Let it be said that this community excels at its random user compilations. This was true with Déjà vu and it was most certainly true with The Chronicles of Weedrow. I tip toed around spoilers in reviewing Chronicles since much of its fly-by-design approach relied so heavily on first impression humor and jarring surprises. A team of regulars that included several talented people put together a playset experience with no apparent consistency in authorship, and it turned out to be quite fantastic. More than that, Chronicles was a surprisingly coherent three map run that flowed effortlessly to its conclusion (from a player’s point of view) without a shred of baby fat to bloat the experience time. In short, it was fun and clever from beginning to end.
Inevitably, another group effort bent on capturing the same zaniness was mounted to follow this 2011 predecessor, known simply as The Chronicles of Weedrow 2. Much of the same members returned to help, including new additions like Jet v4.3.7 and Shivaxi. Though work began as early as the following year, development drought and the casual drop in/drop out nature of the compilation left the project on frequent hiatus until Semfry (formerly MMAN) made a push to resolve these conflicts and produce a finished pack by 2016. Folks were once again reintroduced to the hijinks of Weedrow and her compatriots Rabbit, Cow, Takk the Unbeliever, and a trans-morphic character named Bloblet that takes the sole form of a grossly corpulent Skaarj Warrior (spending much of Chronicles 2 walking around in a Hawaiian shirt). The tale begins in an elaborate roll-call of our ragtag team enjoying the sun at a beach resort. This is achieved with a very well done cinematic for Unreal standards, complete with music from Pulp Fiction and character title cards akin to Borderlands. For comparison, this sequence is on par with the fun quality that closed the previous installment. The tone shifts radically, however, when it is revealed that Takk has gone missing. An ominous letter fills the screen, indicating that Weedrow and her friends are cordially invited to a dubious rendezvous at a distant manor…where they may learn Takk’s fate, if they dare to attend…
In a twist of style from the previous Chronicle’s quirky in-joke approach to Unreal singleplayer, the player is instead treated to a parody of the new age survival horror genre. As Weedrow, the player will navigate the musty hallways of a dark estate, solving puzzles and investigating clues that lead further into a creepier mystery. While of course quite hilarious, Chronicles 2 is also very effective in its emulation of the walking horror games that provide its fodder. You may actually jump more than once by the time the story ends!
The scripting is the star here, even more so than it was in Weedrow’s first adventure. If Chronicles was a method study of the capabilities of the 227h patch back in 2011, than Chronicles 2 is the full endorsement of user ebd’s robust component package for Unreal, named simply "firetrucks." While that is not the only custom scripts at work, it cannot be understated how refreshing this experience is. Sporting unconventional gameplay for Unreal, Chronicles 2 has more in common with games like Amnesia, Slender, any the original Resident Evil (minus the gunplay). Yes, that’s right. The Unreal HUD does not appear at all and never once does Weedrow carry a true weapon. Instead, the HUD is replaced by a short inventory bar at the bottom of the screen that begins with a lowly journal and eventually populates with all the found items Weedrow picks up to help her through the manor. Eventually, a single flashlight is acquired that serves as the only first person equipment the player will need (wielded almost defensively in third person conversation screens, to great comic zeal). Screen prompts for interacting with clues occur on a point-to-click basis and this is the multitude of what the gameplay will be like, as well as the frequent appearance of conversation windows. Later on, screen effects will be implemented as things start to get more unnerving.
It must be said that all of this is handled professionally, not at all like what one might expect from a slapdash community venture. In fact, this feels more like a thoroughly tested total conversion than anything else. All the tricks capable of 227i are on full effect here, including custom mesh work and new engine effects that blend perfectly with known enhancements like custom footsteps and clever event triggering. Considering the development woes, it is astonishing how concise and functional everything actually is. Playing on Unreal Gold, I did not notice any notable issues worth reporting in the review. Chronicles 2 employs many little tricks to keep the player on edge, like slowing moving speed during spooky moments and altering the environment off camera. Everything is very seamless from beginning end.
The environment itself is something to behold and the team should be proud of themselves. While the earlier Chronicles was effective in blending its sections to mask true ownership, the player could still tell when the borders of one level designer’s limits were reached with the sudden thematic and build quality changes. This is something I can report is not so definable in Chronicles 2. Outside of the introductory movie, the all of the entire manor seems like it was carved as one piece. This is remarkable, under the circumstances. A combination of smart BSP and mesh use keep the interior and the grounds distinct, so no map feels like Weedrow has wandered off course.
Of the puzzles, which are the meat of the gameplay, expect Weedrow to have to contend with usual survival horror tropes. Though there is often a nice injection of humor to much of what occurs, some elements are pretty on the nose about it. From simple things like key acquisition, hints scribbled on mysterious notes, and sound based puzzle solving, Weedrow’s search of Takk will take her floor to floor, building through building. There is even a complex sequence comparable to the battle beast section of the first Chronicles in terms of ambitious ideas for Unreal, where Weedrow has to redirect a water route in the style of Bioshock’s hacking puzzle system. Throughout the quest, you will have opportunities to talk to your companions, which present differing personalities each. There is even some hints of distrust among some members of the party, teasing a sort of side plot conspiracy. It makes the conversations actually engaging and all spoken speech is relatively brief, though well written.
The way all this dialogue stuff is handled deserves some special mention. In Chronicles, if you recall, classic Blue Font was used for every spoken line from each character, signified by specific character sound effects for each line that was displayed. As I said in the previous review, this system was similar to that of certain JRPGs where character catchphrases preamble message strings. In the previous installment, however, this could be an imperfect system for some readers as window messages could get lapped rather quickly and some lines could get lost in the salad. Chronicles 2 solves this by ditching the old system completely, owing to ebd’s custom code to allow for more fluid and choice selectable dialogue options. This makes conversation a direct component of the gameplay this time out.
This is the part where I have to talk about the negatives. As creative as The Chronicles of Weedrow 2 is, the project does end rather abruptly. Just when the pack seems to be taking off, a cliffhanger ending closes the episode in a well-meaning but ultimately disappointing serialized “see you next time, kids!” fashion. Furthermore, the playable credits this time seems to be more hasty than was expected, leaving the player to open a series of cellblock doors denoting all the team members before ending on a version of the classic Unreal flyby but populated by Weedrow and friends. It’s an odd way to end an otherwise strong, uncompromising experience, especially since 2016 there has been no word of a third Weedrow Episode in the works…meaning that for now there will be no resolutions. Sorry folks. For this reason I have chosen to only take two points off of Story Construction, since the quality of the narrative is still exceptional, just unfinished. Story Implementation, for what we DO get to experience within the bounds of the play space, earns a well deserved solid 10 from me.
Still, everyone involved should be proud of this one. Like the first Chronicles, I found the scoring somewhat arbitrary since the schema often spars with the more unconventional packs that sometimes crop up inside the community. Having said that, the sheer quality of what exists to be played here deserves no less praise. Had there been any bugs that may have been a factor, but as I said previously I had a phenomenal experience with no interruptions. It is true that there really is one way to play everything out as far as replayability is concerned, but the experience is still rather unique compared to the typical run and gun stuff we are used to. It also is not very hard or challenging, outside of perhaps the puzzles and one sequence where Weedrow has to run to the safety of a previously sealed area in a rush. Brief as it is, The Chronicles of Weedrow 2 does some remarkable things for Unreal. It deserves attention and stands as proof that not only is there still viability to be had in the 227 patch features for SP, but that Unreal is still very much alive and will be so long as interested parties keep doing good work for this old engine.
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.8
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.9
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).8
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.10
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.9
Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.9
Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.8
Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.10
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.8
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.7