The day I saw the introductory trailer for New Blood Interactive’s new Heretic-inspired shooter Amid Evil, I felt a call to action. I felt a call not to “reclaim our weapons,” or “save our lands,” as the narrator begged, but rather to explore the bizarre purple hallways and massive temples of whatever land this may be. I’ll get around to saving it later, I promise.
Like a kid trying to make sense of a Dungeons and Dragons ad in a 1980’s comic book, I had seen only the tiniest slice of this world, but instantly I wanted to know everything about it. I wanted to buy the tie-in novels for this game. I wanted there to be a Magic: The Gathering expansion set for Amid Evil just to read the flavor text on the cards. I entered Amid Evil with questions about the whos, whats, and whys. Now, having taken the plunge and examined every low-res inch of the pre-alpha, I can provide only the faintest whiff of an answer:
I do not belong here.
They did not want to be friends.
The first clue was that I got my ass kicked by the first guy. As I approach the first level’s moon temple entrance I'm greeted by pair of goons, as one might expect. Unlike standard-issue level one goons, however, these guys are not at all interested in serving as target practice. They're fast, aggressive, and out for blood because they do not want me in their moon temple. They rush with axes, dead set on keeping me out. Armed with an axe of my own, I swing and pray, leaving behind some disembodied heads and a lot of my HP.
At half health now, I poke around for some health orbs, since I apparently need them. I'm embarrassed for even considering the “hard” difficulty portal before deciding to choose the medium setting. I love a challenge, but really, I'm here to explore. I can test my mechanical skill later on the included horde mode, but for now I want to see how deep this temple was built into the surrounding cavern, and what lunar god it serves. While the fight was good fun, I'm more interested in the cryptic messages etched into the temple walls. “Our Leader, guardian of the moon, he now dreams of death and pain,” reads on. Tough times at the moon temple, I reckon.
Unfortunately, the goons (and later advanced goons and mega-goons) are having none of it. I can outrun them but only for so long, as they have a nasty habit of leaping through the vertical spaces in the level to catch up with me. I quickly shift my mindset—I'm no Doomslayer here. My faceless character is not an unstoppable force, but a mortal in way over his head. Even the tools at my disposal are unfamiliar: mana-powered swords and sticks that fire off projectiles like green arcs of energy and homing blue bolts, and a staff that shoots explosive planets. Tight.
Use your Soul Power with the planet-shooting staff and it'll start shooting stars.
Fortunately, the soul meter system does provide moments of pure fragging catharsis at regular intervals. Killed enemies drop souls and if you collect enough of them to fill the meter, your weapons become greatly empowered for a short time. Naturally, you are encouraged to use your empowered weapons to take down as many goons as possible, which in turn drops more souls, keeping the party rolling until you run out of goons. As enjoyable as it is to take down a clump of helpless monsters in a typical shooter, it is doubly gratifying to erase a room full of bastards who had legitimately been kicking my ass for the last 10 minutes.
Soul Power turns every weapon into a legit goon-deleter.
The levels do a great job of re-using space periodically to provide anchor points. You dive deeper and deeper into unfamiliar territory, looping back to a central area after making significant progress, like obtaining a key or triggering a button. I feel like I am always seeing something new, slightly disoriented at times, but rarely lost.
Near the end of the second level I wrap up a big soul power fight staged in a large open arena. I'm starting to get a grip on things, falling into a familiar rhythm of combat, exploration, and more combat. I'm beginning to feel comfortable, having won enough big fights to regain the pride I had lost when I nearly died to the first enemy in the game. I scan the walls and floor of the ruined celestial cathedral for the button that would open a door to the next room, or perhaps produce an elevator to the arena’s second floor. When I find it and step on it, this weird thing happens:
Is that an arcane ramp or are you just happy to see me?
Look at that thing. What even is it? Who made it, and why? It leads to the second floor, but I slip off of it the first time I try to ascend, shattering my brief sense of confidence. It is too narrow and oddly curved to climb it comfortably, cementing the feeling I had throughout the playthrough: this place wasn't meant for me. The beings of Amid Evil’s world aren’t like us. Their too-tall, too-narrow doorways weren’t constructed with clumsy humans in mind. The gods they serve aren’t interested in my mission to cleanse their realm of evil. All of the levels hold bizarre, illogical surprises like this.
While I only played through 12 of the 28 levels that will be available in the final release, the dark, opaque world makes Amid Evil one of the least predictable shooters I’ve played in recent memory, proof that simple graphics can be as powerful and mystifying as anything your 1080 Ti can render. The maps, small bits of lore, enemies and environments flawlessly ride the line of being weird, but clearly purposeful. Nothing here is weird for weird’s sake, which makes it all the more compelling when it doesn’t make much sense at first.
Compared to other retro FPS games, there hasn't been anything like it for some time. In DOOM, I’m very aware of my destination: I’m going to Hell and I’m going to frag some demons when I get there. The world is telling me a story, just not a very fresh one. In Serious Sam, I don’t know where I’m going but I’m very aware that it doesn’t matter. Desert level, jungle level, and so on. Sam's world isn’t telling me a story at all.
Amid Evil sits in the middle of this spectrum with a story to tell, but not one where I can guess the ending. Somebody built these uncomfortable platforms. Something stalked these tombs long before I got here. There’s a war here between astral and lunar cultists and humanity’s last hope thrust in-between, fighting for a world where he does not belong. Every space is imbued with a sense of history and purpose that makes Amid Evil's arcane fantasy feel grounded, as eccentric as it is. It's not just a string of big shooting arenas for the sake of it (but that stuff is good fun too).
And even though I don't belong there, I can’t wait to dig even deeper into the weird, pretty world of Amid Evil.