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Not Jabba

Not Jabba's Not the Cacowards Review Corner (Isolation and Clock Out)

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Just did a quick glance and I can't help it but think: As a Doom fan... what a time to be alive. Each single pick feels like it should be in some ''top 5''. All around a gigantic year for quality WADs.

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I really appreciate the review, and am humbled to be associated with these masterpieces (desperately trying to avoid imposter syndrome)! There's still a number of items on this list (and from the Cacowards itself) that I've yet to actually sit down and play through, but I know I'm in for a treat. Can't wait to see what everyone creates in 2021!

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Love the thousand lost soul level in Abandon, the real highlight of the set. On the other hand, no mention of Ephemeral (1000 lines 2 MAP32) makes me sad.

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13 hours ago, Not Jabba said:

cursed Berserk

Funny thing... The intention from the start was "here's a very good excuse to just go wild and have fun with a berserk pack."  But it became obvious that the intention wouldn't always get across when I saw a playtester's run through they map.  They picked up the berserk, saw the imps, then switched away from the berserk even though they had invulnerability.  So I made sure that the intention came across after that.


Thank you for the kind words!  Glad you enjoyed it ^,_,^

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2 hours ago, NuMetalManiak said:

On the other hand, no mention of Ephemeral (1000 lines 2 MAP32) makes me sad.


If I were to make the same top 20 maps of 2020 list, Ephemeral would be my #1. However, given that it's a complex puzzle map, I can see how others might not like it as much as I do.

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re: Ephemeral, it's definitely a good map, just didn't strike enough of a chord with me personally. I've been a big fan of puzzle maps like Grove and The Given where all the necessary information to beat the map is communicated in-world, whereas Ephemeral operates more from existing knowledge of Doom mechanics*; I actually didn't know that Rev rockets could trip action lines until I watched a video playthrough to try to figure out how to get out of the starting area of Ephemeral. It's also very movement-oriented, which I struggled with somewhat. It's very thought-provoking and a technical feat, but since this is a personal list I mostly followed my gut, and since I was already listing two Aurelius maps that I like more on a gut level, I didn't think too hard about whether to include it.


*which is also a valid way to challenge players


4 hours ago, Cheesewheel said:


Thanks for the mention!


Out of interest, why did this map in particular stand out for you?


The megawad has pretty solid gameplay in general, but I particularly liked the mood and setting of that map. I'm not sure I could say anything more specific than that offhand, but I remember jotting down the name and number of it as soon as I finished playing it to add to my possible top maps list, so it definitely made an impression. I think the coolest thing about the megawad in general is that it creates a strong sense of place with relatively little detail, through having just enough hints in just the right places and a good sense of scale. To me, that particular map was the best at it.

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Absolutely killer picks and awesome write-ups as usual! 2020 was one stacked year for dooming - so many megawads, episodes, magnus opus maps. Here's to more of the same quality in 2021! And more wonderful Not Jabba reviews in the months to come, too!

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Very nice! I appreciate your kind words, Jabba. Funny enough, out of all the maps I made for RL2, “Overtime” ended up being my favorite.

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As always, Not Jabba's Top 20 List is full of wonderful write-ups and killer screenshots that leave me psyched to play all of these maps, even if I'd have to ITYTD or God Mode the Abandon slaughterfests. It'd be worth it just to walk around in those amazing environments. Usually, I end up not playing all the maps because of IRL issues, but this year I think it's going to be different. This year, I really want to set aside some time to enjoy the products of our amazing community of mappers, musicians, artists, coders and all the rest of our creative crew. 

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On 2/29/2020 at 1:04 AM, Not Jabba said:

... The three maps I've discussed so far all feel something like musical etudes; they're all pretty small and quick (if you can stay alive), and they serve to test specific skills in contained settings. For players of rd's skill level, I imagine they must feel like short, energizing workouts. ...


This is something I needed to fill in because I realized that it might not be widely known.

In the discussions of slaughterwads that would crop up over and over years ago, I think the whole Doom-as-chess angle supporters would push, justifying the appeal of harder maps with abstract notions of strategy and all that, has painted a misleading image of "challenge Doom" as something just very abstract and technical and removed from actual emotion. (I think I probably ended up going with that explanation myself a couple times.) 


When I first got into mapping, the main appeal of hard Doom was crafting pleasurable feelings and adrenaline rushes (among other comparable things), which is a philosophy I still carry with me. The intensity was always predominantly a means of creating strong emotions, like the slow burn of oppression where you have to walk a tightrope and get to breathe cathartic release when you are done, or like the sheer thrill of chaos like a flame that consumes you, or something in between or different altogether. A hard map wasn't a wall you had to surmount to "prove yourself." I think that philosophy was why, in addition to the korens and Ribbiks and Dotws of the world, people who normally didn't play challenging maps would show up with praise in my threads. I sometimes boot up wads like Sunlust and Stardate 20x7 -- and when I do it's mostly not because I want to do something hard, or test skills, like someone doing a strenuous workout or, worse, eating their daily roughage. It's because the fights are pleasurable in themselves on a more basal level.


Abstract strategy and abstract skill testing ends up factoring into such things on a secondary basis, due to opportunism (the possibility for it is conveniently right there), and probably because it kind of has to at times (a super intense fight that is completely anti-strategic also likely deprives the player of agency, which is not very conducive to fun), but I wouldn't consider it the top-layer appeal for me (at best it's part of a 1a-1b tandem).


Imo, above all, a good Really Hard Map, to me, feels good to play. (Usually that is at least true for its target audience, or for members of the target audience that are open to the map's chosen mechanics (there is still a lot of room for subjectivity), even if isn't true for anyone else.) If one is type to enjoy modern "challenging but fair" wads (like BTSX and Vanguard), with their intensity and all the attending feelings they produce, they likely already know, by analogy, this feeling as it's created by many "super challenging and not quite ostensibly fair" wads in those who like that thing. In fact you might be part of both audiences (like I am). 


One of the things I haven't seen anyone do is describe a map like, let's say, Sunlust m20, purely in terms of the feelings it aims to create (and succeeds at creating). Like part of the genius of the infamous crypt fight with the cyberdemon is that the space is just perfectly sized so that you can make these slick narrow desperation jukes around the cyber if it hems you in, and the appeal is not a deliberate skill-test thing but more that it feels scary and then really good to pull off, and that this doesn't happen every time in the fight (i.e. the fight is not rigidly controlled as much as it's seemingly tested for a high likelihood of fun super-intense things happening) so that natural variability also gives it quite a bit of replay value. (Although that fight is probably a bit too variable to be as lethal as it is.) And of course that's just part of it -- the crypt area has a pretty rich psychological warfare angle. An exegesis on stuff like that could easily sound arcane, and it'll get verbose almost by necessity, which I think is why the "Doom as chess" explanation, which is far more immediately self-evident and easily packaged, became so appealing.

Edited by rd.

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1 hour ago, rd. said:

In the discussions of slaughterwads that would crop up over and over years ago, I think the whole Doom-as-chess angle supporters would push, justifying the appeal of harder maps with abstract notions of strategy and all that, has painted a misleading image of "challenge Doom" as something just very abstract and technical and removed from actual emotion. (I think I probably ended up going with that explanation myself a couple times.) 


For what it's worth, I don't think I ever thought it was removed from emotion. I've just thought of the emotion as being tied to the feeling of being challenged, and of being able to exercise knowledge and skill. Workouts are something I do understand, and they can feel great. It feels good to push yourself further, and it also feels good to be capable and good at what you're doing, and to feel the adrenaline that comes with that push, and so on. I imagine chess feels that good too, for people who are that good at it. So I don't intend either the notion of chess/strategy or the notion of testing your own worth to be clinical (even if, in some cases, it may call for fairly clinical analysis of what you're creating or playing). 

Thanks for posting this -- great points and an interesting read.

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Nova 3 by various


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The 2020 Cacowards had 12 runners-up, the largest number ever, continuing a long process of expansion that began with the DTWiD-era judging panel—and of course there are still plenty of excellent projects that weren't officially listed. How do you know when to stop adding HMs? Well, probably when you can't agree on anything else! Everybody had that one project they still wanted to push for, and if we'd tried to keep going, we'd have butted heads over a four-way tie of one vote each for—if I recall correctly—Akeldama, 1000 Lines Community Project 2, The City of Damned Children, and Nova 3. That last one was my vote, which is probably the only actual point I'm making with this rambling opener.


Like Nova 2: New Dawn before it, Nova 3 is one of the best takes on the standard Community Chest project formula that I've seen (in my opinion, both of them are better than any of the Community Chests as a whole). Nova 3 is about the same quality as Nova 2, which is interesting because the people running and mapping for the project were...actually new, at least when they started. Nova 2 was a bit infamous for abandoning the "new mappers only" premise created for the original Nova, with veterans like dobu and Ribbiks stepping in to offer leadership and guidance as well as mapping talent (with great results!). Nova 3 took about four years to make and was passed down through three different project managers, so you can well imagine that many of the mappers involved honed their skills over the course of that time, and I think that's evident in a strong quality control phase and a ton of great maps across the board. As rd mentioned in the Cacowards, many of the people who worked on this project were big names themselves by the time it was released.


The resources for the megawad are primarily CC4-tex with additions, and now that the community as a whole has moved on from using CC4-tex for everything, it feels like a rare and welcome thing when a team uses it intentionally and skillfully—particularly since it seems to be so well suited for making phenomenal community megawads. Nova 3's progression gets the most out of the resources with three distinct episode themes that offer a lot of vibrant color and opportunities to build interesting settings. E1 is Hell, turning the generic IWAD episode progression on its head. E2 is wilderness and ruins, but the textures gave the option to choose between stark Egyptian desert structures and overgrown Mesoamerican jungle temples, both of which get plenty of screen time. E3 is Valiant-esque moonbases with the stylish tech textures and glowing metals and forcefields that made CC4-tex so renowned in the first place. The episodes are basically ten maps each, but since map 11 is kind of an odd slot, technically in the second third but poised before the episode end text for E1, the mapper took the opportunity to make it a bit of a techbase crawl leading into the first ruins. As usual, the two secret maps are also a departure from the standard themes and gameplay tropes. Even in a set that benefits so much from thematic cohesion, it's nice to have these types of one-off maps to break things up a bit.


The champion of the megawad is @Scotty, who took over halfway through development and saw it through to completion (as if his Abandon maps and Criticality weren't enough for one year). His two solo contributions are among the best in the set: "Blood Eagle" (map 05), a short and literally punchy Tyson map set in a grotesque, fleshy quarter of Hell, and "Ritual Horror" (map 20), a larger map that delivers the traditional end-of-E2 climax along with a sudden and brilliant segue into E3. Apparently filling in the role of right-hand mapper was @Paul977, creator of the Cacoward runner-up Darkest Room, who created or co-created five of the maps in Nova 3 (the same number as Scotty). Paul's style is immediately recognizable wherever it appears, a combination of micro-slaughter and atmospheric scene-setting that builds up suspense between fights and then hammers you hard with each setpiece; "Cannibal" (map 07) and "Ancestral Domain" (map 19) provide intense combat-centric challenge spikes, while the Paul/@Finakala collab "Lunatic Dais" (map 23) leans deep into the astral horror. A third prolific contributor to the set was @A2Rob, whose clean Scythe-esque style is a welcome addition to all three episodes, especially in "Armstronged" (map 26), a compact but sandboxy high-tech key hunt. All three of these mappers also collaborated on some of the major opus maps in the megawad; Scotty and Paul completed "Into the Unknown" (map 30) from what I believe was an already existing but unfinished submission by @Eris, while Scotty, Paul, A2Rob, and @Pegleg went in on "Megiddo III" (map 15). For those who don't know, Megiddo is a Nova institution where one mapper designs a hub and the rest create small challenge arenas that can be completed in any order to reach the final battle and exit (though its slot has changed each time for various pragmatic reasons, as it was map 30 of the original Nova and map 32 of Nova 2). "Megiddo III" is the smallest installment of the three, as it was meant to be treated more as a normal map instead of a huge epic, but the grab bag of tough battles still proves to be a great format, as well as a nice smaller echo of the "box of chocolates" nature of the megawad as a whole. "Into the Unknown" has a similar feel to it, but with more of a horror element as it plunges from moonbase into the dark caverns beneath the surface, where some sort of creepy Hell-tech construct lies at the heart of the invasion. It's an excellent end to the megawad, with a memorable final fight. Finally, I feel I should mention "Fireblu Palace" (map 32) by Scotty and @bemused, which is exactly what it sounds like; yes, it's memes, but I like it, and it's exactly the sort of gimmicky joke challenge that fits perfectly in the super-secret map slot (it also looks cool).


One of the mappers I was most surprised by was @dt_, who has apparently been around since Community Chest 1 and has made plenty of solid maps before this, but really knocked it out of the park for Nova 3. Their first map in the set is "Tomb of Solitude" (map 13), a deliberately paced tomb raider map where every detail feels just right to build a realistic sense of adventure as the map loops back through areas repeatedly. Their other map, "Beta Three" (map 27), applies a very similar approach to the lunar theme, and is also a treat. Nearly every other mapper contributed a single map, which helps add more variety as a counterbalance to the relatively consistent team-project feel of the maps from Scotty and the other core team members. "A Partner of the 49th Day" by @Kurashiki (map 10) is my favorite map in the whole set, a playful but also intense finale to the Hell episode. "Alpha Scorpii Supercluster" by @antares031 (map 25), which also appears in modded form in Antaresian Reliquary, is a grand power trip through a gleaming and beautiful moonbase in a similar style to Struggle. "Solar Powered" by @Big Ol Billy (map 31) has a bit of a puzzle feel to it and revolves around reflecting beams of light, a really clever mechanic for a Boom megawad (you'll also have to solve a few other mysteries to get to map 32). "Deep Space 9mm" by @amok (map 29) is another longer adventure map that's just a ton of fun and very cinematic. The lone techbase map, "Terramin" by @P1NKAC1D (map 11), has been criticized for having a lot of stringy hallways, but I actually like it way more than I should on paper (much like the author's solo mapset, Chainworm Kommando) due to its gutsy dedication to Doomcute and its sense of place; it reminds me a bit of TVR!. Rounding out the highlights of the Hell episode are @Angry Saint's "The Crow Comes Last" (map 08), a looping map that feels as metal as its title, and @Xyzzy01's "Scarlet Syzygy" (map 09), a very short but somewhat daunting mood piece with tough monsers. For the ruins episode, I want to give a nod to @Albertoni's "El Dorado" (map 14), which may not be the most polished map in the set, but has a great narrative surrounding a boat in a sea of liquid gold, and similarly "Dregs of a Bitter Cup" by @obake (map 16), which isn't the strongest layout but has some great atmosphere. And in the lunar episode, there's "Lunar Comms Station" (map 22), a particularly Valiant effort by @DMPhobos, who's gone on to contribute great maps to quite a few other community projects.


There were a few maps in Nova 3 that I didn't care for, but your mileage may vary; all in all, it's a great megawad with a lot of heart and memorable submissions at almost every turn, and it's got a lot of variety when it comes to map length, pacing, setting, and style. 2020 was full of megawads, and with so much competition, only a handful of them received award recognition. Nova 3 is easily my favorite of those that were snubbed. You really can't go wrong with it.

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Realms of Cronos by @whirledtsar et al.


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Hexen community projects were considered a pipe dream for a long time. I've seen a few of them come and go, barely getting past the conception stage, as people realize how difficult it is to coordinate an entire hub in a project where each mapper is working independently and control over the final product is limited. How do you deal with progression scripts and puzzle items in your map that affect someone else's map? How do you arrange the sequence of events across the entire hub without knowing how many maps will be in it? Who even decides which mapper gets to use Clock Gear #3? But like all Doom-engine pipe dreams, someone was bound to figure out a plan and make it happen sooner or later.


Every time anyone talks about Realms of Cronos, they invariably mention "Felstoy Abbey" and "Path of Hei'an" and not much else. I myself have written about both already, and they're certainly the most impressive maps in the set. "Felstoy Abbey" is a huge epic, and I've stated that it's the best map ever made for Hexen. "Path of Hei'an" captivates everyone who plays it with its unusual and detailed setting, an ancient Chinese mountain village. There's probably no need to lavish more attention on them than they've already gotten, but I certainly recommend playing them.


The unsung hero of Realms of Cronos is project leader whirledtsar, the person who made the pipe dream a reality. As you might expect, it was mainly a matter of planning from the ground up, and holding firm about how different maps are allowed to affect each other, which requires a project lead who knows what they're doing. In Realms of Cronos, all progression hinges around the hub map. Each spoke map has a required switch (and sometimes also a custom key item) that opens up a new section of the hub map; in this way, the whole progression becomes dynamically variable, as every choice you make about which map to visit affects the order that other maps become available to you in a nonlinear/branching way. It also means that simpler maps (for instance, ones in which the player is only intended to have the first two weapons) are available first, while ones intended for more powerful weapons are guaranteed to be accessible after you have those relevant weapons. As for other puzzle items, mappers could claim them and use them as long as they were self-contained, i.e., the puzzle item and its receptacle appear in the same map. Most boss enemies had to be claimed as well, and the final Korax fight is integrated into the hub map. Whirledtsar even asked mappers to state their texture themes/settings in advance so that each hub exit could be designed in a way that fits the theme of the map it leads to. 


Whirledtsar also compiled a set of resources, which includes not only a strong selection of edited textures, but also a bunch of textures from Hexen 2 that allowed for themes like Mezoamerican ruins and, most notably, the Tulku resources that lay the foundation for "Path of Hei'an." It was nice to see my waterfalls and some other textures and decorations created for The Wayfarer used in this project as well. The best thing about the resource compilation is the new monsters, though. I've always maintained that Hexen is a difficult IWAD to make maps for because the range of the existing monsters just isn't that flexible. RoC's Possessed Scimitar, Wolfman, and Acolyte of Korax add their own distinctive behaviors (dodging, charging, jumping) that expand the range of gameplay but also feel really natural alongside the stock bestiary. There's also a lava Wendigo, which isn't that different from the ice one, but can be used more comfortably in warmer settings (addressing the main limitation of one of the most interesting monsters in Hexen). The last new monster is a cute little zombie piranha—like Quake's Rotfish, it's less a monster and more a shootable decoration that swims toward you menacingly, but it's pretty fun to have something populating the waters. It makes the game world feel just that little bit deeper and more complex, which is what Hexen thrives on.


The hub map itself is well crafted, with a nice open layout and each area having a memorable themed look that sets you up for each spoke map. It's got its own set of challenges, including some canyon abyss platforming and a few setpiece fights as you face the defenders of the later portals, and it introduces many of the new monsters as isolated roamers to prepare you for later encounters where you face them more seriously. The final Korax fight is surprisingly complex and very challenging as well. Whirledtsar's other map in the project is "Arcanum Labs," which has a great setting that's just what it sounds like: a combination of magical and mechanical. It feels similar to a well-designed classic Hexen map (maybe something a high-profile '90s/'00s mapper would have made if they'd turned their attention to the IWAD), but with a lot of moving parts and little micro-puzzles, including a Porkulator machine.


Although the rest of the maps in the set are simpler, and most are made by less experienced mappers, they aren't bland; each one has something interesting going on in it. A swamp village with eerie fog? Ok! A gigantic guillotine made to sever the heads of gods? Hell yeah! A showdown with a Death Wyvern amid ziggurats, or a mage duel in a lava temple? Sure, let's roll! I'm sure most people will find a few maps they enjoy (even if it's just the obvious ones), but to me, the most interesting thing about Realms of Cronos is that it exists at all. And besides its own sequel that is currently in development, hopefully it may inspire other people to attempt some team Hexen projects.

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There are (at least) two types of Heretic episodes in this world. There are the action-adventure kind, where the fantasy setting is used as a backdrop for a light, rollicking Doom-like experience with plenty of monsters and plenty of equipment to compensate. Then there are the ones that embrace the full weirdness of Heretic, exploring its many eyebrow-furrowingly specific mechanical quirks to create riddles and progression puzzles that test the player's critical thinking, all while making you pray for extra random ammo drops as you're forced to use every Time Bomb, Tome, and exploding pod at your disposal just to make it through. Today, we'll be looking at one of each.



Heretic: Quest for the Crystal Skulls by @Captain Toenail


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I mostly think of Captain Toenail as a sprite artist, so this episode was a pleasant surprise—certainly one of the most fun and lighthearted Heretic episodes I've played, though the sheer volume of Doom releases does make it harder for Heretic projects to find an audience. Quest for the Crystal Skulls is laid out as a hub, but it's a bit different from Faithless Trilogy. While the hubs in FT are more of a single extended journey, QftCS is more like a conventional episode where you can complete the maps in a flexible order. Beating the first map gives you access to the main hub, where you're able to approach the rest of the maps in a branching, semi-gated fashion. You can choose to beat each map in one go, or you can return to the hub and try a different one at any time (though I found the map design to be flowy and intuitive, so I never got stuck and chose to beat them one at a time). You're prevented from playing the hardest maps first, and you can't get to the secret map or boss map until you've beaten everything else, but there's still a lot of freedom. 


The result is that each map feels like its own vignette, and the episode offers a variety of settings, both tried-and-true classics and more creative concepts. The hub itself is a shimmering ethereal/astral pocket plane, and quite beautiful. The other maps are mostly the towns, dockside fortresses, and monasteries that you expect from Heretic's texture themes, while the formidable M7 ("The Undercrypt") is a gloomy dungeon filled with traps and puzzles. All of these settings are rendered with great conceptual detail—less reliant on aesthetic sector detailing and more on representative ideas (aka Doomcute) and fleshing out the setting as a whole. This is something that Heretic is good at in general, but it seems to be one of Captain Toenail's strengths as a mapper as well, and I particularly liked the look and layout of the urban maps. My favorite map in the episode is "Dark Coast" (technically M4 or M5), which takes place in a dark, claustrophobic fishing village that happens to be contained entirely in a sunless underground cavern on the shore of a deadly toxic sea. I've never seen anything quite like it before, and I love it.


The majority of the episode is fast-moving and friendly enough for me to play aggressively without many saves, though it had enough challenge at most points to keep me alert. It's somewhat like Elf Gets Pissed in that the challenge comes from a moderate number of enemies placed to attack you from lots of angles, rather than trying to press you with large numbers of monsters at once. The 3-4 maps that you will most likely play last are significantly tougher, though I don't think it's anything most people won't be able to handle with saves. "Undercrypt," as I already mentioned, is a tricky, hazard-filled map in general but presents some pretty deadly combat scenarios on top of that. The secret map, "Realm of Chaos," could perhaps be considered a slaughtermap, but it sets you up to have Tomes active almost nonstop, and is basically designed around reaping through hordes of weaker enemies with spammy Tomed weapons—though the last half of the map boxes you in and can be a bit brutal, and if there's anything in the episode that will be too difficult for some people on Smitemeister, it will be that.


Similar to many other recent Heretic releases, Quest for the Crystal Skulls adds both new monsters and mechanics. I think this is almost always a net positive for Heretic, since it lends itself so strongly to maps that are roleplay/world-oriented rather than abstract/mechanical (which is probably one of the reasons I'm attracted to it). Conventional wisdom is that Heretic needs more popcorn enemies that will go down very easily, which is true-ish, but I don't think it's the most important gap in the bestiary. What Heretic already has is essentially several Imps or Hell Knights that all have the health of a Pinky or Revenant; what's missing is the threat—the Mancubi, the Arachnotrons, the Cybruisers, the Arch-Viles. Like Sold Soul and The Wayfarer, QftCS focuses its additions on mid- to high-tier enemies that are designed to be dangerous and have enough health to stick around so that they pose a threat. There's a snakelike flying enemy that breaths fire and comes in small packs, a red Disciple that teleports around and shoots rocket-like projectiles, and a Chaos Serpent miniboss. What I find interesting is that although these enemies all shoot basic straight-firing projectiles (just like many of Heretic's stock monsters), the main thing that makes them challenging and distinctive is their movement behavior. The flying snake is fast and dodgy, and it has a long tail that creates something like a motion blur effect and adds confusion as you aim for the head, the only part you can damage. The Disciple has its teleportation, and the Chaos Serpent inherits the aggressive, jittery charging behavior from D'Sparil's mount. All three are surprisingly versatile as a result. I noticed something similar with the new monsters in Realms of Cronos, and I think it is still a relatively unexplored way of designing enemy niches.


The episode also has a custom final boss, perhaps not surprisingly a Heresiarch variant. I found this battle pretty tough, mainly because there was a lot of extra stuff going on in it (lava, lots of volcano shooters, minion spawns, and deflected projectiles in addition to the boss's six or seven regular attacks). This adds a fair amount of random chaos, and in both my playthroughs I died a couple of times without understanding what had actually hit me. This didn't bother me too much, though; the boss serves its purpose as a big epic end fight, and a handful of attempts and a thumb on the Quartz Flasks is all it really took to survive the storm and beat him. The other added UDMF mechanics are small things that fit well alongside the classic aesthetic: rain, atmospheric sparkle effects in the hub map, Hexen's magic light bridges, and the occasional unobtrusive piece of breakable furniture. Oh, and it has those purple gem turrets you see in Heretic maps sometimes—I actually kind of like these because they are easy to see and react to, and don't have the "gotcha" effect of a stationary, camouflaged hitscan turret. In QftCS, they're just another part of the combat.


I've now played Quest for the Crystal Skulls both with and without Wayfarer's Tome, and I enjoyed it both ways, although as with most things, I slightly prefer it with the mod (If you want to play it with Wayfarer's Tome, make sure to also load the included patch, wtome_qcs.wad). It's a nice adventure episode with a strong focus on worldbuilding, but also with some good challenge at all the right times.



Serpent's Wake by @hervoheebo


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The central idea behind Serpent's Wake is the ways that different thing placement can completely change the feel of a map. Rather than being used as skill settings, Yellowbellies, Bringest Them Oneth, and Smitemeister are instead framed as three different "quests," each of which is thing-placed from scratch to feel like a totally different experience from the other two. I've seen people discuss this idea as a thought-experiment for Doom, but I don't think I've ever actually seen anyone do it until Serpent's Wake. It's easy to imagine how different monsters and weapon loadouts would craft a different style of gameplay. But in the wonky but lovable basement-dwelling stepchild that is Heretic, you can play these differences to even more dramatic effect. How different would a level be if you do or don't add infinite pod spawners? A Wings of Wrath? A dozen Chaos Devices? A ton of those little volcano shooters? Walkable barrels to avoid a lava floor vs. extra armor to tank the damage? A huge abundance of ammo vs. stingy ammo but lots of Tomes and other combat items? Seven Iron Liches and a Maulotaur vs. forty Ghost Nitrogolems? Serpent's Wake doesn't necessarily have all of the above, but regardless, hervoheebo has used the differences in thing placement in a wide variety of very creative ways, combining UnBeliever-esque equipment/mechanics setpieces with unique and surprising ideas for level design/flow. There are even some changes in map geometry between different skill settings, which I believe are handled with voodoo doll scripting.


The episode appears to require ZDoom or GZDoom for reasons that are basically technical (and largely because Heretic has very little non-vanilla support outside of the Z-ports). However, it's very vanilla in spirit. The architecture is classic and abstract despite having a strong overall sense of place, and the author really wants you to get down and dirty with the challenges posed by Heretic's vanilla weapon/monster balance. It's a very, very different beast from the many modern GZ-based Heretic releases like Faithless Trilogy and Quest for the Crystal Skulls; there's something a lot more primeval about it, and given the setting and enigmatic design, I'm certain that's intentional.


I've played this episode 1.5 times, both using "Quest B" (skill 3) because at a glance it looked like it might have the most unusual gameplay. In my initial unmodded playthrough (which I did not finish), I had a really rough time with the extremely tight resource balance and puzzly gameplay—I loved the idea but had a hard time getting into it. My second playthrough, using Wayfarer's Tome, felt more approachable and enjoyable to me. It's hard to say whether I would have enjoyed Quest A or C more than B, since there's no documentation on the philosophy behind each quest, and I'm not sure whether there *is* an overarching concept for each one; I think you're probably meant to play all three and be surprised at every turn. This is obviously one of the joys of Serpent's Wake, though to me it's also the great difficulty of the way it's designed—if you want to get the full experience, or even to know which of the three experiences you prefer, you likely have to play the whole episode three times. That said, I know there are people who would devour all three quests back to back like candy, and if you're one of those people, please add Serpent's Wake to your playlist.


The aesthetics/setting are very distinct and are one of the most enchanting things about the episode. A large portion of the graphics are custom and done in a consistent, slightly painterly style, and I suspect they were all made by the mapper. The game world is imagined as an exploded planet, a realm torn apart by magic that's now nothing but clusters of islands floating fragmented in a starry void, barely sustained by the remnants of atmosphere and gravity. The edges of almost every map fall off into this void, making it dangerous to fall, slip, or be blown, carried, or blasted off. Chunks of ragged rock hang suspended everywhere, and the geometry itself is sharp and rough, creating that feeling of primeval abstraction but at the same time representing the setting very literally; the entire world is torn to shreds. The pieces of the world are still very much clinging to life, though—the bright, beautiful greenery, blooming flowers, flowing water, and colorful starry sky are a magnificent contrast to the violent broken-world imagery. Although the bestiary and items are completely stock (the better to focus in on what makes Heretic unique), the texture set does a huge amount of worldbuilding/storytelling on its own, with occasional whimsical details like giant seahorse hieroglyphs or frothing water effects at the base of a huge waterfall, or a forest of dead, towering trees that have human-made pillars balanced on top of them for some unknowable reason. The episode includes a full suite of extra graphics to go along with all this worldbuilding, too—the custom sky, the fantastic title and endgame screens, and most rare and welcome of all, a custom intermission map (I've almost never seen these in PWADs—the only other one I can think of is Hell-Forged).


In a way, the gameplay of the quest I played felt very fitting for this aesthetic. Everything is in chaos, you're scrounging around for whatever you can find, and the whole world is hostile, but in a scattered, fragmented way, like you're dealing with the angry, trapped remnants of an invasion force rather than an organized army. As you've probably begun to gather by now, the gameplay was quite challenging, even grueling at times, though the monster counts were generally low to moderate. Quite a few maps in the quest I played (in fact, all but two of them, as I recall), used resource starvation in some form. Resource starvation throughout the map, resource starvation until the midpoint of the map, resource starvation until the end of the map, resource starvation to push you into using a specific weapon, resource starvation to make you move extra quickly to keep from dying, resource starvation as a strategic pressure for understanding when to engage with a final boss who appears right at the start of the map...it comes in many flavors. The biggest kick in the ass I encountered was "Silent River" (E3M5), where off-map voodoo dolls continuously take damage and are fed clusters of Crystal Vials by turns, turning every fight you encounter into a hazardous roulette; there are no health pickups in the entire playable space, but there are scattered megaarmors that you can juggle to try to take as much of the edge off as possible. Those sorts of striking contrasts and interplays are what the episode is all about. "The Crypt" (E3M3) puts you toe to toe in cramped spaces with powerful monsters you can't kill for most of its runtime, but when you get access to the equipment caches at the end, it becomes a cathartic free-for-all. "The Wilderness" (E3M4) is the most sprawling, epically sandboxy map in the episode, but it revolves around close-quarters combat with the Tomed Staff, of all things. "Menhir Lands" (E3M6) is a beautiful, serene landscape marked by tranquil standing stones and reflective pools along the riverbed you drained in the previous map, but it's also high-action, packed with gear and enemies. "Fortress of Arrogance" (E3M7) is the most atmospherically- and combat-intense map in the set (and busts out the Face Shrine music to make sure you know it, too), but the end of it is a peaceful and seemingly endless climb up an icy summit that makes you feel like you're ascending into the stars. "Ternion Sea" (E3M9) is a completely open sandbox in an archipelago that grew from the bones of a fallen dragon, but you spend most of your time in the air rather than on the ground or in the water (How did the mapper fill all that open space with threat? Not to be clickbaity, but the answer literally made me yell "What the fuck!?" out loud). As for the final map, "Zodiac Hold," you face D'Sparil immediately but are forced to bypass him, carving your way through a final exam of ice and wind and fire and every enemy in the bestiary until you've snagged whatever subset of the map's equipment you feel comfortable facing him with.


And all of that is just Quest B. In a sense, there are still two whole episodes I haven't played yet—and I think that's precisely how the mapper views it, as 27 maps rather than just 9. There are a lot of experiences to be had here, and a lot of fun in seeing how each version of each map is spun totally different from the others. Overall, Serpent's Wake is harder for me to recommend unconditionally than Quest for the Crystal Skulls. Some people are going to enjoy it, and some people aren't. I myself am both of those people, but I lean toward thinking it's very cool and being fascinated that it exists. As I said, I had a smoother, less stressful time playing it with Wayfarer's Tome, but the intended experience is closely tied to Heretic's vanilla behavior, and people who want the deepest version of what the three quests have to offer should probably play them unmodded. If a "best of both worlds" approach appeals to you, you might try Wayfarer's Tome with Wand starts.





Needless to say, the contrast I made at the beginning of this writeup between Action-Adventure Heretic and Weirdo Puzzle Heretic is an overgeneralization. Quest for the Crystal Skulls uses Heretic's mechanics (most notably pod-walking) as a way of solving progression puzzles and gaining advantages in combat, while Serpent's Wake has plenty of high-energy moments where you're blasting through your opposition with Tomed weapons. All the same, I think these two episodes represent opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the way mappers have approached the IWAD. Heretic is the perfect game for people who want zippy, lighthearted adventure romps with a narrative tone similar to silly fantasy B-movies like Beastmaster or a tabletop sword-and-sorcery session with friends. It's also the perfect game for people who want the strangest, most mind-bending skeins of mystery to unravel. My hope is that new Heretic fans will seek out and enjoy both.

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Nice write-up on SWake, I appreciate it. I'll follow up on some of the points raised (interested or not ;))


-Dolls are indeed very central to the 'scripting'. The wad was reluctantly classified as semi-ZDoom only because it was the only practical port I found that allows dolls to be moved by scrollers which I only found about very late when testing on every port I could find. ZDoom format mapinfo is used because there is no dehacked equivalent for Heretic, afaik, and the lump's presence doesn't seem to affect other ports, if you must use them. Otherwise it is intended for generic limit-removing ports. (plural might be overdoing it for Heretic)


-You are right that there are no overall themes to the quests, which is intended.  The idea was to mimic the random element that is very emblematic to the fantasy genre, likely because of D&D as well as stuff like Rogue and Diablo. It becomes hard to remember which quest had which version of each level which is also fully intended since it makes you have to react on the fly; I consider so-called emergent gameplay an important factor in Doom and Heretic especially. It might be interesting to have a frontend that chooses a random skill level from 1-3 for a truly random experience but I don't know if such a program exists (yet)...


-The new graphics were done by myself in GIMP with a Wacom tablet. The world is similar to "Outland" in the Warcraft 3 expansion, in which it appears as an alien red Orcish world that was exploded by magic. (Not the only Warcraft reference in this or TJ ;)) The main difference here is that in SWake it's presented to be a Human world instead, to contrast the classical fantasy aesthetic with the destruction, floatiness & such. That way the typical fantasy trappings serve as a familiar entry point while opening some new possibilities for wackier stuff.


-The aesthetic and function tries to balance between representative and abstract. Not so detailed and smoothed-out everywhere that the player feels suffocated by the detail (ala Gothic99). The environments should also feel dynamic instead of static: if you have a hugely detailed floor pattern in a room done with sectors, you can probably bet on that area not becoming a lift. As for comparisons to other wads I'm afraid I can't comment because the last time I downloaded pwads was over 10 years ago or something, so in general the structures and aesthetics are (d)evolutions of those of the iwads which are my sacred cows.


-Gimmicks and small areas that are more aesthetic than functional were included in amounts that intend to spice the meat of the levels in a positive manner. For example the bellows in E3M2 that push down and back up when you jump on them, producing a metal item in the furnace inside the smithy. Small Duke3d-style gimmicks that make you smile a bit when you use them but without being so commonplace that you only play the levels to see the tricks ;)


-Resource starvation is my preferred style of gameplay in the Doom games although I think this was still toned down for my tastes :) In Heretic I feel that much of the potential in the gameplay lies in those hairy situations where the player has to get creative. There is even more potential for off-rails fighting than in Doom because of the inventory items, and effort was taken to let the player exploit creative use of the mechanics. In other words sequence breaking was not often intended, but left in if noticed unless the shortcut was too easy and powerful.


-That variation of "Silent River" seems to be the most shocking gimmick to be found here :) Originally all 3 versions were to be 'stealth' levels but I felt the concept wore out its possibilities in just one take.


-The secret level is tricky. The player's movement speed in Doom is very fast as is, but when he can fly endlessly, even the largest map seems small and there is little reason to engage enemies instead of running to the exit, if you know where it is. The back-and-forth pattern forced in "Ternion Sea" is one of those nutty ideas that went from conception to release without being seen or contested by anyone else... a lot of those really!


-"I lean toward thinking it's very cool and being fascinated that it exists." This I'm glad to hear, since I have similar notions about some works even if I disagree with their execution at times. Things that can succinctly be described as 'strange' or 'unique' like "Majora's Mask" or "The Last Unicorn". Myself I call the phenomenon 'I'm glad it exists'. If the particular work really resonates with you, then it becomes something special that no 'by-the-book' or 'safe' product can match. SWake was really a sort of concept project to realize a "Dangerous Dave moment" I had many years prior. Some unusual design choices went with the territory, with the driving argument for inclusion being "if not now, when?"


Also I agree on Heretic having that fun 80s-fantasy feel, what with the synth string amid the exotic music, bright colors and slightly campy tone. It gives an opportunity for some whimsical aesthetics and gameplay that would probably be considered not grim and dark enough for Hexen or Doom :)

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Hmmm, I seem to have different feelings to projects that people usually do, so I'm grateful to see maps I've never heard of, and am definitely going to check out, since you have gone to the effort to highlight them. The majority of wads honoured with Cacos usually don't appeal to me, these suggestions I'm hoping will be more my style.


 With the Quest for the Crystal Skulls, I actually found the end boss easy - however, since it has hub-style progression, I just horde all my inventory items and use it at the end. I was expecting (and hoping, to amp up the difficulty) more of those creepy floating snakes to come into the battle. As for Serpent's Wake, wow - I did not like this at all (so far)! I'm sure many people like this, but the music seemed to be so much louder than it is for other wads; I turned it down to about 50% and it was still incredibly loud. I can't say I personally was a fan of the music either after just two maps. I can't seem to find a way out of the second map either.


With the screenshots of those really epic-proportioned maps, I have to ask, does other people's computers struggle more with these levels/megawads than they do with modern games? I just look at those levels and think - "Oh boy, my laptop is definitely going to overheat with this one!"

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yay! thank you for this review! Doom: Annihilation is a good B-movie. but some people seem to expect some high-budget blockbuster instead, and hit the movie hard when they found that it isn't. i really hope that the sequel will happen.

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5 hours ago, Not Jabba said:


The best result of this is that most of the effects are practical, rather than CGI.


Spoken like a true b-movie fan heh (though I tend to like practical effects whether b-movie or big budget). 


Enjoyable write-up, I'll have to give it watch based on your review. 

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Thanks for the review ! It's fun you said my map "Le petit chaperon rouge" was ribbikesque whereas It's totally inspired from TimeOfDeath's gameplay and texturing. ;)


Also this map was initially built for the slot 32 of the 2020 megawad "180 minutes pour vivre" but I eventually removed it due to its very controversial gameplay.


Trentenaire en quarantaine was a silly map I created for Franckfrag's 30 birthday.

Edited by Roofi

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