Long ago, before it was cool to call out copycat games, there was the “DOOM clone.” The classic first-person shooter from id Software – not the first of its kind, but arguably the one responsible for popularizing the genre – would inevitably pave the way for a slew of titles in the same vein. Not all of these iterations were good; few brought little more than a different coat of paint, though some managed to put a more unique spin on the formula while adhering to the source material. Project Warlock is an example of the latter – paying homage to its FPS ancestry through its combination of retro-inspired visuals, fast-paced shooting, and modern, supplementary systems.
Project Warlock, like the ’90s DOOM before it, puts minimal stock in its narrative, relying almost completely on its looting and shooting rather than an intriguing plot or interesting characters. The mysterious warlock, this game’s “Doomguy” equivalent, has made it his mission to eradicate all demons, come hell or high water. And hell certainly comes, though it is never revealed what actually drives the warlock to attempt this dangerous quest. Someone has to do it, though, and the first-person perspective and protagonist devoid of any meaningful backstory makes it feel like you are the warlock. It has a way of connecting you with the character in ways that may not be possible with more developed ones. Regardless, the game lacks any real narrative meat beyond a few crumbs of dialogue presented after completing each of the five acts.
Project Warlock is a fast-paced FPS thats core loop will feel second nature to those that have played any of the early ’90s classic shooters, such as DOOM or Wolfenstein 3D, but may also bridge the gap for those without a nostalgic lens through some more modern components. The warlock will make his way through 60 levels, spread across five acts, all in an attempt to kill while not being killed himself. Most levels have you searching for color coded keys in order to progress, blowing up demons along the way, following the era appropriate bite-sized level length. The compact feel of the levels isn’t a bad thing, as history has proven how frustrating it can be when poorly designed areas are prolonged for no apparent reason. Project Warlock keeps things tight in that regard, instead providing 5-10 minute (or less, depending on your familiarity with the maps and personal goals) spurts of action that will never overstay its welcome.
Later levels can take upwards of 10-15 minutes due to monster density and danger, but can still blasted through much quicker than that if you know what you’re doing. It isn’t always beneficial to blast through these stages, however, since secret areas abound for those that are willing to explore them to the fullest. Surprisingly, many secrets are actually designed in a way that can actually save you time, since they often connect you to later areas of the map far earlier than natural progression would.
Project Warlock utilizes a life system and has four difficulty levels, with the lowest ignoring lives altogether while the highest limits them severely, among other changes. Between the two is a standard mode – the one I completed for this review – that uses life system but also gives you the opportunity to find additional “one-ups” out in the field. The difficulty here is a bit uneven; the first couple levels (after the intro) can be an absolute pain until you find some firepower, then it feels far too easy for quite some time. The last two acts, however, crank up the difficulty once more, and will absolutely punish the unfamiliar and those with two left feet. The boss battles can be a rush, too, with mobs of demons AND a big boss chasing you around the warzone. Your mileage with the difficulty will vary, of course, but it should be known that I found myself wanting to adjust the difficulty (both up and down) several times even though that isn’t even possible. This is simply due to how all over the place it feels – part of its “’90s charm,” perhaps, but I don’t recall DOOM or Wolfenstein 3D being this uneven in terms of difficulty.
Any FPS worth its salt will have firepower – lots of it, preferably – and Project Warlock features an impressive arsenal of 38 weapons. From the classic pistol, shotgun, and rocket launcher, to the more appropriately themed staff, there is a lot of weaponry to discover and experiment with in order to better brave the dangers ahead. The vast majority of these weapons can be upgraded with a currency scattered throughout the levels, though the player must visit the workshop – the only semblance of respite in between the carnage-filled levels – in order to put them to use. There are generally two upgrades to pick from for each of the major weapons, and that choice is permanent.
Weapon upgrades carry a lot of weight beyond simple damage increases – the pistol can be upgraded to a “flare gun,” for example, that will burn the target over time, causing increased damage (and completely cancelling out some enemy’s multiple forms) but at the expense of reduced projectile speed. The alternative form of the pistol upgrade also increases its damage and maintains a fast projectile speed, but expends two bullet per use. Arguments can be made for both, and your ultimate decision may depend on how you plan to, or have already built out your other weapons. As-is, the system encourages some replayability since you are unable to experience every upgrade in a single run.
Further emphasizing player customization and replayability are spells, stat point allocation, and perks, all of which are customized through the warlock’s aforementioned workshop. You can only visit the workshop naturally after completing a specific portion (not the entire act) of levels, though you can opt to teleport there at any time in exchange for one of your lives. Spells can occasionally be found in levels and are unlocked at the workshop, sharing the same token system that is used for upgrading weapons. Spells and certain weapons, like the staff, use mana while more traditional weaponry have their own associated ammo types. Ammo and mana are somewhat of a precious commodity early on, but ultimately end up being easy to maintain (in standard mode) just as long as you are juggling between a few different weapon types.
If resources do become an issue, ammo and mana capacity can be increased through the stat allocation system. Collecting treasure and killing enemies accrues EXP, granting a single stat point upon level up that can be distributed into one of four categories: strength (melee damage), life (health), spirit (mana pool and spell potency), and capacity (ammo capacity). Every five levels will also give you a perk point, used in the activation of a variety of passive bonuses. These perks range from increasing the odds of finding loot on enemies and destructible objects, to an assortment of combat-focused bonuses. Available perks depend on how you distribute stat points, as certain ones are gated behind stat thresholds that must be met first before they actually become available for purchase.
Project Warlock features the same atmospheric qualities of its ’90s brethren (more specifically, Catacomb 3-D due to their shared color limitations). Locations are often dark and dreary, though even the more vibrant destinations have more than their share of unsightly anomalies. Each act has a distinct look and feel, often accompanied by a brand-new assortment of unique demons to vanquish. For serious retro enthusiasts, there are also a ton of graphical sliders and retro filters – some which are modeled after specific hard configurations of yore – for you to tweak the visuals to your heart’s content.
Nobody wants to wield a peashooter when battling demons, and Project Warlock matches up fitting sound effects with the majority of its weapons. The same cannot be said for the enemies themselves, however, as what little sound effects are there are pretty underwhelming. This is one thing DOOM did well; the moans and groans of each enemy type that would not only leave you satisfied upon dispatching them, but also hint at their location even when they weren’t in your line-of-sight. Not only that, the sounds would help solidify that sense of constant tension and unease that should accompany any legitimate demonic romp. There are some instances here where you won’t hear the enemies at all, sneaking up on you due to a lack of quality and consistency with their sound effects. What is here is passable, of course, but more appropriate (and more consistent) enemy cries/taunts would have helped in a number of ways.
Metalheads will love most of what Project Warlock has to offer in the soundtrack department, as it is quite similar to the ever-popular DOOM soundtrack…mostly. The quality feels a bit uneven, at times, though the game makes every effort to always present zone-appropriate, metal-inspired tunes for you to enjoy as you delete the opposition. Some of them just don’t seem to have as much heart in them as others, though.
Point Of No Return
Although I’d love to say that Project Warlock is virtually bug free, it does feature something that could cause some players to restart certain levels. There are several spots that have a one-time use switch that acts as an elevator, and if you happen to back out of it, you could lock yourself out of an area permanently unless you restart the level. Project Warlock, like DOOM before it, likes to throw surprise enemies at you whenever you flip a switch, so I would habitually run in the opposite direction whenever I flipped a switch. This wasn’t an issue every time I flipped a switch – this evasive maneuver was quite useful in many situations – but it did make me miss some essential elevators, leaving me to hope to find a secret area that would put me back on course (else restart the level). Perhaps I’m missing something here, but I see no reason why these elevator rides need to be one-way, especially when they are mandatory to progression.
As a fan of both ’90s DOOM-esque shooters and RPGs, Project Warlock has been a real treat. It has very few faults, and those are easily outshined by its many qualities. Sometimes, you just need blow things up without being clogged up by dialogue and story bits, and Project Warlock provides this alongside some meaningful RPG progression systems. While not the longest experience out there – my slower, methodical run took between 10 and 15 hours to complete on standard mode – it features enough variety in difficulty and character progression to warrant subsequent playthroughs thereafter. Eight-year-old-me, secretly playing DOOM at a friend’s house, would have loved this game back in the day, though I’m not quite sure how I’d manage to play it across the 1,400 3.5″ floppy disks that it would have required!
Now that I’ve dated myself, I’ll go back to slaying demons with a fireman’s axe and crossbow.