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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

‘Paradox Vector’ Blends ‘Tron’, Cosmic Horror, and Escher into a Topsy-Turvy FPS [Hands-On Preview]

A melting pot of diverse influences, Paradox Vector liberally pinches from the original Doom, the Metroid series, an assortment of ‘80s arcade releases, cosmic horror literature, and most intriguingly, the perspective-distorting works of famed artist M.C. Escher. As such, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the FPS throwback has little ambition beyond simply recycling old ideas and well-worn tropes. Yet whilst none of the basic components are especially ground-breaking in their own right, the way in which lone developer, Mike Schmidt, has packaged them together is undeniably unique. 

In the indie title, you play as an interdimensional explorer who has been marooned on a hostile alien world populated by eldritch creatures, ancient gods, and the mechanical remnants of a bygone civilization. Suffice it to say, it is an incredibly perilous region and that’s without taking into account the devious booby traps that have been left behind by the previous inhabitants. Not to mention the nonsensical geography that flies in the face of normal scientific logic (more on that later). 

To escape from this oppressive nightmare realm, you’ll have to brave a number of increasingly treacherous dungeons and pillage them of mysterious artifacts. Naturally, this is easier said than done, as there are a bunch of environmental obstacles along the way that will hinder your quest, including vast chasms that cannot be leapt, structural blockages that can only be dislodged with powerful explosives, and locked doors that require specific, color-coded keys to open. In other words, it’s your typical Metroidvania adventure, with all the usual backtracking and hidden shortcuts you’d expect, as well as obtainable abilities that help you progress deeper into the subterranean network. 

This sense of exploration is pulled off remarkably well, given that each of the levels is meaningfully delineated and the pacing is so blisteringly quick that you barely have time to check your map before you’re already revisiting a familiar area. In fact, you can polish the whole thing off in just under a few hours, making it easy to remember all the important locations and secret paths that must be uncovered. Because it’s such a concise experience, you’re unlikely to forget where the various red gates are – once you’re in possession of the corresponding key – or the location of that unscalable ledge you can now reach with newly-acquired jump boots. 

With this kind of game, there’s always a risk that the complex interconnectivity will threaten to overwhelm the player and that you’ll lose track of everywhere you’ve already been – especially if the developers neglect to dole out traversal upgrades at regular intervals. However, in Paradox Vector the links between dungeons have been perfectly judged so that every maze furnishes you with either a new power, a new weapon, or a new piece of equipment that will keep forward-momentum up. Rather than getting hopelessly lost or frustrated then (as can so often be the case in these things), you will instead find yourself caught in an addictive rhythm, gradually peeling back more and more layers of the dense overworld, to the point where you might end up finishing the campaign in one uninterrupted sitting. In short, the level design is very rewarding and strikes a good balance between feeling sprawling and feeling manageable.

The firefights are also highly satisfying, recalling the old-school flavor of Quake or Doom. Like with those games the emphasis is on constantly moving, seeing as there’s not much cover to hide behind, and defeating creatures in close-quarters is the best way to hoover up additional HP. Getting into the dexterous flow of combat is therefore of paramount importance and you’ll need to master the holy trinity of: running-and-gunning with precision; cycling through weapons on the fly, and deftly weaving between projectiles in an instant. The arcadey playstyle is fast, kinetic, and, above all else, extremely fun.

The enemy roster is pretty diversified too, consisting of giant jellyfish that loom ominously in the air, tiny spiders that scuttle along the ground, and celestial entities that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness. They all have their own idiosyncratic attacks (some ranged, others melee) and differently-scaled hitboxes, forcing you to constantly adapt your strategy and learn which weapons are ideally suited for taking each of them down. 

Honestly, the only noticeable shortcoming – in what is otherwise airtight gunplay – is the poor audio-visual feedback. Half the time you won’t even realize that you’ve been taking damage until you’re suddenly on your last legs and there’s a frustrating absence of on-screen indicators to alert you of this – other than a health meter that silently drains away in the corner of your HUD. There really ought to be a pained sound-effect or directional arrows that signpost where the bullets are coming from because ambushes feel less panicking here than they do mildly confusing. 

Aesthetically the game is purposefully minimalist, utilizing wireframe assets, sleek black textures that are segmented by bold colored lines, and polygonal NPCs that appear as though they’ve been ripped straight from a Tron movie (on that note, the ultra-cool soundtrack has a nice Daft Punk vibe to it). These vector graphics lend the world ethereal atmosphere and a sense of charm that stands out from the other ‘’retro shooters’’ on Steam. Whereas those nostalgic callbacks all seem to plump for the same uniform art style as one another – with pixelated sprites and low-res backgrounds- this is a lot cleaner and frankly just more interesting to look at.

Of course, the real USP here is how the game takes inspiration from conceptual artist M.C. Escher, by thrusting you into mathematically impossible, funhouse arenas to duke it out with Lovecraftian monstrosities. To provide a little context, Escher was responsible for some of the most striking and inventive pieces the 20th century had to offer, although this recognition was sadly not afforded to him until quite late in life. Playing with ideas of perspective, dimensionality and the artifice of his own medium (he famously said of sketching that it is: ‘absurd to draw a few lines and then claim ‘’This is a house.’’): the Dutch trailblazer didn’t concern himself with capturing reality as seen through the human eye. 

On the contrary, instead of producing naturalistic depictions of everyday objects and believable situations, Escher’s revolutionary work was almost a precursor to those optical illusions you occasionally see doing the rounds on Facebook. His pioneering output is associated with irrational cubes that defy the laws of geometry, absurd architecture that bulges out of the picture frame, and flat illustrations that are seemingly rendered three dimensional through clever visual trickery. 

Utterly mesmerizing, these surreal images were lightyears ahead of their time and went on to galvanize the imaginations of cinematic auteurs like Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, and the Wachowskis. Yet whilst films, comic-books, and even album covers have all embraced the mind-bending aesthetic, videogames have been much more reluctant on the uptake. Presumably, this is due to the fact that we have to navigate their virtual worlds ourselves and so they need to make a lick of coherent sense if we’re to even stand a chance. 



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/video-games/3628122/paradox-vector-blends-tron-cosmic-horror-escher-topsy-turvy-fps-hands-preview/

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