Scythe II and I have a complicated relationship.
I was a massive fan of Scythe years before the sequel was a thought in my head, so when II was released, I jumped on it like a rabid wombat. In the beginning, I was blinded by love for Erik Alm and the Scythe name. As the initial high faded, I found myself a tad disappointed. It wasn’t quite there for me — not quite what Scythe had been. And back in those days, I had an strange preference for tech maps, of which there were only five or so buried in the middle of Scythe II.
I’ve occasionally revisited Scythe II here and there, playing a couple maps at a time, and realized I was judging its non-tech maps unfairly. But mostly I saw the unending praise the community threw at the WAD. Scythe II is legendary among Doomers much the way Suspended in Dusk is. Twelve years out, it had been so long since a full playthrough, and I’d heard so many times, over and over, that Scythe II was a flawless tour de force… that I sort of assumed that opinion on as my own.
Truth is, it’s far from flawless. Scythe II is full of missteps, missed opportunities, and much like its predecessor, it ends on a particularly sour note. Of course, none of that makes it a bad WAD.
So here I am, jumping into Scythe II over a decade after I originally played it, looking at it maybe for the first time with a truly critical eye.
I chose to try pistol starts this time, though Alm strips you of your weapons every five maps anyway — at the end of each of Scythe II‘s episodes. The WAD is divided into six of those short episodes, each completely visually distinct. Since they’re each so vastly different, we’ll take a page from my Scythe review and discuss each one separately.
I really appreciate the fact that Scythe II leads off with a medieval theme rather than something more typical to Doom like a techbase or Hell. Episode 1 is made up of a series of striking gothic keeps and cathedrals in seas of lava. These initial maps are classic, tight Scythe design. They’re great, fast-paced little adventures, despite looking so dark and broody — and Episode 1 serves as a perfect introduction to the WAD.
The episode’s packed with imps, but also shoves much, much tougher opponents in your face. I’m not particularly keen on how fast Alm introduces the majority of the bestiary right from the get-go. Ramping up difficulty by slowly busting out the bigger, scarier monsters is something I really appreciate, and that’s sorely lacking in Scythe II. The consequences of all the monsters being front-loaded like this become clear later on, but for now it’s smooth sailing.
If anything, Map03 is something of a low point. It’s surprisingly uninspired for such an early map, but it’s kept afloat by four other maps that are a downright bumpin’ good time. That’s what the kids say, right? Bumpin’?
Egyptian-styled levels were so common in ’90s shooters, it’s shocking we don’t see them more often in Doom WADs. I’m not complaining; dark, cramped pyramids and empty-ass deserts have never interested me much as a setting for first-person shooting. In Scythe II, though, Alm nails the texturing without falling for the issues that plague other Egyptian levels.
Most of the run-and-gun in this episode happens in vaulted, spacious, wonderfully historically-inaccurate pyramid interiors, running along their tiered steps, or in the small courtyards between them. I love the chunky stone columns and archways, and torch-lit temple antechambers are a fantastic backdrop for some heart-pounding battles.
The obligatory Dead Simple clone falls within Episode 2, but it’s pretty inoffensive. Again, there’s only one dud in this bunch — this time, Map09. The poorly-designed slaughter encounter might seem out of place at the moment, but it’s actually a kind of sign of things to come in Episodes 5 and 6…
This is where Alm’s masterful map layouts and connectivity really begin to shine. His maps tend to be very linear, but with layouts that fold back onto themselves, with you passing through the same areas multiple times by slightly different routes. Often you’ll find yourself unexpectedly back where you started, or looking through a window or down from a ledge that you saw way earlier.
And if you were waiting for the tech episode — as I was way back when — here it is! Though the style steers more toward some form of industrial facility (and later, the depths of a UAC mine) than your usual moonbase.
The tone is decidedly lighter here, with midis taken from games like Megaman and Metroid, but the combat is anything but. I made pretty quick work of Episodes 1 and 2 on Ultra-Violence, but hit enough of a snag in E3 that I figured I’d lower the difficulty to HMP — and even then the last map in particular was still a bear to get out of alive.
Part of that problem is that a few of these maps are quite poorly balanced for pistol starts. I can’t tell if Alm was balancing these maps primarily for pistol starts, or if he had continuous play in mind because of the episodic structure, but starting from scratch on these maps will test your resolve. You’ll often only be given the shotgun and some random heavy weapon like the rocket launcher or BFG. A chaingun will be nowhere to be found despite you lugging around a backpack full to the brim with bullets.
Still, the episode is brilliantly Scythe, and it’s a genuine moment of delight when you emerge back into the sunlight after an hour or more in the darkness of the mines. Plus, you may not know it, but you’re about to begin the WAD’s absolute best episode.
E4 is the peak — of Scythe II, but also of Erik Alm’s extensive resume. His design work from the last episode reaches a crescendo here: every map is masterfully crafted, beautifully unique, and spectacularly fun to play. Unfortunately, this is the final episode before… Well, before some dire mistakes are made.
This is also the most varied episode, thematically. The Doom Wiki describes it as the “waste” episode, and I honestly can’t think of a much better description. You begin in a facility dug out of the dirt and seemingly in the process of flooding with blood. Then you cross a canyon in Map17, from the techbase on one side to a wood and rusted metal structure on the other side. From then on, it’s ancient, imposing brick fortresses and ruins — either sinking into a swamp or encircled by moats of blood.
The highlights of the episode are its opening and close. Map16 is a genius concept map where you’re hunted by an unknown new enemy, and it made me wish a few more of the maps in the WAD were breaks like this from the usual play style. And in Map20, that new enemy returns for an unforgettable conclusion after you’ve spent the whole map unlocking a colossal cathedral that dominates the landscape.
An interesting overgrown base aesthetic begins Episode 5 strongly enough. Sadly, the next two maps are generic Erik Alm visuals that basically look like the last episode but with the bricks swapped out for viney green stuff. Map24 and 25 complete a thematic transition to Mesoamerican-inspired temples that are some of the most stunning sights Scythe II has to offer. Which… is a shame…
I remember the exact moment this WAD jumped the shark for me in 2005, and it’s still true playing it in 2017. Map23 opens with revenants charging right at you. On UV, there’s a cyberdemon standing on a ledge to your right. You move and more enemies wake up. You try to take cover and more are on top of you.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was just a ridiculous, don’t-stop-moving type map to mix things up. The original Scythe had one of those. And that’s what I thought when I first played Scythe II, but no — this map marks a permanent and drastic shift toward ludicrous monster density, frustrating difficulty, and stupid-unfair encounter design. I lowered the difficulty to Hey, Not Too Rough for Episode 5 and still had trouble with it.
On lower difficulty settings, Alm barely cuts down on enemy counts at all, choosing instead to cram lots of BFGs and megaspheres in to offset the monster hordes. That’s all well and good, but when it’s each individual trap that can spell death almost instantly, it doesn’t really matter if there’s twenty million megaspheres to heal yourself afterward. You’re still dead.
The shift is so sudden as to feel like someone else made from Map23 onward. I wonder if this map was designed after a long hiatus, during which Alm’s design philosophies had time to change. But no, there were warning signs: the slaughter-y bit in Map09, or another in 13, or one that ends 15. I mentioned how he introduces most of the monsters in the first few maps because I think that’s part of it too; when there’s an arch-vile in the third map and a cyberdemon in the fifth, it’s a heck of a lot harder to up the stakes later on. Combined with the travesty that is OG Scythe‘s final map, this all makes me think Erik Alm doesn’t quite know… what to do to ramp things up toward the end of a WAD without just packing as many monsters into ever square inch as he can.
That brings me to the final episode. Episode 6 looks incredible, but it plays mostly like the last three maps I hated. In the original release, there were only two levels to Scythe II‘s final episode. In 2009, Alm uploaded a new version of the WAD with the last three mapslots filled. I still remember the reaction: some were ecstatic for new Scythe content, but a lot of people called the new maps ugly and too much of a slaughterfest. The “ugly” part — sure, they weren’t quite as beautiful as the rest of the WAD, but come on. The real confusing sentiment was the idea that they were too heavy on slaughter gameplay. To that complaint, I can only say, “Did you play maps 23 through 27?”
In those players’ defense, maybe not. There are times I wonder if a lot of players never made it to the end of Scythe II, but did come back to check out the new maps when they were released. It’s a pretty meaty WAD, and if you only played the first 20 or so maps, I can see how you’d think it was nearly flawless — and that the 2009 maps were out of place.
That’s really how I’d recommend you play it. Play up to Map20 as you normally would, but then if you want to brave the last two episodes, crank that difficulty down to I’m Too Young to Die and save yourself the ragequits.