Brave the Depths of Bungie Classic Pathways into Darkness

Before Halo rocketed to system-selling success, before Marathon showed how an intricate story could weave into an action-heavy first-person shooter, it was 1993 release Pathways into Darkness that put Bungie on the map. The company’s third game, PiD combined the first-person action of id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D with an exploration-focused adventure game.

It was a revelation, quickly reaching bestseller status and earning plaudits across the Mac-focused press. And now you can play it in OS X (without an emulator), courtesy of a port by Mark Levin and Bruce Morrison. I’ve spent the past few weeks struggling through its many twisty passages, and am pleased to report that it’s still a great game.

But boy is it hard — brutally so. Allow me to walk you through a little of Pathways into Darkness’s legacy and gameplay, and to explain why — difficulty aside — you should seriously consider giving it a try.

Dropped into a Nightmare

You find yourself plonked down into a dark and dank pyramid, with most of your equipment busted and your US Army Special Forces squad-mates nowhere to be seen. Strange headless monsters and bone-throwing zombies assail you from all sides as you try to come to grips with the situation.

Are you afraid of the dark?

Your gun has no ammunition, but you pick up another one soon enough. You’ll likely waste a lot of bullets before you realize moderation is key. Pathways into Darkness doesn’t ever hold your hand. In fact, most of the time it actively tries to blow it off. This is a game that delights in red herrings and baffling hints, and it has no qualms with kicking you when you’re down.

The difficulty would be manageable, however, if only you could save anywhere at anytime. PiD has save points, and it’ll often feel like an eternity between them. You can always back-track, and that’s an essential strategy at times, but every minute counts here.

It gets pretty harrowing at times, making periods where you’re stranded from save points all the more terrifying.

You might not realize it if you don’t read the manual (hint: read the manual, it’s included via the Help menu), but there’s a time limit at play here. If you take too long to reach the bottom of the pyramid’s catacombs and activate the nuclear device, you lose — the Earth is destroyed by an ancient god-like being. There’s plenty of time — more than 120 hours — but it gets sucked up quickly by periods of resting.

Aside from the relative handful of blue potions scattered through the levels, your only means of recovering health is resting. You lose seven minutes and gain one-seventh of your health points for each unit of rest, which makes every hit extremely costly.

You can be attacked while resting, so be sure to clear out all the monsters first. Or if that’s not an option try to save before you rest. If there’s no save point in sight, just hope for the best. And remember that resting takes precious time.

Aging Oddly

Unlike most shooters, PiD uses multiple native windows. The action takes place in the main window, with inventory, health/status, and messages visible in separate windows. You get dialog-box prompts for conversations and the map, among other things, which means that you can’t move around while examining the map.

It’s a good idea to heed the advice of dead men.

This interface is bizarre by modern standards, but you should get used to it pretty quickly. However strange it may seem, it’s probably actually more intuitive than the custom heads-up display you get in most games of this kind.

The controls didn’t transition quite so smoothly, though, which is perhaps why there’s now an extra key-mapping — one not found in the original — to something approximating the traditional first-person-shooter WASD combo. Except you use Q and E to strafe/dodge, while A and D turn you to the left or right and the Shift key lets you quickly look to your side. Mouse controls were omitted from this re-release, as far as I can tell.

You’ll need to master the dodge controls to survive attacks from these suitably-named Nightmares.

Besides running ambling around shooting and stabbing and hiding from things, you need to collect treasure that improves your score — which is tied to your maximum health — and to find items to help your quest. Talking to dead German soldiers — a feat made possible by a mysterious yellow crystal — helps in this regard, and there’s a neat conversation feature wherein you type keywords and they respond with colorful (helpful) dialogue related to their failed mission or the monsters.

Sign of the Times

Pathways into Darkness is very much a product of its era. The levels are claustrophobic, with low ceilings, narrow corridors, and small rooms. Visuals are a mix of texture-mapped 3D environments and sprite-based monsters/objects. You can set smoothing on or off in the Preferences, depending on whether you prefer jagged edges with sharp pixels or smooth edges with blurry pixels.

To really weird yourself out, turn off floor/ceiling textures and turn on smoothing.

Either way, the game looks its age. But it’s not without a certain charm, as the gruesome monsters and dead German soldiers each look frightfully lifelike — in a twisted, nightmarish cartoon kind of way. The creepy impact is helped by the darkness that pervades everything, and by the audio design.

Every shriek of a wailing monster sets me on edge; your faceless, body-less hero emits an awful barking grunt when hit, while the high-pitched tones of the crystal that lets you talk to the dead is suitably piercing.

Lasting Legacy

Bungie followed up Pathways into Darkness with Marathon, which is often described as one of the most influential games of all time, and you can see here the beginnings of the ideas that set that game — and later Halo — apart from the pack of so-called Doom clones. It’s always atmospheric, often chaotic, and tinged throughout with uncertainty over just who’s good or bad and what forces are at work in the plot.

It’s never more tense than when you’re creeping around in near total blackness, praying that there’s no monster hiding around the corner. Age has done nothing to blunt this part of the atmosphere.

It’s a shame that it’s so difficult, because PiD remains a fantastic game. Its relatively mature plot, creepy atmosphere, complex puzzles, and gruesome monsters all combine to make it age far better than its contemporaries — titles such as Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and System Shock.

But you’ll be beating your head against the wall to finish it without the aid of both a guide (like this one) and prior experience playing the game. Monsters have a habit of showing up just at the wrong time, while some particularly nasty ones — such as the horrible phantasms — come to feel like the personification of terror — causing panicked key presses as your health drains away.

Level design layouts used to be so much more imaginative. And confusing.

Still Good, Still Unforgiving

As a port of a classic, Pathways into Darkness for OS X is near faultless. As a game, it shows its age as much through its unforgiving, excessive difficulty as through its relatively sparse, angular visuals. You should try it for its legacy, and for the fact that it was so well made. But don’t be ashamed if you can’t reach the end.

The Nazi corpses littered throughout the game have come to signify something extra in the intervening years since 1993; many have tried and failed to unlock the mysteries of this pyramid. Maybe it’s meant to be that way.


Summary

An OS X port of Bungie's 1993 hit first-person-shooter-cum-adventure Pathways into Darkness. It's aged pretty well, aside from the stifling difficulty and simple geometry.

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