Monday, December 12, 2016

Unhinged (UNHINGED.WAD)

UNHINGED
by "darsycho"


Back in 2012, the dude who would become darsycho made a pretty weird but goofy Doom mod by the name of Beyond Reality. I liked it; some of the spots were pretty off-the-wall but it was more about being silly than weirding the player out. Then, toward the tail end of the same year, he published another surreal Doom mod but with a very different atmosphere. Enter: Unhinged. On its face, it's a two-map offering for Doom II to be played in the ZDoom family of ports with the second map purely existing for the end sequence, and the initial impression - a lonely stretch of urban road built from vanilla Doom II textures with some Duke3D stuff for building facades - is underwhelming. But there's more.


The plot is simple, a framing story right in line with what I'm sure is a subset of horror / thriller movies. You're out driving in the dead of night when something bolts in front of your car, causing you to swerve and wreck your vehicle in the wall of a nearby building. Since it's not good to drive you go looking for help, but the whole place looks deserted. Then you start seeing things moving out of the corners of your eyes and unsettling landscape, as if something horrifying is lying just underneath the topsoil. The terrors of this Crouch End-style confluence of realities eventually emerge and while they hail from a dimension known as Happy Hell (no doubt related to the Happy Time Circus), you'll find that it is anything but.


The most important detail to be discussed before delving too deep is that Unhinged has only two difficulty settings, "Easy Mode" and "Insane Mode". These settings affect more than what monsters appear; there are a few significant differences in the areas that you will explore when you enter the organic nightmare of the Happy Hell-stricken areas, and if the idea of navigating a crawlspace maze populated with little spider enemies does not appeal to you, then you should just go ahead and play on Insane. On the other hand, if you just HAVE to see everything that Unhinged has to offer (psycho), then you should just start on Easy Mode and then play Insane afterward as a sort of arrange mode. You'll be much better equipped from both a cryptozoological and psychological perspective and still have some suspense inlaid once you realize that there are monsters that are exclusive to Insane Mode, including not one but two bosses.


The biggest advantage to a second playthrough hinges around the fact that the opening is a very, very slow burn, but in the best possible way. It's well in the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock's parable of the bomb under the table of suspense versus surprise. You know that you're going to have to fight, and you eventually will, but the longer you wear on without engaging anything, the stronger your heart beats and the tighter your stomach gets. I was a nervous wreck (but not jumpy) when the first real threat scuttled toward me and the feeling only abated at a glacial pace as I continued to explore the warped world of Happy Hell, curious as to what else was so different from the typical Doom experience. If you care to be surprised, then STOP READING RIGHT NOW and play Unhinged on your own.


Okay, one last check to make sure that everyone who wants to be surprised has left and started playing Unhinged for themselves.

Are we ready to move on?

Okay.

Unhinged's bestiary is oriented toward surrealism or gore but the main theme that appears to run throughout is heads, and if not heads then eyes. It's as though the bogeyman responsible for the nameless fear of being watched has broken through, abandoning its sinister voyeurism for an active role in your torment. The first two monsters glimpsed as shadows, which are otherwise completely ineffectual since they're sequestered from the actual play area, are little cackling trites with Doomguy heads and what appears to be a webcam photo being manipulated like a psychotic Terry Gilliam. Ridiculous, but you'll find that the threat is very real.


Several monsters are descended from webcam photos, actually, and they also factor into much of the wall decor along with walls of sickly eyes. One of them is a twitchy bastard that disappears into the ground, zips from side to side, and rushes you. Another rushes you but comes in several sizes, with the larger ones splitting into small ones not unlike the trolls from Mayhem Mansion. The last normal one is more of a miniboss, the lurker, which moves around below the ground kicking up dust and is only vulnerable to the first attack after it pops up to either look for you or attack. The rushing / popping heads routine may bring to mind the idea of jump scares but there's no screaming involved. Again, it's as though the observer has crossed the unthinkable boundary to personally afflict you.


The whole eye / voyeur thing continues with the more horrific enemies, like disembodied lidded eyes that are roughly analogous to the lost soul and flying, tendril-trailing orbs that fire slightly homing lasers. It's no surprise that the iconic one-eyed people eater from Doom, the cacodemon, appears relatively unchanged but for firing a file of lightning orbs at once. An edited Doom 64 cacodemon appears as an upgraded version that belches fire and can leave standing flames as hazards. To return to the whole heads motif, there are the aforementioned trites but also imp heads on spiderlegs that skritch around and used to great effect as crawly replenishing hazards in one of the Happy Hell segments. The biggest recurring monster on Easy mode is essentially a fleshy mass of faces that launches gore-radiating bloodballs.


The rest of the monsters ply a more general body horror and gore angle. Two enemies hang from the ceiling, the lovable hang men (organic ceiling turrets) and roaming fleshy terrors borrowed from Action Doom that are exclusive to the northern maze. Demons appear, but are mutilated, slow-moving, and eyeless, vomiting blood. The barons are visually virtually unchanged but fire spiraling, poisonous projectiles and die in a damaging eruption of blood. Mancubuses appear as spider-legged monstrosities that fart out toxic clouds in all directions and crawling pustules explode. Fleshspawn are more akin to S.T.R.A.I.N.'s doppleganger, sometimes spitting cacodemon fireballs and sometimes charging.


The Doom 64 Hell knight sprites have been leveraged to make gory, twisted versions with a tentacle arm. There's also a weird giant hand thing that serves as the first boss of the Insane version. It spawns smaller hands; the medium-sized versions serve as area denial things and don't move around and show up later on. The mini-hands are living projectiles that seek the player out, sort of like Blood's crawling hands but plus floating and minus the dark comedy. The last of these horrid things is the final boss, the ultimate webcam face, though dar is kind enough to kit you out with full ammo, a BFG, and a megasphere. Unfortunately the boss's superlethal attacks mean that you'll be doing pillar-humping and BFG bopping making for a tense if not exactly dynamic encounter.


That said, Unhinged doesn't feel particularly unfair. Its combat has a very classic feeling where you're afraid of letting any of the monsters get near you partly because health feels like it's often at a premium but mainly because your foes are usually so utterly alien and often able to quickly close the distance. On the other hand, the pacing is very much horror-oriented due to the uncertainty and danger involved in combating any of these phantasms. You're usually looking to put as much distance between these things as possible and the smaller beasties tend to come in huge mobs, especially problematic when you're dealing with something like a horde of projectile-shooting eyeballs, many of which refuse to budge from their entrenched positions.


The nadirs of this mapset are probably found in its two mazes. You'll have to navigate the insano maze no matter what, but the trite / imp head thing is an easy mode exclusive, with its alternate path taking you through some cool areas witnessing cryptic conduits and the edge of Happy Hell's own reality. The imp head spider gets a lot of mileage in the opening but falls off until a later key segment where, in one of Unhinged's most inspired encounters, it floods the bottom of a large pit whose platforms you must leap across, followed with a true mob scenario where you have to fend them off while waiting for a wall to slowly, painfully lower. The huge outdoor area that holds the finale is another standout encounter, if only for its visuals.


Wallpapered webcam captures may not be your aesthetic of choice when it comes to depictions of a Hellish tangent reality peering into our own... but it works, and it fits alongside more crazy stuff like the aforementioned eye motif. Sometimes it's walking past entire fleshy walls dotted with the things, as if Happy Hell is actually some sort of single, living dimension, and sometimes it's singular peering eyeballs like the one in the bathroom that kicks off your long night of agony. It's neat to see such complementary themes and a mapset with a broad variety of themes after Beyond Reality, whose "crazy" levels often felt more uniform and bland, more like a prototype for the worlds of Doom: The Golden Souls.


Unhinged is really cool. It's one of the creepiest Doom mods I've ever played and even employs a bit of non-linearity when you decide how you want to explore after reaching the northwestern building. I hope darsycho continues to rake the wilder corners of the imagination; between this, the more brilliant portions of Beyond Reality, and Mayhem Mansion, his relatively unrestrained imagination is a force to be reckoned with.



IF THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION WERE UNHINGED EVERY THING
WOULD APPEAR TO MAN AS IT IS, INFINITE. FOR MAN HAS
CLOSED HIMSELF UP, TILL HE SEES ALL THINGS THRO'
NARROW CHINKS OF HIS CAVERN

8 comments:

  1. Dear god this mod looks nightmarish; also hey, pictures. Glad to see recent uploads with imagery.

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    1. yup! new reviews will absolutely have pictures, and as long as I can keep it up there will be new reviews, even if they end up being single maps for awhile.

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  2. offtopic: great to have you back in full flavour

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  3. Excellent review, one of your recent best, I think--very evocative of how it feels to play the game, something not easy to do through the medium of text. I always kind of got the impression that Darsycho intended for the WAD to come off as a little more silly than it actually does (hard not to chuckle at some of the face tex, though), but of course, a lot of the most memorable horror vignettes have some element of the patently absurd to them. Also cool as an unabashed loveletter to "Happy Time Circus" and its sequel, of course; we're sadly not likely to see any more out of shitbag, but maybe Dar will grace us with an Unhinged sequel someday!

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    1. two things struck me about unhinged. one was the initial experience as I waited and walked and waited and walked, wondering when the first thing to go wrong would. the thing that surprised me the most was that there are plenty of monsters that have the feel of jump scares, but they're actually quite quiet. the other was that whole eye / head motif, perhaps unintentional but almost entirely consistent. I too would love to see more Unhinged.

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  4. God, it looks terrifying. And this guy was behind Beyond Reality? That silly little map set? What a mind.

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    1. idk if i'd call BR little, but yeah, color me surprised. id already heard about unhinged in the four or so years it's been out but none of the gab really prepared me for the experience.

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