Every retro shooter straddles the line between classic and modern design, whether it’s a new game built in an old engine like Ion Fury and Wrath, or a good old-fashioned murderfest that uses cutting edge tech like Amid Evil. But none walk that line as precisely as Bounding Box Software’s Prodeus. This is an anachronistic high-wire act, synthesising old and new ideas in a way that is always exciting, occasionally inspired, and defies easy categorisation.
Even the base premise is wilfully elusive, although this is well in the spirit of the genre’s foundational texts. You’re an archetypal space marine trapped on a barren but mineral rich asteroid, where a cataclysm has resulted in an all-out war between two interdimensional factions – one representing order, and the other chaos. From your perspective, both sides are equally in your way, and will die by the hundreds, if not thousands, as you carve a path across the surface of the asteroid and beyond.
Prodeus’ amalgamated personality is evident in its visual style, which mimics the 2.5D graphics of early id-tech and Build engine games then infuses it with modern lighting and visual effects. Terrain and environments are rendered in angular 3D, while objects and enemies are presented as chunky sprites (although there’s an option to swap them for 3D models too). When you fire a rocket or shoot an explosive barrel, the resulting blast will illuminate the scene in a fiery orange glow, while environmental light sources glisten off gunmetal corridors and rain-slicked terrain.
Glisten is the optimal word for describing Prodeus’ gibbage – the violence here is striking, and stylishly over-the-top. Fire your shotgun into the chest of a zombie grunt and their torso will disintegrate like service station toilet paper, splattering surrounding terrain in near-comical amounts of blood. In more crowded scenes Prodeus turns into an X-Rated version of Splatoon, with your weapons coating entire rooms in internal fluids of various colours. None of which is to mention how it sounds – I’ve never heard a sprite squelch quite the way I have in Prodeus.
But as Nintendo demonstrated, a shooter doesn’t need to be violent to be satisfying. Beneath the gristle Prodeus understands this too, combining smooth, speedy player movement with an arsenal of reliably punchy weapons. The shotgun has clearly been iterated upon obsessively, with a bassy default fire that never fails to satisfy. Other weapons include a rocket launcher with a delightful pump-action reload, and a lightning-rifle with a railgun alt-fire that cracks like thunder. The highlights though, are the chaingun and plasma rifle, both of which are perfect for shredding through the hordes of foes Prodeus throws at you.
Although well designed, there’s nothing especially radical within Prodeus’ weaponry. Its weirdest weapon is a late-game twist on Unreal Tournament’s Biorifle that isn’t much fun to wield, and there’s some of that same conservatism in much of its enemy roster. Most of the foes you face are thinly disguised variants of Doom’s demonic adversaries, with legally distinct versions of imps, pinkies and cacodemons referencing Prodeus lineage. Combined with the deeply brown appearance of Prodeus’ opening levels, and it initially doesn’t appear to have much of a personality beyond its hybrid visual style and lashings of gore.
That personality emerges once Prodeus has reacquainted you with the basics, delivering increasingly intense encounters in increasingly creative levels. In its map design, Prodeus splits the difference between the abstracted labyrinths of Doom and the more logically coherent spaces of Half-Life, shifting seamlessly between the two in dreamlike fashion. The effect is that you passively intuit the function of these locations as you violently redecorate them. The early levels, for example, see you following a monorail through various facilities on the game’s beleaguered asteroid, until you come to the epicentre of the war between order and chaos, descending into a vast crater to the fortress at its nadir.
This two-part level is the point at which Prodeus reveals its hand, with subsequent maps all revolving around a particular concept or mechanic. One highlight is ‘Hazard’, which takes place in a yawning canyon containing a lake of toxic sludge. As you hop between ad-hoc islands and miniature bases around the lake, you’ll throw switches that raise the level, letting you climb higher up the canyon. Once you reach the top, a final switch drains the lake entirely, revealing the network of rocky platforms you’ve ascended. Later levels are more ambitious still. ‘Progenitor’ uses cleverly hidden pathways to give the sense of its space constantly shifting around you, while ‘Space Station’ sees you travel from the surface of the asteroid to an orbital platform which you proceed to violently yank from said orbit, crashing it down onto the asteroid’s surface. This radically changes the rock’s topography and climate, setting up the final act of the game.
Within each of Prodeus’ levels are bountiful secrets, rewarding you with ‘ore’ you can trade for extra weapons and upgrades. Most levels will have at least half-a-dozen secrets, some double that, and sniffing around the fringes of maps for these hidden caches is a joy. Yet Prodeus makes one crucial mistake in implementing this feature. Many secrets require the double-jump to access, and you can’t unlock the double-jump until you’re a fair way into the game. The intent here is to encourage you to replay levels, with your weapons and equipment all carrying over. In effect, though, spotting a secret and being unable to access it due to an arbitrary limitation is frustrating.
The double-jump isn’t the only thing Prodeus leaves until late in the game. Beyond the halfway point, weapon acquisition slows considerably with few new enemies introduced until the closing stages. Indeed, the blue-tinted Prodeus faction largely comprises buffed up versions of the existing Chaos demons, lending the sense that developer Bounding Box didn’t quite have the budget to fully flesh out this second faction.
Nonetheless, Prodeus is the most impressive retro-shooter since 2018’s Dusk, and probably the best shooter outright since Doom Eternal launched in 2020. While not as subversive as Dusk, Prodeus makes up for its less radical approach with its superior shooting and infusions of modernity. And if you found Doom Eternal too didactic in its design, Prodeus can conjure similarly intense encounters without being overly pushy. Prodeus deftly rides the line between the two, and watching it walk the temporal tightrope is never anything less than thrilling.