Unfinished Business is NME’s weekly column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access games. This week, Rick Lane investigates the curious case of retro-FPS Wrath: Aeon of Ruin.
While I mainly focus on new Early Access games in this column, sometimes it’s worth checking in with an ongoing project. A bit like dropping a line on a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, just to make sure they haven’t fallen down a well or something.
Anyway, I’m glad that I checked on Wrath: Aeon of Ruin, because since its release in 2019, the ambitious retro-shooter seems to have taken a tumble into the local water supply. After a promising Early Access debut, progress on Wrath has been much slower than expected. Updates to the game have been sparse, and developer KillPixel missed the planned launch window of summer 2021.
Is this a case of the devs absconding with the Early Access cash? Or is it the curse of publisher 3D Realms, whose history of troubled FPS projects includes both Duke Nukem Forever and the original Prey? Mercifully, the answer is ‘neither’. In this case, the culprit is good old Covid-19. In a statement released in August last year, KillPixel explained the project had been “severely impacted” by the pandemic, which necessitated “a lot of internal changes”.
So I’m using this week’s column to give Wrath a signal boost. It has potential to be the best of the retro-inspired shooters that have sprung from the ground like zombies since the surprise success of Dusk, and I’d be hugely disappointed if the project failed to rocket-jump across the finish line.
For those unfamiliar with Wrath, KillPixel’s shooter is inspired by a bunch of different classic FPS’, like Doom, Hexen, and Duke Nukem. The main source of inspiration, however, is Quake. Indeed, Wrath uses a modified version of the Quake engine as the base for its technology, making it more authentically retro than most of its contemporaries.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be running around a bunch of cramped brown corridors, however. Within moments of Wrath‘s opening, you step out from a cave into the hub area of Mourningvale, a vast, foreboding valley riddled with secrets and passageways. This area alone is far bigger and more detailed than anything in Quake, the sweeping landscape a wonderfully stylised homage to early 3D visual design.
Mourningvale’s pathways lead to portals that’ll take you to Wrath‘s various levels, which can be tackled in any order. There are five levels in the current Early Access, version. This might not sound like much, but Wrath‘s levels are enormous. The “first” level (i.e. the one you spawn nearest to) is called the Undercroft, a sprawling gothic labyrinth of crypts and mausoleums that’ll easily take you forty minutes to complete. The second level, the Mire, is similarly vast, a poison swamp that Hidetaka Miyazaki would be proud of.
It’s not merely the size of the levels that impresses. It’s the intricacy and elegance with which they’re designed. Take one of the more recently added levels – the Gardens. This map has its own mini-hub surrounding a large tree. Around the perimeter of the hub are a sequence of doors that you progressively unlock with coloured runes. Each time you collect a rune, the level filters you back into this hub area via a unique route that spawns new enemies. It’s a wonderfully knotty space that’s satisfying to unravel.
Wrath‘s level design is undoubtedly its standout feature. But good maps count for little if the shooting is rubbish. Fortunately, Wrath is no less capable in this department. The weapon roster blends traditional FPS designs with more creative applications. The Coach Gun, for example, is a classic double-barrelled shotgun with a wicked kick that sets the standard for the game’s gunplay. But the Coach Gun also has a charged alt-fire, shooting shells that fragment upon impact, the shards ricocheting off walls and shredding enemies like a gem lettuce.
Indeed, one of my favourite things about Wrath is how delectably squishy the enemies are. Every foe you face can be turned into dog food with enough effort, while some, like the toxic Afflicted, are positively desperate to burst all over you in a mixture of blood and septic green goo. Considering the base tech KillPixel is working with, the visual effects are pretty spectacular.
There are a couple of more unusual mechanics hidden within Wrath’s framework. Saving is done through a mixture of checkpointed ‘Shrines’ and collectible ‘Soul Tethers’ that let you quicksave a limited number of times. Initially, I was sceptical about this system, which seems unnecessarily convoluted when you could just let players quicksave. But it works well when combined with Wrath‘s deployable Relics, which provided temporary buffs like protective shields or the ability to leech health from enemies. Learning when to deploy these items against Wrath‘s shambling hordes lends a pleasing back-and-forth to combat, ensuring the threat of failure has teeth without hindering progress too much.
Wrath is a great FPS, ambitious, thoughtfully designed, and above all, fun. The big question is, how likely are you to get the finished product? Well, to begin with, it’s worth noting that what you get in the current Early Access is around five to six hours of content, which isn’t that much less than the running-time of the new Shadow Warrior, a more expensive and, in my opinion, inferior game. But putting that aside, since the statement issued in summer last year, KillPixel has provided bi-weekly community updates, tracking the ongoing development of new levels, enemies, weapons, and so forth.
In short, the studio is working on it. Whether or not they’ll hit their planned final release of this year is debateable, considering there are apparently ten more levels to be added. But I am confident that the game will eventually be finished. And if KillPixel can deliver everything that it promises, I think Wrath with end up being something very special indeed.