While on my trek through old school first person shooters I started getting suggestions for a(nother) 1997 game called Blood. Many seem to consider it the best Build-engine game over Duke Nukem 3D and the original 1997 Shadow Warrior. I can see why they think that, but for some reason I was only able to make it through the first episode (the first seven maps) of Blood before putting it down.
I guess it’s fitting that the first full game I ever play from developer Monolith Productions (F.E.A.R.) is in fact its very first game. Build-engine games seem to be basically first person shooters using the same building blocks, separating themselves mainly through different themes: Hollywood Schwarzeneggerism with Duke, Orientalism with Shadow Warrior, or the Vietnam War with Nam. If you don’t know about Blood (I didn’t until around last year), the thing with this game seems to be early 20th century cosmic horror… at least that’s what I think. It deals with things like Tchernobog and gunslingers and takes place in 1928.
Otherwise it’s pretty much a first person shooter of that era. You explore maze-like levels gated by keys and shoot a bunch of different enemies balanced around a vast array of weapons.
I think I’ll admit one reason why people see it as the best Build-engine game — its level design is smarter than that of Duke or Shadow Warrior. Levels are still gated by keys, but everything is laid out in a way that’s less confusing. I think the levels in Blood are slightly more linear than its Build-engine brethren. You still have to explore and investigate in order to progress, but the path to each key is fairly clearly laid out. At the same time, it employs successful circular level design so that when you do get that key, you also around the same time usually unlock some kind of shortcut back to the door it opens. It’s the kind of thing Dark Souls is really good at.
The main reason I can’t stick with Blood though is because I really don’t like its enemy placement and the difficulty resulting from it. I found the game really hard, even compared to other shooters of the era like Doom, Duke, and Shadow Warrior. In my opinion it’s because enemies in Blood are placed to where you almost never see them until you’re already taking damage.
You turn a corner or open a door, within a second a group of enemies turns toward you and deals 30 damage, you step back out, ready a stick of dynamite, and throw it back around the corner. That’s pretty much how a lot of encounters went for me in Blood. Mostly it’s the monks. They’re like the undead marines in Doom but with far faster reaction time. I had to reload saves a lot and go through levels knowing where all the enemies were, which I didn’t even have to do in other shooters of the era. This is assuming all these games are being played in the middle difficulty by the way. Even Dark Souls gives you just enough crucial seconds to anticipate enemy encounters before you’re attacked.
The (in my opinion) cheap difficulty wasn’t the only thing that ultimately put me off Blood though. The second thing, like the difficulty, is very subjective — it’s the lack of a central “hook” to the game.
It’s kind of hard to describe, but I’ll try to do so by comparing it to the two other Build-engine games I played. Duke 3D is built around LA and a Hollywood action hero caricature. In it you shoot aliens, mostly with a shotgun. Shooting those aliens with that shotgun (and other weapons) is fun. Everything else — the level design, the audio design, the humor, is built on the foundation of the fun alien-killing. Shadow Warrior is built around the player killing orientalist monstrosities, mostly with a katana. It has good level design, some situations that might give you a nice chuckle, and some other gimmicks, but you get drawn into them because the central thing of killing monsters with a katana is fun.
Maybe I’m just not into cosmic horror in particular, but I didn’t find that fun core in Blood. Maybe it’s also because I couldn’t figure out what the game’s “central” weapon is. Doom an Duke have the shotgun. They have other weapons you’re supposed to use too, but the shotgun is the most fun to use out of all of them and becomes a linchpin of each game. For Shadow Warrior it’s the katana. The closest thing to that in Blood seems to actually be the dynamite, which works sort of like grenades in modern shooters. It’s a very odd kind of weapon to use in a 90’s shooter, especially as frequently as you do in Blood. There’s a shotgun — a sawed-off even, but it’s kind of weak and sort of relegatet to the status of just another gun like the pistol (which is a flare gun in this game) or tommy gun. The unusual weapon selection in Blood (which includes a voodoo doll) is probably one if its strong points for some people, but I kind of need one weapon to prevail over the others to tie the whole game together.
The way the enemy placement in Blood forces you to be cautious with your approach and ammo reserves, along with the horror theme, actually reminds me of Resident Evil 4 and The Evil Within. It kind of feels like Evil Within if it had been made in the mid 90’s. Even RE4 however had a central weapon — the pistol. The RE4 pistols were fairly powerful — powerful enough to remain reliable throughout the game, fun to fire, and had a surprising number of uses from location-specific damage to triggering environmental hazards to even blocking projectiles.
I’m not a game designer, but maybe I would have liked Blood more if the monks were just a bit slower. In other 90’s shooters I felt like after enemies appeared I always had a couple seconds to adjust and re-engage before having taken huge amounts of damage. Or maybe if it were purely a western-themed shooter or purely a conventional horror-focused shooter. Maybe if the central “fun” thing was shooing zombies with the shotgun (the most effective weapon against them is actually the melee weapon) that would have been better.
I think the same issue is why I couldn’t get into Spelunky. I could see it was a well-made game, but could never figure out how I was supposed to play it or what central action made it fun. Back over to Monolith Productions, the same issue is why I could never get into F.E.A.R.. I never figured out its main selling point. The Japanese horror themes never seemed to affect the shooting action, and as a shooter it looked extremely conventional to me.
Maybe this is all my mistake, but I’ve chosen to move on and let fans enjoy these games in peace.