Video Game Review: Blood (One Unit Whole Blood)

Blood was one of many games I played as a shareware experience. Shareware, for those of you who are too young to recognize the term, meant you got a portion of the game for free—usually the first episode—but much of its content was locked away on later levels. You could tell what you were getting into if you decided to buy the full package—unlike today’s market, where pre-orders and dishonest game trailers are ubiquitous with mainstream releases.

Developed by Monolith and released for PC in 1997, Blood puts you in the boots of Caleb, a follower of the dark god Tchernobog. A sloppily-animated cutscene at the beginning of episode one shows the demon betraying his inner circle for reasons unknown, and casts Caleb into a shallow grave.

The first level begins with your grave sliding open, a pitchfork in your hands, and Caleb quoting Army of Darkness:

“I live… again.”

The story doesn’t go much deeper than that. The plot doesn’t make a ton of sense, but that’s not the point of a game called Blood. There are some little narrative flourishes within the levels here and there—Caleb offers commentary from time to time, we see evidence of a ramping up of Tchernobog’s forces, there’s a war on (in France?), and the different environments give clues that may or may not add up to a coherent narrative experience. It’s fun to fill in the blanks, but not necessary.

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Blood has the most creative and satisfying arsenal I’ve ever encountered in a shooter. Sure, the pitchfork is essentially a re-skinned knife/boot/melee attack, but at least it deals damage along its prongs (strike the wall to see what I mean). The basic pistol is a flare gun, which causes a slow burning effect in enemies, eventually incinerating them… but in the meantime, they can still move and deal you damage.

The sawed-off double barrel shotgun is satisfying, and is an excellent close-range weapon. There’s an accurate tommy gun, a napalm launcher (rocket launcher), all sorts of different kinds of dynamite, a lighter and a spray paint can, a Tesla energy cannon, a voodoo doll, and a mystic staff. The level design is very generous with ammo, so you won’t have to stick with just the shotgun/machinegun/rocket launcher combination that Doom pioneered and the industry was satisfied with not innovating beyond.

You can mix it up from time to time, and really experiment with different weapons against different enemy types, and with the satisfying alternate fire modes. Whenever I got bored with a given weapon, I’d switch over to something else. Generally speaking, each weapon has a good set of uses for a variety of situations. Flares and dynamite are good against the zombies, the sawed off and the machine gun are good against the cultists, the Tesla cannon evens the odds against gargoyles and fire-breathing dogs, and so on.

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The exceptions to this are the voodoo doll and mystic staff—both of which have rather limited utility, and can damage you if not used properly. They’re fun to use for boss fights, but not much else. The staff’s alternate fire mode is a little overpowered—I made short work of the final boss with minimal effort and one staff. It was a bit anticlimactic.

There is also an inventory system, but, beyond the doctor’s medical bag and the jump boots, there isn’t much to write home about. Power ups are also scattered around the levels—the guns akimbo is a hoot—but they don’t last long enough to make seeking them out all that worthwhile. Often I’d get an invisibility or akimbo item, only to have it burn out before I found any fresh enemies.

The defining weapon experience in Blood has to be using dynamite. There are several variations, but they all function pretty much the same: throw them at groups of enemies, and watch as their blood and viscera splatter all over the environment. Tossing a bundle with a lit fuse at a group of zombies is an experience that never gets old. They are somewhat overpowered and unbalanced, and you’ll blow yourself up if you’re not careful. That added danger simply enhances the freewheeling fun that the game emphasizes.

Blood’s enemies demonstrate the same level of innovation as the weaponry. Axe-wielding zombies (who resurrect if you don’t burn them or shoot off their heads), cultists (of various types), gargoyles, fire-breathing dogs, shark men, phantoms, dismembered hands, spiders, and more all eagerly rush toward you, eager to be picked off or blown up in grisly fashion. For the most part, the enemies are well-animated, have distinctive audio cues, and have a couple of attacks to dish out. Unfortunately, some move so quickly—a quirk of the Build Engine—making it next to impossible to get a well-aimed shot off. Some enemy types also deal obscene amounts of damage in little to no time, negatively affecting the game’s balance.

Intense enemies and weaponry is great—but the atmosphere and environments in Blood really seal the deal. You’ll fight through graveyards, mausoleums, a train station, a speeding locomotive (a simple yet memorable trick of the engine), a dark carnival, ice floes, haunted Shining-style mansions, hedge mazes, meat processing plants, bombed-out streets, evil temples, living environments, and more.

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There are some filler levels—you can’t escape warehouses, crate mazes, and drab tunnels in 90s-era first person shooters—but the levels that are beyond good are great. Utilizing largely non-abstract level design, the game really rewards you for exploration. Much of my motivation for completing the game was to see what comes next—what devious traps, impressive architecture, and hidden passages were ahead. Perseverance through the more drab stock levels is rewarded with trips through clever temples, spooky manses, and even an excellent “outdoors” level set at Camp Crystal Lake of Friday the 13th fame.

While I love Doom, the labyrinthine layout of every level in those games—even most tech bases—made for a non-intuitive exploration experience. Blood’s level design is a mix between the abstract and the real, and the levels are more interesting to explore because of it.

Although not on the level of Shadow Warrior, the game has some interactivity in the environment. However, the emphasis is on atmosphere—creative use of light, color, sound, and textures—rather than on doodad gimmicks.

As mentioned earlier, one of the strikes against this game is that its difficulty is over the top. Regular enemies can hit you with pinpoint accuracy from across the room while you struggle to get a bead on them. Enemy placement throughout many maps exploits their razor-sharp accuracy and quick-fast-in-a-hurry reaction times. You’ll often explore a new wing of a map, only to find cultists, fire-breathing dogs, or worse waiting around every blind corner, ready to shrink your health by a few dozen points in less than a second. The most unbalanced aspect of the enemies comes in the form of the gargoyles’ air attack (it’s next to impossible to hit them when they are flying above or below you) and the dogs’ fire breath (once you catch on fire, you can literally lose over 100 points of health… and running, jumping, or smashing the USE key repeatedly doesn’t always seem to douse the flames).

Healing items are in short supply. It’s very easy to get stuck in a situation where you don’t have enough health to progress—forcing you to re-load an earlier save state. Create multiple save states—including a backup at the beginning of each level. Trust me. I played the game on the second difficulty—and died a lot. Veterans of the genre will find a lot of challenge; newcomers might be put off by the difficulty, some of which is due to the aforementioned balance issues.

For all of its faults and quirks, Blood is a fantastic, spooky, and action-packed joyride down the tunnels and crypts of yesteryear’s game design and horror iconography. The game has personality, clever design, memorable weapons and enemies, and is, above all, a lot of fun to play.

A quality-focused modding community churned out some really spectacular add-ons for the game. Do some digging and you’ll find everything from one-shot levels to whole new episodes.

Horror fans and gamers who understand that first person shooters can be more than MMOs or Call of Duty clones will love the experience that is Blood.

4/5 Immolated Cultists

The commercial version, known as ONE UNIT WHOLE BLOOD, is available from GOG.com. It comes with the original four episodes, plus the two official expansions, Cryptic Passage (which is a little difficult to get running) and the Plasma Pak. It’s often on sale, and never more than a few bucks. Buy it immediately!

The game as packaged runs through DosBox. Getting the game to play with contemporary control schemes, higher display modes, and at a decent frame rate requires quite a bit of work on your part. The boards on GOG.com are a great place to start—but be prepared to do some tinkering with the configuration files and programs. I was experiencing significant frame rate issues on display settings above the default until I found a way to switch from DirectDraw to OpenGL. Additionally, I had to try many, many variations on the mouse sensitivity to get the game playable.

Because the game lacks a proper source port (the source code was never publicly released), you have to use the front-end Just Add Blood (and its three [!] patches). This program takes some tinkering to get the game running properly—follow the installation instructions—but once you do, you’re in for a grand old time.

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