I have a love-hate relationship with first person shooters. Modern military gunshows leave me colder than a penguin’s beak, but if you take that same basic gameplay and dress it up in a futuristic or occult setting? I’ll soon start to thaw. Like many other gamers in their early forties, I grew up playing Doom, Hexen and Quake, and Project Warlock is a real loveletter to these 90s classics.
Surprisingly the main developer, Jakub Cislo, was born in 1998 and only played these games through his father’s recommendations. Despite this, Cislo and his small team have produced one of the most enjoyable old school FPS games in years, effortlessly combining the aesthetics and level designs of id Software’s classic with the upgrades and quality of life improvements of contemporary games.
Calling Project Warlock a Doom-like is not just an empty description. The low-fi pixelated graphics, the range of kick-ass weapons, the fast paced gameplay, and the plethora of fiendishly hidden secrets all feel familiar, but Warlock still manages to have an identity of its own.
The graphical style will likely be a deal breaker for many, but the game beneath is worth moving past any retro aversions you may hold. If, on the other hand, you have a soft spot for throwback aesthetics, then the level of detail squeezed into Project Warlock is a triumph. Each of the distinct worlds have their own artstyle with different enemies, backgrounds, and even themed collectables – medpacks for the industrial zone and potions for the medieval for example.
Plot is kept to a minimum here: you are an angry wizard who sets out to destroy all evil. To do so, you will use magic spells, an arsenal of firearms and a massive battle axe against a varied bestiary of monsters and enemies across time and space. You begin your fight in a medieval world that looks and feels like a retro FPS Dark Souls filled with knights and zombies. From there you venture through Lovecraftian Antarctica, Ancient Egypt, a mecha infested futuristic setting and then Hell itself. Or at least you do if you’re either playing on easy or gifted with supreme reflexes.
This isn’t a game that will hold your hand, unless it is using it to beat your face into a bloody pulp. In fact, even on easy difficulty you may find yourself struggling to get past the first level. This is perhaps the main criticism I have for Project Warlock; the balancing of that opening level is all kinds of wrong. Your initial weapons are relatively weak and your health reserves low, a combination which leads to a certain amount of trial and error exploration of that initial environment. There is one lift in particular that opens up to a group of projectile firing demons that will wipe you out at least once.
Once you get over that hurdle, however, Project Warlock becomes an absolute joy to play. It may rely on the locked door, find a key, shoot the baddies formula of old, but it is impeccably put together. Levels display a nice range of twisty corridors and epic open battlegrounds, enemy combinations and placements (aside from the aforementioned lift) are challenging but mostly fair, and ammunition is plentiful enough for you to let rip.
The guns are weighty and have a fantastic feel to them. Every weapon also has a choice of upgrades which make them even meatier. The shotguns in particular reminded me of classic Doom in all the right ways. Alongside the usual arsenal of weaponry you also have access to a powerful but cumbersome axe and a fast but weak dagger that can also be thrown. These melee weapons are essential in order to retain your more powerful guns for when you need them most, as is the crossbow with bolts that you can collect from enemy corpses. The range of options available offers up a level of strategic planning that really elevates Project Warlock.
You aren’t just an angry dude with a bunch of guns though. As the title suggests you are also a powerful sorcerer with a magic staff and a number of spells to discover. Whilst the latter are interesting, I’ll admit to using my upgrade points on weapons instead, so didn’t learn all of the magical options.
You also level up through finding treasure (obviously) which rewards you with skill points and powerful perks every five levels. The most effective of these perks is one that increases your running speed, an upgrade that helps you to literally run rings around your foes. Moving fast is especially needed when fighting the huge bosses at the end of each world. These mountainous monsters reminded me of the epic battles in Painkiller or Serious Sam, both Doom-likes that also combined the old and the new of FPS conventions. The several stages of each boss go from hard hitting and static to even harder hitting and mobile, but never feel unfair.