It's safe to say that boomer shooters aren't going anywhere anytime soon. From the successful revivals of DOOM and Wolfenstein to a host of indie games covering every stage in the evolution of first-person shooters, anyone who enjoys speeding around corners with a double-barreled shotgun has been feasting for quite some time. Coven (by one-man developer Gator Shins) is yet another contender for the discerning shooter fan's attention, a horror-themed Quake-like that combines elements of Dusk and Hexen into something new. It's unclear whether Coven can maintain its breakneck action until the end credits, but its most recent Steam Next Fest demo seems to have all the ingredients for a masterful brew when it eventually hits Steam shelves.
Coven grips you right from the start with a masterful opening scene. The main menu depicts a scene of townsfolk gathering in the distance. Their stares make you uneasy as you choose your difficulty and launch into the campaign. As you begin, the menu fades away, a man steps forward with a torch, and you promptly fill the air with your screams as you're set ablaze. You play the rest of the game as an undead witch seeking vengeance against the prejudicial men and women who sent you to hell for your supposed crimes. A fittingly metal narrative for a boomer shooter, and the gameplay lives up to that excellent introduction.
As with any good riff on '90s shooting, Coven sends your playable character barrelling forward at ludicrous speeds from the start. You have excellent maneuverability, and it's not long before your arsenal contains the essentials you know and love. Two shotguns, a melee weapon, and a standby pistol with unlimited ammo let you run through villagers throughout the first level. In addition, you can use your heretical magical abilities to your advantage, summoning ethereal nooses to hang foes on the spot. True, it's goofy that the spiritual traps are physical objects in the world, meaning that you can trap yourself in a room in the heat of battle. Still, it's a unique addition to an FPS arsenal, and I'm excited to see that creativity expanded in the full game.
Coven faithfully recreates the best parts of its inspirations but also brings some negatives along for the ride. While not as bad as the worst levels in Doom II, I found several points throughout my run in the demo where I was wandering around places filled with corpses wondering where to go next. Perhaps it's the crazy-fast speed of your protagonist, perhaps the purposefully fuzzy Quake graphics, but it's easy to get lost at a few points, and I can't see that changing outside of some intrusive UI additions. When you include key cards in your level design, it seemingly comes with the territory, and Coven hasn't solved this problem.
Another flaw that might be more fixable is how your protagonist gains health. Your witch hero is an undead creature, so she desires brains like any zombie. This leads to you consuming the bullet-ridden corpses of your enemies to regain health and continue moving forward. When this happened originally, I was stoked at the originality of the concept, especially since I could eat several different body parts for each corpse. However, as the game went on, I realized that having to hit a button repeatedly to replicate the functionality of running over a health pack in other games would drag on as Coven progressed. I like the mechanic for its flavor, but that shouldn't stand in the way of a smooth gameplay experience, especially in this genre.
Another unique spin on familiar mechanics is giving your hag the same mystical powers as Max Payne. Yes, there's bullet time in Coven, allowing you to both deftly navigate otherwise lethal situations and destroy one particular enemy you don't like in the most gruesome way possible. This is a great addition, not because of its functionality, but because it's fun to mess around. It doesn't factor into gameplay in the first few levels outside of the standard "slow down the fan to get past it" puzzle you've seen a thousand times before, and that's OK. Coven's is playing the hits of the retro FPS canon and doing it well. I hope there can be some interesting ways to integrate the ability in the later stages, but just having the tool at your disposal is enough early on.
Coven also succeeds at developing a horror atmosphere in a game that doesn't fall into the traps that some horror-focused games do. There are no jump scares to be had here outside of enemies spawning in, but your initial shock at seeing a new batch of enemies quickly changes into excitement as you pull out the super shotgun and go to town. Some scattered notes explain the lore of the game's world, and that, alongside the combat barks of the villagers, contributes to absorbing you into Coven's world. Nothing is evident yet that this spooky world will rise above familiar tropes, but that helps Coven's excellent shooting shine through all the more.
Considering that Coven is a one-man project with a clear passion for its source material, I'd say it's a worthy inclusion into the continuing boomer shooter revival. Gator Shins has continually updated the demo included in the most recent Steam Next Fest with new features, and there's no clear sign of when the full game could be coming down the pipe. Since it might be a while, the demo is all the more attractive as a weekend dalliance for the shooter connoisseur who's seen it all. Sometimes, the best games don't innovate, they iterate, and that's exactly what I saw when I played this excellent first-person cannibal simulator.
TechRaptor previewed Coven on PC using a demo freely downloaded during Steam Next Fest. The demo remains available on the game's store page.