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Scythe (PC) artwork

Scythe (PC) review

"Almost every Doom II mod out there, good or bad, takes the same approach: endless sprawl, insane enemy counts, and the subtlety of whichever metaphor cliché you prefer. I'll go with a sledgehammer. Play one and it's fresh, play two and it's still exciting. Once you've barreled through enough of them, though, you come dangerously close to thinking it's time to give up on Doom. "

Almost every Doom II mod out there, good or bad, takes the same approach: endless sprawl, insane enemy counts, and the subtlety of whichever metaphor cliché you prefer. I'll go with a sledgehammer. Play one and it's fresh, play two and it's still exciting. Once you've barreled through enough of them, though, you come dangerously close to thinking it's time to give up on Doom.

Scythe is different. Scythe gets it. In bold contrast to the norm, only its final stage is huge, and the irony is that a simple trick lets you beat it in sixty seconds instead of sixty minutes. Every other map is concise and focuses on one challenge, one new trick or trap for you to overcome; when they're at their best, there's not an inch of filler.

MAP27: TERROR is a small sewer connected to a library, and the catch is that you have to run back and forth across it several times. The first trip is fine, and you'll have plenty of ammo to waste all the meteor-spewing Mancubi and brute Hell Knights you see. But ammo pickups run lower and lower as you go, with more and tougher monsters pouring in on each run. By the end, you're in Arch-Vile hell as you just try to survive for the two more minutes you need to, with those most fearsome of Doom enemies reviving their fallen comrades and setting you up for massive damage whenever you stay in their line of sight for too long.

It's understated, perfect design, and the sort of thing you just couldn't pull off if the map stretched on for miles. In less than ten minutes and with less than a hundred monsters, Scythe makes deeper impressions than almost everything else out there. It even manages to take styles that haven't been interesting since 1996 and make them fresh. MAP26: FEAR, with its hundreds of monsters and enough BFG ammo to match, gives the monster holocaust trope a new lease on life thanks to the fact that it feels more like Galaga than any FPS I've ever played.

Oh, and after you claw your way through the library from hell, MAP28: RUN FROM IT brilliantly takes away the middlemen. The word RUN is painted into the floor of the first room, in ominous caps lock, but there's not much there to chase you.

Not much except for death itself. Stop pushing forward for even one second, and good old Doomguy will just spontaneously implode. Put that gimmick into a normal map and it would be tedious and frustrating; put it into a tiny Scythe map and it's the most intense ninety seconds of Doom you'll ever play. It's up to you to navigate the twisting walkways and sidestep what few enemies there are, working out a perfect plan and then inevitably messing it up when a lone Arachnotron pops up out of nowhere in front of the exit. What a cunt he is... though this being Doom II and all, you should have known better.

If only all of Scythe were that good. Notice how none of my examples are from early levels: everything cool comes later in the game, and while the opening maps are smooth little architectural feats for how compact they are, they're absurdly easy. The middle ten maps are hardy and the final set is brutal, but a third of the game is nothing more than shotgun point-and-kill, even when you play on Ultra-Violence mode. Scythe's difficulty curve is a step function.

Part of me feels terrible for criticising the work of amateur development teams, and I have nothing but respect for the people I implicitly insult when I do it. Erik Alm is a fucking brilliant designer, and if I made a list of my favorite maps, his would dominate it--but that doesn't change the fact that Doom II mods only exist to breathe new life into an already brutal game. Putting out levels that are even easier than the original Doom's is an amateurish mistake, even for an amateur.

At least he had the sense to subvert the problem in the misleadingly named MAP 12: WALK IN THE PARK, where you get a piddly shotgun, a rocket launcher, and plenty of ammo for both to tear through a bunch of easy enemies. Who wouldn't want to blow them all to bits? This is easy old Scythe, and there's no reason to save your rockets--except for the horde of Revenants in the final room, of course, which'll have you scrambling around like an idiot with that piddly old shotgun since you got cocky.

I'm being too harsh. The first ten-map episode may be too simple, but it's smooth, attractive, and over in a flash... it's just that I'm so damn greedy. The rest of the game is nearly perfect, and I just want more of it. Scythe's maps are a pleasant change just for being short, and when you actually dig into them, they eventually become brilliant for their focus and complete lack of filler. Scythe gets it: the community needs more mods like this, with real differences and not upside-down rooms or an enemy count that hits 5,000 instead of 500.

I'd never give up on Doom. That's crazy talk, and even with its ten little problems, Scythe went a long way to show me why.

mardraum's avatar
Featured community review by mardraum (August 05, 2009)

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overdrive posted August 05, 2009:

Sweet stuff. If I can stomach the early levels, I'll have a blast with this one. Of course, that's what the level skip cheat is for....
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bluberry posted August 06, 2009:

don't let your pride make you play UV, though, especially if you're still a keyboarder. the first ten maps may be jokes but the last ten are nucking futs.

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