Video Game Review: Happytime Circus 2

Happytime Circus 2 – Doom II Mod

Designed by Shitbag, aka Ray

Available for download here. Requires Doom II and the ZDoom or GZDoom sourceport.

The Doom series nominally falls into the horror genre. Truth be told, it’s nine parts action shooter, one part horror. The grisly monster designs, gore-ridden textures, rivers of blood—these are more set dressing than anything else. While I’m a lifelong fan of the original trilogy—Doom, Doom II, and yes, even Final Doom—these games are rarely scary. There’s a few jump scares when a flaming skull or chain gun-wielding zombie gets the drop on you, and there’s always a moment of adrenaline when you open a door to find a cyberdemon or arch-vile waiting for you. But true dread? Not so much.

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[Doom III is another story. Its gameplay is radically different from the original series, with a focus on close-quarters combat with only a handful of enemies. It uses sound design, lighting effects, and atmosphere to invoke a haunted carnival house atmosphere. It may not be existentially scary, but when it yells “BOO,” you’ll jump.]

While I’m not here to review the Doom series—yet—I will say that there’s a reason that I’ve played these games, off and on, since I first experienced the shareware version on a friend’s computer, sometime back in 1994. They’re fun. Frantic, bloody, fast, with a near-perfect effort-reward balance. Beyond that, the modding community that sprung up around the games, thanks to id Software’s encouragement of user-generated content and the eventual release of the source code, has allowed programmers to pick apart, rearrange, and put the game back together again in all sorts of fun and inventive ways. I rarely play “vanilla” Doom—that is, with no mods, in its original DOS format—but instead use source ports that allow for things like jumping, mouse and keyboard controls, mouse look, high-res graphics, new animations, weapons, and enemies, and of course new levels.

“Happytime Circus 2” is one such level. But it’s also a mod—it brings a fresh experience to the game, with new graphics, enemy types, programming tricks, and textures. It’s still very much a Doom level, but it often feels like something else entirely.

It’s also scary. Very scary. Especially if you don’t like clowns.

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You begin the level with a modified pistol, the open road behind you and an abandoned town ahead. While I love the id Software Doom level sets, they rarely, if ever, had maps that looked like real places. Abstract level design philosophy was in full effect at id through much of the 90s, so you’d occasionally get smatterings of realistically-built city blocks, military facilities, or castles. But more often than not you would be fighting through a fortress that didn’t seem to serve any real-world function, with nonsensical room layout and a lack of grounding details tying it to something you might see in real life.

One of the strengths of “Happytime Circus 2” is its reversal of that trend. Built on one large map, this feels quite a bit like a medium-sized town. There’s lots of streets, houses, shops, power lines, and even a cabin deep in the woods (a la Evil Dead). It’s really amazing the amount of work the designer put into building this town, using the blocky limitations of the dated idtech engine.

And the town is creepy. While the sky texture swirls above you, you’ll walk through wind-scoured empty streets, moving from house to house in search of rare healing items, ammunition, switches to pull, or doodads to shoot. I’ve spent several hours feeling creeped out as I went from one part of the town to the next, exploring at a snail’s pace. Changing music and trigger-based sound effects really put me on edge.

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It quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary town. The circus is here—or something pretending to be the circus. Within the first few houses you’ll find little clown statues (shoot them!), paintings of Pennywise, and pieces of wall falling away to reveal tent-striped surfaces beneath.

There’s no real story to speak of, but it’s easy to build one in your own head. What is the circus doing this to the town? What happened to all of the people? What the hell is going on when you accidentally cross over into the clown dimension?

There’s several weapons available to you as you explore. You’ll start with a modified pistol, but quickly find the standard shotgun. There’s also clown grenades, a gut thrower, a gas rocket launcher, a popcorn shooter, gore balloons, and glitter-spraying mines. While their designs are interesting enough, their utility is quite limited. Most of the weapons have some sort of splash damage, and the enemies you’ll fight often ambush you in close quarters, making it hard to fight back without hurting yourself. They also feel underpowered most of the time, forcing you to expend large amounts of ammunition (“clown souls”) to take down the enemies. I found the gut thrower to be completely useless, as I couldn’t hit floating enemies or seem to damage the tinier ghouls that scampered along the ground toward me. While I appreciate the effort that went into making these new weapons, they’re pretty much useless in most of the map’s combat encounters.

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Finding ammunition is also problematic, especially in the mid to late game. While the scarcity of bullets and shotgun shells works very well in the early game—adding to it a sense of dread and tension—once you open up most of the town, you’ll be fighting large groups of enemies over and over again. You’ll run out of ammunition very, very fast.

The enemies themselves are also a mixed bag. Patrolling clowns, chattering skulls, shadow teddy bears, and more await you. The problem with the enemy design is that most of them are very difficult to hit (especially those that scamper along the ground toward you at a high rate of speed), and the enemies like the clown bulbs, clown ghosts, or flaming clown skulls take a ton of damage to drop, and deal out even more. They tend to mass in large groups, making it impossible to fight them all, or even to survive many encounters without expending all of your ammunition or having to quick save.

Still, the first time you encounter a new enemy type, it’s genuinely unnerving—if you don’t jump out of your seat.

Eventually, I felt the incentive for exploration of new sections of the town to drop, as you were more likely to expend your resources than gain any as you tried to survive the horrors within each new building. Many of the enemies can move through walls, so running away typically meant they would show up a few minutes later, usually when you were inside a narrow corridor and couldn’t maneuver away from them.

The puzzles, too, are not conducive to walkthrough-free playing. You’ll hit a switch somewhere—or pass right by a switch, not realizing what it is—only to open up another switch, wall, or portal somewhere else. Shooting the little Pennywise statues triggers events, but you’ll almost never know where to go next. This leads to a lot of backtracking, a la Hexen, which artificially increases the difficulty and time you’ll spend playing.

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It was the issues with the enemies and puzzles that eventually forced me to resign from the game without completing the map. I know it is possible to beat it—there’s plenty of Let’s Play videos out there—but I’m not sure it’s worth going through the whole map just to reach the end. I got stuck in the clown dimension in what I believe was the later part of the level, and became frustrated by the never-ending stream of enemies and lack of discernible direction. I hit a switch, then couldn’t find my way back out again.

Then why would I review this? Why would I recommend the map? Simple. Despite its design flaws, there’s a lot of care and attention to detail that went into this mod. While the weapons aren’t great, they are fun to discover and play around with at first. And frankly, the first few times you explore this dead town and explore the horrors within, you’ll be creeped out. The early game is a lot of fun, especially for experienced Doom players who want to see some new and creative things done with the engine. The designer of the map knows how to set up a good atmosphere and ratchet up the tension.

This map demonstrates that it’s the little things—sound, conservative use of gore, and authentic and creepy settings—that make video game horror actually scary. Professional game designers could learn a thing or two from this mod.

[Note: the above screenshots were taken using GZDoom, a free sourceport for Doom, Heretic, Strife, and Hexen. I also had a gore mod activated.]

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