Hovering in an innermost chamber, Oracle speaks to you in a calm, feminine voice. In front of you is a window to a desktop, standard installation shortcuts set atop countryside wallpaper. It’s a neat touch that has you looking out onto what you’re effectively looking into. Then in the distance of the wallpaper hills something moves. Oracle has identified a virus in the system. A giant purple worm dances and swims through the air. Abruptly it surges forward, engorging immensely in size. It breaks through the desktop screen and enters the inside of the machine, burrowing through the floor, leaving wormholes in the infrastructure. The opening ambience had me intrigued; however, it eventually clashed with a predominantly combat based story.
The opening musical composition was at home and strangely familiar, setting the scene along with the bold visual yellows and blues cast against a grey and white futuristic world. You play the role of Agent, an antivirus programme fitted with the latest technology. Retrovirus’ name can be split into two halves. The retro half is in spiritual dedication to Parallax Software’s much beloved Descent. If that name means anything it’ll surely have piqued your curiosity. This follows the same six-directional freedom methodology. You can boost forwards, reverse, strafe right and left, and, in what separates it from being another standard first-person shooter, you’re able to ascend and descend.
“Fly with complete freedom”The default control comes with automatic roll correction that inhibits the capability to fly with complete freedom. This comes as an unusual choice as some may miss the option to remove this restriction, and it would have been better suited as an addition to easy difficulty. Removing the roll correction lets the mechanics breathe. Agent can dive and spin through the chambers and courtyards, and while it doesn’t always bring with it a combat benefit, it is nevertheless the preferred method of control; though the ability to realign by double tapping forward wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Boosting forward as Agent spins and dives, flanking viruses and unleashing rounds of fire becomes second nature and feels smooth. In one part scaffolding looked to block the path. Exploring the surrounding area led to no other alternatives. Using the waypoint, a blue snake-like arrow signalled the way, directing me back to the metal impediment. As the waypoint swam through the gaps so did Agent. Having become so used to restrictions of movement in FPS titles I’d presumed it wouldn’t let me move through the small gaps.
The second half of the name – virus – dictates the essence of the events that occur. A leviathan worm has contaminated the system and is allowing corruption to run rampant. Your task is to clear it out and put an end to the spreading chaos. Everything relates in some way to an internal PC, using that infrastructure to build the architecture. Worm holes are created in walls, there are enemies in the form of Torrents, experience is gained via memory counted in kb and mb, emails can be collected that explain what the external user has done to give the malware access, and Kernal is the Colonel in charge of operations, the software and operating tools becoming humanised with voiceover and personality.
To detect the virus infection Agent can scan the area to highlight corruptions. By unlocking skills the scanning device can also protect you from identified viruses and provide offensive benefits. Additionally, in a unique twist, using the scan during a firefight will cause the bullets of each weapon type to react. The shotgun blast will create a miniature gravity pull, with the chaingun rounds causing an air implosion that’ll knock back oncoming forces. The weaponry varies in quality, from an old-school shotgun that packs a punch, to a grenade launcher that does little to warrant its existence, and with all artillery consuming the same energy pack there are a few you’ll stick to.
“Weaponry varies in quality”The skills are split into three sections that can be openly selected from. There’ll be many of the improvements left unlocked, giving each Agent a unique feel. However, outside of some gun modifications, the animations and sounds don’t alter as you upgrade. Having visual and audio changes as the ship is augmented would have given a greater sense of advancement.
While the strong colour scheme of the environments is visually striking it soon makes everything look similar, often resulting in an over-abundance of a single colour onscreen, which would flood the view, obstructing real threats and opportunities,
Due to these bold colours it can be hard to tell when Agent is taking damage. Many deaths will occur during a battle that seemed in your favour, and then, in an instant, it’s over. An earlier audio clue would have been a step towards solve this, as well as pixilation of the edges of the screen to signify a damaged hull, rather than relying on the same red hue of the environment and scanned enemies as an indicator.
Many locations overstay their welcome by a chapter or two, and when a train system is introduced early on to break the pace, for example, it then becomes overused itself. When the environment does suddenly change, moving through crystals being a real highlight, you’re left wishing there were more sudden individual flourishes. The idea of being inside a PC is never fulfilled in this way, where each area could have had a unique identity and colour.
“Pacing that rarely changes”Additional audio clues throughout the world would indeed have helped keep the sense of intrigue that the opening sequence brought with it. A section where a fan intermittently blows your ship backwards was mistaken for a collision detection glitch as the overpowering gust of air made no sound. It was only upon noticing the slight particle effect that the two were put together.
The combat itself is certainly functional but the gunplay and enemy design leads to a pacing that rarely changes. There are no peaks and troughs; your reaction to the atmospheric drone will entirely shape your attitude. Some of the most memorable moments were gliding down long corridors to the next chapter, the soundtrack chiming away as it combined with the bright lighting to bring a soothing drive.
An area that could have peaked was boss encounters. However, their simplistic nature was routine. Their aesthetic is close to the hordes of viruses already encountered and there’s no tactical depth. The first requires you to circle strafe, unload a round of fire, wait for the energy to regenerate, and repeat until victorious, whilst the second got itself lodged between two surfaces, losing all its defences and most definitely bringing a ‘90s FPS vibe, though perhaps not in the way the developers intended.
“Enjoyed in shorter bursts”At one stage, when loading the next chapter, a message appeared stating there’d been an error. It asked me to affirm what might resolve the issue in the future. With a wry smile I entered ‘reboot’ and hit enter. The message disappeared and the desktop showed. What had first appeared to be a playful joke was indeed the game crashing. This happened a few times throughout Agent’s battle against the infection, along with violent dips in the frame rate when entering larger areas.
Outside of the campaign is a Challenge mode that currently holds one trial, with space for more, multiplayer and a soon to be released level editor. The multiplayer consists of co-operative play, deathmatch and a MOBA-style scenario where each team must destroy the other’s towers first. Of all this content it’s the level editor that could extend the lifespan and one that’ll be revisited once it becomes available.
The character and design ethos of Retrovirus is its strongest suit, and although eventually losing steam, is often more noteworthy then the mechanics themselves that whilst functional won’t inspire its audience, bar its well executed six-directional free flight. Subsequently this is one best enjoyed in shorter bursts. Cadenza Interactive’s work shows promise and if the name Descent brings fond memories this comes recommended.