VGJunk's recent but unplanned theme of travelling through the sands of history continues - after the Stone Age and Ancient Egypt, it's the Victorian era's chance to shine in the Bitmap Brother's 1993 Amiga node-activation-em-up The Chaos Engine!
This is an alternate Victorian Britain, however, a universe where the science of the time was more advanced and messing around with said super-science has unleashed a great evil upon both the British Empire and the other unimportant countries that aren't part of the British Empire alike. That's not to say this game is any less historically accurate than The Flintstones or Big Karnak, mind you. The Stone Age wasn't 1950s America with more geology puns, and the age of the Pharaohs was not thronged with the very gods of Egypt themselves who mostly ambled around getting stabbed. I don't know that the history of Victorian England is taught in many places around the world, so I thought I'd better make sure that everyone's aware that the Victorian era did not consist of heavily-armed mercenaries slaughtering demented mutants with high-tech weaponry.
The Chaos Engine of the title is a primitive computer with the ability to warp space and time, created by one Baron Fortesque. "Primitive" is perhaps not the right word to describe it, because the Chaos Engine gains sentience, absorbs Baron Fortesque and sets about destroying the world by turning humans and animals into "ravenous beasts". The dinosaur pictured above is not one of these ravenous beasts. The Chaos Engine features very little in the way of dinosaur action, despite the promises of this intro. I mean, that T. Rex is clearly the product of the Chaos Engine's diabolical manipulations, because tongues and gums don't tend to fossilize well, but you don't get to fight it or anything.
The world is in a mess, but not to worry - here come six guns-for-hire to save the day and earn a nice fat paycheck whilst doing so. Let's meet them!
I mentioned him the the last Ephemera article, and here he is again: the Mercenary, an alarmingly cheerful weapon-collecting psychopath whose goggles and bald head make him look like a rejected prisoner from Alien 3. Getting paid to kill things is the very definition of the word "mercenary", so I'm at a loss to explain what makes the Mercenary more of a mercenary than the other five mercenaries. A lifetime's commitment to his chosen profession, I suppose.
The Brigand's dimpled chin and swept-back hair give him the look of a Disney prince who has fallen on such hard times that he's had to resort to banditry to get by. He also has the look of a man with the IQ of a deckchair. Fortunately for him, his comically oversized revolver requires only upper body strength to use, not intelligence.
A man of elegance and refinement, the Gentleman has a sharp mind but a small health bar. He also possesses an ice-cool temperament, demonstrated here by the way he's calmly lighting his pipe even as he fires a flare gun in the hope of being rescued from whatever maritime disaster he's (presumably) currently caught up in. In a film version of The Chaos Engine, he'd be played by a digital recreation of Cary Grant with a muscular CG body, like the one they gave Ray Winstone in Beowulf.
A navvie, more commonly spelled "Navvy", is someone who worked on large-scale civil engineering projects, especially canals and railways. I hope that didn't come across as patronising - the only reason I know what "navvy" means is because I looked it up as a kid thanks to playing this very game and not recognising the word.
This particular Navvie is a big man with a big gun and a "Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York" cast to his face, if Daniel Day-Lewis' face was comprised entirely of horizontal wrinkles. He still seems more friendly than every other character.
That is the most thuggish thug I have ever seen, a cross between a National Front member circa 1976 and a gorilla. I have trouble believing that description of him, though. There's no way this man is only a "little" stupid. The Thug survives on the maxim that a videogame character's heath bar is inversely proportional to their brainpower, as well as by carrying a double-barrelled shotgun that's the size of two drainpipes placed side-by-side.
Finally there's the Preacher, whose "perverse nature is not to be trusted," and the Bitmap Brothers have done an excellent job of conveying the seedy undercurrents of the Preacher's psyche in his pixel portrait. He looks about as trustworthy as, well, Judas. A weak and feeble man with a gun that's somehow not very powerful despite shooting lightning, the Preacher is still a very strong contender for being The Chaos Engine's best character - or at least the most useful, for reasons we will discuss later.
Also of note is that when The Chaos Engine was ported to the home consoles - where it was renamed to Soldiers of Fortune in the US, complete with a horrendously out-of-place new logo - the Preacher's dog collar was removed and he became the Scientist. I'll leave you to ponder how much that says about the attitudes towards science and religion in certain parts of the USA. The Gentleman's pipe was also removed, lest any young children saw it and decided to copy the tobacco-consuming habits of a nineteenth-century nobleman.
Before the game begins, you have to select two characters, because even if you're playing on your own The Chaos Engine is a co-operative game and the CPU will control the second character for you. Each character has a different primary weapon, a different selection of special attacks and varying stats, although they fall into three general categories: the Navvie and the Thug are are slow of wit and slow of movement, but their health bars are big and they're good at killing things. The Preacher and the Gentleman are intelligent, nimble men whose bodies are constructed of toothpicks and wet tissue paper. The Mercenary and the Brigand are, surprise surprise, a bit average.
The Stamina and Speed stats are familiar enough, but the other two are a little more unusual. Skill determines how much you can upgrade your weapon and what special abilities you can use, while Wisdom only relates to your computer-controlled partner - the more Wisdom they have, the more intelligent their AI. For this reason you probably shouldn't take the Navvie as your partner, which is what I did. I'll be playing as the Gentleman, for no reason beyond his mighty sideburns.
So, The Chaos Engine is a top-down shooter, with eight-way movement and a control system that only lets you shoot in the direction you're facing - often a disappointing set-up to anyone who's played a twin-stick shooter like Smash TV, but understandable given the platform. As a whole the game does control well, aside from having to hold down the fire button for a couple of seconds to activate your special ability.
Clearing the sixteen stages of The Chaos Engine involves killing (or avoiding) the various mutants whilst finding a variety of things. Finding the exit is the overall goal, but to open the exit you'll need to find and activate a certain number of nodes. You can see a node on the right of the above screenshot, and you'll know when you've activated a node because a stern voice will say "Node Activated!", a piece of digitised speech that I'm certain has stuck long in the memory of anyone who has ever played The Chaos Engine.
To find all the nodes you'll need to find keys. Collecting keys opens new paths through the stage, although not in a common-or-garden "opening locked doors" kind of way - touching them usually either makes a part of the scenery that previously blocked your path fade away, or causes a staircase to appear. Silver keys generally help you get to the next bit of the level while gold keys open up routes to secret areas and hidden power-up caches, so I think it's fair to say that collecting as many keys as possible is a core feature of the Chaos Engine experience.
As is to be expected, the first stage is a gentle yet thorough introduction to The Chaos Engine, the path-clearing keys and scattered nodes serving as a microcosm of the entire game. One nice touch is that the final nodes are right next to the exit, cementing in the player's mind the link between their activation and the exit opening. Another is that there are a few special attacks laying around as collectible power-up that activate when touched, showing you what they do when activated with you having to waste your limited supply: for example, in the screenshot above you can see what the molotov does without throwing one yourself. Not that the Gentleman resorts to such barbaric tactics: his first special ability is a map, which sounds more useful than it is.
The second stage is the Mud Rivers, and boy what glorious mud it is. It's so wonderful that I had to present it here in animated form, and just look at it: so viscous, so gloopy, so clearly unpleasant that it's no wonder your characters refuse to walk through it. My admiration for The Chaos Engine's mud puddles might seem a trifle over-enthusiastic, but they do serve as a springboard from which I can dive into wholehearted praise of the graphics in this game. They're crisp, they're characterful, they're a great lesson in how to use a limited colour palette to extremely good effect, and if you're a lover of pixel artwork then it's worth playing through The Chaos Engine purely to enjoy the visuals.
Happily, the game's a lot of fun too. It moves at a good pace, with plenty of enemies that can kill you quickly if you're not paying attention but which don't respawn forever and can be dealt with safely if you apply a little forward planning and some nimble footwork. Hit-and-run strategies work well, especially against projectile-launching enemies, of which there are many. This second stage also reveals that the stages of The Chaos Engine are not simply the uncomplicated dashes to the exit that they might appear to be at first glance. In the latter half of the stage you'll be activating a series of bridges between the islands in the sea of mud, but the order in which you collect keys and activate nodes alters which bridges spawn where, offering multiple and often treasure-lined routes to the the player who tracks back occasionally or who doesn't always head for the simplest option, engaging the player's brain and providing an always-welcome coating of replayability.
After every two stages, you're given the opportunity to increase your stats by spending the money that you've been collecting throughout the levels. The upgrade screen is presented as this lovely polished brass, bolts-and-rivets interface. The Chaos Engine is often described as a "steampunk" game and it's not difficult to see why, although I wouldn't agree with that classification one hundred percent. There's not much in the way of steam-powered machinery, for starters. I'm not hugely familiar with the genre, but I would have thought that was quite an important aspect of it. There are no zeppelins or superfluous cogs glued onto top hats, either, something that I'm led to believe is the very essence of steampunk if the pictures I've seen online are accurate.
All your stats are worthy of an upgrade - increased health seems especially important for a character as fragile as the Gentleman - but I mostly favoured increasing my Skill until I could upgrade the power of my weapon. There is a lot of shooting to be done.
The remaining two stages of this first Forest world follow the same pattern, but with a higher level of complexity, more movement between different height levels and reptilian beastmen that look like discarded He-Man villains. I think it's the way they're muscled that leads me to that comparison. "Crocodile that accidentally ate a shipping container full of steroids" is a look that would fit quite nicely into the Masters of the Universe toy line. It did feature a race of buff snake men, after all.
The other enemies in this first world strike a balance between mutated but mostly recognisable creatures (lizardmen, beetles, extremely dangerous headbutting frogs) and more abstract biological weapons, often in the form of immobile "turret" type foes like the mortar-lobbing piles in the previous screenshot. It's a pretty good mix of threats, and determining the order in which you take out the enemies and the way you approach said slaughter is a big part of a successful Chaos Engine run.
Also important is keeping a close eye on your surroundings. Suspicious walls might yield rewards when shot, carefully-arranged background elements sometimes point to secrets. Enemies mostly appear from holes like these in either the walls or the floor, but they generally disappear once you've killed a certain number of the foes they contain. This one stayed open, however, and despite my misgivings - and the expectation that I'd explode when I walked into a lizardman coming the other way - I walked into it, which warped me to a secret area filled with much-needed cash. The cash was much needed because the Navvie's Wisdom was in desperate need of an upgrade, or possibly a downgrade: he was too stupid to be much help in a firefight, but too clever to stand in front of the enemy and soak up their attacks for me. The spirit of serfdom lives on in the Gentleman, expecting the uneducated commoner to die on his behalf.
With the four forest stages completed, our "heroes" move ever closer to the Chaos Engine itself by heading through the workshops of the sinister Baron Fortesque. It took me until the final couple of stages to notice that the mechanical parts in the loading screen's background form the letters "CE". Complaining about the Navvie's lack of smarts does not seem so appropriate now.
The Workshops are labyrinthine nests of red-brown corridors, packed with hulking mutants and singularly unsuitable for getting any work done, unless your job title is Chief Executive of Getting Lost. Actually, that's not fair - the stages in The Chaos Engine often seem complicated but they're almost always more simple than they appear and are rarely frustrating.
For this world I changed my characters around so that I'm playing as the Thug, supported by the Preacher. The Thug part of this unlikely tag-team is already proving to be something of a liability, because his weapon is a shotgun with a wide spread and most of these corridors are very narrow, leading to a lot of wasted projectiles that plink against the walls. Luckily the Preacher is an absolute godsend, appropriately enough, because his special ability is a medikit that restores your health when used. The best part is that you can switch powers with your CPU partner at any time, meaning his medikits are your medikits. As a walking HP dispenser and occasional enemy shooter, the Preacher is so useful that I would be hard-pressed to recommend you play The Chaos Engine using any pairing of characters that doesn't include the wispy, bespectacled creep.
Some of the silver keys in the Workshops have been replaced by rotary telephones. They still work like silver keys, changing the layout of the stage so that you can progress, but they're telephones now. I don't know why, but frankly it's nice to not know these things sometimes. Telephones dissolve walls here, and golden litter bins pop up to impede your progress. I lost a life to a whirlwind with a few pebbles in it. I don't think this is a game that rewards you for asking deep, probing questions about just what the bloody hell is going on.
The way the silver keys and the telephones work, morphing the scenery rather than opening obvious boundaries like locked doors, might feel weird in a different game, but honestly it works really well in The Chaos Engine. The mutability of the landscape meshes perfectly with the setting of your adventure, the Chaos Engine's bizarre machinations acting in a fittingly chaotic manner, and between the shifting geography, the strange creatures and the alternate-history setting, The Chaos Engine feel weird in a way that only European home computer games ever seem to do.
The Workshop stages have a greater emphasis on traps. The game alerts you to this by calling the second stage "Traps". It's not kidding, either - just look at these turrets, positioned right at the top of a staircase where my only recourse was to leave the Preacher to fight them / absorb their rockets while I inched back down the stairs to safety. He'll be okay, he can use a medikit to heal himself, or at least he could if the Thug hadn't used them all on himself.
And here's some steam; deadly, scalding steam. The Chaos Engine can now lay claim to being part of the coveted steampunk genre. I like the way the Thug is pointing his gun at the steam. You can almost see his tiny brain trying to calculate whether shooting the steam will make it get out of his way.
Something else that adds to The Chaos Engine's replayability factor is that several stages have multiple exits. The node count at the bottom of the screen often isn't entirely truthful, and a bit of extra prodding around the stage can lead to more nodes, which in turn lead to more exits. The exits always take you to the same stage, but the more difficult ones to open do generally place you in a more advantageous position when you start the next stage, so it's worth looking out for them. Here, the Preacher wants to enter door A but the Thug is set on door C. I went with the Thug on this one. The Preacher's bio did say his perverse nature was not to be trusted, so door A may well have lead to an S&M dungeon or a clown school.
The third world is the Fortesque Mansion, and Baron Fortesque must be quite the accomplished hunter if he's managed to kill all those Terminators and mount their heads on his wall. "But cutting a Terminator's head off won't disable it!" I hear you cry, and you're right - these heads attack you if you walk near them. The wide spread of the Thug's shotgun finally comes into its own during the mansion stages, with are much more open than the ones that proceeded them, and these Terminator heads have to suffer the ignominy of being destroyed by someone who isn't even looking in their direction when he shoots them.
Of the four worlds, the Fortesque Mansion is my favourite. Those of you who have been around for a VGJunk Hallowe'en season will probably not be surprised by this, because I am a lover of the spooky and the macabre and this world definitely falls into that niche. The mansion is all crumbling marble and Satanic statuary, its halls patrolled by twisted hunchbacks and the bigger, meaner cousins of Thing from The Addams Family, and that's very pleasing to me on a personal level
It's not just an aesthetics, though - the Fortesque Manison is where The Chaos Engine's combat and level design come together in the most satisfying way. The difficulty level is on the rise as enemies become more numerous and more aggressive, but what could be irritating ambushes in a lesser game are kept enjoyable here thanks to your ability to see them coming if you're paying close enough attention. Having a partner to serve as an assistant / meat shield doesn't hurt, either. The stages of the Mansion also have the most enjoyable level design, where nothing is as straightforward as it seems and there are secrets all over the place. The Bitmap Brothers did any excellent job of making each level seem bigger than it actually is, too.
Now the Thug and the Preacher must do battle with their deadliest foes - themselves! Well done to the Chaos Engine, those are some remarkably accurate doppelgangers that it's knocked up. I certainly can't tell them apart. They don't even have goatees, the traditional mark of the evil alternate clone... which is probably because the original Thug and Preacher are already the most evil versions of themselves and any clones can only fall lower of the evilosity spectrum, barring them from taking on the mantle of the Villainous Facial Hair.
My real deadliest foes are these dumbbells. That's not to besmirch their intelligence or anything, they're honest-to-god dumbbells that rocket around the floor like an overexcited terrier, slamming into our heroes before they can even see the vicious gym equipment that will mete out their doom. I feel like The Chaos Engine is to tell me something by having me be repeatedly murdered by exercise equipment, as though the game has somehow peered into my soul and said "you should try working out some time, fatty."
With the Fortesque Mansion being home to some of the game's more interesting opponents, when I reached the end of it I was disappointed for the first time that The Chaos Engine doesn't have boss battles. I would have liked to have see the kind of monstrosity that would lurk at the heart of such a place. I would also have liked to test my mettle against such a beast, although in this case "mettle" means "ability to stand still and shoot it while using all the Preacher's medikits."
World four, the final world, the climax of The Chaos Engine's surreal and bloodthirsty odyssey... and it's a sewer level. Well, that's disappointing. The stages in the sewer world are as well-designed and as fun to play as ever, but it's still a bit of a let-down after the Mansion. It really feels as though the two worlds should be swapped around, so that during the course of the game you traverse the forest, travel trough the workshops, descend into the sewers and finally emerge in the Fortesque Mansion - the animated intro to the CD32 version of the game implies that the Chaos Engine is in the mansion itself, so that would make sense as the final stage. That's not how it works out in-game, though, and while the sewer world is challenging and fun it's just a tiny bit bland.
That sense of blandness may be slightly increased by my decision to play this world as the Brigand and the Mercenary, the two most average characters, for the sake of completeness. I seemed to do rather better as the Brigand than I did as the Thug, probably because his weapon has a more focussed area of attack whilst still being wide enough that accurate shooting is helpful but not strictly necessary. The Brigand can also use his special attack to fire all the bullets at once. I call it the Brigand Bullet Bonanza. No, I'm lying, I don't call it anything, unless you count the annoyed grunt I made every time I tried to use it and missed thanks to the delay of having to hold the button down to activate it.
Here's the last stage, where the Chaos Engine is powered by four generators that not only produce electricity but also small suns that home in on the player like Jason Voorhees going after a horny teen - unhurried but relentless. For a moment The Chaos Engine teeters on the brink of becoming annoying. The suns are constantly appearing and do massive damage, the generators that create them can only be damaged by shooting them from below and there are four of them to destroy in an otherwise featureless arena, but in the end it's a short enough level that, once you've figured out its quirks, it doesn't take long to clear.
Blowing up the generators lowers the forcefield that protects the Chaos Engine itself, so that means it's time for The Chaos Engine's one-and-only boss battle.
It is not an especially complex affair. For all it's reality-warping power, the Chaos Engine is a big metal box with a lump sticking out of the top. Your mission is to shoot that lump, and the best way to accomplish this is to fire a few times and then move around the edge a little to avoid the various projectiles the boss launches at you, repeating this process until you emerge triumphant. You sort of have to do it twice, because the central hub starts with a metal shield over it: blasting this aside reveals the face of Baron Fortesque, trapped within his infernal creation and prone to wild outburst of frustrated rage if he ever gets an itch on the end of his nose. This second half of the fight is the same as the first only with a longer health bar, so if you stay patient and don't get greedy you'll chip away at the boss for long enough to claim victory. Alternatively, if you have a bunch of extra lives you can just stand on the spot and tap fire until you win. Hey, if you've earned all those extra lives then you might as well use them all up now, hey?
Eww, he's got a tube going from his nose into his mouth. Gross. Oh yeah, and it looks like the embrace of the Chaos Engine has Baron Fortesque trapped in unimaginable biomechanical agony, that too.
The ending is brief, as the endings of home computer games tend to be, with Fortesque being released from the Chaos Engine and immediately claiming that the whole game was all orchestrated by him, in order to get you to the final area so you can set him free. "You will be remembered," he says, but by whom? I've killed everything in a hundred-mile radius, and even if Fortesque remembers all about us I doubt anyone will take him seriously if he tries to tell them the tale of our courageous mission. Not now that he looks like Richard O'Brien after fight with a swarm of angry hole punches. I'd rather be paid than remembered - these characters were all supposed to be guns for hire, if you recall - but as the game fades to black it remains silent on the issue of our financial reward. If I'd known I wasn't going to get paid at the end, I wouldn't have spent all that looted gold trying to make the Navvie less thick.
The Chaos Engine is generally regarded as an Amiga classic, and it's not hard to see why - this is very good game, a game where intense action, cunning level design and the odd moment that requires a more cerebral approach all combine to create one of the best shooters of the time. For it all to be wrapped up in a beautifully-executed faux-Victorian shell is a bonus, and if you are a fan on alternate history fiction then you'll probably get a kick out of this.
There are flaws, of course, but they're minor enough that mentioning them is little more than nitpicking. There are perhaps a few too many moments when you're firing at enemies lurking off-screen, and the delay in activating your special powers makes them less useful than they might otherwise be. The music... well, the music is good. I'm not denying that, it's just that it has never sounded quite right to me, and while it would be excellent in a different game I've always thought that The Chaos Engine would have benefited from a moodier, more restrained soundtrack. That's just personal preference, though, and my lack of important things to complain about should clue you in to just how much I like this game. For once I can even recommend the different ports: the SNES and Megadrive versions are both spot-on conversions (censorship aside) and even have the advantage of a bigger play area so you can see what you're doing a bit better. The CD32 version gets an animated intro, different music and brighter colours, although I'm not sure that last one works in the game's favour. The Amiga original is a dark, dank game with a pervading air of sinister melancholy which, as a closet goth, goes some way towards explaining why I had such a good time playing it. That, and the chance it gave me to forge an unlikely friendship between the Thug and the Preacher. If their camaraderie can survive the Thug stealing all his medical provisions, surely nothing can tear them asunder.