Demon of the Well
Map 06 -- Vehelits - 102% Kills / 100% Secrets
TRIVIA: The BGM to this map is taken from Streets of Rage 2 (yes, I know the textfile says that much!), the final area of one of the earlier stages, which takes place in some kind of alien/spookshow attraction at a large amusement park. The map's name, "Vehelits", presumably comes from a miniboss faced in this same area--sort of a big animatronic alien head-thing on a long elastic neck, that, if I recall, tends to ricochet all around the screen wildly when it's hit with any real force. The way this level looks on the completed automap also seems to resemble the shape of said alien head-thing, but perhaps I'm just reading too much into the reference at this point.
Anyway, sort of ironic that SoR2 is being referenced here, since it was by far the easiest game in its series, and this is a rather grueling map that is lengthy, expansive, quasi-nonlinear, and bathed in the combined stench of blood and adrenalin from beginning to end. I say "quasi-nonlinear" because, while you can once again explore in a number of different directions after the first fight, the overall order of progression here is actually even more rigid than in the previous two maps: red key, blue key, exit. Period. However, when you're actually playing the map, it doesn't really feel that cut-and-dry at all; once it has been fully explored most of the map becomes a sort of circuit with a significant degree of interconnectivity between its various battlegrounds, with each path ultimately terminating in the first battle area, itself a sort of junction. The keylocked areas are the exception to this, being cordoned off in their own self-contained areas, although you can see the exit arena well before it can be reached, and technically you start out high in a tower in the blue key zone before teleporting to the start proper. This means that many of the interstitial fights can be approached from two directions (or more), and it's possible to complete the circuit before getting any keys (as I did). So, while it's not non-linear, it certainly has the illusion of being so, and sometimes an illusion is just as good as the real thing in these matters. Well done with this, Ribbiks.
Like the inexplicably antagonistic carnival attraction that bears the same name, Vehelits also yo-yos wildly about, at one moment trapping the player in a small area packed with powerful foes where twitch reflexes are paramount (e.g. the much-vaunted arch-vile room), and the next spilling over into spacious arenas containing small armies of hellspawn to manipulate and destroy (e.g. the much-vaunted red key arena). There are a wide variety of themes to the major battles, from the initial challenge of outwitting the SSG's numerous guardians while packing only a shotgun and a few shells, the fevered room-clearing contrasted with long-range rocket barrages of the blue key area, the hide-and-seek in the aforementioned vile lair, the post-hopping in the leadup to the finale, and the expected crowd-control scenarios in the true slaughter arenas (yes, though it arguably was not there yet in previous maps, at points this one does enter full-on slaughtermap territory). The sum effect of this combat variety, in combination with the (eventually) more open layout, amounts to something of a consummation of the Stardate 20X6 style--it remains very specific, very tightly-controlled, very inflexible in some ways, yes...but here it feels like a more cohesive, integrated, and organic struggle as an overall level, rather than a selection of discrete/largely unrelated set-pieces that all happen to have been dropped into one map together.
While I haven't had many real complaints about the mapset's aesthetics to begin with, I think this map handles the tech/industrial/wood juxtaposition better than previous maps. I think it amounts to establishing more of a sense of place than many of the others have done (although 02 and 03 were good at portraying their cavernous themes, I felt). I interpreted the map as a series of inconceivably tall towers (I don't think the buildings in the blue key zone are supposed to be space-boxes, but rather the tops of towers whose bases fade away into the darkness below, as evinced by the shading on the textures comprising them) somehow powered by massive quantities of toxic blood--indeed, the presence of an inescapable bloody sump in the lower reaches of many of the map's areas is often on one's mind. This element comes to the fore in a decidedly cruel way in the final battle, where tmost of the arena floor is covered in an endless swell of the stuff, adding an additional complication to an already demanding challenge. In fact, as a little extra, Ribbiks has thrown in a special unmarked two-part super-secret involving a yellow key, which, if found, allows you to avoid some of the pressure in the final battle (and no, I only found it while exploring AFTER killing everything/reaching the exit); consider that little bonus the cherry on top, so to speak. Oh, and before I forget: the purple really makes itself felt again in this map, only conspicuously absent in the bloody final area.
Best map since 02, no contest.