By Steve Duff, Contributing Writer, email@example.com
Breathless AGA is a Doom-clone with a solid engine and good atmosphere.
AGA only -- needs an A1200 or A4000 with 2MB RAM.
Breathless comes on three floppies and offers a painless installation. After you install the game, go ahead and read the manual, or at least the part on configuring your controllers. For Breathless I was able to use my normal numeric keypad layout for the utmost in comfortable mayhem. I was very pleased. :>
I was less pleased with the copy protection and code sheet, but at least it wasn't the labyrinthine black-on-black nightmare you get with Alien Breed 3D2. However, because my room is poorly lit, I was compelled to start the game in daytime and leave it paused, sometimes for hours, while I waited for the world to darken enough to make the game playable at anything short of klieg-light monitor brightness.
Since Breathless is a hardware-banger, it should come as no surprise that '060 optimization is absent. It probably plays faster on a good '030 or '040 accelerator. Even so, I was able to play the game in 1x1 pixel mode at its max 320x200 res expanded to nearly full-screen on my 20-inch Toshiba TIMM. Thus configured, the game still ran about as fast as I would expect from Doom on a similar setup. I later installed the Breathless '060 patch, which the author claims isn't really a patch, and which appeared to offer no change whatever in playing speed. Perhaps I installed it incorrectly. In any case, it wasn't terribly important, since the game played fast enough.
For all the Wolfenstein-engine designers out there, Breathless should serve as an example of how it really =should= be done. Breathless AGA offers an engine in shouting distance of Doom. In Breathless you get stairs, elevators, teleports, skies, canyons, deep rooms, tripwire traps, etc. This is the minimum requirement for a modern shooter and these features alone automatically make the game three times better than Nemac IV. Breathless also offers 45-degree walls and, beginning in the second world, a truly nice fog effect, which is a very rare feature in shooters on =any= platform.
One thing left out of Breathless is a visible weapon, which takes some getting used to. Every time you shoot, projectiles just materialize out of thin air. Unless you find this terribly disturbing, you'll soon forget about it because you'll be busily fending off the bad guys. Since Breathless is yet another game with the unfortunate 'save between levels' feature (not surprising for a floppy-based game, I reckon), and the levels themselves can be very big, you'll need to pay attention to your shooting unless you want to go through them again and again. You'll also need to write down the end-level access codes, which contain your play data. Mess up in this area and you could wind up starting from scratch.
Unlike most shooters, Breathless does not offer difficulty settings. The game is set in concrete, which is a real pity. On the one hand, players who've never experienced a 3D shooter could find the going very rough indeed. On the other, players experienced at Doom on the UltraViolence setting will simply rip through Breathless. It only took me three days of play to see the final exit on Level 20. I didn't quite make it there, though, since I'd used up all my goodies. However, it was a bit disheartening that the first genuinely difficult level was also the final one. Or to put it more directly, an experienced Doom player could get through the first ten levels without being killed once, if they were careful.
Which by no means indicates that Breathless is a poxy game. First, the game has a nice look, with very smooth textures, especially on the doors. There is sector-based lighting for added atmosphere and a decent spray of cement, brick and computery textures to support the sci-fi feel of the game. The final world is reminiscent of the home-made Doom WAD ALIENS-TC, with wonderfully grim textures and the deadly, acid-spitting alien critters.
Speaking of which, the adventure is divided into four worlds of five levels each, which means you get the bounty of four different sky textures. This would be important to level designers if an editor existed. ;>
The enemy sprites are a mixed bag. An unusual aspect of Breathless is that each of the four worlds has a different menagerie of creatures, but they are all basically serving similar roles, i.e., each world has its piker, its knight, its flying critter, and its big badass. As a rule, the pikers look pathetic while the big badass is an impressive rendered creature, with the rest of the menagerie falling somewhere in between. Personally, I thought the most impressive-looking sprite was the flying Guardian Eye in the third world. It looked just incredibly cool! I would also like to extend my kudoes to the incredible giant scorpions. They were the only enemies in the whole game to really send a chill up my spine, and the animation of their claws and tails looked very impressive.
Flying creatures reveal one of the engine's limitations, for they fly on a set plane and can only raise or lower themselves if they climb stairs. In some of the deep rooms this proved to be a crucial weakness in gameplay terms. Another drawback is that the movement control is sludgey. It's hard to find a happy medium when the controls are this coarse, so circle-strafing is mostly useless and simple sidestepping is enough to get you through.
The enemies themselves are fairly weak. Direct hits from pikers in the first two worlds may only cost you one or two hit-points, and even the final world's MegaBeing can't take you out with one shot, or two, or even three. No Cyberdemons here, folks! Most of the big enemies also move rather slowly and some, like the MegaBeing, have practically no dodging ability. By contrast, the pikers move fast and usually have a decent dodge routine. For my money, the deadliest creature in the whole game is the fast-moving alien piker of the final world. It's especially dangerous if it ends up beside you, since its acid will rip you down pretty rapidly. Also worth noting is that the enemies are fairly good at turning corners, but cannot open doors and cannot be made to fight each other. The latter means that dancing around a crowd of enemies to start a riot is not a strategic option.
By comparison to Doom, which can give you up to 64 monsters onscreen at once, the enemies in Breathless aren't very numerous. Indeed, the game has more of an exploration quality thanks to the enormous size and relative vacancy of the levels. The level design itself is solid, with just enough architectural variation to remain interesting, along with a fair number of traps. The traps get deadlier as you go and in the third world you can find the Big Devils rising straight out of the floor. As a designer of Doom levels, I occasionally use this trap and I was pleased to see it in Breathless. Another nice feature is that almost all the levels mix indoor and outdoor fighting. Care is necessary in the outside areas, which often feature toxic pits. The coarse movement controls and the apparently large size of the player (however they describe this element in the program), can cause you to fall into these even when you think you have plenty of maneuvering room! One drawback to the level design is that it tends to be very linear and hardly ever offers more than one way to attack a target. Also, I tend to think they could have done just a little more with the architecture.
The game seems to be incredibly free of bugs. The clipping and drawing routines are very solid. Not once did I go through a wall and seldom did I see vertical texture rips at sharp edges. The game never crashed and only suffered a music bug after I applied the '060 patch. This bug would occasionally cause one of the songs (always the same one) to hang on a note for awhile. The only other bug I noticed was that sometimes the game would decrease my resolution during graphically-intense combat. I'd suddenly find myself in 1x2 or 2x1 pixel mode and with a smaller screen! Then again, this could be a feature to prevent crashes by releasing some Chip RAM. Also, large rooms and outside areas revealed the low actual resolution of the game, such that distant walls and enemies became very grainy.
Despite some of the noted shortfalls in fluidity of movement and relative weakness of enemies, the game plays very well. In a way, it all evens out, and you will definitely need to get your weapons boosted and move up the firearms food chain as fast as you can. You'll also want to keep your shield strength relatively high, especially as you enter the third world and the tougher traps it brings. As a tip, don't buy the Flamethrower. Save your credits to get a Magnetic Gun and boost it. The latter alternative is much more helpful in getting you to the end.
Unlike any other shooter I've tried, Breathless uses a 'terminal' system for important powerups. Some powerups are scattered throughout the levels -- health, energy (for weapons) and shields, but you can only get more powerful weapons by collecting credits and buying them at terminals. If you have enough credits, you can also buy keys, or increase your health, shields and energy. Indeed, it's quite a credit to the designers (pardon the pun), that they managed to put in exactly what you need to survive -- and little more -- with such a system. Unfortunately, this feature would make designing add-on levels a bit problematic, as would the feature of having specific creatures for specific worlds. This is to say that designing a level for World Three would be very hard because you can't simply leave a Magnetic Gun laying around to take out the ten Big Devils you have waiting at the end. Instead, you'd need to toss in a tremendous number of credit powerups or just make a wimpier level.
Breathless is an incredibly excellent game. It has mood and atmosphere, huge levels to explore, enough combat to retain interest, and a Doom-grade engine which features most of the important stuff for a game like this. Also, not previously noted, is that many of the enemies make cool and chilling sounds when alerted, and music plays throughout the levels. While it's the same five tracks again and again, it works pretty well to keep the mood going. Overall, in terms of atmosphere and 'feel,' this game comes closer to Doom than any other clone I've tried on any platform. Bottom line: this game cries out for a heftier sequel that could add a few engine enhancements, genuinely fast and powerful enemies, Internet deathmatch play, OS-friendliness, and graphics card support for 640x480 play. It would also be nice to see the odd terminal system get ditched and an editor included. For those considering an '030 or '040 accelerator for their A1200's, Power Computing now offers cheap, well-reviewed boards with Breathless thrown in free of charge. A nice deal, if you ask me.
Sharp textures, strong engine, good gameplay, huge levels, almost 100% bug-free.
Weak enemies, a few engine shortfalls, coarse controls, no editor, odd terminal system.