Project Warlock II Early Access Lays a Solid Foundation for a Fun Retro-Inspired FPS

Project Warlock II Early Access Review

The resurgence of retro-inspired first-person shooters in the indie scene has birthed some of the best games the genre has ever seen. Numerous as they may be, it’s hard to argue with a lot of these “boomer shooters” because many of them look and play the part. They prioritize fast and frantic combat with interesting visual styles that both pay homage to the classics of yesteryear and are able to subtly take advantage of the newest technological advances. Perhaps their most attractive trait is their simplicity. Most of these games are a virtual shooting gallery. Some involve platforming or light puzzle solving, like finding keys and getting to the exit, but boomer shooters provide an experience that doesn’t concern itself with the cover mechanics, crafting, or endless customization options that we see so often in the AAA space.

Project Warlock II is a new retro-inspired FPS that just entered Early Access on Steam and is a sequel to 2018’s Project Warlock. The original game, inspired by the classics DOOM, Wolfenstein, and Heretic, was primarily an FPS with the lightest of RPG-like progression mechanics. In Project Warlock, you play as a warlock who battles the armies of Hell through a number of different locales with a wide variety of guns and magic spells in your arsenal. Killing demons and collecting treasures gives XP which increases your warlock’s level. You gain skill points that you can put into 4 categories that boil down to melee, health, mana, and ammo capacity. You also get to pick a perk every 5 levels that gives you a new ability like being able to phase through enemies or increasing your movement speed. There are also upgrade points that you could spend on acquiring new magic spells or weapon modifications that would dramatically change how a weapon looks and performs. Playing the game itself, you explore levels made up of short stages usually looking for color-coded keys that open locked doors that lead to the exit (very much like the original DOOM games). Levels are grouped into episodes, and each episode covers a bunch of different visual aesthetics like medieval castles, Egyptian tombs, and futuristic cities, all while adding new enemies and changing the item pickups to reflect the different environments. I decided to play the original before hopping into this early access build of Project Warlock II, the game is a blast if you are looking for a more old-school shooter experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Project Warlock II shares many aspects with its predecessor, but many of the game's systems have been fundamentally changed and expanded. While the original felt close in style to the original DOOM and Wolfenstein, Project Warlock II feels more like the popular shooters of the 90s like DOOM 64 and Quake (references that are specifically listed on the game’s Steam store page). Interested in seeing the gameplay for yourself? Check out Sri’s stream where he played through the opening episodes. The game has full 3D environments with much taller and wider spaces to move around. The original game could at times feel quite claustrophobic with its maze-like hallway interiors, so the increased play space is immediately felt. Not only are the levels spatially larger, but they also take quite a bit longer to complete than the first game. Some of the stages in Project Warlock could take as little as 3 minutes to complete while each of the stages in the first episode of Project Warlock II took me upwards of 20 minutes.

While having bigger levels with actual elevation changes is a definite improvement, there are a couple of elements that I feel need addressing as development continues. First, because the levels are much bigger, it is easier to get lost in the environment. A lot of the walls of the environment begin to blend together with the pixel-art art style and some of the later levels in the episode have low visibility due to some atmospheric fog, making navigation that much more difficult. The game also doesn’t signpost super clearly where you should be going at any given time. This aspect isn’t exactly a negative, I actually appreciate the hands-off approach but there were a couple instances where I was just wandering around for minutes at a time until I found the next group of demons to take on which felt unnatural. 

The other issue I have with the levels in their current state is a sense of emptiness that’s felt in many spots. Both Project Warlock games love to hide secrets in the nooks and crannies of every level which are a lot of fun to discover. While playing through this initial level I made sure to seek out secret areas while romping through the land, but even still I came across a number of areas in the various missions that seemingly didn’t have any secrets, any item pickups, any enemies to battle, or any collectibles. Now I wouldn’t want these areas to be filled with just enemies, I think the combat has a pretty well-established pace in its current form, but there needs to be some additional incentives put in to inspire me to go and explore these larger levels. Without them, I go into an area and essentially feel like the lost Travolta meme, wondering what the point is of increasing the size and length of the levels if there is nothing worthwhile to find or experience. I found a couple hidden areas that featured a bounce pad in order to get back to a previously explored area, but I don't recall seeing them utilized as much in the combat arenas. Even adding these bounce pads to some of the more sparse areas to initiate a jumping puzzle or to access a shortcut would go a long way in filling in these areas and adding a bit of variety to the exploration and combat. It should be noted that seeing as the game is still in an early state, these levels are not in their final state and the developers will most likely be fleshing these areas out more as development progresses. 

Another pleasant surprise to see was the addition of a jump button. The original did not have any sort of jumping mechanic, which while it lent itself an authenticity to the era of shooters it was attempting to replicate, it did end up hamstringing some of the later-level designs. When I play a game like this, I’m looking for snappy and precise aiming and I’m also looking at my options for traversal. When the action starts popping off, I want to be on the move and be able to bob, weave, and dodge anything the onslaught of enemies throws my way. I also noticed many areas in the stages that now include light platforming challenges or secrets hidden in spots that require jumping which just adds a nice bit of variety to break up the moment-to-moment gameplay. Running around at high speeds and jumping around these arenas is just plain fun on its own so I am glad the developers at Buckshot Software have included jumping this time around.

In the opening area of the first stage, a number of tutorial boards describe some of the new mechanics in the game and I’d like to take a paragraph or two to go through the new gameplay changes. Outside of jumping, there is now an armor system in the game. There are two tiers of armor, Blue armor and Yellow Armor. Each armor type offers a different protection percentage (Blue armor offers 33% incoming damage protection while Yellow offers 50% protection), and the armor type you have equipped will be swapped should you pick up the other type, so be mindful of which type of pickups are in your vicinity so you don’t accidentally switch your armor type out on accident. Enemies now have body part hitboxes that receive different damage modifiers. In the original game, it didn’t matter where you shot an enemy, all that mattered was that you landed your shot. This time around, headshots do 200% damage, body shots do 100% damage, and leg shots do 70% damage, with the added benefit of being able to stun enemies and cancel their attacks. Enemies also have resistances like being more fortified against melee attacks vs ranged weapons. Speaking of melee attacks, the melee combat in Project Warlock II has been vastly improved over the first game. Functionally it’s not much different but it feels way more satisfying, impactful, and effective than it did the first time around.

The next two mechanics go hand in hand, that is the combo system and the cooldown abilities. As you rack up a kill count, you will now notice a combo meter on the side of the screen whose purpose doesn’t reveal itself until you unlock your first cooldown ability, this game’s version of magic spells. The three cooldown abilities in the current build of the game are Akimbo which summons a second weapon to use temporarily, a frost spell that freezes enemies within a certain area, and a fireball spell that shoots a volley of fireballs from your warlock’s hands for a short time. After using one of these abilities, they will enter a cooldown state where they need some time to recharge before they are usable again. This is where the combo system comes in. While abilities are in cooldown, if you start building up a combo by blasting incoming enemies, in addition to dropping health or ammo pickups they will also drop cooldown reduction items. By picking these items up, they will reduce one of your cooldown timers by a second or two, depending on which color item you pick up. I don’t remember seeing this type of combo system and reward in a shooter before and I think it’s a fantastic way to incentivize using your abilities and staying in the action as much as possible.

As a result of these new mechanics and systems, the combat in Project Warlock II feels much deeper and more engaging than the original. There are more things to consider and more moment-to-moment decisions to be made that give the combat a satisfying feel while still retaining its more simplistic nature. Seemingly the XP and character leveling system has been removed which is a small disappointment. I actually enjoyed the more fantastical element of the original game and the feeling that I was building a unique character that the leveling system provided. That said, in its current form I don’t see any benefit that that sort of leveling system in this game would provide. They are making a different type of game and this game is already playing with enough as it is.

There are other notable improvements to Project Warlock II over its predecessor that are pleasant to see even in this early state. Before launching into episode one, you are asked to select a character, the only available character being a warlock named Palmer. According to the Project Warlock II Steam page, the idea is that each episode will have its own playable character with their own weapons, spells, and playstyles. Sounds promising but seeing as there is only one episode available at the time of writing, we will have to wait and see just how different these characters play from one another. 

On the whole, the pixel art, character models, and animations have all received noticeable improvements. In the original Project Warlock, animations had few actual keyframe changes which isn’t a bad thing. You could see parts of certain enemies break off as you blasted at them but there just wasn’t a whole lot of variance. The improvements made in Project Warlock II are immediately noticeable, enemies are much more lively in motion, weapons have more keyframes of animations from reloads to sword swings. NPC’s, weapons, and even the UI just have more detail this time around. And possibly one of the biggest and best new additions is a saving system. Yes, the first game did not have autosaves during missions or quicksaves or anything, if you died during a stage, it was back to the beginning. This time around seeing as the levels are much longer, it necessitates having some sort of system in place to make sure people are not having to restart from scratch 20 minutes into a level. These improvements are all promising to see even in this early stage.

Another new element I’d like to highlight is the inclusion of a bestiary. Scattered throughout the levels are pages of a bestiary, each page reveals a bit of background information on a certain monster as well as a hint as to what their strengths and weaknesses are. Each page also includes a picture of the creature in question. I like this addition for a number of reasons. First, I like that the pages are treated as hidden collectibles, usually inside of secret areas. It’s a nice little reward for going out of your way to explore. I mentioned above that some areas felt a little empty and needed more reasons to inspire exploration. I think including more collectibles or unlockables in this way would remedy some of my misgivings toward it. Something like unlockable music tracks, super pickups like an overshield or temporary infinite ammo, and other collectibles that flesh out the world or backstory are just some ideas I had while playing. Due to the brief blurbs in the bestiary entries and the multiple characters, it seems like there is a bit more of a focus on storytelling in Project Warlock II. There was a “story” in the first game, but it was really only delivered in a small text blurb after each episode ended. I think the bestiary is a good stepping stone for the developers to bring out some additional story elements that they might not be able to convey through gameplay, level design, or cutscenes.

I brought up unlockable music tracks and wanted to briefly touch on the music. What’s here is pretty good, it's catchy enough without getting annoying or looping too frequently which was an issue I had with the music in the first game. It is a bit more atmospheric I feel than the first game (perhaps another homage to DOOM 64), to the point of the later levels feeling like there isn’t much actual music. The Steam page references a “heavy metal soundtrack”, I don’t always get a “heavy metal” sense from the music, but again it's an area where this can be expanded on in the future. Might even be fun to include some of the tracks from the original Project Warlock as unlockable tracks that can be played during gameplay.

Now, what would a FPS be without its weapons? Unsurprisingly, the weapons in Project Warlock II feel great to use. You begin the episode with a machine gun and a claymore sword, eventually picking up a double barrel shotgun, a cannon, and a magic staff. The weapon models look great in this new art style, the sound effects are crisp and impactful, and swapping weapons with the scroll wheel has been another massive improvement over the first game. Swapping weapons in Project Warlock felt very clunky to the point of having to use the number bindings to swap weapons effectively which led to taking unnecessary hits from enemies. This time around weapon swapping is lightning fast, to the point that some of the tutorials even mention incorporating weapon swapping into your combat strategies.

Like the first game, each of these weapons can be upgraded, and these upgrades drastically change how the weapons look and perform, as well as unlocking some alternate fire modes. Upgrading weapons in this game happens at specific upgrade machines, people familiar with the game Bioshock can think of these machines like the “Power to the People” machines in that game. You select a weapon you want to upgrade and you have two options. You choose the upgrade you want and the machine becomes inactive. If you want more upgrades, you need to find other machines. And you are going to want to find these machines. Some of the upgrades include turning the double barrel shotgun into an automatic shotgun that doesn’t need to be reloaded, the machine gun can turn into a laser rifle with higher damage, and you can even imbue the magic staff with lightning or fire magic. Once you select one upgrade, another upgrade becomes available that gives the weapon an alt-fire attack, like the shotgun firing an incendiary shell that catches enemies on fire or the laser rifle getting a scope that allows for more accurate long-distance shots. If I had to share one negative feeling I had about the weapon upgrades is that I actually feel they may be a little too plentiful. Every mission has at least one upgrade station, usually more than one. By the time I was halfway through the episode, I had already upgraded and changed my main weapons, and by the end of the episode I was starting to miss the variety those original weapons provided me. Seeing as future playable warlocks will have their own unique weapons, perhaps this criticism will be alleviated, but it might be nice to have the option to revert weapons to a previous version or even just allow the ability to keep ahold of the old weapons whenever a newer upgraded version is unlocked. 

The other majorly important aspect of an FPS that needs to be discussed are the enemies. There are a bunch of new enemies in Project Warlock II. I mentioned above about how the new sprites and animations look great so I won’t go into much more detail here. A standout new enemy from a gameplay perspective are the Assassins, quick-moving enemies that can teleport behind you for some quick damage. I enjoyed the unpredictability of these enemies, causing me to turn my back on an incoming horde of demons in order to halt their sneak attack. Some enemies are only concerned with melee attacks, some enemies like the Imps and Boney’s have ranged attacks that will make short work of you, especially when playing on the harder difficulty. The easier difficulty setting is pretty manageable but can still manage to trip you up if you are not careful. Turning up the difficulty not only increases the damage enemies can dish out, but it also increases the amount of enemies in a given level, as well as the speed of certain projectiles. Seriously, be careful around the Boney’s, they don’t want to give you any time to breathe. Seeing as the theme of a level would change episode to episode in the original Project Warlock, the only theme for this first episode is the pseudo-medieval theme, so I can’t really speak much to the overall enemy variety. But if they are approaching Project Warlock II the same as the first, I look forward to seeing what other cool-themed enemies the developers have planned for the later episodes.

The last thing I want to touch on are the bosses. Most of the boss fights start to blend together a bit partially because they don’t really require any different strategies to take on. If you plan your upgrades accordingly in the first level, (ie: getting the automatic shotgun upgrade) you can activate the akimbo ability and absolutely melt the first boss's health bar, which, don’t get me wrong, is extremely satisfying. But most of the bosses just require you to strafe, point, and shoot. The only exception I would say is the final boss of episode one. I don’t want to spoil what the fight entails, but it is a two-phase fight with unique mechanics in each phase while other enemies spawn all around you to keep the pressure up. This boss fight is a standout because it forces you to approach it in a different way while also keeping track of things like your ammo consumption and positioning (can’t just strafe willy-nilly in phase two). The bosses in the original Project Warlock were also pretty similar, but some of them incorporated unique mechanics which made them stand out a bit more. Overall, the bosses are alright, but if they get similar attention that the final boss of episode one gets, then they stand to be some of the most engaging parts of the combat.

Even in its early state, Project Warlock II has a strong foundation from which Buckshot Software are building upon. There are aspects about it that clearly need more fleshing out and things that will be iterated on as development proceeds, but there are a number of interesting mechanics that are being experimented with here. The core gameplay loop is solid which is reassuring to see along with all the general gameplay improvements over the original game. This is definitely one to keep an eye out for. If you want to give the game a try or support the game’s development, Project Warlock II is now available for purchase in Early Access on Steam for $16.99 USD. The original Project Warlock is also available for purchase on Steam if you are looking to get caught up before hopping into the sequel. 

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