In the late 90s and early 2000s, there was this strange trend where established artists were throwing their hat in to not only license games but to make them too. Harlan Ellison pitched in (and even voice acted) on the adaptation of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Douglas Adams designed Starship Titanic, and even the art collective The Residents designed and scored the wonderfully bizarre Bad Day on the Midway. However, as an FPS fanatic, I’ve always had my eye on one title in particular: Clive Barker’s Undying, a horror-themed shooter planned and written by the man himself. So, considering the season, I took some time out of my schedule to pick it up and give it a run through, and what I found may be my new definition for “a flawed gem.”
Undying is the story of Patrick Galloway, a World War I vet who has been beckoned by his good friend Jeremiah Covenant to the massive Covenant Manor for a small chat. Nothing too big … just that the Covenant family is cursed and his deceased relatives still haunt the house and are gunning for his soul. What follows is a descent into the depths of the Gothic estate, discovering dark secrets and horrors beyond the stars on your quest to rid the manor of its family curse.
The plot, while extraordinarily entertaining, does take a backseat to the game’s most engrossing element: the Covenant Manor itself. From the moment the game starts, it’s clear that the manor will steal the show; the first thing you see when the game begins is the structure looming over you, its massive smokestacks and barred windows serving as a clear warning that nothing good can be inside that house. While you do occasionally leave the manor to investigate the nearby ruins, the general Gothic Horror atmosphere is always intact thanks to the prevalence of creepy crypts and vicious wolf-men.
Also worth complimenting is the way Clive Barker’s Undying treats storytelling. While there certainly are people to talk to and diaries to find, a great deal of the lore comes from the actual manor. See, you start the game with a strange spell called Scrye, which allows you to see the ghosts of the past ala Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s take on Eagle Vision. So, whenever you start hearing whispers, you’re just one cast away from learning more about the extraordinarily despicable past of the Covenant family.
Thankfully, Scrye isn’t the only spell you get. Throughout the game, Patrick acquires everything from ancient revival spells to the summoning of flaming skulls, almost all of which can be augmented by finding out of the way upgrade scrolls. While it may be hard to reach them, they’re certainly worth it and can turn your wimpy ectoplasm missiles into wall-piercing harbingers of doom.
Still, like most First Person Shooters, your main way of dishing out damage will be via the barrel of a gun. While there aren’t many weapons to choose from, there are certainly some real standouts, such as the stupidly powerful scythe and the phoenix eggs, which allow you to remote-control phoenixes that will explode upon impact. Also worth noting is the fact that the revolver and shotgun can accept alternate ammunition (silver bullets and phosphorus spells, respectively) that makes the monster-slaying job a lot easier.
Speaking of monsters, Patrick sure has to deal with plenty of them throughout the course of Clive Barker’s Undying. While most of them can be felled with enough bullets, most enemies have some secret trick to them that makes combat much easier, and it’s finding out these strategies that make encounters so memorable. Because without the gimmicks, combat in Undying is reminiscent of Half Life in all the worst ways. Lots of sneaking around at low HP and jamming that quicksave button to hope this time the enemies don’t eviscerate you right at the start of the fight. While it’s certainly annoying, it’s nothing horrendously bad or overly frustrating. Still, could’ve been a lot better given more time.
I suppose time is the phantom that really haunts Clive Barker’s Undying; it’s fairly clear that the game is nowhere near as expansive as the developers would’ve liked. This really shows in the ending, where you’re confronted with not one, not two, but three fake-out final bosses before actually fighting the true villain. This would’ve been more acceptable if these reveals weren’t packed so tightly together, making it feel like the dev team really had to race to tell Undying‘s story in the time they had available.
Let’s be honest for a second; Clive Barker’s Undying is hardly the best First Person Shooter ever made. Hell, it’s not even the best in its own year. Undying was unfortunate enough to have to square up against the likes of Tribes 2, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and Halo: Combat Evolved, which certainly explains why it’s not mentioned very often. But that’s a shame, because while it certainly has flaws, it really does do a lot right. Even after the aforementioned mind-boggling ending, I still came out of Undying satisfied and with nothing but praise to heap on the genuinely brilliant world Barker built for the game. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of Gothic Horror, Clive Barker’s Undying can’t be recommended strongly enough.