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Review: Illhaven Saga

Project Information

  • Title: Illhaven Saga
  • Author: Tim "Kew" Jarvis
  • Platform: Unreal
  • Category: Small Campaign
  • Review Score: 57%

Main Review

Associated among the best of the best in the eyes of Unreal's loyal fanbase

In the long lineage of Unreal SP there are packs that stand the test of time and there are those that weaken with age. Those that fail do so because they chose to fill the mold rather than break it. By not securing those precious elements that would separate them from the average lot they exist now as relics from a classic era, looked on with the sort of fondness that only comes with forgiving nostalgia. Even projects that put so much into the task of providing new content in order to distance themselves from the casual adventure suffer the heat of criticism when players see past the gimmicks and experience the neglected nooks and crannies. As players, we are the ones who have to tread through all the little problems that add up to big issues, like the ones that damage fun factor and degrade the effectiveness of gameplay (see my review of Legacy for examples of this).

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Those that prevail are the ones that give the player something new whilst sticking to the proven formulas of the mother game (the ones that worked). They stand the test of time not only by living up to the standards of Unreal but by having the guts to try to surpass it. They do this without cutting corners. These packs can be played years later and still fill us with awe, (like Tower of Shrakith'a and Hexephet).

This is where Illhaven often finds itself; associated among the best of the best in the eyes of Unreal's loyal fanbase. And why not? It has all the makings of a classic. It was made by a proven vet, Tim "Kew" Jarvis, who has gone on to construct maps for contemporary-era mammoths like Operation Na Pali. It also employed unique aspects of story telling that, at the time, were still new. Things like casting a Nali protagonist and a plot-line about defending one's home (a rarity among storylines in our SP community). Things like embracing the Nali mystics over the more mainstream clichés of science fiction. It is also a pack notable for gameplay elements like pushing Unreal's A.I. into territory uncovered by the mother games. But is it truly one of the all time great packs? Or does it... after honest evaluation... rank with the more imperfect additions to Unreal singleplayer past?

Illhaven opens to a brief intro similar in nature to many custom packs (Usually EZKeel type maps or even packs like Attacked!) where the player starts in a introductory title room. From there the player can nab a Dispersion Pistol before taking a portal to the story's true starting point; a row boat moving into a desolate Nali harbor. And thus begins our hero's story. A Nali, oddly enough also named Kew, sails back to his home only to find it infested with a legion of Krall and their leaders, the Skaarj. His origins are unknown, but armed with a trusty Razorjack and with frequent Translator logs of his self-reflective thoughts... you'll quickly be aware that our protagonist has no reservations about fighting against the Skaarj. There's a lot of interesting things in these reflections and the character development is top notch. Make no mistake, this character is a tragic protagonist and the entire journey through Illhaven is a solemn one. Illhaven starts with challenge; taking on the patrolling Krall and Skaarj of the entry dock with the famous Vortex Rikers-esque twelve health and the starting ammo provided with the Razorjack stowed onboard the protagonist's simple vehicle. With no clear objective direction, you're free to roam the streets beyond with the bare essentials you can salvage from the water side areas. You'll even nab a Rifle right away, but its ammo is scarce and health packs are spread out. Basically you'll have no choice but to brace the dark side streets while occasionally reading Kew's thoughts as you traverse the silence. You will anticipate ambushes at every turn and when conflict comes it comes with little warning. The beginning of the pack is thoroughly engaging because of this and playing cat and mouse in the bleak Nali setting is about as atmospheric as you could ask for. These tense opening moments where you stand at the head of a dark ally or in the doorway of a vacant pub... with meager health and with the scraps of ransacked ammo that may or may not carry you through the next fight... are truly gripping.

The progression of maps in Illhaven is circular with settings that stray from the conventional Na Pali establishments. Instead of the usual outpost or temple intersected by terrain zones, Jarvis chose to keep the story contained to a single, central location and flesh it out in full detail as the tale continued from map to map. Even the way some maps end is genuinely unorthodox; faced with an ambush that seals his exit from Illhaven, Kew ends the map by taking shelter for the night, to begin the following map refreshed in the morning with patrolling Krall searching the streets for him. Illhaven also employs a host of unique gameplay elements, such as putting the player in situations where stealth and caution are as effective as all out combat... sometimes more. The second map is a great example of this, where the cavalier approach used before is no longer the wisest option. Don't get me wrong here; you can certainly finish the maps any way you choose. But the way some maps are setup, certain approaches may fare better. Take for instance the second map, where indirect routes between houses and crawlspaces are ideal over running for it with the Krall patrols wandering around. There are also a great deal of sleeping guards and Illhaven is one of the few packs where you can effectively walk past them and avoid conflict altogether. These situations also make the story more inclusive from the player's perspective, as a Nali. You really feel like a refugee in your own home.

Sadly, the remaining maps in the pack don't maintain the same level of tactical ingenuity. Instead, Jarvis opts for a sidetracking story element that dominates the latter portion of the game... and it's a factor that relies heavily on the burden of manipulative gameplay. I refer of course to the changes made to enemy A.I. to carry out many of Illhaven's famous moments. Take for instance the section where inhabitants of Illhaven... friend or foe... are frozen in time by a curse. This feature carries over into an ancient holy site where dozens of powerful enemies stand frozen on top of pedestals as if they were statues. Also, how can one forget the phantom protagonist concept... where, under the influence of outside magic... the player is invisible and inaudible to enemies protecting a sacred shrine. In this state, certain enemies will ignore you altogether as long as you don't attack them. It is in these more disjointed segments of the game where you encounter many of the altered enemy pawns that don't exactly convince. You'll be bombarded by many types of Skaarj warriors and troopers that have very large pawn model sizes for no apparent reason. These pawns, while a bit odd, are nothing compared to some other misfit additions to the enemy horde. Illhaven is one of the uncommon packs that dares to include the Queen enemy. Like most packs that include her, Illhaven does it wrong. For starters, you fight two Queens in the course of the pack (one weaker incarnation, one stronger) and neither of them really fit in the environments they are placed. The second, stronger Queen fares slightly better in her medieval battle arena... but both Queens are seriously de-fanged due to the fact that Jarvis makes a common mistake by not including the proper scripting when taking into account her teleporting ability. Anybody who has played lots of SP packs or even some monsterhunt games knows what I'm talking about here; when a Queen gets stuck in static limbo when she attempts to teleport to destination points that aren't in the level. She'll fade in and out while standing in place as the player can take cheap pot shots at her. This is massively unprofessional for such an acclaimed pack and something this unpolished simply can't be forgiven in the eyes of the seasoned player. Likewise, Kew has the aid of "helper" Titans in this section of the game. They won't hurt the player as long as they check their fire, but they can be glitchy in other ways (they seem to stop moving a lot as if hesitating to react to you or the nearest enemy). Despite their uneven A.I. they perform interestingly in the second Queen fight (which, technically is the closest thing to a final boss fight you'll get in Illhaven). The fight itself is always random, depending on how the Titan duo does its job. One more enemy type I have to mention is one that is extremely rare in the pack, and it also happens to be fantastically retarded. Jarvis added certain brutes in the second to last map that, instead of rockets, shoot Titan boulders. Yeah, digest that for a moment. They are still normal looking brutes that simply shoot... boulders.

The detour in the mid-section maps is followed by a brief return to the town-level section, now under the cold embrace of a deadly blizzard. In this final map the player is confined to the interior and has to find a safe route out of Illhaven. Aside from some meager Krall fights toward the end, it's basically the kind of finale that goes out with a whimper rather than a bang. It leaves a lot to be desired and the final moment makes little narrative sense given what the pack's story had going prior to the big mystical detour. That detour of course is where the story really loses its steam. The interesting plot-line about a lone Nali traveling perilously into the infested ranks of his home's occupiers is all but abandoned and never picks up again after the second map. The protagonist's self-reflective thoughts no longer carry the same somber intrigue as they did previously and they simply fade into obscurity before resurfacing back to their routes in the last map... where of course the pack ends without closure. The only real remarkable thing to mention in the last map is a last minute sub-plot situation regarding a Nali monk who succumbs to evil thoughts and betrays his friends, doomed to wander as a ghostly visage of his former self. I say "last minute" here because this happens literally three seconds before the end of the pack. It's a welcome addition to the narrative, of course...and I enjoyed it. But it just feels like it belongs earlier on in the story... not at the final act where there should have been a more effective combat situation or at least a story wrap up that completes the circle.

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The real cons Illhaven has going for it are the ones the player will be aware of from beginning to end. To put it bluntly, Illhaven is one of the most clunky SP experiences available. Things from flawed enemies to simple decorations stick out like a sore thumb at times when used improperly. Illhaven is plagued by badly placed torches in many areas... where they are either floating away from their intended placement or hovering ridiculously high over where they are supposed to be. Some don't even have bases and are just floating wisps of flames. In some truly horrendous cases, the torch decorations in some lower level areas actually penetrate the ceiling of a section above them so the player can actually be walking down an ally and see the tip of a flame sticking out of the floor (there seems to be substantial evidence that the reason for this is due to an error on Epic's part concerning a patch. Regardless, such an obvious visual bug that is visible in the good majority of the pack could have been patched as well by Jarvis once the irregularity was known. It's simply a matter of drawscale adjustment and is noticeable to the point that it takes the player out of the game). Other visual oddities exist as well; things ranging from basic texture misalignments (some particular staircases in the Titan map are wretched) to oddly used sets and decorative paraphernalia. The behavioral alterations used on the specially placed pawns are at the basic level of property retooling. What this means in non-geek jargon is that, unless you play the game EXACTLY as Jarvis intended you to, you'll easily get yourself in an awkward and ultimately distracting situation. The biggest culprits are the frozen enemies. Shooting the frozen pawns causes strange results. They'll make noise and move off center (which is really stupid looking for the pedestal guys) until you cause enough damage to animate them. The section where you find the eightball has tons of enemies like this that are supposed to animate one after the other after you trigger a sequence... but you can attack them cheaply before the event gets a chance to start. This section of the game just fails to work on the story telling level simply because of the absurdity of how the enemies look and react in this manner. Also, being able to "break" the narrative progression really withers away the very effectiveness of the story, which at this point of the game is where it is weakest. It was an idea better left to a more ambitious project with better resources at their disposal. Great idea, bad execution.

Sound in Illhaven is not very remarkable, although silence plays a factor in the first map. No segment of the game truly "pops" in the ear-drums and it is one area of atmosphere that gets the shaft. Music is used when necessary but none of the Unreal tracks heard truly capture the situation at hand. For example, the final Queen fight was already pretty random and bland under the circumstances and the music didn't do anything to help. Some music choices are also very strange considering the setting (playing the Skaarj Mothership song during a town segment infested with Krall is an odd choice).

Finally, I think I should add that the difficulty and challenge of the pack falters after the first map. True, you only get a small portion of Unreal's weapons at your disposal (Razorjack, Rifle, Stinger, and Eightball for the whole pack) but after a time you'll have plenty of Seeds and Armor and eventually health to take out the necessary adversaries. Combat with enemy hordes can be avoided in some cases by easily ducking past them and the really big fights fail to provide a challenge due to pawn-unfriendly layouts and Titan barriers. Let me say that again; The layouts of the maps are your biggest advantage. More often than not, the enemies chasing you will get caught up on level design. If you make it past round one, you'll have no trouble beating Illhaven.

Summary

Overall, Illhaven will be considered a classic no matter what... but its faults certainly prevent it from being truly memorable. Starting off with the implementation of a great idea, the story ultimately suffers by getting lost in an obscure detour that takes over the last half of the game. The end is disappointing and you can "break" the intended enemy A.I. simply by shooting before the game wants you to. Illhaven starts off strong, is written well, and provides exceptional intrigue where it counts. But at the end of the day you realize that Illhaven simply fills the mold. Play it and love it for the relic of Unreal history that it is. Just don't see it for more than it ever was.
Review Scores
BuildThe combined value representing the technical quality of the level's construction.54% CastThe combined value representing the imagination and reasoning behind the level's conceptualization and design.60%
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.6 Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.7
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.6 Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.7
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).6 Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.5
SoundUse of ambient sounds and event sounds to give the level atmosphere, and the quality of any custom sounds. Appropriate use of music and silence to complement the atmosphere.5 Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.6
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.4 Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.5
Final Verdict: Above average
Score: 57%

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