Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A game named after an Iron Maiden album is released in the mid-90s, only to be largely forgotten for nearly 20 years. A guy famous for sprucing up old games made a version of said game by combining elements of the PlayStation and Saturn versions, and he released it for free. But then, someone was able to get the rights, and now that free release is getting sold since he joined the fold at Nightdive Studios. As you can see, no one stopped me because absolutely all of that is a total one-off occurrence. The game I’m talking about is PowerSlave, and though PowerSlave Exhumed is the best version of the Metroidish FPS, it worth it in 2022?
I have to comment on the game’s title before going further. The original game released in late 1996 on the Saturn and Dos, with a PlayStation release following a few months later. The team that made it, Lobotomy Software, specialized in first-person shooters for the Saturn, which is why that version was their focus. The Dos release was a more linear game and was missing much of the required backtracking of the other versions. The Dos version was then released on GOG by the current rights holder back in 2020. The game was titled PowerSlave, but released as Exhumed in Europe for what I’m going to guess was Iron Maiden issues. This current release of the game puts the two names together for maximum “Hey, I remember that!”
Developer Samuel Villareal, the creator of the Kex Engine, put the game together by including elements from the Saturn and PlayStation versions in order to make it the ultimate version of the game. And that is what we’re getting with PowerSlave Exhumed. PowerSlave EX released in 2015, so this has been quite the wait, considering. But, this is very much an instance of the history being more interesting than the game itself. PowerSlave Exhumed is a 2.5D FPS much like Doom, except for the fact that you find artifacts in the levels that allow you to progress by going back to other levels.
Back to the past
The plot has to do with aliens exhuming King Ramses to steal his powers or something, and the main character is part of a special forces team sent to stop them. Not that it makes a fuss about any of this. There are times when you get lectured at by Ramses’ sarcophagus, but there aren’t any subtitles and the audio quality is sketchy, so I have next to no idea what he said. I don’t exactly know all there is to know about the plot, but PowerSlave Exhumed basically drops you into things at the beginning anyway.
Despite certain characteristics, the game mostly plays like any other FPS. You run through the levels, blasting everything in your path to get to the exit. You’ll find a camel at each entrance and exit. The entrance one will take you back to the overworld map, and the exit camel will unlock the next level. Each time you unlock a level, you can return to it from the map. The thing that really separates PowerSlave Exhumed from similar titles is, of course, the abilities.
You gain them by finding artifacts, and they’re pretty standard Metroid-like abilities. One lets you jump higher and farther, another lets you float, one reduces damage from lava and other harmful terrain. Once you find an artifact, you can then reach new areas or grab items. Usually these are life-increasing ankhs that function like tanks in Metroid. But the levels aren’t exactly covered in things to find, so PowerSlave Exhumed mostly tasks you with playing it like any other shooter. The abilities and backtracking make it stand out, but it, sadly, isn’t quite up to the standard set by the classics.
All around is laid waste
For one, the enemies are mostly all boring. Scorpions, flying insects, Anubis guys that shoot at you, mummies with hard-to-dodge homing shots. It’s not really all that fun to fight these. Plus, PowerSlave Exhumed is very fond of narrow hallways that don’t give you much room to strafe out of the way of enemy fire. To go along with the underwhelming enemies, the level design is also quite dull. You’ll see a lot of yellows and browns as you walk around sandy or rocky environments that don’t have much in the way of interesting sights to see.
Naturally, this design philosophy covers the guns as well. You start with a blade, then get a pistol, machine gun, bombs, flamethrower, etc. The weapons all feel very standard and aren’t particularly fun to use, although, they’re not bad either. It’s just another thing that leads to a general feeling of “Yeah, this game is alright.” Of course, there are some frustrations that make the game more of a chore than need be. For instance, most classic FPS-styled games have carefully-placed resources throughout the levels that flow with the enemy presence and level design. PowerSlave Exhumed threw this out the window.
Instead, you’ll mostly have to acquire health and ammo from random drops. This means that you can end up dying or running out of ammo simply because you got unlucky. There are fixed health and ammo containers on occasion, but they’re fairly rare. In another boneheaded move, you can’t quicksave and have to make do with the game’s checkpoint system. You’ll find scarabs that save your progress, but you have to find another one before you can overwrite it. Some levels will just have one, meaning you’ll end up going through sections with no way to save.
This wouldn’t be that much of a big deal if PowerSlave Exhumed wasn’t as frustrating as it is, though. Before you get the right artifact, falling into certain terrain will kill you near instantly. Some of the traps, such as the fireballs, also do an inordinate amount of damage and make navigating the levels more of a pain than anything else. Getting new abilities and using them to progress is neat and all, but it doesn’t do anything for the bog-standard gameplay and levels here. There’s fun to be had, but there are many better games in the genre that are more worth your time. It’s not a bad way to spend a few hours, but there was a reason no one was in a hurry to re-release this game in the 22 years it was absent.