the eyeballs.
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