Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Pathways into Darkness

Name:Pathways into Darkness
Time:10 hours 50 minutes

The progenitor of the big Mac-exclusive FPS titles, a humble but complex Wolfenstein-clone. For me, it was one of the FPS titles left in the '90s with a pedigree that I had yet to play. The first title of Budgie, arguably the biggest FPS company people can name. And despite being an early effort, it has NPCs to talk to, RPG elements, and a quest to keep an elder god dreaming. Things that modern games rarely put in, let alone something released months before Doom. I was not disappointed.

Promotional picture for Minotaur, not sure if its playable today

Originally conceived after programmer Jason Jones saw Wolfenstein 3D* as a sequel to Minotaur: The Labyrinth of Crete, A top-down multi-player only RPG. However, that wasn't working for them, so they tried alternative plots. Imaginative plots. Their first attempt involved the player being a member of a group of immortal Roman soldiers, who went into a pyramid to get the water that makes them immortal. This was their compromise between simple and imaginative.
*Sort of how like Carmack got inspired to add bitmaps to his walls after seeing Ultima Underworld.

The story is that an alien race has contacted the US government. Seems there's a dead god in a pyramid underneath the Yucatan Peninsula, in the southeastern-eastern point of Mexico, facing Cuba. Only, he's not truly dead, just dreaming. In a couple of weeks time he will awaken and that's bad news. Because it took a lot to take him down and he's the kind of god that needed to be taken down. They're getting here as fast as they can for a permanent solution, but that's going to be a few years. We need to drop a nuke at the deepest point of the pyramid we can reach which should buy us some time. Apparently they said a lot to the government, but nothing much trickled down to us going into the pyramid.

You play as a member of the team who got lost in the trees after a parachute malfunction. Your ammo is somewhere else and your M-16 is broken, which is apparently a huge problem with the team's M-16s. As a result, You enter the pyramid later than your squad. Now you have to survive by scavenging ammo and weapons off those who died before you, and find the bomb and hopefully radio beacon in time to save the universe. Because of course your comrades in arms are dead. Its Sunday morning, and you have until Friday, 2:00 PM. Good luck.
A typical situation in the early game
So begins the most unorthodox FPS of the era. Oh, it seems like it controls like your average FPS, but once you get past shoot, space/enter, and move, arrow keys, with Z & X sidestepping, you've got a lot of weird stuff.  You have secondary weapons in the form of crystals. Press tab and something will happen, from talking to the dead to an earthquake. You turn around slowly, but with the shift key you can look 90 degrees to your right or left. You still move forward, you just shoot like you're in a driveby. This is of limited utility, since its awkward to use. Otherwise, you're slow and you turn very slowly.

The way the game looks is different too. You have four main windows and a couple others:

  • The main game window, which is just the game world and the gun you're wielding.
  • The status window, which has health, crystal charge, points and skill rating. You won't be checking your skill rating to often, as I'll explain later.
  • The message window, which is self-explanatory.
  • The inventory window, also self-explanatory. Double-clicking uses an item.
  • You can bring up a map window by pressing M or the map button.
  • Pressing underscore brings up a statistics screen, at least in theory, but I could never get this to work.

Anytime you have a window other than the main game in focus, the game is paused. This is valuable, because later on there are items you can use in the middle of combat, which you'll need to survive. You'll mostly be using the main game and the inventory windows.
I should point out that there's the option to use the mouse for moving. Not modern mouselook, but old-school "use the mouse like arrow keys". I didn't use this, but I'm sure its awkward as hell to use. You can select different windows with Alt/Command+1/2/3/4, which is useful in some situations. If you know to use it.

But what about those items? Well, you mostly just pick them up by walking along. If there's a corpse or a rare hiding spot, you press G and take what you wish. There's no practical limit to the number of items you can have, beyond simply scrolling through them all. The game has a weight limit, but its not actually hooked up, so it never plays a part in anything. Beyond weapons, crystals and ammo, you have treasure, which after a certain amount gives you points, potions, which do a variety of things, and other items, mostly relating to puzzles.

Helpful advice from a friendly German fellow
After a certain point in the game you can talk to people. Not so much people as, *ahem*, Previously Living Sentient Beings, or dead people. Talking is weird because everyone dead has been loosing their mind. This is 100% necessary to win the game, because while some info they have you could glean from context, a lot of it you can't. Its a keyword based dialog system, ask someone about "gold" or "ingot", and they'll tell you about the gold ingot. They're mostly who supply the in-game part of the story. I wish they said more and that there were some people who weren't part of some expedition or another.

The majority of the people with things to say make up a Nazi Germany expedition and a probably communist Cuba one. Your own fellows, when you meet them, have very little to say outside of "I got killed by this massive thing, watch out!" or "I'm Jason, don't you recognize me?" The others explain what's of interest inside the pyramid and finding out why they came here adds a bit of depth we don't see in most FPS titles. Sometimes you have to read between the lines, as not everyone is happy to help you.

Note my inventory, I have a ton of ammo and I'm still using the knife, almost to my death
There's a sort of quasi-survival horror aspect to the game. You can't save everywhere, it uses save points. For the first half of the game, ammo is in short supply, so you need to stab enemies. You need to stab a lot of enemies. Enemies in the early game can be divided into ones that can be stunned, and thus should be stabbed with your knife, or ones that can't, which you should try to figure out a way of stabbing anyway. This isn't as bad as it sounds, but I can imagine for some this is a deal breaker. By the time it changes...well, you'll be very thankful.
They're not all as considerate as this
Combat itself is fairly simple. Most enemies move towards you at about the same pace you can run away, and shoot some kind of projectile at you. Some are faster, some are slower, but on the whole this is what they do. This combined with the slow movement speed sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I was never bored in combat. There's a constant sense of paranoia. Enemies respawn, but not in big enough numbers to be a problem. Just enough that when you return to an area you have to be careful. Sometimes they even spawn behind you, in a room no one could possibly enter.
Outside of a knife, the weapons you start out skilled in never make a play, so you scavenge the ones from previous explorers. In total there are five weapons, a knife, a pistol, a MP-40, a grenade launcher (which is more like a shotgun) and an AK-47. This marks two important milestones. The first, meaningful use of magazines and reloading. The second, multiple ammo types. The last two weapons have multiple types of ammo, which a big deal of difference. Unfortunately, one of the game's issues is that you can't really easily switch between different ammos, whatever's higher up on your item list is what's getting loaded into your gun. You wanted to kill something with a HE round? Whoops, you have a fragmentation round loaded. You're not really going to know which ammos are worthwhile when you first get them, and might assume that one ammo is an end-all be-all solution.
A weapon is reloaded even if you switch to another weapon in the middle of the animation
Its in this respect that the game fails the grenade launcher. Like most players, I would assume that it fires explosive rounds. I mean, there's a HE round. But no, it doesn't cause any explosions, with any of the three ammos it fires. Instead, the HE grenade does the most damage out of any round, and can kill some enemies the others cannot. But because those enemies don't come until later, one would assume that the fragmentation grenades are better, since the decreased damage is worth being able to take out multiple enemies. While every item has a description, it rarely tells you anything of value, which makes sense for a random crystal I found in a weird place, but not for a military weapon. I'm supposed to be the best of the best, I should know what a grenade does!
Mysterious treasure, what is it? What does it do?

Weapons tie in best with the RPG elements in place. Finding and picking up important items will increase your score, and thus your health, but actually hitting anything requires using weapons. I'm not 100% certain it increases damage or just accuracy, but its very important. Especially for the automatic weapons. I like the way it plays out. Fire your gun until the magazine is empty? You hit practically nothing. Short, controlled bursts are the order of the day. Trust me, some of those later enemies need that kind of firepower. My only complaint is that I didn't have a big enough arsenal.

The bigger fights, like this one, are usually built up
The whole game is under a time limit, its in real time except when you rest, which doesn't take that long either. Its about 5 days. Even if you don't know what you're doing that's plenty of time to win the game. Assuming, of course, you can hit things, as melee later on becomes a good way to lose health, thus every few enemies you'll be resting, which will cause you to lose. I didn't find it too troublesome, but then, I restarted a couple of times thanks to poor ammo conservation, and not knowing that the crystals shatter.

The big issue with most of the game's flaws is that you can't really fix them without altering the game in a way that changes the way it plays for the worst. Yeah, its slow, but if you move at a reasonable pace, the game would be a cakewalk. One of the developers even commented to this effect. The limited supplies of the early game define it to the point that making it better would make it generic. And the latter game, when ammo is no longer a problem, well, health suddenly becomes a much bigger one. If you could save anywhere the final three levels would be completely trivial.

In darkness like this, you never know what's lurking out there
Where can Wolfenstein-clones go from here? Obviously you can improve upon how this game plays, but I don't think we'll see that pop up anytime soon. You need a combination of design talent and a willingness to make a game that basically exists as blocks. When Doom comes out, even if you wanted to make something as simple as that, you were going to make something like Doom, because nobody wants to buy something that's noticeably worse. Outside of a few competent modders, its just unlikely to happen.

Nice, simple progression, and at the end a few weapons with multiple ammo types. Very satisfying to use. 6/10

Despite superficially having the same abilities as one another, there's some decent variety in the enemies. They also did a good job making them look creepy and Lovecraftian without making them feel over-the-top. 5/10

They don't really affect anything in the gameplay, but they have plenty to tell. 2/10

While it gets close, it doesn't really fall into the trap that a lot of other Wolf-clones fall into, that is, endless mazes that don't really come off as anything but mazes. These levels aren't really anything either, but they're not bad. There's clearly thought put into this, into how enemies respawn, how they're placed, and how you progress the level. 9/10

Player Agency:
Awkward, but not unworkable. There are a few controls dedicated to making the Wolfenstein-style controls work better, but if you lived with that, you can live with this. The real problem is the unwieldly nature of going from gameplay to messing around with items. 5/10

The only time I interacted with the environment is when I searched for something, or when I pulled a chain, which happened twice at the start. There's no use key, move next to a door and it opens, secrets you can just walk into. There's more going on with the items than anything else, which has some pretty clever things going on. 3/10

There's a definite aura of oppression going on in this game. The time limit, the limited view distance, and the dead going insane. Dying doesn't get you the traditional fall to the ground and a message, just a message in a pop-up box. All in a very Macintosh-style game window. 8/10

There's a real comic book vibe to the artwork here, and I have mixed feelings. At a distance it doesn't look bad, but when you get close, like when you're walking against a wall or stabbing an enemy, you can see that its very low-res stuff. Otherwise we also have the factor that its very much a Macintosh game. 5/10

Part of the fun of the game is deciphering the events that went on before you got here. Even by the end, there was still questions I didn't have answers for. 5/10

Dead silence in the music department. The sounds feel early Windows to me, that is, it sounds like it should, except they're really low bit. One real positive is that when you get a new weapon, you get a nice sound effect. There needed to be more feedback, as the knife weapon creates dead silence. This is a bigger problem for me, playing in a Mac emulator, because the sound keeps cutting out. 2/10

That's 50. The 4th best game I've played by some measure. Its flaws mostly relate to issues nobody foresaw back in 1993, like a vastly different control scheme or difficulty in playing Mac games on non-Mac platforms.

Reviews of Pathways are overwhelmingly positive, but mostly period. Its a bit tricky separating the Mac reviewers genuinely enjoying this to Mac reviewers patting themselves on the back for having a superior title or because they didn't play anything else. While its not true that its the system's first FPS, serious competition wouldn't arrive until Marathon next year or ports in '95. Sales figures are also tricky, but they sold at least 100,000 copies.

While it is worth playing today, Macintosh emulation is not the only option. (this I should point out, is not as hard as you might think it is to setup) In the Marathon source port, AlephOne, there's an unofficial port to there. I'm going to have to check that out after finishing Marathon. For Macintosh users there's an official port on the AppStore. Its free and I have no idea what it plays like. Perhaps one day this game will have a multi-platform source port, but until then, there is a surmountable barrier to playing.

There are about 19 FPS titles left in the '80s and about 19 left for the early '90s. While I do plan on rewriting some of my older reviews, I'm confident I can get a good chunk of these done by the end of the year.


  1. I think you're even more of a sucker for punishment than the CRPG Addict is. Of the first hundred games you've covered, this is the only game I haven't played that I'm tempted to give a try.

    I loved the Unreal Tournament remake of Marathon (I got motion sickness fromt the Aleph version, but the UT one was ultra smooth).

    1. Probably. Seems like whenever an early game isn't outright bad it's just a bit too simplistic for me to outright recommend. Also explains why I so frequently break from the timeline to play some random title. That said, I would say that the first two in Softdisk's Catacomb trilogy and Freaks are worthy games if you can get past the jank.

      Speaking of Marathon, recently I got an iPad and noticed that there was a port of Marathon to the platform. (No Pathways, alas) I don't think it fixes the motion sickness, since you basically have to stand up and spin in place to turn around properly. Something I found funny was that unlike the computer ports I played, the damn thing actually had a menu that didn't require you to quit out of the game to reach. It's the same general port, I have no idea why they did it right here but not on the PC ports.

    2. I am currently playing the Marathon iOS port, having almost finished the first opus. It works perfectly (you can move with a L-pad and target with a R-pad.
      The only issue is that apparently it is much harder to do grenade jumps in the iOS port compared to PC - I wouldn't know myself never having played it on PC.

      Also: you have an option to be able to save anywhere and not only at terminals, though I did not use that.

    3. Is that with a controller as opposed to the touchscreen? Considering that grenade jumps were probably designed with the kind of people who might be using keyboard-only controls I find it amusing that it wouldn't quite work on a controller.