Before you’re even 100% certain of what you’re doing or who you are in Project Warlock, you’re put in a room with a magical throwing knife, a staff that shoots lightning, and a couple of pissed-off spiders who aren’t there to thank you for playing their game. Within 10 seconds of starting, I’m back in high school, in 1998, installing any old creaky Doom WAD a friend tells me about over AIM for the hell of it, without a single blessed clue what needs doing except that anything that isn’t me must die.
That’s really the main draw of Project Warlock, a game that wears its ’90s FPS inspirations loudly and proudly. Despite a few interstitial cards between areas, there’s no deep story or motivation or pageantry to be found here. It’s just you and your arsenal of magical and military weaponry vs the supernatural hordes. At any given moment, it’s paying deep homage to Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Heretic, Quake, Duke Nukem–the list goes on. The question, however, is what exactly does Project Warlock bring to the table that’s unique? The answer is, ultimately, not a whole lot, but what it does, it certainly does well enough.
The style clash between all the game’s wild, anachronistic elements certainly counts for something. This is a game where you can take out lurching cyborgs with a crossbow, wield laser rifles against abominable snowmen, and kill Lovecraftian horrorbeasts with a submachine gun. That mix makes for a smirking, free-wheeling sort of game where every problem has a brute-force solution from somewhere in the annals of history or legend. If a shotgun can’t fix all your problems in this game, a fiery magic spell probably will, and vice versa. There isn’t necessarily a wrong approach for many of Project Warlock’s challenges. As long as you know which button pulls the trigger and which one opens doors, you’re generally fine. And no matter which weapon you wield–from magic staffs to double-barrelled shotguns to sticks of dynamite–the vast majority of your arsenal packs an absolute wallop when it hits.
The catch, of course, is that Project Warlock periodically does demand more of you than just killing everything in sight, and the game’s dedication to not getting in your way with pesky exposition or rudimentary tutorials can work against it. When you start the game, it’s safe to assume that your basic melee weapon for when you run out of ammo–which happens quite a bit in the early hours–is a slow but powerful axe. It’s not until you take a look at the controls in the options menu that you realize each weapon has a magical alternative. Instead of the axe, you can switch to an enchanted dagger of some sort that can shank enemies that get too close–but it can also be thrown an infinite number of times, often doing more damage than the weaksauce capgun they give you and call a pistol. New weapons, spells, and powerups just kind of spontaneously happen in this game for the most part. Those that don’t just randomly drop out of enemies and barrels, you can get by spending perk points–currency gained every time you level up–but the XP needed to gain them is slow to accumulate, and it’s not until you experiment with the various upgrades for your weaponry, stat boosts, and spells that you start to get a handle on how to do some real damage instead of chipping away at the more formidable foes. That can take some time, and it’s a real problem that there’s nothing in-game that tells you about any of it.
That’s fine in situations where failing miserably is expected, and failing has low stakes. On its normal difficulty, however, Project Warlock has a set number of extra lives to use, after which it’s game over, and progress is completely wiped with no continues. Much of Project Warlock is fairly easy to navigate, with difficulty often ramping up in terms of sheer numbers of enemies rather than any one particular enemy type posing a threat. Bosses, however, have a habit of smacking you around with cheap hits, and throwing yourself against that wall without being mindful that you are mortal is a disheartening shock to the system. The casual difficulty option thankfully gives you the infinite lives such a game demands, but it’s logical to be a bit disappointed about a roguelike element being thrown into a game that otherwise rewards haphazard bravery.
The only other modern flourishes the game has mostly come from the look and sound. While it’s still using garish 2D FPS sprite mapping for the graphics, there’s an impressive level of interactivity with the environments, from being able to break a castle’s stained glass windows in an explosion to the light spell you can use to brighten a dark area at will. The art style isn’t without its flaws, however. The way every object in range turns with you to remain flat is a bit dizzying after a while and is all the more pronounced given the big, bright, Minecraft-y voxels used to build everything. In general the way each stage is laid out starts to feel constrained and uninspired after a while. There isn’t really a sense of verticality or an architectural logic to how these areas are designed. But again, in its own weird way, that, too, is a gentle reminder of what it was like to play FPS games in the ’90s. The soundtrack, on the other hand. is actually the best part of the game, melding old-school synth riffs on thrash, speed, and prog metal with dark, modern EDM beats. It sounds like a Hotline Miami game that takes place in Hell, and in the later hours, hearing what kind of tune we get next became a primary motivator for me.
When I look back on ’90s FPS games, there are things unique to each series that immediately come to mind. It’s easy to remember Doom’s Martian landscape desecrated with Satanic symbols and the distant snarls beckoning me closer. I remember feeling like an all-powerful wizard in Hexen, burning orcs and sorcerers alive with the fire I conjured from my hands. I remember the instantly iconic nailgun in Quake, and Nine Inch Nails telling me in the background that everything around me is about to learn a harsh lesson. But there isn’t really anything particularly memorable about Project Warlock that’s separable from its inspirations. The game isn’t without its charms in the moment, but when its inspirations are so readily available, it doesn’t really have much to offer against the real deal.