31st of December 2022
It's been years since the end of the previous episode, but to my recollection the
Reapers Beyonders are coming, and
the team is in a fantastic hurry to travel halfway across the universe to do something. (A quick recap would've been helpful.) After a "considerable journey",
the team's spaceship gets damaged and crash-lands on a seemingly backward planet, Elysion, within a gigantic Ringworld system. The previous episodes began with a
series of maps you had to play through before being able to select missions on your own. Here the order is reversed; you get to play almost all of the maps in any
order you want, at least as soon as you visit Easthaven, a village near the crash site. This is where you get familiar with the history, customs and people of Elysion.
After getting acclimatized to the ways of the savages, it's time to head back to the crash site and kick off your journey properly. Each map begins with a short
cutscene showing the character traveling horseback, to convey the fact that this shit takes time when you don't have access to futuristic propulsion systems.
My second playthrough began with Serpent Canal, a two-parter with the first one focusing on an Egyptian theme, a throwback to the third episode. The opening bit is small-scale with clearly defined boundaries and, true to its name, plenty of underwater segments and waterways. There's a noticeable yellow tint and good texturing all around. There's some jumping too, but nothing too excessive or annoying. The second part, EDF Panama, looks and plays like an Unreal map as you come across and then explore the wreckage of a crash-landed spaceship. The map is epic (with an equally epic soundtrack) and non-linear, but there's also potential to get lost, as the map at one points seems to loop back to where you came from. You get to involve yourself in some cool squad action (it's always nice when you have allies that can shoot) within the wreckage and a VR segment where you need to quarantine and destroy a virus; it's a neat idea but slightly annoying in practice. Overall, this turned out to be one of my favorites in the episode.
In The Necropolis Rusty Nails gets to do the 6th Sense thing and talk to a bunch of ghosts. The first part of this mission is marked by relaxed exploration of a night-time wooden area littered with tombs and zombies that are much fun to deal with with Rusty's guns. A horse is used to ease navigation here and it works quite well for a Build-engine "vehicle". The second part begins with a sight of an imposing church standing against an orange dawn sky. The atmosphere has quickly turned from relaxed to something far more ominous. The colossal building with its blossoming garden combines with an eery atmosphere and an effectively used low-key soundtrack to give off the impression that something sinister is waiting for you. Just pay attention to the hints given so that the boss won't give you too much trouble.
Kagura gets introduced in Supply Run. She's some sort of a ninja; a bit more introduction would have helped, but the character is pretty fun to play as. The first segment, a night-time trek along a mountain path, introduces you to climbing walls (which works pretty well for a Build game), long-range sniping (which doesn't) and handling Kagura's special sword. The sword draws souls or something when you kill enemies with it, and when it's fully charged the next swing unleashes a powerful shot. (Just be mindful it's the same button you use for swinging it in the first place so as not to accidentally waste a charge.) The second map is a nice contrast to the night-time first part, this one being a temple shrouded in fog. Often it looks a bit too bright, but otherwise the design is fine and very reminiscent of Shadow Warrior (the map has several enemies from it too). There's also good use of underwater areas; swimming feels fluid and the distribution of oxygen seemed fair. The boss is a bit mechanical; this is one of those where you get a chance to hit the enemy only occasionally, so you quicksave after each successful hit. Luckily the fight doesn't drag out too much.
Micky is then off to explore what caused Elysion's moon to disappear from the sky (really) in Wetlands of Rowgar. The first leg of the journey is marked by relaxed atmosphere and soothing music; but just watch out, for the mission is about to burst into a full-scale epic. A lighthouse is your first sign that things are about to get big. Then there's a pirate ship; this segment has been pulled off very well, not just design-wise but the gameplay mechanics of it as well. The mini-boss battle here overstays its welcome, however, as the battle quickly gets repetitive and starts testing your patience. Too bad, as the gameplay mechanics of it are done rather well (nothing too clunky, hard or elaborate). A walk along a cliffside village then follows, and while your surroundings look quite nice, this segment involves just way too much legwork. In the final leg of the mission you uncover a bunch of interesting information about another class of beings known as the Engineers. Their hidden base makes fantastic use of true-room-over-room effects and colors that fit the underwater background perfectly. Shooting is fun too, but on both playthroughs I started to run low on ammo toward the end. The place is huge and doesn't provide a lot of cover, but at least hitscanners are rare in the episode, and you can walk past some of the bigger foes here. The underwater bit features another good use of a Build-engine vehicle, but it inherits some of the troubles with aiming from the previous episodes.
Merljin's questline takes him to the Lookout of Irusoph. This is probably my least favorite mission in the game. Surprisingly combat is its best part with its heavy focus on melee weapons; these work quite well, as none is really useless and some are very powerful. You have access to a few ranged weapons too but cannot rely exclusively on them. But otherwise the map is too walky, especially its midpoint which has a huge cavern with really nothing interesting in it (except for a weirdly placed key; it can be obtained long before you come across the corresponding lock, which also means that if you miss the key, you're in for some tedious backtracking), then an empty village. At least your environments keep changing, and the map picks up pace toward the end, but there's nothing particularly memorable, and even after my second playthrough I struggled to recall the map's specifics. The miniboss, a dragon, is quite well made, and you can even ignore it if you want (a similar dragon appears later, so consider this your opportunity to practice a bit). But oh god the final boss here is the most tedious affair in the entire game. This is a melee-only battle, except actually trying to engage the boss melee-to-melee is a bad idea, as everything the boss hits you with hurts like hell. So you have to lure it into these charges that may end up stunning it but that for some reason never seem to materialize. The boss is also way too fond of a special attack where it starts spinning toward you while swinging its weapon. It's much too frequent, long, powerful and annoying, especially if you happen to be low on stamina. The first time I tested the game I was able to cheese this fight, but on my second playthrough I gave up and godmoded my way through it.
In the "next" mission James, the group's so-called leader who no doubt must consider himself the reincarnation of King Arthur or something, is on a quest to find a sword in Darrow Lake. Minerva accompanies you on this journey. She's not a game-changer, but it's nice to get some extra healing and other aid every now and then. The mission focuses on well-crafted natural terrain featuring a grotto, a network of caves (with some nice colored lighting), beaches and such. It's coupled with a relaxed atmosphere and good use of music. There's another dragon battle at the top of a fort. It's a nice setup (like in Irusoph), but suffers from some annoyances. The window of opportunity to shoot at the dragon is rather narrow, and it takes a while (the area is rather large) to memorize the spots where it stops to give you that opportunity. But oh well, I think you can skip this fight too, as the dragon isn't much of a threat. In the finale an old foe shows up. The boss battle is pretty well balanced and doesn't take forever. Overall this may be one the least epic missions in the game, but I found myself enjoying it a lot on both playthroughs. Nice, relaxed atmosphere & enjoyable combat just go a long way.
Snowfall travels to Picbonear Reservoir, hoping to find something to help him repair the squad's spaceship. The map has some expectedly elegant design with unmatched use of textures (it's by Loke, the master of this art) that makes you wonder how come no one else (including myself, I hate to admit) ever thought of using them that way: I kept taking screenshots swearing to STEAL some of these ideas for my next map. The map may not be as "epic" as the rest of the episode, but in terms of raw design it's by far the most spotless. Like all of Loke's AMC TC maps, Reservoir is pretty low on lore, cutscenes (the ones it has are mostly to ease navigation) and non-vanilla features (it wouldn't take much effort to turn this into a Duke3D map). But there's one awesome new feature here and that is the dog, your loyal companion. (Did it arrive with the squad? Maybe there should have been a cutscene showing it coming along for the journey, or a short gameplay segment at the start of the map where you free it from enemy captivity.) Keeping the dog alive and by your side is very important, as Snowfall feels like the physically weakest character. Good thing then the dogs bites HARD and seeks out enemies quite aggressively. Its presence is rather comforting. Combat is fun thanks to Snowfall's arsenal, but the map has too many enemies that may turn into berserkers upon death. A few wouldn't be bad, but now it feels like half have a habit of becoming stronger and more pissed off versions of their old selves upon dying, which just feels like a slap in the face after expending ammunition to kill someone. Also, while the "basement" section's design has you hitting that screenshot key, the crowded corridors housing too many enemies could have used a bit more fine-tuning, and the looping layout of the huge place (where I think you need to find just one button) just isn't that much fun.
Sang gets to herd some sheep in Sjoerd's Woodlands. After this nice little sidequest (just don't let the sheep surround your horse as they have no intention of letting you leave) it's time to make your way toward darker reaches. There's a cool sense of progression here, as you move from the fertile lower grounds upward toward lava-filled caverns and molten lakes. There are some tough encounters along the way, and Sang's selection of accurate long-range weapons is limited, which necessitates a more personal approach (which is also why some areas should provide more cover). The frozen fortress at the end is a memorable sight, like a beacon in the night. Another boss fight wraps up the mission, and this one too is rather annoying. The first part isn't too bad even if you're fighting the boss without any cover, but the second part just had to include a troll (a Battlelord type of miniboss) as well. Now there's cover, but if you try to use it a firewall appears out of nowhere and hits you, just so that it wouldn't be too easy to avoid the enemy.
After these maps, it's time for the grand finale, a series of maps each dealing with the reasons you traveled halfway across the universe in the first place. First Sang must make
his way through a pyramid and a large cavern to reach a sky town. There are some spectacular sights on the way, and the town treats
you with a detective quest that's a nice change of pace from the non-stop action of the previous maps. The dragon boss here is a bit
annoying though, as you struggle to match your damage output with the dragon's healing (a cheap trick if you ask me).
A dark, diseased temple then follows. Important story bits are learned in the darkness while you solve some simple puzzles; nothing to detract you
from paying attention to the words spoken, but something to keep you busy so that you wouldn't just rush through the thing. After stepping into a fire
you're transported to who-knows-where, but the following segment has got some of the most epic sights yet (including what I'd rank as
the most awe-inspiring skybox in the episode). Unfortunately gameplay here too involves a bit too much walking, as the scale of everything
is quite considerable.
You then find yourself in another Unreal-like sky town. The main outdoor area here is visually the single most impressive thing in the episode. Not that it's high on details or anything like that, but the calming blue lighting and peaceful atmosphere just make for a moment that can only be described as magical. After a short visit to Axon's library, it's time for a final assault on the bossman's stronghold. The segment opens with a LotR type battle between two gigantic armies. This has been pulled off very well. It's not just one big cutscene; you get to do as much shooting as you want, but you can also just sit back and enjoy the show. A tank is then delivered to you. The path ahead is relatively straightforward; just blow shit up (some of the most powerful enemies you've come across in the previous maps become mere cannon fodder) and head for your objective. No need to look for switches or get off the tank every now and then. The bossman's fortress feels rather majestic with its gigantic hallways, but its symmetrical layout doesn't really do the gameplay any favors. Also, while it's nice to have a whole bunch of rather strong allies fight alongside you, they have a habit of getting lost unless you take your time to make sure they're always only a few steps behind (and believe me you're gonna need them to deal with some of the strong foes you come across).
Five boss battles then wrap things up. None of these is really exceedingly annoying, only maybe a bit more time-consuming that necessary, and at least you can beat the melee bosses simply by being faster than they are. The mechanics of the final boss are okay, but it's again one of those where you make a save after every successful shot, which gives it a slightly mechanical feel (think of the Icon of Sin in Doom 2).
All in all, the fourth episode feels in many ways more polished than the previous episodes. The maps are in general more "user friendly", having fewer clunky/obscure mechanics and more straightforward navigation. Moreover, the performance issues that plagued the second and third episodes are now gone all thanks to the fact that Polymost now supports TROR (which is extensively used throughout). Voice acting has also gotten better, not just that of the main cast but of the auxiliary characters as well. Outside cutcenes your interactions with the inhabitans of Elysion are mostly text-based. Not only are these important to read through, but they're well written and entertaining as well. The episode also has new "CGI" animations now; these are really well made and kinda remind me of the PSX era Final Fantasy games where you'd occasionally get treated to an animation. They appear in the right places and don't take up too much of your time. The music selection is also basically flawless, as nothing ever sounded out of place or distracting. Finally, many features that might have turned out clunky (such as horse-riding) actually function much better than expected.
But some issues remain. As was the case with the previous episodes, you don't always know what items you're picking up, and the inventory screen has descriptions only for some items, not all of them. Add to this the fact that some regular items look different depending on which character you're using; this hinders learning. The alternative ammo/firing modes system (these are two separate features) has been problematic since the start. So you shoot at an enemy and hear the distinct sound that indicates you should be using anti-armor ammunition. Okay, so what do you do? Well, there are now 11 playable characters in the game, each with its unique set of 10 or so weapons. Only some weapons have alternative firing modes and only some weapons have alternative ammunition. But you don't know which guns have these options until you try, so you'd rather just expend some extra ammunition than waste time trying to figure out which weapon (if any) has armor-piercing rounds. To add to the confusion, each character has a different HUD, and these can have elements you have no idea what they represent. Oh, and you're still sometimes expected to use the dodge feature despite the fact that there's no mention of it anywhere.
Part of the TC's appeal is its reliance on sprites rather than models. However, some things would be just awkward to represent with 2D sprites. So
the TC occasionally uses voxels as a compromise. But some of these, especially those that are meant to represent bigger objects such as mountains or spaceships,
often look rather crude.
There are some other negatives as well, although these are rather minor. You collect orbs that the town blacksmith can turn into upgrades, but this didn't feel like a well fleshed-out system. The orbs are kinda rare and the upgrades seem to be for character-specific weapons, so they'll be useless by the next map. The crossbow is a new "temp weapon" replacement. It's a lot of fun to use and remains a very effective ranged weapon throughout. It has mana as alternative ammo, but the second you've used up your primary ammunition the weapon becomes unuseable for some reason, no matter how much mana ammo you had left. This can really piss you off especially when you're low on ammunition to begin with.
Conclusion: I was initially skeptical of an episode focused on a medieval/fantasy theme, a theme I have never counted among my favorites. (Interestingly enough I'm in the midst of reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time and feel like I have more appreciation for the genre now.) But the fourth episode of the AMC TC was a truly positive surprise with a solid collection of maps that not only look good but have an amazing atmosphere as well. Moreover, and maybe it's just me, but it feels like the game's combat keeps getting better; almost every weapon of every character is plenty of fun to use. The episode is also more polished all-around and performs a lot better than the two previous ones did. Still, when looking back on my journey, many of the maps just seem to blend into each other, unlike in the previous episodes where they were separated by distinct themes. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as it makes the whole thing seem more like a seamless journey rather than a bunch of disjoint maps. For the next episodes I wish for more polishing regarding HUDs and information provided to the player with respect to his inventory and weapon options. But more than that I wish for boss battles that rely less on annoying gimmicks.
Download: Mirror (900 megs)
Author: The AMC TC Team