WRATH: Aeon of Ruin review

It seems reasonable to suggest most people have a preferred takeaway establishment. The one that you always find yourself coming back to, much to your waistline’s despair. Should that takeaway temporarily close, you’ll doubtlessly have to expand horizons and go elsewhere. Sure, the food from a second choice might be palatable, but it’s never the same, lacking in zest. This analogy can be applied to the 3D Realms published WRATH. It’s powered by a modified version of the Quake engine, and even plays like ID’s masterful shooter at times, but it’s lacking that all important crunchiness. It isn’t completely soggy, but there’s not much bite either.

In screenshots alone, WRATH appears identical to Quake, fuelled by a gothic aesthetic. A sense of dread and despair haunts the world, which is peppered with cathedrals, castles and strongholds, graveyards, spires, and underground waterlogged catacombs. Outdoor locations are frequently found coated in snow, with said white stuff seemingly killing off all flora and fauna, leaving nothing but frozen lakes and icy wastelands. Indoor locales are predominantly brown in colour, with the occasional splash of grey, and items such as furniture and bookcases are seldom seen. Enemies, too, are rather Quake-like including undead beings clutching shotguns, puss-filled projectile lobbers, snarling toothy beasts, and other hellish abominations.

WRATH: Aeon of Ruins review

Structurally, though, it’s far more modern – partly thanks to the modifications the engine has received. After the brief introduction, showing off the ability to air-dash using the default sword weapon, you’re ushered into a reasonably large hub world overseen by a mysterious cloaked individual known as The Shepherd. From here, five levels can be access, each with a relic to retrieve and return to a glowing pedestal in the hub. Levels can be tackled in any order, with each offering a similar level of difficulty; one often on the brink of being unforgiving, even on easy mode. While five levels may not sound like many, these are ridiculously lengthy affairs, lasting around 2 hours each. A far cry from Quake’s ten minute gauntlet runs.

A problem soon emerges. Whereas Quake, DOOM, and even modern day FPSs such as Prodeus introduce new weapons and enemy types gradually, WRATH reveals its hand surprisingly early – play through just a single level, and you’ll see most enemy types and have an almost full arsenal, leaving only a handful of new things to discover from thereon. The same ambient sounds also play on a loop throughout a level from the moment it starts until it ends. I’d be pushed hard to describe it as music, as it’s more of an orchestral snippet mixed with the sound of bellowing wind. It isn’t intrusive, at least.

The action is based heavily around ambushes, ergo walking over invisible barriers to trigger a barrage of enemies, varying from hordes of zombies rising from the dirt to projectile throwers appearing in the distance. This can be to the game’s detriment, forcing you to keep to the path while questioning everything instead of exploring. Even collecting a power-up can trigger an ambush. Worse still is the presence of a particular enemy – a flying three-headed beast that’s fast, has great mobility, and can tear your flesh off in seconds. They need a powerful weapon to take down swiftly, and if you’re ill-prepared, you’ll be left worse for wear. Health vials are mercifully common though, and a handful of enemies drop ammo. Fangs, in this instance.  

WRATH: Aeon of Ruins review

Also on the subject of enemies, the AI here is crude at best. Observing enemies trapped behind boulders or walls while marching on the spot is a frequent occurrence. There’s also one enemy type – which charges to your location before lashing out – that doesn’t appear to be programmed correctly, regularly becoming frozen on the spot instead of exploding into meaty chunks. Another thing to factor in is the ‘Confounding Altar’ ability, which is supposed to make enemies attack one another. Always a fun sight…only not so much here, as it only works half the time. Often, it makes enemies freeze on the spot or group together motionless. We aren’t out of the woods yet with AI, as enemies can’t be harmed until they spring into life – any foes spotted from afar are immortal until breaching their line of sight, which can be from just yards away.

How WRATH handles saving progress is another noteworthy aspect, but once again, it’s for the wrong reasons. ‘Soul Tethers’ are provided that allow you to save anywhere, limited to a dozen or so per level. Initially, it’s difficult to gauge how often tethers will be provided, so I found myself using them sparingly and cautiously, only to discover that you can be used liberally. This set-up still isn’t ideal though, as there’s always the possibility of saving before an enemy ambush while low on health or ammo. To get around this, save shrines can be found every thirty minutes or so. There were a few occasions when I had to abandon a tether and return to a shrine, losing a chunk of progress. It seems that the developers have acknowledged that manual saving is pretty antiquated these days, as the options menu allows for infinite tethers – something I wish I had discovered sooner, and not ten ruddy hours in.

WRATH: Aeon of Ruins review

The level design is one of the best aspects here, and could even be seen as WRATH’s saving grace. It’s clear that these were always intended to be gargantuan in size and scope as they all involve large outdoor locations that lead off to castles, fortresses and underground labyrinths. Head into a new location, and it may be a good thirty minutes until it loops back to somewhere recognisable. It falls back on the age-old concept of finding colour coded keys, but due to the size of the levels, these are spread far apart. Again, a good thirty minutes may pass from finding a key to locating its accompanying door, adding to the sense of scale. Keeping with its ‘old skool’ vibe, there are no objectives here either – it’s merely a case of pushing ahead, seeking exits and tracking the path to the level’s final location. There are secret areas to discover too, many of which involve using the air dash, with a journal to track statistics.

It’s the gunplay that helps hold the experience together. Although if you could visualise it, it would be held together with sticky tape and bubble gum. Every weapon has secondary fire, with many alt modes taking down enemies effortlessly. Discovering maximum weapon efficiency and minimal ammo wastage provides a lot of depth. If you’re dying regularly, chances are you’re manhandling your tools. There’s a mini-gun that tears through most enemies, with the caveat that ammo drains quickly. The cyst launcher leaves sticky explosives behind, effectively allowing makeshift mines to be placed, while the shotgun can be charged for a power shot.

WRATH: Aeon of Ruins review

Rewinding back to the subject of enemies, there’s an exploding type that appears frequently, damaging others upon death – giving a unique advantage. Oddly, they’re one of the more common adversaries, instead of being used to induce variety. All of this is supplemented by artefacts, including one that leaches health, a shield that repels projectiles, diving apparatus for exploring underwater, and the ability to sacrifice all HP bar a single point to become invincible. Using these proficiently can greatly increase chances of survival, even when faced with a dozen enemies, which can be rewarding.

WRATH has moments of brilliance; the kind that only modern shooters can provide now that they’re freed from the shackles of ‘90s tech. But these are accompanied by frequent glitches that give it a rough feel that’s impossible to overlook, especially when it comes to the AI irregularities. Indeed, for a game that has been early access since 2019, the lack of polish is hard to ignore. Every time I started enjoying myself, trekking across environments with haste while one-shotting enemies with a charged shotgun, something would occur to ruin the fun, mostly in the form of one-sided ambushes and similar difficulty spikes. Ultimately, I enjoyed the thought of playing WRATH more than actually playing it.

A sequel could be a brilliant thing if the developers shorten the levels, add more unique features to each, and make sure the AI is up to snuff. Adding more gibs certainly wouldn’t hurt either, just to give it that much needed crunch. That’s the secret sauce – and yet another thing missing from the menu here.

3D Realm’s WRATH: Aeon of Ruins first launched on PC in 2019 and is now available on consoles. Developed by Fulqrum.