A Demo Review by Kingston C. Rockwell
Join Bob Surlaw as he searches for a way to stop an endless cycle of decay.
A couple months ago, JSH357 was collecting votes for the Top 30. I was running out of games to vote for, so I went through my old games folder to find some gems to pad out my ballot with; this is when I restumbled upon Surlaw: Armageddon, a small little demo from a few years back that I always remembered anticipating an update for, enough so to say so in no less than two reviews for other Walthros side-stories. (Man, though wouldn't Blueberry's Disco XXXTREME be a fucking game?)
In April 2004, shortly after the release of Super Walrus Chef, we were treated to a bizarre tale of Bob Surlaw's descent into madness. It featured surreal visuals, an interesting battle system, and a story that painted the world of Walthros blacker than Mick Jagger could ever have even dreamed. It had only one crippling flaw: it was only five minutes long.
Which brings us back to the Top 30. I'm sure Surlaw was just as surprised to see the game has a fan as I was delighted to hear that he was working on finally continuing it. On November 1st the world got a little brighter when an expanded demo was released in time for the Halloween contest.
While the original told the story of what Bob Surlaw was doing between Walthrus and Super Walrus Chef, dealing with some bad craziness that began with Gulob's catastrophic experiments, this new one takes Bob in, we can only guess from the exclusion of a flashback, a somewhat different direction. In a move that's something between a parody of all the different ways Surlaw's told this story and what we can only describe as a Mostly Harmless move, and even perhaps one that's in anticipation of the final remake of Walthros that's been in and out of production since Walthrus was finished, Surlaw: Armageddon is a surreal dimension-spanning adventure that promises to tie together all these different visits we've taken into the world of Walthros in the past seven years. The old familiar trip through the Forest Of Resurrection has one new face: Grimace, who has assumed the role of the Grim Reaper, gives you the skinny on the battle system. The only way it's changed from the old is in how it's explained, though there is that last bit that's better for a longer game:
Yes, you now keep half the AP you had at the end of the battle.
Sure, the system's something like a game I know Surlaw dislikes almost as much as I do, but in Surlaw: Armageddon the same battle mechanics that made Xenogears so mind-numbingly boring actually makes for a game that encourages you to use the spells you have and experiment with them to your heart's content instead of just saving up all your MP for the boss, since the stuff is so easy to regenerate. This doesn't make the battles necessarily easy, but it does mean that if you play your cards right you will never die.
In addition to this, there are a lot of little things you'll notice that reflect Surlaw's own opinions on games. For instance, you can save anywhere. I remember Surlaw mentioning at some point his annoyance with save points, which reflects, perhaps, how little time a person has to play video games as one gets older. Another is that there is no EXP, there are no level-ups. It's a game made by a vocal opponent of levelgrinding, seeing the convention as little more than empty content. There are no random battles, but every enemy has a corresponding NPC. Because of this, not only is it possible to avoid some battles, but also desirable, since those battles will mostly just waste your time and HP.
After the zombie romp in the forest, Bob's taken through a free-standing door to the author's own hometown of Boston, in some post-apocalyptic 1992. Here a Watcher-type gives you the straight on what's happening, then sends you to seek out the only living resident of the city, a Jamaican immigrant by the name of Lanni. Together you take on the beast that's put the city in its current state in a fight that's frustrated and stumped players across the board.
But this brings in why the AP system works. Being that none of your physicals do any damage in this fight all you're left to do is experiment with Lanni's spells, and like I said earlier, if your timing's good with Bob's Heal spell, you can make this battle last indefinitely while you play around with this stuff. Though when you look a little deeper, you kind've wish more of the battles were like this. Not so much that you could just experiment with how spells effect enemies, but perhaps if you could explore how they could effect the environment, also. Something like the BASTARD.GUNS series, though not necessarily changing the outcome of the battle, but maybe hiding little rewards, like the not-so-hidden pictures in Walthrus. The system already encourages playing with the spells, but if it would also encourage observation and exploration, in-battle of all things, this could be one of the most interesting and engrossing battle systems the OHR has yet seen.
From there the demo ends, but the taste of the next world it gives you is deliciously promising, bright and simple. This is a game that graphically is on par with Super Walrus Chef, in which Surlaw set a new standard for his own style that has been met or exceeded in every non-joke game he's made since, but visually it leaves anything he's done before in the dust, with a number of surreal and impressive animations at various intervals, unfortunately heavier in the beginning and completely nonexistent after the meeting with the Gray Man. It would've been nice to see more of those. Also, major props on the music. Killer7 is one of my favorite games, and with its strong atmosphere, borrowing its music for a game as surreal and creepy as Surlaw: Armageddon is very fitting. Bonus points for having the dance club song as the battle theme, I always loved that one. It all mixes together for quite an enthralling experience.
All this adds up to an immensely satisfying update to a great game. I can't wait to see the finished product, I just hope it's not another three and a half years.