I really wanted to like Bombshell. Shelly Harrison is a protagonist straight out of the first FPS golden age. Everything about her style and arsenal was perfect. Sadly, she was trapped in a middling top-down shooter that didn't suit her. For two years, her potential lay dormant, another forgotten mascot for the dustbin of history. Thankfully, the fine folks at Voidpoint and 3D Realms are attempting to correct this grave injustice with Ion Maiden.
Shelly's next adventure is a first-person shooter built in the same manner as some of the best of the 90s. Much like DUSK before it, Ion Maiden looks to capture the past the way you remember it instead of how it actually was. With upgraded Build Engine features and decades of unsourced pop culture to reference, we're in for a bombastic good time.
When grabbing Ion Maiden's Early Access release, you receive a full three-episode campaign that ties in with the final release. In a sense, this is also a throwback to the days of shareware. Back then, the first few levels of any new DOS game were distributed far and wide. This makeshift demo isn't free (unless you purchased the digital deluxe edition of Bombshell), but it does feature a wonderfully nostalgic fact sheet at the end previewing what's next. The full game is due out this Fall, but I couldn't help but dive into this early release.
If you've played Duke 3D or its contemporaries, you know how a game like this starts. A truck rams into a building, causing a string of explosions and trapping you inside. Armed with just a stun baton and the trusty revolver you've named Loverboy, you're off to fight a cult of cyborgs. Later levels in the Early Access preview campaign feature more firepower, including the famous bowling bomb grenades and a heavy duty shotgun that looks more like a grenade launcher. Some weapons feature handy alternate fire modes, giving you even more options to expand your arsenal.
Crafted with the same tools that brought us the original Shadow Warrior and Blood, Ion Maiden brings sensible updates to the old school chaos. Autosaves, headshots and heat-seeking bombs are all at your disposal as you run 95 miles per hour and blast an unfortunate soul in the face. Ion Maiden is the first Build Engine game with a reticle that matters, letting you aim precisely at explosive barrels from afar and easily get the jump on enemy encampments. This doesn't slow down the gameplay, but it does bring a sense of control that the auto-aiming bullets of the past didn't provide.
The enemies you encounter are your typical gun-wielding baddies. I did like the haunting quotes they shout during fights, even if I couldn't always make out their fine details. Accompanying them are spider-like skulls that nip at your heels. It's a clever addition since bowling bombs will track onto these low health enemies instead of the bigger threats. This is just one several tricks the game implements to force a change in tactics.
The boss fight that caps out the experience is a stiff difficulty spike made worse by the demo's limited arsenal. The giant robot only takes real damage from behind, but the horde of enemies that accompany it makes it hard to get there and blast away without some expert navigation. I was able to overcome, but I much preferred running around the other levels to circle strafing around that arena.
No matter whether you're playing in the past or just inspired by it, some things never change. Navigation in Ion Maiden can be bothersome, as it's not always obvious where the next keycard or woman-sized vent is hiding. Thankfully, I never got stuck to the point of frustration, but that's partially due to my experience. Someone coming to this style of shooter for the first time might get hopelessly lost. Considering that DUSK also has this issue, it might just be inherent to this style of design. It's probably blasphemous to say, but I wouldn't mind seeing an old-school shooter try out waypoints. If nothing else, it would probably cut out the pointless meandering.
Graphically, this is easily the best looking Build Engine game of all time. While enemy sprites do look a bit jumbled, Shelly's first-person firearms are sharp and well defined. Environments are rich with detail and obvious care. You can spend a lot of time just seeking out the posters and graffiti that fill out the world. Ion Maiden's reflective mirrors have seemingly been punched out, meaning that Duke 3D still has one advantage over its fancy predecessor. Still, you can spend time flipping light switches, flushing toilets, and more. These small interactive touches are part of what make Build Engine games so special.
Ion Maiden is an excellent showcase for new development in retro spaces. Besides the few quirks that come with the territory, this is a technical marvel that breathes new life into the gameplay styles of yesteryear. Anyone who still holds a candle for Duke or loved recent games like Shadow Warrior 2 should jump onto this Build Engine triumph. As for the future, here's hoping that Ion Maiden's full release can give Shelly the game she deserves. We've hailed to the king since '96, and every king needs his queen.
Our Ion Maiden preview was conducted on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.