Reinventing the basics
While gaming has seen remakes aplenty, a more carefully planned approach is the spiritual successor. Developers who take on projects like this must try to appeal to both fans of the original, the modern audience, and also create something of their own that doesn’t feel like a sequel to a game they don’t have the rights to. With recent games such as Ion Fury, Bombshell, and Dusk imitating the classic PC shooters of the 1990's, developers Bounding Box Software also decided to try their hand with Prodeus, a Doom-inspired title that plays and looks like that original classic FPS.
Prodeus does not have much of a story. In fact, it doesn’t really have a narrative to grab onto at all. It's one thing to be minimalistic, but this shooter forgoes any sense of understanding as to what is happening. You can piece together there's some kind of virus or an invasion from another dimension, you are fighting Prodeans and forces of Chaos, but there are no mission briefings, no journals or logs to find, and no audio dialogue. Each mission has a quick text intro, but the usefulness of that information varies. A back-to-basics approach is fine, but there's literally no story here to grab on to, other than inferring vague hints from events. And interestingly, the game still chooses to end with a cliffhanger – which is a confusing decision, as it both annoys the player and also makes you reflect back to how little narrative there is.
The campaign is split into individual levels, and you progress between them on a largely linear overworld map. There are occasional diversions, such as being able to take a shortcut to a later level if you’ve explored with extreme diligence and collected enough Runes during the levels. There are also a few special weapon trials, challenging players to complete a course as quickly as possible with a given gun. Lastly, there's a shop area that you can visit, and it's a bit pointless to have to backtrack to it and load it as a level. You simply run through to the end where you can spend Ore Fragments (the 2nd type of currency in the game) to unlock new weapons and abilities.
So for the most part, you'll just be moving from level to level, completing them and progressing through the campaign that largely consists of shooting tons of enemies and doing some exploration. To say that Prodeus is a remake of the original Doom wouldn't be fair; nor is it an imitation. Instead, it's a worthy tribute to that first person classic shooter. From the outset, the game's most striking feature is its stylized visuals. It's a 3D game, but everything has been pixelated and reduced in resolution to look like it was created in another era, from the walls and buckets of blood spilled all over them, to the gunfire and smoke particle effects. Even the enemies and your own weapons are animated with the same effect, so they are not smooth and have noticeable frames missing when in motion. The UI is a bit annoying though, taking up way too much of the screen. All of this is accompanied by a rock-infused soundtrack that's more in line with the more recent Doom remakes; but while the music is good, it kicks in and drops out fairly artificially as the action picks up, and it's rarely a smooth transition. Still, it's fitting and certainly matches the chaos.
Like the visuals, the gameplay is smooth and very focused on the basics. Moving around feels good and you've got an option to jump, sprint, and dash. And over the course of the game, you unlock more and more weapons to blast enemies with. The weapons range from a pistol to two types of shotguns, a laser weapon, a fire-blob thrower, a machine gun, and more. There's definitely lots of variety, most weapons have an alt-fire mode, and you'll often need to swap between your arsenal as ammo runs dry. Shooting feels satisfying throughout, and despite the pixelated look, enemies have a few dismemberment animations and there's plenty of blood and goo that ends up covering the level after you're done with it. To replenish health, ammo, and get some armor, you run around the level collecting it as pickups, in another old-school approach. Though it can cause slight confusion that plasma ammo and health are both a type of blue canister. It also feels like you are constantly being forced to use the shotgun – it takes out most targets in two hits, and its alternate fire mode makes it a long-range hitter. Every other weapon usually drains of ammo, and you find yourself back with the shotgun very often.
While blasting away at enemies is fun, over its six hour runtime things do get quite repetitive. Much of that comes from a lack of enemy variety. You'll face zombie-like melee enemies, zombies that throw fireballs at you, floating enemies that also shoot at you, and rarely some tougher foes such as those wielding miniguns, or mini-bosses that have tons of health. Still, there are too few changes to the formula, and none of the enemies require an adjustment in strategy of simply strafing around the room and blasting away. Halfway into the campaign, a new version of the same enemies get introduced – they turn blue, get a bit more health, but are otherwise the same. There is no correlation between using a specific weapon against a specific enemy. Truth be told, even though the combat works and is initially enjoyable, the lack of enemy variety makes the game a drag in its later stages as you simply get tired of blasting away for so long. The game also doesn’t make it clear why you start certain levels without some weapons, even if you had them before.
One good reason to see Prodeus to the end, though, is its great level design. Things start off simply – you are guided through linear paths to the end, and the geometry is a very old-school style of crude. However, the deeper you go, the more pure fun the levels become, from trying to find every secret, to some entertaining natural set pieces, like putting you into a tight hallway with a minigun, letting you activate a deadly laser or platform that slices/crushes foes, or making you dodge sniper fire. The level design is quite entertaining all the way through to the end, and though it often follows the formula of having you side-track to find a key or two before you can progress, it remains engaging. You are also constantly teased by items behind locked gates or windows, prompting you to explore. There is a 3D map that you can find on each level, but its usefulness is limited. Next to the pure act of shooting, the level design is probably the best aspect of the game.
Exploring yields you blue Runes, which can be used to unlock shortcuts on the overworld map, and Ore Fragments that are used in the shop. Depending how much you explore, Ore might be limited, but there's nothing required to be purchased in the shop to beat the game. After unlocking two new weapons, your next purchases can be things like double-jump and extended dash, and more weapons. But these feel very much optional, as rewards for deep exploration, rather than necessities for future levels. New weapons are neat, but also aren't required.
The game has a few difficulty levels, and on normal you will rarely die – there are only a few killroom scenarios where you are absolutely flooded with foes. Dying simply lets you reset to a nearby portal checkpoint. At the end of each level, you are somewhat annoyingly asked to rate it, and are also provided a score based on completion time, enemies killed, secrets found and so on. These scores are displayed on leaderboards, offering some replay value for score-chasers.
After beating the campaign, you can delve into community-made maps, if that seems interesting, but the developers have set the bar quite high. You can also try out multiplayer, but you'll have to bring friends along. You have to create an account on the developer's own multiplayer server system (to allow for cross-play), and while it can be automatically done by using your Steam profile, it's slightly questionable what information you're actually giving up. While MP seems fully featured – you can play the campaign in 4 player co-op, enter 16 player Deathmatch, TDM, and capture the flag – there is unfortunately nobody online. The game uses a player-made lobby system, and over the course of the launch week constantly trying, we were unable to complete a single multiplayer round. There are zero lobbies in North America (both West and East regions). We tried to make one, and after an hour of waiting, no players ever joined. As such it's not possible for us to say how well the multiplayer works, but we can say it's entirely void of players and so you'll have to bring your own friends.
Prodeus does a great job of capturing that old-school Doom feeling and gameplay – at least initially. Movement, shooting, and level design are all around very good, and the stylistic visuals are very well done. However, with little narrative content and a lack of enemy variety the already short campaign manages to feel like a grind towards the end. Given its relatively high $30 asking price, this title will appeal to fans looking for an old-school shooter experience, but it doesn't quite live up to some of the more modern expectations.