Originally released on PC back in October of 2018 and the brainchild of high school student Jakub Cislo – who saw his game through several early iterations before putting together the small team that make up Buckshot Software in order to get things polished to the standard we see here – Project Warlock is very obviously a true labour of love; a painstakingly crafted tribute to the retro first-person shooters such as DOOM, Wolfenstein and Heretic that Cislo was first introduced to by his father.
This is a straight-up old school experience; a brutal, bloody strafe-fest with great big meaty weapons and hordes of hellish abominations that looks fantastic and runs flawlessly in both docked and handheld modes on Switch. What Buckshot Software has created here easily deserves a seat at the very same table as the classic games that inspired it, and instantly jumps right on to our list of highly recommended Switch FPS experiences.
In Project Warlock, you assume the role of a hard-boiled sorcerer badass who’s on a po-faced mission to rid four different periods of Earth’s history from rampaging demonic hordes before facing off against the game’s big bad end boss in the fiery wastes of Hell. As far as stories go, and very much in keeping with the games from which it borrows; the narrative here is wafer-thin and some pretty generic flavour text at the end of each of the game’s five zones is all you’ll get in this regard.
Of course, nobody comes to a retro FPS looking for some sort of nourishing cinematic experience; we want guns and guts and we want plenty of them, and in this regard, Project Warlock delivers in spades. The five differently-themed areas that you’ll traverse through are stuffed to the brim with all manner of ghoulish hellspawn to stab, hack, burn and blast to tiny little pieces as you return each and every one of them to the foulness from whence they came.
The first area, Medieval, kicks things off in pretty generic retro shooter fashion with its imposing stone castles, dank sewers and dark prisons, before the game begins to stretch its legs quite impressively in terms of colour palette, level design and enemy types across the four episodes that follow. There's all manner of Lovecraftian beasts, ancient Egyptian terrors, high tech robotic foes and hellish abominations to do battle with here as you journey through an impressive mix of locations, with the frigid tundra of Antarctica giving way to the cursed temples of ancient Egypt and the crumbling cityscape of the Industrial zone before you descend into the inky red chaos of Hell itself.
There’s a great mix of enemies here too, and your warrior warlock is armed with an excellent array of satisfyingly punchy weapons with which to rip and tear them to pieces. You’ll start out with nothing much more than an axe and a shiv, but before long you’ll have access to all the usual shooter suspects with a pistol, shotgun, dynamite, crossbow, SMG, warlock staff, minigun and plenty more besides that you’ll find hidden throughout stages.
As you play through the game you’ll earn upgrade points which you can pump into these weapons to further enhance them. For example, you may choose to add extra power to your shotgun or perhaps give it an autoloader to vastly improve its reload time. Your Magnum pistol can be turned into a nifty flare gun that sets fire to enemies, reducing them to neat little piles of ash, and your warlock staff can be imbued with ice damage to freeze your foes in place. All the weapon variations feel great to use and there's a surprising amount of detail in how enemies become increasingly more deformed, losing limbs and gradually falling apart as you shred them to pieces.
Alongside his hefty selection of weapons, your warlock also has a raft of magical capabilities that can be unlocked by procuring spells in and around stages and then activating them – for a points cost – back in your workshop between rounds. There are a bunch of pretty cool powers on offer; we made most use of the freezing blast, storm rage and a holy guard that creates a temporary barrier around your warlock. However, the magic side of things does feel like the least well-executed element of the combat. The various powers at your disposal aren't bad by any means; they just don’t come off as feeling particularly satisfying or necessary to making progress, and you can easily blitz through the game without activating any of them – especially on normal difficulty – and instead use your points to fully upgrade all of your guns.
Beyond your spells and weapons, you’ll also earn points to pump into strength, life, spirit and capacity stats whilst gradually unlocking a bunch of perks which make you heal quicker, gain XP faster, sprint at a lightning pace (perfect for the inevitable speedruns) and so on. The RPG systems are incredibly light here and don’t get in the way of the straightforward nature of the satisfyingly slick shooting action, but it’s certainly a nice addition to have the opportunity to mess around with slightly different builds of your hero on return runs through the game.
In terms of difficulty, even in normal mode Project Warlock gets off to a pretty tough start as you struggle to fend off the hell-tide with nothing more than a knife, axe and weak lightning attack; however, once you get some meatier weapons and level-up your strength and HP, you may actually find that things become almost a little too straightforward. We found ourselves strafing in a blind panic and dying lots of times during the thrilling opening chapter, but then blasted through stages rather quickly from the second world onwards. We reckon, especially if you’re an experienced fan of the genre, that sticking this one on hard mode keeps things much more challenging over the course of proceedings. Bosses too, excepting the very final one, aren’t a particularly big hurdle unless you bump up the difficulty, and even then they really don’t require much more thought or tactics than strafing in a circle whilst emptying every single bit of ammo you’ve got into your enemy.
Away from those slightly lacklustre boss fights, Project Warlock’s levels fare much better, managing to maintain a tight mix of claustrophobic, mazey corridors and great big open arena areas, switching the pace nicely between moving slowly and checking your corners for hidden nasties and then giving you all the space you need to dash and strafe at large hordes caught out in the open until there's nothing more left than piles of glistening giblets.
In order to exit each stage, you’ll need to work towards locating and destroying a red demon lock which will require you grab a number of different coloured keys to open locked doors and flip a few switches here and there, but this element of things never threatens to become meaningfully taxing or complicated and the game very cleverly keeps you from getting lost by always beckoning you in the correct direction with fresh hordes of enemies.
Stages also contain a bunch of secret areas that you can hunt down in order to grab some extra loot, ammo and treasure. They're not particularly hard to find; just keep an eye out for cracks or discoloured areas on walls as you whizz by, but they do give things just a little more in the way of replayability. Also, keep an eagle eye out for a handful of familiar faces from classic shooters that you'll find hanging around a few stages throughout the game.
Graphically, the Switch port is a match for other versions of the game; this is a very good-looking title that uses its retro-pixel style and billboarding sprites to great effect. Project Warlock may initially look like the usual pixelated old-school homage, but in motion, it’s a beautifully smooth, wonderfully detailed and thoroughly modern-feeling affair. It also comes with lots of graphical options with retro shaders allowing you to adapt C64, Amstrad and Spectrum colour palettes which can then be tweaked to your liking, while bloom, motion blur and scanline effects are also on offer. You can even add all sorts of noise, jitter, distortion and wobble to the onscreen action, if you so wish. Personally, we pretty much stuck with the default graphical mode with just motion blur added to give the picture a smoother feel, but there’s no doubt retro fans will get plenty of fun out messing with all of these graphical options.
It's worth noting that Project Warlock doesn't include any gyro-aiming options. We’re honestly not sure it’s something that’s really necessary given the great big, easy-to-hit enemies you face off against in packs here, but you can lock the Y-axis in order to make aiming at your foes as simple as it could possibly be. In terms of controls, everything feels pretty great and our only real complaint is that the weapon wheel is a little awkward to use. You can switch to another style of weapon selection, but really it doesn’t improve this aspect of things much, and both options just feel a little slow and fussy, very occasionally leading to you desperately trying to cycle to the correct gun at a critical moment in the action.
Overall, however, Project Warlock on Switch is a resounding success. It looks and sounds excellent, its action is fast-paced and brutal and it nails the look and feel of the classic '90s titles from which it takes its inspiration – all whilst performing impeccably in both docked and handheld modes.
Project Warlock is an excellent throwback to the fast-paced, gory strafe-fests of the '90s. It's got tons of big, meaty weapons, magic attack abilities, some light puzzle elements and an endless procession of freakish hellspawn to blow into tiny chunks across five impressively varied settings. Buckshot Software's debut effort is an easy recommendation for retro FPS fans and one of the better shooter experiences currently available on Switch.