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A long time ago, a few friends in Mesquite, Texas came together and created a tectonic shift in the games industry whose aftershocks still permeate to this day. Those friends were the founders of ID Software.
Not only are they the creators Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, and Quake, but also the fathers of the first person shooter genre. They played a major role in bringing PC Gaming out from under the shadow of everyone’s favorite Italian plumber. The sense of speed, freedom of movement, and pulse pounding action of those games, especially Quake, garnered an immense fan base at the time as gamers around the world recorded their first ever frag or flag capture. These would go on to become staples in the games we play today.
While the genre has evolved tremendously since the founding of ID Software, there is still a large fanbase for the classic first-person shooter experience. That brings us to KINGDOM of the DEAD, the latest title in the classic first-person shooter genre from Dirigo Games.
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It.
In KINGDOM of the DEAD you play as Agent Chamberlain, a member of an ancient order named GATEKEEPER, whom are involved in a secret war against the dead. The armies of the dead are vast and unlimited and it is a war that cannot be won. Therefore GATEKEEPER has only on directive; hold them back.
You begin the game inside of a office, with a Victorian era aesthetic, hearing a knock at the door. A manila envelope is slid under the door and its contents describe locations where the armies of the dead have been witnessed. This acts as your “Mission Select” screen and you must choose a destination to travel to. Initially you have access to three missions, but as you complete them, you unlock more.
Before starting a mission you are given a very short debrief that provides context to the location and the option to choose a difficulty. What is interesting about the difficulty options is that on top of simply providing you more undead resistance, they will also require you to complete secondary objectives. Some of these can amplify the difficulty greatly, as with how chaotic the game can get I found myself instinctively shooting everything in sight, which unfortunately included innocent people. Either way it’s always refreshing to see games do more with difficulty then just upping the quantity of enemies along with their damage and health.
HP Lovecraft’s Sketchbook
The most notable aspect of KINGDOM of the DEAD is the incredibly stylized look of the game. Everything in the game has a hand-drawn, sketchbook aesthetic with a black and white inked color pallet. Only very deliberate items have color applied to them like ammo boxes, health pickups, and the demonic gateway you are on the hunt for. The entire game looks like a Lovecraftian graphic novel come to life, and is easily the most unique and memorable part of the game.
What makes it even better though is how thoughtful the team at Dirigo Games were about its implementation. When you have a game world that is both set in a dark and gloomy place, without any colors at your disposal, it can be tough to create play spaces that are easy to navigate and identify threats in. KINGDOM combats this with an ever present way-point that always points you in the right direction, giving each enemy a glowing part of their body to spot them in the dark. They also make great use of spatial audio to audibly detect where threats are coming from. It’s not perfect however, as the effectiveness of these techniques can vary from level to level. I got lost countless times in the crypt level because I could not see the pitch black staircase I needed to climb to proceed. On the flip-side the Forest level took place during the day and was quite breathtaking the whole way through. At the end of the day though I was never lost for very long and was always able to get to the end of the levels. They also offer some interesting color filters you can access from the options menu that can brighten things up a little bit. Better yet, you can choose the “Robot” filter which will exchange the color white for the color red, for anyone out there who was upset that Quake was never ported to the Virtual Boy back in 1996.
Mechanically the game plays very similarly to the original Quake. The sense of speed is there as your finger and the shift (sprint) key will quickly become good friends. While not as smooth as some other games in the genre, it was still satisfying to zip around the maps, snapping headshots on the undead. While you begin each map armed with a revolver and a talking sword, which has the power to close the demonic gateway the dead are using to travel to the mortal world, you will pickup the usual suspects of rifles, shotguns, and miniguns as you progress through each stage. You can even pickup TNT which has very similar physics to the grenades from Quake.
All of this action occurs to a decent mix of what I would consider to be “Gothic-Rave” synth music. It’s not the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard, but it does a great job of providing atmosphere while at the same time accompanying the flow of the game. As a nice touch, an intractable music roll machine in the office gives you access to the game’s full soundtrack.
If I had one specific complaint relating to the combat, it would be the sword. It is a crucial part of your kit in terms of the game’s world, being the only thing that can close the demon gates. However, in combat it feels like a wet noodle. This genre made a name for itself with gratuitous violence and gore. So having a game where you fend off the undead while carrying a giant talking sword that doesn’t allow the player to ruthlessly butcher and dismember enemies, seems like somewhat of a missed opportunity. In most cases, for me, the sword was relegated to being a last resort if nothing else had ammo while providing exposition as I entered a new level.
There is a decent variety of enemies in KINGDOM of the DEAD, ranging from the rank and file grunts that run mindlessly after you, to spell casting necromancers. There are even some very obvious nods to DOOM’s Pinky and Cacodemon enemies. What stands out the most though, are the bosses. Each stage will end with a boss fight, and they have a pretty impressive sense of scale to them. When mixed with the art style, they definitely add something extra to an otherwise standard bullet sponge. The bosses themselves dish out some serious damage and survival will often come down to ammo economy, or how well you can scavenge the arena as normal enemies will spawn during these encounters.
Dragging Me Back to Hell
Overall KINGDOM of the DEAD is a bit rough around the edges. It has just a few levels, and could have offered a bit more world building beyond just a simple paragraph or two before each level. However, it more or less makes up for this with its phenomenal presentation and tried and true classic, FPS gameplay. This is a small game from a small studio that took a big risk in presenting their game this way, and I think it paid off in the end. It will probably take a while for me to get the image of a giant hand drawn soul eating demonic worm out of my head. It’s also nice that they have a demo available to check out before you buy. It’s very clear the team at Dirigo have a passion for classic first-person shooters, and I look forward to seeing what they develop next.
This was a great way to re-introduce myself to a genre of games I had once loved, yet long forgotten. The classic FPS community may be somewhat underground compared to what is mainstream today, but the passion that surrounded those classic ID titles, among others, is as strong as ever. Fantastic companies like New Blood Interactive are producing critically acclaimed classic FPS titles, 3D Realms of Duke Nukem fame host annual fan celebrations, and small indie studios create beautiful hand drawn love letters to classics. Well as beautiful as giant, killer, demonic worms can be.