It is the era of the reborn 90's first person shooter. It’s tempting to say that Id’s fantastic 2016 Doom reboot is singlehandedly responsible for this renaissance, but in a satisfying twist, a lot of indie studios have been leading the charge in the years hence. Project Warlock put an RPG spin on the classic death maze formula and had a triumphant release last year. Dusk also finally released its third episode in 2018, after it tantalized for several years in early access and delivering a hard-hitting but also disturbing experience that blended rural, industrial, gothic and surreal horror elements into one incredible, three act tour-de-force. The gorgeous, difficult and mind-bending Amid Evil just had its full release as well, introducing Lovecraftian elements to a classically difficult FPS experience.
The future is bloody and bright as well. The recently renamed Ion Fury is less than a month away, coming from developer Voidpoint and published by industry veterans 3D Realms. 2020 will see the long-anticipated releases of the breathtakingly gorgeous Prodeus, which uses sprites but somehow looks like Doom 3, and of course Wrath: Aeon of Ruin, which is running on the original Quake engine. Of course we can’t forget about Doom Eternal, Id’s follow-up to their 2016 hit. For nostalgic gamers like me, sometimes it feels like we’ve died and gone to heaven, or rather hell, but the fun kind with the rocket jumping and invulnerability powerups.
It’s easy for a few games to slip through the cracks amid this embarrassment of 90s FPS riches, so I’m glad I was able to review one of the lesser-known entries in this shooter revival: Nightmare Reaper from Blazing Bit Games, which comes out this week. Possibly the most retro of this almost entirely retro rebirth, Nightmare Reaper nonetheless takes a creative approach to the genre in a number of ways, with only a handful of nagging issues holding it back from true greatness.
Nightmare Reaper’s premise is probably the most unique out of the stable of nostalgic shooters. You play as an unnamed young woman committed to a psychiatric institution. You have no idea why she’s there, but as you play the game you can rifle through her therapist’s notes. It turns out she’s a “challenging case” who has been shuffled around numerous different hospitals, and while her shrink is eagerly anticipating the chance to treat such a fascinating and difficult patient, he also seems a little bit afraid of her. Your character is confined to four walls with only a window indicating the state of the outside world. However when she sleeps she dreams of pixelated dungeons, crawling with monsters to slay, replete with weapons to unleash, and stuffed with loot to plunder. Hence, she is the Nightmare Reaper.
A lot of these neo-retro shooters are a combination of elements from the games that they’re emulating, to the point that there’s a humorous equation of “x plus y with some z equals retro shooter of the week.” For example Dusk plays a lot like Quake, but has the general vibe of Blood, with some Duke Nukem 3D and just a sprinkling of Red Neck Rampage on top. Amid Evil is what would happen if Unreal and Hexen had an incredibly beautiful baby. Nightmare Reaper has the mazelike visuals and map design of Wolfenstein 3D, with some weapon influence from Heretic and the frenetic action of Brutal Doom. Say what you will about that mod or its controversial author, but Brutal Doom has been incredibly influential on the general FPS revival. Nightmare Reaper falls squarely into what I like to call the “pixel carnage” subgenre established by Brutal Doom, to the point where the excessive 16-bit blood n’ guts clutter up the screen and get a bit annoying.
Each level in Nightmare Reaper is a procedurally generated maze consisting of rooms and corridors. Now before you start getting flashbacks of Strafe disappointment, these maps flow a little better than your typical algorithm-built shooter level and while they do have some verticality and always a few secrets, they are also short and sweet enough to keep from getting tiresome. It’s admittedly disappointing that Nightmare Reaper’s maps weren’t built with the same handcrafted love as Dusk or the original Doom, but it’s an acceptable tradeoff that works well enough. It also makes sense in the context of the story. Each 4-level “episode” of dusk maintains a general theme across levels (mushroom caves, rainy forests, craggy cliffs) but if you die or quit a level, it won’t be the same when you come back. These are nightmares after all; they’re bound to be unpredictable.
The visuals are intentionally rudimentary and clearly evoke a Wolfenstein 3D aesthetic. While the levels aren’t flat planes with untextured ceilings, they are built entirely from 3-meter-square blocks, both laterally and vertically. The wall textures are paneled in what looks like 32x32 pixel tiles, and I’d wager that the color depth of the game’s textures is limited to good old 16-bit “high color.” The whole game, from the enemies to the player and weapon sprites, has an affectionate Intel 386 look and I have to commend the dedication of the developers to go after this aesthetic and stick to it.
That said, Nightmare Reaper is also running on Unreal engine 4, and the developers used some of its bells and whistles too. The graphics use specular highlighting, volumetric fog, bloom lighting and a host of other post-processing effects that saturate the workmanlike 16-bit visuals with a layer of glitz that’s frankly distracting. Some of the effects are amusing—sometimes you’ll slice an enemy in half with a melee weapon, and they’ll fall over like a slashed billboard. The tendency for monsters to explode into literal showers of pixelated gibs and gold coins, complete with particle physics, is also pretty entertaining. For the most part though, this juxtaposition of fancy new effects overtop Wolfenstein tiles and sprites just clashes terribly. Thankfully you can adjust most of these options in the display settings.
Once you get past the visuals, you discover that Nightmare Reaper is more than just a Wolfenstein tribute. While the action closely mimics the speed and gratuitous gibs of Brutal Doom, that action is fueled by a looter-shooter system that is both fun and surprisingly constrained. Each level generates numerous random weapons, either retrieved from crates or dropped by slain monsters, and these weapons have different tiers of power and ability. You can carry as many weapons as you like in reserve—sometimes even duplicates—but at the beginning of the game you can only actively use two at a time. You can swap guns in and out of inventory any time you like, but this tends to break the flow of gameplay. However, at the end of each level when your character awakes from her nightmare, you can only carry a single, level-1 weapon to the next stage. This is ok to start, but you sell all the rest of the guns you’ve collected, every time. I would have preferred a saved arsenal, of which you could only pick one or two guns to start with at the beginning of each level.
It’s generally a good idea to stick with a basic projectile weapon, like an SMG or a trusty shotgun, because the levels are procedural and so are the enemy placements. Nightmare Reaper has scads of esoteric implements of destruction, from your basic pistols and shotguns up to magic scepters, arcane spell books, exploding harpoons, remote mines and multi-missile launchers. There’s an entire assortment of melee weapons from the humble combat knife all the way up to magical katanas and a flaming chainsaw with a grappling hook. That said, it’s no fun to start a level with nothing but an ice spell book or a puny knife, and promptly open the first door to a room packed with shotgun zombies. While some of the enemies are melee-focused cannon fodder (the basic monster is what looks like a zombie in a skirtini) the rest are annoying hit-scanners. Some monsters drop health when they die, but there are no other health pickups in the level; this encourages the push-forward combat of Doom 2016, but can also make the difficulty lopsided. You might have to replay the same level a few times if the algorithm doesn’t smile on you at first and drops you, ill-equipped, into a meat grinder, with no option to backtrack and grab an unused medkit.
The random nature of the levels and weapons adds an air of mystery to each one, and sometimes horror. You never really know what you’re going to find, whether it’s an awesome new gun with several stat modifiers, or a cool new powerup that slows down time. One level produced a roulette wheel, where I could spend treasure to get a random reward (or enemy). On multiple occasions, levels spawned a friendly dog after a battle. I could then backtrack through the level to collect floating milkbones that had appeared, which I could then feed to the Good Boy for a treasure reward. Woe betides you if you kill the cute doggy, because your character’s subconscious will flip out and chase you down. On a related note, at one point somehow I triggered a twisted, nightmare image of my character’s face. It harassed me throughout the level and fixed itself straight in my view every few seconds, sapping my health until I dropped dead. I have no idea how I triggered this event and it was admittedly unsettling.
That said, the procedural levels also have some downsides. Sometimes you’ll survive a hellish room by the skin of your teeth, only to find a powerup on the opposite side that really would have helped. Levels and rooms follow decently logical patterns—nothing like the merciless cookie-cutter amalgams of the aforementioned Strafe—but you’ll still run into plenty of dead ends and seemingly useless rooms. Secret areas exist but are always denoted by a difficult-to-see crack in a wall, which are hard to pick out amid the endlessly repeated wall textures and general chaos of the game’s effects. It also takes the joy out of finding a clever, hand-crafted secret area like I used to do in Doom, but there are still some fun Easter eggs. One secret contained a dismembered Doomguy corpse and the infamous doot doot skull trumpet, while another had a wall resplendent with the avatar of Civvie 11, one of my favorite old school gaming Youtubers. You can tell that the developers have their finger on the pulse of the nostalgic FPS community, even if the game they made falls just a bit short of the genre’s best.
Nightmare Reaper is rough around the edges compared to its peers, and there are a number of issues that keep it from ascending to greatness, but it’s the heart and soul Blazing Bit have poured into this project that ultimately save it. For example, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the game’s brilliantly affectionate skill tree system. It’s literally a meta-game called Skill Tree, which your character plays in her cell between nightmares, on what is quite clearly a Game Boy Advance SP. An adorable 8-bit version of your character traverses a Mario Bros 3-style world map, where each simple platforming level you complete unlocks a perk on your skill tree. The more loot you collect in nightmares, the more levels you can unlock on your Game Boy.
It’s touches like this that make Nightmare Reaper more than the sum of its parts. Sure, it’s no Dusk or Amid Evil, but it’s also a more obscure, punk-rock sort of retro shooter. And hey, Andrew Hulshult is back to deliver yet another of his crunchy, dynamic metal soundtracks to accompany the action! Nightmare Reaper isn’t perfect and it could do with a patch or two, but it’s still damned fun and its framing story and premise are unique among shooters. The deep and creative arsenal is worth the price of admission alone. There’s no reason any classic shooter fan worth their salt shouldn’t add this one to their growing collection of 90s FPS tributes.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.View Profile