Saturday, June 12, 2021

Game 69: The Sentinel

Name:The Sentinel (AKA The Sentry)
Publisher:Firebird Software
Developer:Geoff Crammond
Time: 4 hour 30 minutes

The Sentinel is the kind of game I have the wrong attitude for. What's this all about, completing games, seeing if they're good, pointing out why I think its good or not. The Sentinel is more of a puzzle game, like Sudoku or a crossword. You don't really complete all the ones that exist, you just beat one. Completion does nothing; The game loops. The developer didn't think someone would play all 10,000 levels. A fair assessment, though considering passcodes exist for the final level, that's not entirely true. But about as true as defeating the final level of Solitaire or Monopoly. It doesn't exist.

Its concept is sound, an advanced psychic being rebelling against a never-ending army of robot sentinels. He crosses the universe for all eternity, absorbing the energy of each sentinel he manages to reach, then using that energy to teleport further across the stars. His journey will never be over, he will never fall, but neither will the machines. Each time he dies, time rewinds. His victory assured, but it is a hollow victory. This battle will end when the last star in the universe dies. Well, the last couple of bits are my own inventions, but it might as well be canon for all the story matters.
The game itself is a weird quasi-FPS/strategy/puzzle game. Your objective is to take out the highest sentinel. You don't move, apparently advanced psychic beings have non-functional legs. Instead, you make boulders out of energy, then spawn a replica of yourself atop that boulder. From there, you absorb your old body, find a new spot to repeat the process. Along the way you avoid the sight of Sentinels and absorb energy from trees. Eventually you get high enough to absorb a sentinel, and your life becomes so much easier.
This managed to entertain me for about 4 hours. The reason why a game that has 10,000 levels in 1986 is because of procedural generation. Shocking, I know. All of these are completable, but some are much harder than others, which is where the strategy kicked in...except not really because I could brute force those really well. So its more of an FPS, right? Well, the only shooting you do is point and click. This is where I'm glad I'm playing the Amiga version instead of the BBC Micro original. That would have ended badly.
What makes this game shine here is the atmosphere, another Amiga plus. David Whittaker did the music, and it is amazing. I'm pretty sure its only 10 minutes long, but oh, wow, does it give a mood. For a brief moment, it can really feel like you're that psychic being locked in eternal conflict against machine. A sci-fi wistfulness that you wish the galaxy was a better place, but those thoughts must be stopped for now. Violence is unavoidable.
Its a shame the game doesn't have the substance to go along with that. This is a coffee-break game, before coffee-break games were a thing. The thing about those is, you were never going to get any decent gameplay out of those. If that is your requirement, then this comes with the highest honors, otherwise, well, I'm afraid you'll have to look for something more.

There's no real weapon, only falling under the label of FPS by the loosest of definitions. 0/10

There are basically two enemies, Sentinels, who slowly drain your health, and Meanies, who instantly drain your health. Not much variety. 1/10

None, really.

I think I lasted around 30-40 levels before giving up. There are a few types, but the differences become minute as you get used to the game. 1/10

Player Agency:
As cool as the concept is, its got some very obvious flaws. You don't really move, you just sort of teleport. Turning is slow, very slow. You get a 180-degree turn button, but it doesn't help much if you're under attack. 2/10


This game may not have set out to do it, but it has a very specific and interesting alien mood. It captures the spirit of two invincible entities fighting each other for all time. I want to see this mood in something else. 9/10

I like the whole unearthly feel of this game. Untextured polygons are my thing. Here it feels like some strange alien world...if that alien world suddenly stopped at designated edges. Its very effective for 1986. 2/10

It doesn't have an impact on the game. 0/10

Top notch stuff, musically. Would actually listen to. The rest of the sound effects are solid. 6/10

That's 21. The highest rated game since Freaks. In ranking terms, its below two of the lesser Catacomb games, and above Lethal Tender and Blake Stone.

Reviews of the game are generally positive, from greatest game ever, to unrateable to mere indifference. My comparisons to Sudoku are not unheard of, one compared the game to chess. This popularity has not extended to videos on the game, though there is a walkthrough on the ZX Spectrum...which is part 1 of 7 and clocks in at nearly 12 hours. That's just great. Seeing as I've seen video reviewers complain in the past that there aren't enough games to review, this strikes me as a glaring omission considering that this game has had no shortage of print praise.

Next up, Cholo another weird proto-FPS published by Firebird.

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