Contemporary Reviews

WRATH: Aeon of Ruin – Revisiting an early access boomer shooter.

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Have you ever written a critique about something, then come back to it years later to see if it still holds up? I have that feeling with a lot of things I’ve played. Since I try to improve myself as a person, sometimes I have to reassess my opinions on something or if I’ve changed. With how games change from day one to day 365 thanks to the wonders of patches and Early Access, it has me occasionally revisiting stuff to see if it’s gotten better. And in this case, it’s going back roughly 4 ½ years ago… when the boomer shooter craze wasn’t at a fever pitch. I’m gonna look back at WRATH: Aeon of Ruin.

Developed between small indie studio KillPixel Games and slightly larger studio Slipgate Ironworks, and published by 3D Realms – the new one ran by Fredrik Schrieber, not the old one that gave us Duke Nukem Forever – the game initially came out in Steam early access in November 2019, the game went through a dormant dry spell before finally being released in February of 2024, nearly five years later.

A friend had gifted me the game back during that early access period, and I was… pretty darn harsh on the game. To quote my now out of date Steam review from that time:

This game, on the other hand, has problems. Lots of questionable design decisions that don’t make sense. Enemies that take too much damage, on arenas where circlestrafing is not an option. An unwieldy inventory system which is counter-intuitive to the style of gameplay this wants to emulate. And whoever thought that reviving the “save gem” concept from Daikatana was a good idea needs to be smacked in the head with a baseball bat […] I cannot recommend the game in the current state it’s in. It needs some balancing adjustments to be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned retro FPS throwbacks.

This game definitely didn’t have it’s balance set correctly in 2019. (Taken from the Early Access period.)

Basically I lauded the look and style of the game, while also feeling the gameplay needed some improvement. By 2019, the concept of a retro FPS/boomer shooter requires a type of finesse to make it stand out from the others. A lot of New Blood’s work, like DUSK or Amid Evil, is a good example of this. This is more important 2024, when we’re in peak Boomer Shooter Heaven, where everybody’s getting in on the craze. So let’s see how KillPixel and Slipgate Ironworks did to improve from their early access version.

I feel like I’m crossing the River Styx.

A quick story primer: You play as the Outlander, an unknown figure who meets with The Shepherd of Wayward Souls, where one must find the sigils of an area before fighting a big boss at the end of three episodes. The Outlander transports to levels and defeats any monsters in their way to get the sigil at the end. Basically a little bit HeXen, a little bit Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, with a pinch of Blood and Quake for flavor. (Fitting, since WRATH is made on DarkPlaces, a source port of Quake’s engine.)

Sharp. Pointy. Zoomy.

Much like other boomer shooters, the Outlander has a myriad of weapons at their disposal. First is the Blade of Ruination, a good go-to melee that also has an alternate fire where you lunge forward, which is great for getting past gaps and doing massive damage to certain foes. Then there’s your usual FPS arsenal of a handgun, a double-barrel shotgun, a “Fang Spitter,” which amounts to the game’s rapid-fire automatic weapon, an acid-spitting launcher and even a railgun equivalent. There’s other weapons too, but most of these are in those early episodes. All the weapons have an alternate fire that can be useful in sticky situations.

The various foes the Outlander can encounter are usually run of the mill zombies, enemies that chase the player and attack rapidly, and a myriad of foes that shoot projectiles at long range with alternate short-range attacks if the Outlander gets too close. I’d say what the enemies are called, but I never could figure it out, as there is a book that catalogs all the enemies and weapons you discover, but they only show sketches of the items in question and no other information, so it’s hard to describe who’s who.

Fighting in a courtyard against some orb-shooting things… yep, this is a boomer shooter.

Thankfully WRATH is pretty simple to play: Move, shoot, don’t get shot. There’s powerups found around the area, which vary from Life Siphons that heal you upon every enemy killed, to invulnerability that drops your health down to 1HP, among others. These do come in handy, as it made a handful of areas a lot more bearable, especially when visiting an arena that locks you out and forces you into a brief gauntlet, Doom Eternal style.

There’s also some other little quirks, like small keys that are hidden away in some secret areas, which can unlock coffers that will have good loot, like ammo, armor, health and a powerup. It’s neat, but since they’re cordoned off in places that may be hard to check unless you’re deliberately secret hunting, you’ll either find a bunch of keys and no visible coffers, or vice-versa. A neat idea, but a bit flawed.

Wonderfully convenient.

So, did they fix some of the problems? Well, sort of. Some enemies still take too much ammo to take down, which can make combat a slog sometimes. While the more powerful weapons can do damage quickly, at times I tended to save my more powerful weapons for those foes while alternating between my pistol, shotgun and automatic weapon regularly. Which, granted, is the best way for combat to work in games like these.

It doesn’t help that the Outlander has a shotgun that just feels weaker than it should. It’s accurate, but it’s not deadly. Even the alternate fire which shoots ricocheting pellets can’t take down even small foes. This is a tricky balance with shotguns, as you want it to be powerful but also not become The Only Weapon That Matters like how the Super Shotgun in DOOM II tends to be portrayed, but it feels like WRATH fumbled the bag on that one.

Well, at least it isn’t Nali healing fruit like in Unreal, I guess.

When I made the joke about Soul Tethers being like the save gems in Daikatana, I wasn’t kidding. Pressing F2 will use a tether that doubles as your last save. Each level also has a shrine that works as an autosave, and tethers are available everywhere so I never had to worry about running out and being stuck. The game even underlines what was the most recent save upon death, so it’s easy to get back in without picking the wrong save and having to redo a lot of progress.

I still think they’re a questionable design idea. Anyone who’s been around old FPSes for a long time knows the importance of quicksaving to avoid redoing large sections of levels, so making it a gameplay mechanic was still a silly idea. Thankfully they too learned the same thing John Romero did with Daikatana: they give you the option to turn that off completely. I can understand why they did this, especially from a lore perspective, but from a gameplay one it just feels too silly.

This guy’s one burning pain in the neck. Thank god for the Orb of Deflection.

The powerups are still a bit on the cumbersome side to use, but thankfully the world slows down while using it, giving the player ample time to pick. Most of the time I relied on the Life Siphon, but the other ones like the Shockwave and the Cruel Aegis invulnerability ain’t no slouch either. Most of the time I saved my Flasks of Rage – WRATH’s version of Quake’s Quad Damage – for bosses, which came in handy there.

Even the level design is surprisingly stylish and spooky. The first episode bounces between snowy castles and murky swamps, but later episodes have industrial and otherworldly looks to them, and they’re pretty neat. Downside is that they had to stick to having just 5 sigils per episode, which means some levels go on for an hour or more sometimes, while others are a quick 15-20 minute breeze. If anything, some of the levels should’ve been chopped up or adjusted to give a better sense of pacing. Hell, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter understood to add more collectable items in the latter portions of the game for the sake of balance.

It looks like the dilapidated remains of the desert from Serious Sam, but hey, I’ll humor you a bit, Shepherd.

Everything else about the game, from the art, to the sound, to even the music – done by go-to boomer shooter composer Andrew Hulshult – is pretty good. The gameplay still feels a bit clunky in spots and sometimes filled with confusing layouts, but otherwise it’s a perfectly fine game. A solid little indie game that, had it been made 20ish years ago would’ve been prime bargain bin fodder that would have a niche fanbase for, something like Vivisector.

Now, normally that would be the end of this article. I’d recommend the game, give a few store links and be done with it. But then some new information came along. Youtuber and Boomer Shooter Connoisseur Civvie11 recently did a video covering a bunch of 3D Realms-published games, including WRATH: Aeon of Ruin. To avoid any potential plagiarism, I haven’t watched the video as of this writing. But then someone on a Discord server I was on tipped me off to a comment one of the members of KillPixel Games left on that video:

Suddenly writing about WRATH: Aeon of Ruin takes on a whole different tone to me now. This was a game that was basically yanked from the hands of the original developer and languished in development hell as Slipgate Ironworks were forced to take something that was rough around the edges but promising, and make it into a finished video game. No wonder it took nearly five years.

Had WRATH been able to get itself wrapped up and polished by 2020-21, it would’ve turned out to be a pretty underrated gem. By 2024 the standards for boomer shooters got higher, and thus WRATH feels more dated as a result. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but this definitely puts it in the same category as those bargain bin games with a niche following, like I mentioned before.

Damn, even they can’t get past the wrath of the sewer level! (haha see what I did there)

I really hope KillPixel get a second chance sometime, making a game on their own terms, and hope that what happened with WRATH doesn’t discourage them from the overall games industry. With how games are made in this modern hellscape, filled with crunch times and bloated budgets, I can totally understand being dejected at what amounted to a passion product. Nonetheless, I’m glad WRATH: Aeon of Ruin exists, even if it’s rough around the edges.

WRATH: Aeon of Ruin is available on basically any modern gaming platform: Steam, Xbox, PlayStation 4, Switch. It’s $25 normally, and I’d definitely wait for a sale. I got a bit of fun out of it, and while it may not hit the upper echelon of boomer shooters like DUSK, it definitely deserves a shot.

Now to go back and fix that Steam review I wrote about WRATH all those years ago, because it definitely isn’t accurate anymore.

This was available on Patreon a few days early. If you want to support me and my work, you can go to my Patreon and chip in. Just a soul teth- sorry, I mean $1 helps!

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