The Plot Could Be Pure '5os Hollywood sci-fi; by injecting an unknown substance into another equally unknown specimen, a bizarre micro-world is created. As far as the player is concerned, this mountainous, first-person perspective, chequered domain is dominated by the Sentinel, a kind of organic lighthouse that permanently scans his kingdom for intruders.
Your challenge is to ascend from the lowest valley to the highest hill, absorb the Sentinel's energy and replace it as overseer. John Cook, whose company No Name Games owns the rights to the Sentinel name, explains: "The basis for Sentinel Returns is the most perfect game concept I've ever come across. It's so elegant on almost every level, but the player isn't overwhelmed by its complexity and completeness."
Elegant, as in leggy French bird? I don't know. But the gameplay is actually quite simple: every object on the landscape has an energy value - a tree is one energy point, a boulder two and so on. If you can see the square your target's standing on, point and click with the mouse and you'll gain its power. Simple, yet undeniably strange.
Getting up the mountain is a cinch - suck up enough power to create a robot host (three points) and then transfer into it. By teleporting up the eerie landscape, new trees and objects come into view. Trouble is, the ever-vigilant Sentinel is up in the director's box keeping a full 360 degree watch on what's going on below. Foreign bodies that stray into his line of vision will feel their energy depleting faster than an ME sufferer. Sentries are also deployed by the Sentinel as extra security and. like their master, they will scan and drain the lifeforce of potential foes.
Boulders are predominantly used for building towering structures upon which a cloned robot host can be placed. However, they are also pretty much key to the game because if you don't have enough energy to create one, you'll find that you won't advance very far. There are 650 specimens (worlds) to examine in total, along with a random level generator upon completion.
What's it all about then?
So, how would you describe it? Strategy? Puzzle? Arcade? God game? In the words of Cook: "Sentinel Returns demands more brain power than C&C, produces more adrenaline than Quake II, is as easy to play as Tetris, and is more chilling than throwing a handful of ice cubes down your trousers."
It's also extremely fast moving. You feel like you're a commando, jumping closer to your prey from one safe covered position to another further up the mountain. The first few levels seem easy enough and I managed to breeze through them in a couple of minutes, although producer Emma Killillea remembers one particular playtester spending an entire morning on the first level. I guess the fact that you can have energy drained by an invisible foe will bemuse a lot of people. Normally, a fatal bug in the program would be the culprit for such behaviour, but in this unique context it's actually deliberate. If you look hard enough you can easily find the culprit anyway; spangly trails of energy arc across the sky towards your foe, which is a bit of a giveaway really. It is possible to get a half-scan; this happens when the top half of your body can be seen, but the square you're standing on isn't in view. For example, a nearby tree might be changed into what's known as a Meany (aaah! Surely not the blue meanies?) which will then annoyingly 'hyperspace' you to another part of the world - probably lower down.
One of the biggest tricks is knowing how fast and in which direction the Sentinels' and Sentries' heads are turning. Suss this out and you can generally keep one step ahead of them.
Another gripper will be the multi-play options: serial links, modem and network play with deathmatch levels and player vs player action is promised. However, four players is the limit - any more than that and it could get a bit crowded. Above all, Sentinel Returns is incredibly tense, and the John Carpenter soundtrack only enhances the claustrophobic and frightening atmosphere. Carpenter, the brilliant and talented director of Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, Christine and The Thing among others, had never been anywhere near a computer game soundtrack in his life, simply because no one had ever asked him. So when The Cook approached The Carpenter, the Hollywood legend was delighted to oblige. With the deal signed, he was then left alone to create. As John Cook says, "You don't tell John Carpenter how you want it done."
The game was original when it was released in 1985, and it still is today, but as John Cook reveals: "All publishers say they like originality, when in reality they are structured to reject almost anything that cannot be put into a comfortable genre box. The fact that Sentinel Returns is an action/strategy/ arcade game with a hint of puzzle element sends marketing departments into something of a paddy."
Thankfully, some people at Psygnosis remembered the original and were more than keen to sign up this version. A June release is planned, which is curious because the alpha version I played was virtually bug-free, but Psygnosis want it to be absolutely spot on. John Cook and Hookstone agree with them too - after all, there are already more games planned. But would they talk about those? Not yet.
So what about a film with John Carpenter directing? Hmmm, that might be just a little too abstract...
Download Sentinel Returns
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Sentinel Returns is a remake of the classic Atari ST game, The Sentinel. Don't remember it? Neither do we, but let's hope that doesn't stop production on the game. With a revamped musical score by director John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape From New York) and existential gameplay (you must absorb energy from objects around you, and create new objects to protect yourself), the game might he a sleeper hit. Some of the people who worked on this game also worked on Alfred Chicken and Zoop. You can't get more existential than that.
I don't know about you, but I find that games where speed is the overriding factor can be more frustration than fun. Such is the fate of Sentinel Returns. The entire game is driven by stress-inducing timing in order to conquer the Sentinel and become King of the world. You must find fuel, build various objects, transfer yourself between "robots," and hope you get it all done before the Big Guy or one of his minions scans you and sucks you dry.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
The object of this game is to create levels and robots that will hopefully elevate you higher than the Sentinel. Along the way, you will meet several sentries that engage you in a drain-or-be-drained fight. When you finally cut a swath through the dominion and become higher than the Sentinel, you can drain it of energy and win the level. The catch is that everything you build drains you of energy. Now, you can absorb energy from objects around you such as trees or from the defeated sentries. But you either have to be very meticulous in your energy use or hope there is a lot around for you to swallow. And remember ... you are being scanned for constantly. If you are found, you can be drained faster than a swarm of hungry mosquitoes on a hot July afternoon. If that happens ... you guessed it ... you have to start over.
The controls and interface are initially a pain. It took me quite a while to figure out how everything worked, and how to move properly about the game area. The controls are not intuitive and are actually somewhat confusing. Also, I found that the game can be rather picky about the type of mouse used. It seems that more unusual mice such as Altra's Felix are not compatible with the game. If you can't get your mouse to work, trying loading the default Microsoft mouse driver.
One plus is the fact that there is a lot of repeat game play. There are over 650 different levels and thousands of bonus levels. Once you get the hang of the controls, you could be playing this game for a very long time. And if you do manage to clear all the levels, you can ask up to three other people to join you in multiplayer action.
This is one of the areas where Sentinel Returns garners points. Based on the four elements of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire, the visuals create a rather alien world that induces the desire to get out of your current position. In fact, some areas will make you feel like you are working in a skewed alien zone where you are the main course. The game works well in several resolutions, and the movement remains fairly smooth and seamless. Definitely a good aspect to the game.
Okay ... major plus for the soundtrack. Scaremaster John Carpenter created the eerie ambience with an excellent use of scare tactic music. If you are lucky enough to have a high-end sound system, you can easily get spooked, much less shaken by some sub-woofer thumping effects. Even if your system is less than stellar, the sound effects and music niggles at you to dart a glance over your shoulder ... just to be completely sure that nothing is creeping up on you.
Minimum: Windows 95 or above, P120, 16 MB RAM, 1 MB video card, Native Glide support for 3Dfx based cards, DirectSound compatible sound card, 3X CD-ROM drive, 45 MB free hard drive space, mouse
Recommended: P160, 32 MB RAM, 2 MB video card
Not nearly enough! Just your typical insert with the CD and some online help. With a game as speed-driven as this, it would be nice to have very clear, concise and prolific documentation.
If you thrive on split-second timing, this is an excellent game. (I might suggest that you cut down on the caffeine intake while you play, though.) The visuals and audio are great and there is lots of return gameplay. Be ready for an initial bit of frustration, but it's worth it in the end.
In Sentinel Returns, you must absorb energy from trees to build boulders and ascend the Sentinel's tower (while avoiding his gaze). Unfortunately, this feeble strategy/puzzler wannabe will appeal only to diehard fans of its PC predecessor.
SR has appalling graphics: Its land is drab and pixelated; its trees are blue rods; and a bland energy bar flashes different colors to present threats (as opposed to just a smidgen of animation). The weak cursor-based control structure will force you to buy a PlayStation mouse if you want any serious gameplay. Everything's inexplicably offset, however, by a moody score from none other than Halloween's John Carpenter. If only Michael Myers would treat this game like his sister.
- Use hyper space to jump away when the energy bar flashes. If the Sentinel absorbs what you're standing on, he'll iust re-create it as trees.
- Speed is very important Once you get near the Sentinel, build quickly and absorb him, even if he's stealing your energy.