Underrated Review: PowerSlave

moho_00

published on April 13, 2020

Introduction

By the time PowerSlave was released in late 1996, I was still contemplating whether to purchase a Sega Saturn or a Sony PlayStation. I didn't have a PC at the time and aside from (briefly) playing Wolfenstein 3D at a friend's house, my only experience with the FPS genre was Zero Tolerance on the Sega Genesis.

Although I had read numerous previews for PowerSlave and thought it looked interesting, it sort of fell off my radar once I picked up my Saturn in December 1996. As the calendar turned to 1997, a whole slew of PC FPS games were on the way to consoles, such as Quake, Duke Nukem 3D and Hexen.

While trying to play catch-up with the genre, I snagged a disc-only copy of the Saturn version at Funcoland and finally gave it a try. I remember liking it, but by then I had a PC and PowerSlave seemed destined to remain entombed forever in my FPS backlog.

After sitting on my shelf for nearly two decades, I finally decided to give the game a proper chance in 2016. At this point, I barely remembered anything about the game other than it was an FPS with an Egyptian theme. I played for a few hours and started to realize this game had a bit more to offer than just another FPS blast-fest. Although life got in the way of my original playthrough (I started playing it right before I moved), I finally circled back around to it, started the game over, and completed it once and for all in 2020. Although the game is available on multiple platforms, for the purposes of this review, my thoughts reflect the time I spent with the Saturn version.

Shoot-roid-vania?

The most interesting aspect of the game is that you can, and in fact must, replay levels you've already completed. The reason for this is that you will acquire new abilities over the course of the game that will allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas. For example, you'll find an item that grants you the ability to jump a lot further than when you start the game. If this sounds familiar, it's because it's the same Metroidvania formula that's worked so well in so many games. But keeping in mind that this game was released in 1996, it's a really unexpected twist for an FPS.

The game doesn't provide a seamless transition between areas like in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Metroid Prime and is instead structured with more traditional "levels". But since you'll be backtracking to previous levels, the game has a map screen for selecting your next destination. When you're choosing a level to play, you might hear a beep on certain locations, which indicates it contains a "transmitter piece" that you haven't collected yet. These are purely optional collectibles, but collecting them all with reward you with a different ending. Additionally, there are 20+ "team doll" collectibles, but they're much harder to find since there isn't a sound cue to go along with them. Although FPS games often have secret areas, the concept of them being connected as a sort of collectible "set" definitely struck me as unique.

But Mostly Shooting

Although the structure certainly deviates from its contemporaries, the FPS action in PowerSlave is fairly standard. The game has a nice range of weapons to use, including a handful of traditional FPS firearms, as well as thematic weapons like the Cobra Staff and the Ring of Ra. One of my favorite weapons was the Amun Bomb, which packs a punch, but can also blow up certain walls and allow you to perform a rocket jump of sorts.

Another interesting wrinkle with PowerSlave is the way it handles ammo for the various weapons. Rather than having separate ammo pickups like in basically every other FPS game, PowerSlave will simply reward you with blue ammo spheres. When you collect one of these, it will replenish the weapon you currently have equipped. I was a little conflicted on this mechanic since it was very tedious when I needed to refill multiple weapons, but it was nice to know I could always find ammo for my weapon of choice...well, almost always. Ammo (and health) spheres spawn randomly when you defeat an enemy or destroy pots and the like. This forced me to be a little more selective on when to pull out "the big guns" since I didn't want to drain their ammo supply without knowing I'd be able to replenish it. Oh and neither your ammo nor your health refills when you complete a level, so I found myself having to run through some of the earlier / easier levels towards the end for this purpose.

Okay, enough about the weapons. Let's talk about what you get to use 'em on! Well, there are ten or so standard enemies in the game and then a few bosses to fight. For the most part, they're all thematic, but in terms of AI and attack patterns, they're similar to other FPS games of the era. While they may not be the most intelligent foes out there, some of them can certainly pack a punch and will drain your health bar really fast if you aren't careful. So in terms of providing a challenge, the enemies in PowerSlave are more than ready to keep you on your toes.

PowerHouse

As I mentioned earlier, I played the game on Saturn and I was rather impressed at how well it ran. The graphics are solid, the game runs at a steady and very playable framerate, and the load times aren't outrageous. The soundtrack is excellent (and thematic), some of the lighting effects are really well done and, well, I was generally very pleased with what Lobotomy Software was able to do. They would later handle the Saturn ports of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake (both of which were solid and ran on Lobotomy's own proprietary engine), so obviously they knew their way around the hardware.

The Saturn version was the first one released, but PowerSlave would later be ported to PlayStation and PC. The PlayStation version is very similar, though it does have a number of changes, including certain levels that were drastically redesigned. But the non-linear approach and that whole Metroidvania style remains in tact. Conversely (and curiously), the PC port is a somewhat stripped down version that removes the necessity to backtrack to previous levels.

There was an unofficial remake project called PowerSlave EX released back in 2015 that sought to port the PlayStation version onto PC. Shortly thereafter, Night Dive Studios announced they would be officially releasing PowerSlave in some capacity. But, sadly, it appears that they ran into some copyright issues as the game has yet to surface despite a few teases along the way.

Conclusion

Overall, I really enjoyed PowerSlave and I'm glad I finally finished it. It's not in my top tier of console FPS games like Goldeneye 007 and Halo, but it's still a very competent shooter with enough interesting elements to warrant a playthrough for fans of the genre. It took me right around 8 hours to complete, which is reasonable for this type of game. I did experience some annoying "insta-kill" type difficulty spikes towards the end, but otherwise I found it to be a fun and balanced game throughout.

While there is still hope that a digital re-release will happen one day, the best way to play PowerSlave today remains with the Saturn or PlayStation version. Both versions are a little pricey, especially the Saturn version, but if you're a '90s FPS fan and you happen to find a deal out in the wild, it's well worth adding to your collection.


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