Building games on the basis of nostalgia can be something of an uphill battle. In one respect, you’re competing with titles already long established, already acclaimed, and already in the hands of players. Often the vitality of a new title in a retrograde genre is minor compared to titles that built the framework. In another respect, many mechanics have been left in the past for a reason, tethered to limitations of an era more idyllic at a distance than in actuality. Mere replication of game design abandoned prior can be a novelty at best and an unflattering revelation about what once was the standard at worst. It’s a good thing, then, that outside of a few bizarre design decisions and cut corners, Project Warlock revitalizes the sort of shooters Id Software originally developed and serves as a reminder of what made them great in the first place.
The game could be initially interpreted as a somewhat modest affair. You play a gruff, nameless protagonist who exclusively communicates by grunting the occasional catchphrase across 60 levels, divided between 5 worlds. This entails Hexen-inspired dungeon sections, desert areas resembling a demade Serious Sam, and a late-game journey to the underworld that may as well be an upper-echelon example of DOOM shareware. Project Warlock is very transparent with its influences, be it appearances of enemy type “The Thingy” in the Arctic or cheeky secret areas directly translating character models to its world, but it carries its own streak of ambition transcending mere tribute.
You gradually amass a conventional but in no way unsatisfying arsenal as you progress in the game, but immediately a coexistence between guns and spells will be noticed by players. As you face entirely different sets of enemies in different worlds, the versatility of your weaponry on offer remains constant. A wizardly staff that can later be upgraded to fire a destructive beam of more or less infinite range is available in diminished form from the start and is an immediate stand out.
Ammo is scarce enough that players cannot settle into depending on a specific weapon even across a single level. Nonetheless, players will soon learn when to prioritize specific weapons and can rest on almost all of them being plainly enjoyable to use. Weapon switching, however is unfortunately where the first issue of the game rears its head, as the game always defaults to the first weapon in your roster whenever you run out of ammo, a measly knife that is by far the least useful weapon in the game.
This is somewhat remedied by the swift speed that switching weapons with the mouse wheel provides, but nonetheless leads to a few seconds of vulnerability that can prove deadly. There is an admirable degree of stability to every other weapon in the game that does not carry over to the knife, which has an inconsistent input response that constantly makes trying to throw it a gamble. It’s a lowlight that is thankfully cushioned by the sheer amount of weapons you possess alongside it. Favorites will likely be different for everyone, I personally gravitated towards the fully-automatic shotgun and the ranged staff but found most of them useful against different enemy types.
There is a bit of an RPG flair to the weapon balancing, further emphasized by the option to display health-bars over the enemies and a decently elaborate upgrade system. Through collecting unlock points in the levels (with an additional category earned at the end of levels specifically put towards personal stats), you gain the ability to purchase new spells and improved weaponry that often feel like some sort of Game Genie-esque enhancement to the otherwise Wolfenstein 3D-indebted gameplay. No New Game Plus is available, which can be read as a disappointment but also encourages replays with different upgrade progressions, you cannot expect to become all-powerful just by virtue of replaying the title.
There are moments however, where you can feel a little too powerful. I had an odd experience with Project Warlock’s difficulty curve with the first level posing a fairly hefty challenge (perhaps adjusted in updates) and then simmering down for a decent while. The final two worlds pose a greater threat but don’t necessarily pass the “Normal” modes of most old school FPSes. This largely has to do with the unusual difficulty settings the game hinges on. Casual is the game with unlimited lives, Standard gives you three lives to start with replenished by picking up more, and Hardcore gives you just one measly life. These are fairly wide parameters and the title is long enough, and enjoyable enough, that players will likely want to settle on the Casual difficulty for their initial playthrough, with Hardcore being a mere curiosity and Standard an arcade experience that feels a little too much like running out of quarters.
Project Warlock could very well gain some traction in the competitive gaming circles, but two of three modes do a disservice to how satisfying the campaign in its entirety is. An additional difficulty setting that increased the challenge of enemy encounters without constraining your ability to come back to life would have been appreciated, though Casual is never enough of a cakewalk to make the experience boring. Amidst old-school FPS and RPG, Project Warlock also walks a tightrope between arcade experience and campaign experience, and I found the latter central enough to the product that I would have liked to see more nuance applied to it.
Luckily, the level design impresses enough to keep gameplay enthralling regardless of what difficulty you settle on. Surprisingly, it manages to preserve the octagonal level design of Wolfenstein 3D while giving it enough direction to rarely become an infinitely circular maze where getting out of the level poses more of a challenge than taking down the enemies within it. There is very little downtime in Project Warlock even by the standards of its shoot first, ask questions never peers. You are often spawned directly in the midst of battle with just enough leeway to take the first shot, and things generally only slow down by player’s choice if you choose to plunder for secrets.
The light RPG components that enter the fold do so deceptively smoothly. What ought to clash with the game’s speedy pace instead continually pushes it forward. Despite the issues I have with the title, it remains immensely playable for its duration, largely chalked up to your character’s evolution (and by virtue the game’s). From the start of the game your protagonist is remarkably fast-moving, and as weapon upon weapon amasses the intoxicating power fantasy improves alongside it. It can be argued that the light spell you first obtain is the most valuable one, a small issue I encountered was a few levels outright needing it imposing an informal limit on what spell I was to equip in advance, but others double-down on your strength and are just plainly fun to use. Releasing a thunder attack while outpacing and overpowering your enemies simply makes you feel infallible, though a mini-boss should be just around the corner to put a necessary damper on that.
Project Warlock offers a sort of primal satisfaction that recalls old school FPSes , but also a specific sort of revivalism exhibited in shareware and flash titles that reduced titles like DOOM and Duke Nukem to just their most gratifying components. Project Warlock is complex in its own right, but with how quickly firefights unfold and levels elapse, you’re given very little time to tire of it. Project Warlock runs about 5 hours in length, but its content is allocated in amounts that allows each level to hit players like a brick to the face. Lapses in energy are reserved for time spent in the workshop, preparing for the next battle and equipping whatever spell appears especially promising. Spells can be swapped out in between any subset of levels allowing players to experiment and welcoming replay of individual sections.
The presentation ties a bow on the title distinguishing it from shareware contemporaries, though also perhaps revealing the limited resources Buckshot Software was working with. The art style utilizes spectacularly crisp sprite tiles resembling a rejuvenated SNES or more tangibly the style of Terraria mapped to its first-person landscapes. The environments are not revolutionary for the genre but look a lot more detailed than possibly any of its predecessors, and the game carries its own sort of omnivorous personality paying tribute to so many properties at once it becomes its own eccentric collage.
All five worlds carry an entirely new set of enemy models, falling into certain gamewide enemy types but bringing forth their own attack animations and commendably gnarly designs. The only major setback in presentation is an original soundtrack that is capably composed, but relies on indistinct sonic textures that resemble those of gaming’s past but don’t do much else. Narrative is also kept to interim title-cards as you complete each world and is dependably vague, largely akin to the bare minimum provided by DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D. This did not detract from the title for me, but expect to gravitate to Project Warlock based on how cool everything looks and plays over anything else.
Project Warlock is largely praiseworthy in its aspirations, and above all very enjoyable to play. It can wear its shareware proximity on its sleeves a bit too staunchly at points, and not all of its idiosyncrasies go off without a hitch, but despite having a bit of an identity crisis Project Warlock is compulsively playable through numerous lenses, as an arcade or campaign experience. It may not be the Hexen follow-up that has long evaded us, but it comes damn close while bringing its own attitude and style of gameplay in a genre long-relegated to an era of floppy discs. Why not go scorching sprites yet again?
This review of Project Warlock is based on the PC version of the game. A review code was provided.
With the exception of a few bizarre balancing decisions and a presentation that occasionally shows it seams, Project Warlock is an immensely enjoyable FPS throwback that also revitalizes the genre with RPG components that enhance the experience compared to its shareware contemporaries.
Enjoys paying less than 20 dollars for a game, especially when it is one people have forgotten about. Wants to be a character in the next Jet Set Radio and hopes you enjoy the site. Has a pet rabbit he nurtures and takes photos of. Still pushing for a Stuntman Ignition remaster 11 years later. Still hasn’t played Fortnite.