I love temples and churches -- and I love decent horror too, so when a friend of mine said there is a rare level around called Satanic Church, I replied: give it to me, baby. The level was made in 1999 by a German citizen, Timo 'DarkKiller' Birnschein and as I believe, it might be his first Unreal SP map. Here's my review of it.
We begin in the nave of a church, but definitely not a Christian one. Glowing reddish pentagrams and an excerpt from the Satan's Bible is enough for a player to realize that they somehow found themselves in a house of God's adversary, rather than God himself. The place looks dark and foreboding -- maybe even too dark, but the architecture of it is very decent: benches for the worshippers to sit on, an altar, a couple stories down a library with plenty of books and later on, eerie lava caves with an exit through a large grave. All of this is lowpoly, but it doesn't make the level an eyesore. I can only quote a fellow reviewer, UBerserker: "Architecture doesn't need to be detailed, it just has to be right." In here, it is right, save for a few BSP holes in the library and the tragic "stream" before the final shrine.
A question comes up, whether the places we are visiting are properly textured. The custom textures, taken from Quake3 most of the time, seem to work very well here, save a single problem with a pentagram texture being unmasked and thus appearing with a black square, which IS an eyesore. Luckily, there's just 2 or 3 cases where the texture is used and we quickly forget about it because we are long gone from the nave we initially started the level in. What we don't forget is lighting which is tragic in the aforementioned nave and also in multiple areas later along the way. Some rooms are lighted properly, other locations suffer from being too dark.
The Quake-reminiscent visuals are accompanied by very little ambience though, albeit the music track used with the level fits just fine. However, the track gets changed to QueenSong just before the end and I'd still consider it a good move, were it not for one little detail. If only QueenSong's SS2 was used during the final confrontation instead of the slow-paced SS0, everything would be fine.
Now that the raw technical issues have been discussed, let's take care of the level's general feel, its storyline and gameplay. As I already mentioned, we begin our adventure in a satanist church and all elements fit: there is an altar, there is a place where the worshippers can gather, there is a library with (un)holy scirptures. All of this looks believable, including the classic "pull-me-out" fake boook opening a way into the deeper bowels of the level. Afterwards, we have a cavern with a lava river and a raft on it. The author did not commit the idiocy of making it wooden and despite that, immune to lava, but the raft is obviously made of either stone or metal, both of which if made of right elements, can resist the heat for at least a while. The cemetery that follows also lacks nothing that should be there and the same can be said about the final shrine.
The storyline is not without its faults though. Neither the readme, nor the level's translator messages care to explain how did the protagonist end up in a satanist church. Whether you were one of the worshippers or kidnapped victims or someone sent to pull the plug for the cult, that's one thing you're going to guess. In short: the storyline is practically zero. There is some background provided though, through translator messages scattered over the level. There are notes from dead people, obviously victims of the cult and there is a quote from the Satan's Bible, but there is no main story -- just the background. They have yet another flaw -- it can be clearly seen that the author is not a native English speaker.
The gameplay is focused not only on action (as in: shoot this, shoot that), but also on exploration. Finding switches carefully and logically hidden in the form of pentagram platforms or fake books adds to realism, but leaving the player with just a dispersion pistol against a Behemoth brute is just nonsense. It's not that the opponent is invincible - no, patience and persistence will allow you to ultimately whack it with the DP, but it takes time. Later on, you can easily miss the Eightball -- and it is most unwise, since it leaves you vulnerable when it comes to confronting another Behemoth, a couple of Skaarj Warriors and in the final shrine itself, a really nasty bunch of six Skaarj Warriors and a Warlord. No, the gameplay could use some more polish.
Despite lacks in storyline, gameplay and lighting, the level was an eerie, enthralling experience worthy of a high grade. The author's dedication to provide a unique playing experience can be seen and I can safely recommend you to play Satanic Church. It will be worth your while.
*Note that only the Unreal Archive uploads are checked to be the newest and most compatible/stable download link.
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.7
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.7
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).5
SoundUse of ambient sounds and event sounds to give the level atmosphere, and the quality of any custom sounds. Appropriate use of music and silence to complement the atmosphere.5
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.5
Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.7
Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.3
Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.3
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.6
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.6