Review: Wrath: Aeon of Ruin

29 Apr 2024

Having covered the genre in the past, it should come as no surprise that I quite enjoy the classic style of shooters of the early days of 3D gaming, both online and single player. The early classics like the Doom, Quake, and Unreal franchises all have a magic to them that I personally think new shooters today just can’t quite match. Having to find and collect weapons, items, and health instead of duck-and-cover to restore health and being locked into a class specific loadout, it was definitely a different era. And arguably, a more thrilling and challenging one.

It’s with this mindset that I took on Wrath: Aeon of Ruin on. Developed by KillPixel Games and Slipgate Ironworks, and published by 3D Realms and Fulgrum Publishing, and available on all major platforms (the Switch version was played for this review), Wrath is designed to be a classic-styled FPS in the vein of those of the latter half of the 1990s, both in looks and gameplay, and joins a growing list of new-but-old-school shooters in recent years. So I’m sure to love it… right? Well, let’s dig in.

Everything Old is New Again

Like the games you know from back in the day, such as the original Doom, this game is light on, though not completely without, story elements, focusing heavily on action and exploration. You play an unseen character known simply as “Outlander.” For no clear or obvious reason, after being adrift on a ship of some sort, you arrive in an unknown world. Beckoned along by a mysterious, pure-white being known as the Shepherd of Wayward Souls, you are tasked with eliminating these Guardians of the Old World… for some reason.

Aside from a little dialogue here and there, mainly from the Shepherd, that’s about all you get. Hidden notes uncovered during the game add some additional lore, but for the most part, you’re just here to explore the environment and blast the bad guys. It’s another excuse plot that does just what it needs to do and little more, although those lore tidbits are more than what the game’s early predecessors offered. And it’s perfectly fine. If you’re here playing this, you’re most likely just here to blow up some grotesque demon beings just like the good ol’ days.

Arsenal of Ruin

When you fire up the game, the resemblance to Quake 1 in particular is uncanny. The texture work is almost identical, the graphics are full 3D, with that same polygon-y feel, though perhaps a bit more detailed. The overall game structure is even similar. After a tutorial level where you learn the (mostly simple) ropes and acquire your first weapon, the game begins proper in a quiet hub area, which the other main levels are connected to. Again, very similar to Quake, but considerably more vast. I should point out that Quake 1 is in fact my favorite FPS game from the 90s, so I’m quite pleased by the resemblance.

From that hub, you can play the other levels in basically any order you wish. In each one, you’ll battle a range of enemies that frequently try to jump scare you right after collecting a new weapon or powerup (“artifact”). It’s a tried and tested style and it really does take you back. The gameplay is likewise very straightforward; survive as you make you way to the end of the level and kill anything that moves.

Perhaps unironically, while everything’s been fairly solid so far, things unravel a bit with the game’s defining mechanics: The Artifacts and the saving system. First, we’ll discuss the latter. The game uses a somewhat unique system for game saves, which is specifically designed to help maintain the challenge level of the game. You can save whenever and wherever you like, much like the old school games, but only if you posess one or more soul tether items. After using one, when you die (or whenever you like) you can return to where the soul tether was placed. There are a small handful of these in each level, and the idea is limit the abuse of game saving by requiring you to decide carefully when and where to use your limited saves. In addition to this, the game is also saved when you use a healing shrine (one time use), and an autosave occurs when transitioning between levels and the hub.

There are three levels of difficulty: easy, normal, and hard, plus a fourth available after beating hard. These terms are deceptive though, as the game is quite a challenge even on the lower difficulties. Higher ones will also limit the number of soul tethers you can carry. The limited saving, while the purpose is understandable as some people do consider “save-scumming” (i.e. saving constantly so you can go back after any time you make a mistake) a form of cheating, is more frustrating than fun, and also a departure from the games it is inspired by. Thankfully there is an option to enable infinite saving, which gives you unlimited soul tethers. Unless you’re really hardcore, you’re probably going to turn this on, as avoiding damage in this game is quite difficult and you probably will die a lot, even on the lower difficulty settings. There’s nothing wrong with a challenge, but frankly, the saving mechanic is unnecessary and the player should be trusted to play in a way that works for them.

The other issue is the Artifacts. These are much like the powerups found in classic FPS games, but what makes them distinct is they can be held for use later instead of being consumed immediately. There are quite a variety available; there are artifacts that make you steal health when you kill enemies, make you invulnerable, or create a vapor cloud that causes enemies to turn on each other, among many others. The issue is these are quite rare. Perhaps not as rare as an invulnerability orb or berserk box in Doom, but because there are so many different kinds, you’re not likely to have the one you really want when you need it, rendering them “too awesome to use.” You will likely end up hoarding them and only using them if you really really have to, because you don’t want to not have them when you really need them.

Finally: The main levels are very large compared to those of the game’s predecessors. Just one level can easily take hours to complete, depending on how often you die and whether or not you have infinite saving enabled. Thus, while enjoyable, I find they can drag on for too long and after dying for the tenth time and clearing a particularly difficult section, you may find yourself asking “am I at the end yet?”

Classic Look, New Problems

I feel like I already covered the looks pretty well already. The game almost perfectly captures the look and feel of my favorite shooters from ages past. The environments are varied and lovingly crafted in their retro style. The sound is pretty authentic to the era, but some more interesting MIDI-style music tracks would be nice. The game favors a more ambient style, and it more or less works. It could use some more variation, but overall it’s still quite good.

If you read the headings, you probably saw the word “Problems.” In this case, they are (partially) specific to the Switch version we played for the review. The game seems to be locked to 30FPS, and given the comparatively simple 3D art to most games you’d play on the console today, it really should be capable of running at 60 on the console. In an FPS game like this, 30FPS is really not ideal. It’s steady and stable, but the point remains that it should be better than this, even on the Switch, given the game’s level of graphics sophistication.

There’s another issue that is actually more control related. Despite the existence of an “aim assist” option, aiming with a controller in this game has proven pretty difficult. The gyro control mode theoretically would help on the Switch, but the sensitivity is pretty low and you have to pretty wildly tilt the controller to make the view move enough. I’m not really sure if the Aim Assist actually does anything at all, because it seemed to me like my aim had to be really spot on to hit anything, particularly with hitscan weapons (shotgun and similar) and I tried playing both with it on and off and couldn’t feel a difference.

Incurring my Wrath

The developers of Wrath really nailed the retro shooter asthetic for the game, as well as the core gameplay elements, making it a new game that definitely hearkens back to a classic gaming era where 2D was beginning to look passé (though it never actually went away thankfully!). Unfortunately it does have its share of pain points working against it.

Some of the pain points can be owed to the fact that this game really targets fans of the challenging shooters of yesterday rather than people exploring the genre today. A few others, like the unexpectedly low Switch performance and the honestly unnecessary save-scumming prevention system, aren’t so easily excused. The game works fine, but if you can, play it on PC. This game deserves a mouse and keyboard and 60+ FPS.

It is for these reasons I issue it a score with my recommendation for serious genre fans, who will likely eat this one up as it presses the right buttons. But for those of you who weren’t around for games like Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Unreal, or Hexen, there may be better entry points to the classic FPS genre.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by 3D Realms for Nintendo Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.