It’s all about the steam. The way it billows out from mechanized doors and air vents in the first few corridors of Prodeus, unashamed 2D sprites in an otherwise 3D polygonal environment with complex lighting and shadows. It’s as though id Software never migrated from the original Doom engine, and released Eternal on a heavily modified version of 1993’s most cutting-edge programming.
The melding of old and new Doom is exactly what Prodeus is going for, of course. In early access since 2020, it’s now had a full 1.0 release on Steam and the complete creative vision from Bounding Box Software Inc is available to drench yourself in. And you should. You should absolutely drench yourself in it.
Because this isn’t just like playing a particularly clever WAD in Brutal Doom, The fundamentals are all very similar to that established experience – the movement speed, the level layouts, visual themes, weapon feedback, and the keycards – but these aren’t licensed Imps and Cacodemons invading your space station from the bowels of hell.
Nor is Prodeus cut from whole cloth, either. It’s impossible to imagine that this game would exist without every single Doom title providing a prior context, such is its rigid adherence to even newer staples like drop-tuned metal and arena combat moments.
Instead, it shows us what’s possible in a medium that’s hit true maturity. It’s a remix in videogame form, something familiar with the bass pushed up, and extra glitchiness whacked into the mix. Some retro elements thrown in ironically, and a new BPM.
Enemies are sprite-based in this landscape too, while effects like explosions and gibs remain on the 2D plane but are illuminated by the same lighting that affects the 3D space. As an industry, we’ve been wowed by such a collision of graphical styles before, most notably in The Last Night, but in Prodeus it’s not just art for art’s sake. It’s also a perfect visual statement of intent, communicating to you as you play that this is a stripped-down corridor shooter emphasizing action. Still, one with the rough edges rounded off, newfangled ideas like persistent upgrades added, and half an eye on modern FPS presentation.
Boy, is it intense. The first time I played it, I noticed that I was actually arching my back in my chair, like powerlifters do before a bench press. I had quite subconsciously adopted the exact posture of the kids in those ‘90s gaming adverts, the ones almost literally blown away by the sheer intensity of the action onscreen. (A trope taken to its logical conclusion by Strafe’s infamous commercial).
The first time Prodeus gives you a minigun, you claw it out of the hands of a new enemy with a silhouette like a Big Daddy, and the entire room opens up into an enormous shooting gallery. Floor to ceiling enemies. The rest of that level is simply tight corridors stuffed with improbable numbers of foes for you to turn to jam with your new toy. It’s hardly ‘Would you kindly…’ from the aforementioned Bioshock, but in the moment it feels both enormously big and extremely clever.
And that’s the tone that prevails though Prodeus’ campaign. Enjoyment is placed absolutely at the fore, in front, even, of challenge. It wants you to feel like you’re playing Doom on nightmare and breezing it. And it largely succeeds.
Where it sits in the wider canon of retro shooters – ‘boomer shooters’ as some like to call them – depends on where you draw the line between inspiration and imitation. Whereas Dusk, the holy grail of the retro game, feels like the ubiquitous ‘90s shooter that never was, full of its own peculiarities that could have featured in any game at the time, but happened not to, Prodeus isn’t about similar sharp cultural observations. Perhaps that’s its most limiting factor.
I’d love to see this developer build its own canon. Taking all the technical wizardry that turns boring old Unity into some breathtaking hybrid of disparate eras, all the knack it has for pacing and gunplay, and applying it to a new place. A new lore. Something other than hellspawn on a space station, is what I’m getting at.
Because surely the appeal of Prodeus isn’t inexorably bound to looking like Doom. Gloomwood, the Thief spiritual forebear, dares to stray away from Looking Glass’ specific vision of steampunk, and it’s doing great on Early Access so far. Atomic Heart, often compared to Bioshock for its similar visual style, exists in a totally different universe to Irrational’s game and any other. And Dusk, of course, is Dusk.
So let’s hope that Prodeus finds the massive audience it deserves, and that audience bankrolls a new Bounding Box title that’s its own flavor of weird.