Scathe is an intense and brutal FPS with bullet-hell as a shtick, proudly wearing the developers' retro inspirations on its sleeves. Elements of groundbreaking shooters like Doom, Quake, and even Hexen are clearly evident throughout aesthetic and gameplay elements. Let's look at what this preview of the game has to offer.
It doesn't take long to figure out what to expect, as the title screen is straight out of the newest Doom games, a pounding metal soundtrack playing while the menacing main character stands there with a big freaking gun.
You play as that character, tasked by the Divine Creator with venturing into the underworld maze to fight the hellish enemies therein. Get the Hellstones, slaughter a bunch of demons, and get out alive. As with most games of the type, the story doesn't matter once the bullets start flying, so don't worry too much about it.
What does matter is the action, and there is plenty of that to be had. In the entry hall, the hub world that connects to the first set of rooms in the maze, you'll receive your first weapon, the Hell Hammer. It is the quintessential 'first gun' of a classic FPS, with infinite ammo (much appreciated when the action gets heavy) and a dual-shot explosive secondary fire mode with a cool-down.
Weapons are one of the biggest draws in a classic FPS, and the final release of the game will have a whole boatload of them. In my time with the preview, I only got my hands on the aforementioned Hell Hammer, which feels like it will be very useable throughout the game, and the electricity-based weapon called the Thunderbolt. The latter has a basic attack that felt particularly effective against the annoying flying enemies in the early rooms, and a secondary attack that chains electric damage between all nearby enemies. The full game will have a plethora of weapons including the ubiquitous shotgun as well as a crossbow that fires saw blades, along with several more options for your death-dealing pleasure.
Anyway, once you grab the Hell Hammer in the entry room, you'll choose a direction to go and head into the game's first stage. Which way you go determines which "biome" you see, as some levels have the classic industrial look of Doom and Quake, while others are set in a temple-like structure and some have a nature theme with trees and vines everywhere. It's nice to have different aesthetics instead of staring at the same browns, blacks, and lava-based levels all the time. Yes, this is the underworld, but that doesn't mean it has to be boring.
You'll quickly run into your first enemies, basic zombies called The Mindless that are nothing more than target practice. Soon enough, you'll be fighting real baddies, all various forms of demons that fly or run, shooting bullets or flames or both, and that's where the bullet-hell aspects come in. Pretty much every enemy type is shooting a huge stream of projectiles at you, which you need to swiftly dodge if you're to survive for any amount of time. The cast of baddies is well-designed and looks great, and a Demonarium on the main menu lets you learn more and appreciate the details of each one.
In some parts of the levels, you can use the architecture to your advantage, popping around columns or in and out of niches to shoot from a distance. Enemies won't stand still though, so you won't stay safe for long. You'll quickly learn to use your Dash move (essentially a sprint that makes you invulnerable while doubling as your melee attack, albeit with a cool-down) to get through the hail of bullets and away from, or towards, your foes. The dash is also essential for traversal across broken bridges and lava-filled pits, and for getting to many of the game's collectibles.
Those collectibles come in the form of Runes, which the game tells us we will need to grab in order to open the door to the last room that of course contains the boss. There are also things called Hellstones, which you need to find and collect too, though it wasn't immediately clear (at least to me) what function they serve. You'll also discover the game's weapons in your travels, as well as Dark Magic abilities that bring the classic Hexen influence into play, mixing arcane sensibilities with the classic gun-based combat. You will eventually have several magic abilities at your disposal, and while in my time with the preview I only discovered a ring that granted a healing spell, the game's trailers have shown off a freeze ability along with other magic attacks.
I found it interesting, what with the FPS revolution into the "push forward" method of design, that Scathe sticks with the genre's roots in many ways. There is no health or ammo reward for getting in close and eviscerating your enemies. Both of those items are simply scattered around the levels for you to pick up, just as they were in the genre's progenitors. You can't hide from your enemies, but neither are you required to move toward them in most cases. You can wait for them to come around the corner and blast them to bits, playing it as safe as one can in a bullet-hell-scape. The game does turn the tables in some parts of the levels, only spawning enemies directly in front of you when you cross a particular line, but there's nothing stopping you from retreating to a place you've already cleared and planning your next move.
The game feels great, with responsive controls that make deaths feel earned, not cheap. This is vital in any FPS, as the 'just one more try' ethos only works if you feel like you died because you just weren't quick enough, and not because the game kept you from doing what you thought you could. The graphics are on point, with the environments selling the game's vibe and the weapons showing off impressive levels of detail too. There's nothing groundbreaking here, but it all feels right and never hurts the experience. The HUD never gets in the way of the action, conveying the information it should but staying at the periphery of your vision where it belongs.
Scathe is really fun to play, and I'm looking forward to jumping back into the preview as well as seeing what the full game has to offer when it releases on the last day of August. If you like your FPS games old-school, you definitely want to give this one a whirl. Your wits and reflexes will be tested, and you'll have a damned good time doing it.
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