What’s Awesome, Doom?: Favillesco Alpha Episode: Apostasy on Amalthea

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Enough of a mouthful for you?

Favillesco Alpha Episode: Apostasy on Amalthea, henceforth referred to (for your sanity and mine) as Amalthea, is the third release in the Favillesco series — though, as I understand it, something of a side, spinoff project and not part of the main series. In any case, I haven’t played the other entries in the series, or any of Nicolas Monti’s previous WADs, unfortunately.

That background information is interesting to know, because this… is an odd mapset. It’s obvious, even without playing his other stuff, that Amalthea is something of a departure from Monti’s norm: the weird concept album in a discography of traditional rock records.

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The “concept” in Amalthea is its almost-exclusive use of alpha Doom textures. For those who aren’t in the know, four pre-release builds of Doom have long circulated on the internet. The most relevant for our purposes here are the 4-2 and 5-22 alphas, which — among other things — include a whole lot of textures that were removed or heavily edited by the final release. It’s a shame, really, because they’re pretty cool.

Enter Apostasy on Amalthea. While a fair share of WADs have pulled resources from the Doom alphas, this is the only one I know of to totally style itself after them. The resulting visuals are reminiscent of Doom‘s episode 1 and 2 — but unique enough to be exciting and new: fresh ground to tread in familiar country.

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Playing Amalthea, I was experiencing Doom for the first time. Not many WADs get past that feeling of the familiar: the slightly jaded, I-know-you-all-too-wells I often have when I play Doom. That’s not to say that I don’t still enjoy the heck out of the game, but it’s hard for a mapset to surprise — or inspire awe — when I know the beats so well. But this one does.

And actually it starts with the music. The soundtrack immediately transports you to somewhere that isn’t your average Doom WAD: somewhere strange, somewhere lonely, somewhere alien. The moon of Amalthea has a sound all its own, at times otherworldly and unsettling, but always incredible and memorable. And it gives the WAD a sense of scope and weight that it wouldn’t otherwise have — not to mention accentuating that not-quite-the-Doom-you-were-expecting flavor already present in its level design and texturing.

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There’s a ton of non-orthogonal architecture — weirdly shaped areas and winding hallways where it looks like someone sprayed the linedefs out of a silly string can. A general disregard for common tropes and “acceptable” practices of mapping — like a map handing you the rocket launcher as your first and only weapon against the initial swarm. And a plethora of explosive barrels strewn through every map — lovingly placed for the tacticians, the mischief makers, the Doomers who just want to watch the world burn.

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Lots of the texturing you’ll recognize as stuff that did indeed make it into Doom. Other stuff is totally new (or totally old, I suppose), and the majority of it looks great. Plenty of new walls and floor types that make Amalthea architecturally distinct from both Phobos and Deimos. Not to mention neat environmental details like lockers, showers, tables with cards scattered on them, even a mug sitting inside a little microwave — all of which were presumably cut in favor of Doom‘s more abstract level design.

That sentiment would seem to be confirmed as bunk, since Amalthea still employs the nonsensical design philosophies of classic Doom even while throwing in bits of pretty plausible locations (the lockers of Amalthea’s workers or a break room for its marines to slack off in) without the abstract, gameplay-first design suffering at all.

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Visually, it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. Some areas are downright beautiful, especially given the limitations of the textures Monti has to choose from. At other times it gets to be more utilitarian and rough around the edges, but the only time I genuinely think Amalthea‘s levels border on looking bad is when Monti blatantly cuts textures off in awkward places or tiles them vertically when they clearly shouldn’t be.

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But stylistically? In terms of color, it’s mostly grey and brown, supported by a lot of bright greens and blues. It’s actually quite striking. Monti also leans more on brightly-lit and open areas than most mappers, which not only makes Amalthea stand apart from its peers, but also creates more contrast between different sections of maps. When he does throw a dark, cramped room at you, it’s that much more intimidating as a result.

You have reason to be intimidated, too. This WAD is hard on UV, in large part due to a shortage of healing items. Ammo and weapons are perfectly balanced; I was amazed at how many times a level knew the perfect moment to sprinkle some ammo boxes — just when I was thinking I would have to fistfight that cacodemon over there.

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Amalthea forces you to keep on your toes, not just because resources are tight, but because enemies come from everywhere: ahead, behind, above, below. You’re flanked more than you’d like, and surprisingly this is accomplished for the most part without the use of teleporters.

There are also a few awesome traps, often involving going back through an area you’ve been through, this time with the stakes cranked way up. Like a section where you pick up a key and through ingeniously-placed windows can see the lights all go out in the once-bright area you just worked your way through — and simultaneously hear a bunch of monster closets opening out there somewhere. Or a dark maze you traverse (all the while hearing the idle sounds of monsters hiding in the walls) and from which you emerge into the light for a moment to grab a key, knowing that you’ll have to plunge back into the darkness, now filled again with baddies.

The gameplay isn’t perfect, though. It’s difficult at times due to the size of the areas you’re asked to fight in; you’re so hemmed in that you can’t really do anything but fire and hope. It gets ridiculous on M7, where even on Hurt Me Plenty there’s a part that teleports you into a tiny room with three cacodemons and zero room to move, and then immediately afterward, three barons drop in to say hello. Ten seconds after that encounter, you’ll have to fight a cyberdemon from about a meter away, with only this one wall to protect you.

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I’m legit backed up as far as I can go.

Shotgun snipers, too — shotgun zombies placed far away or where you can’t easily hit them — become a thing in the last couple maps and generally make things unfair and fake-hard.

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I can see y’all up there, ya know.

It’s also not very good overall at conveying you to the next objective, per se. A little confusion and obtuseness adds to the mystery and the weirdness of the experience, and I wouldn’t have it any other way — but there’s one problem.

Around M5, Amarthea begins to… not collapse, but definitely get a little squashed under its own weight. The maps continue to grow in size and complexity and epicness, without getting any better at telling you where you need to go or what you need to do. M5 in particular, with its extensive use of teleporters, will probably make you a little angry, especially when you realize you’ve been through the whole map but still can’t access either of the keys that are in plain view.

I hate to admit it, but I actually ended up with the map open in an editor in one window and the game open in another, studying it like it was 2am the morning of a calculus final — and it still took me fifteen minutes to work out how to get everything sorted out. Here’s the short version: if you want to avoid all the pain and suffering I went through, make sure you remember to press the USE key at every computer console you see, because it’s three “computers” (the floor textures that looks like a screen and a keyboard), that let you access the keys — not switches of any kind.

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M6 is the most visually stunning map of the bunch, but comes with its own share of confusing layout problems, as well as a conceptually cool but annoying and tedious feature: a roomful of rising and lowering platforms that the player has to cross at least three times, once while fighting a pair of cyberdemons. Are you kidding me? (On Hurt Me Plenty, there’s only one cyberdemon, and the fight is actually pretty interesting, if still too hard.)

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It’s worth noting that I tried to play through the WAD on Ultra-Violence and failed. Spectacularly. After that attempt, I set the difficulty down to HMP and went through again from the start. Not only was it much more reasonable, but I found myself enjoying the slightly confusing M5 and M6 much more now that I wasn’t losing my mind trying to make sense of them. So they’re certainly fun, it’s just that they could have benefited from a touch more clarity in structure.

M7, then, is actually a bit more straightforward. Straightforward — but as I mentioned above, this is where the difficulty becomes cruel and unusual. I’m honestly not sure how a human could beat it on anything above Hey, Not Too Rough. If you can survive, though, you’re in for a treat.

Seriously. Amalthea‘s final level is a stunningly-paced, atmospheric, bittersweet farewell that I desperately wish wasn’t so near-impossible to reach without cheating. The leadup to the final confrontation is made of magic, and worth the price of admission alone.

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So a mixed bag, but an astoundingly awesome mixed bag. Sure it has some flaws and it can get keyboard-smashingly hard, but it’s one of my favorite WADs in a while. From the brilliant repurposing of the larval Doom resources that have fascinated me for years, to the delightfully insane layouts — straight out of the notebook of Doom-inspired levels I used to draw in the third grade, to atmosphere and music that brings me back to the wide-eyed wonder of my earliest days of playing Doom… this WAD may have been made just for me.

Maybe it was made for you too. Why not grab it and find out?

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Favillesco Alpha Episode: Apostasy on Amalthea requires DOOM.WAD and can be played in vanilla Doom or on any source port under the sun. If you’re not sure how to get it running, this may help. And for more awesome WADs, be sure to check these out!

You also can read more about the Doom alphas — and even play them for yourself — right here.

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