Remember those first fiercely atmospheric moments of Doom: you peering into the soupy murk, only stark corridors around you, and the echo of what sounds like someone clearing their throat repeatedly, but is actually something that will come to make you tense your muscles and prepare to mash 'Fire'? I got this feeling when I started up the demo for Sapience, a retro-style FPS with RPG elements by Peter B. Funnell. It's a sort of tingly feeling you get from your youth, I think.
It might be because Doom is sort of present in all PC gamers: that pixellated muzzle fire deeply ingrained like bullets in the Other Guy. But Sapience is different, in that play is based on how much oxygen you have left. The stark green and black lines and the groan of the ominous soundtrack around you are oppressive as you watch that oxygen bar deplete. Fail to get to the next oxygen cannister and you're dead; run out of bullets and you're dead. Run into an alien that looks like the bunny from Donnie Darko: DEAD.
Aliens, when they first loom 2D out of the dark, are more comical than terrifying, and part of me wishes that they had that 'shit I can hear them' element before they hit you with Doomesque fireballs, but there is nothing easy about defeating them, though headshots are easy to make (they have giant heads). In fact, “Shit At FPS” Cara Ellison was quite entertained by how it appears, in blood red at the top of the screen: HEADSHOT as you drill some visor-wearing Donnie Darko-hassler a new face. So satisfying.
Scattered around are the disparate hints of story: the mystery of what went on to make the ship this way, the key finding and the broken item fixing. I love the 'starship adrift in space' trope as much as the next Alien fan, and it's hard to get that formula right. I wonder if making the enemies more awful, more terrifying, and inserting a sound effect of your own laboured breathing slowing and slowing would improve my desperation to get to the next oxygen tank, get to the next part of the story?
The real panic sets in though, when you are in the middle of a battle with some fireball-flinging jerk and your oxygen is low – the HUD screeches its alarm at you and you are trying to gun down this stupid Lewis Carollian-nightmare and EVERYTHING is going wrong and OH LOOK the screen is flashing red I am almost dead and SHIT I didn't save at that last door and OH GOD THE MENU DOESN'T PAUSE ANYTHING AHHHHH.
That is the best part.
At demo stage the RPG elements seem rudimentary, and it's hard to know how they'd play out. You can level up by killing enemies of course, in the tradition of Our People, and then add points onto your attack, defend and stamina abilities and a few other skills unavailable at demo besides.
And yet: there's something a little wrong with the gun reload, I think. I would run out of bullets or have to reload, and there needs to be some indication in sound that you're out apart from the top right Mag counter. At demo stage there's a lot to be improved (though Peter seems absolutely on this on his GameMaker page), and the environments do tend to feel too stark; your footsteps too laboured. I'd like it to be faster (though there's no need to make it harder – it has 3 difficulties) and perhaps more finely tempered for the lull and adrenaline of a polished Amnesia desperationathon. But have you seen that video of the Spacesuit Men? Argh. They look throw-mouse-at-the-screen-and-run-downstairs horrifying. I'd love to see this fully developed into something we can buy.
Atmospheric and contemplative, Sapience is something that has made me reflect on how powerful simple tools for creating games actually are these days. Before I began writing this post, I thought to myself how much of a joy it is to actually have a job where I celebrate the creativity of someone who one day just opened up GameMaker and began to map out their brain. Have a play. I think you'll like it. And when you're done, you can vote for it to be made on Greenlight.