Powerslave (or Exhumed as it's know in Europe) looks and plays like a Doom clone with an Egyptian theme. At least it does at first glance. Dig deeper into the 1996 game by Lobotomy Software and you'll find a lot more than you might expect. Even the PlayStation version is not really a port, taking these unique elements and running (and strafing) with them.
Let's begin with a brief history lesson. Lobotomy Software, despite their short lifespan and small number of games to their name, are now highly regarded. They began in the early 90s with some fine-tuning of games ported over to the SNES and designing a couple of mini-games for Microsoft's Magic School Bus series. Throughout this period, the 20-man team were also working on their first (and only) original game.
It first arrived on SEGA's ill-fated Saturn in October 1996, a week after the behemoth that was the first Tomb Raider. Needless to say it was overshadowed by this all-time classic and initially failed at retail. The competition is not all to blame. The publisher's very low production numbers and lack of advertising also played a major part in it's lack of sales. The reviews, however, were pretty good, earning the unprecedented support from the UK gaming press where it sold far more copies under the title Exhumed.
Then, two months later came the DOS version. This was very different to the console "ports", earning it the misleading Doom in Egypt reputation. It's still a highly entertaining game with some added new features such as platforming sections and minor RPG-like progression. It was also built using the same 2.5D engine as Duke Nukem 3D instead of the true polygonal environments created by the bespoke SlaveDriver engine of the console counterparts. It's unusual for PC games and their console ports to be so different, especially in this era, but what is more strange is that you'll find more fun with a joypad in your hands than a keyboard and mouse.
The PlayStation was the last to arrive in the February of 1997. I found this to be the better looking of the console versions, with transparent water effects being the most noticeable improvement. The Saturn couldn't handle such an effect but many think the game-play of SEGA's machine is better. I can't see much of an improvement in this regard beyond some admittedly impressive lighting effects. The 3D environments and re-jigged level designs do make each console version different and it does showcase the kind of 3D many thought the Saturn was incapable of.
These versions are much more open in their progression. Throughout the game, you'll find items that will give you extra abilities such as the Sandals of Ikumptet for a higher jump or the Horus Feather for levitation. With six artefacts in total, the way the game is played it drastically changed. On top of the fast-paced shooting, there's an added emphasis on exploration and experimentation not dissimilar to Metroid's first foray into 3D with the Prime series. Some levels even have multiple exits which can only be accessed once certain abilities have been collected.
What really stoked fans, and is probably reason why the Saturn version is considered the best, is the inclusion of a bonus game named Death Tank which can be unlocked after finding some very hard to find trinkets known as Team Dolls. Along with Saturn Bomberman, Death Tank quickly became one of the best party games around, allowing for up to eight players simultaneously. It looks like a rather simple clone of Worms but with one very important tweak: real-time attacks. Such a simple design choice made the game a frantic masterpiece, even going so far as making Powerslave a must-have in Japan where it was known as Seireki 1999: Pharaoh no Fukkatsu. In fact, there is more written about Death Tank in Japan than the game that hosted it. Alas, this was only present for the US Saturn release and only for those adept enough to collect the challenging Team Dolls. Do not despair; a remake has been released on Xbox Live, fleshing out this developer side project into a fully-featured game.
Despite the fanboy's cries, each version is definitely worth playing. The DOS version was put into production first, and it being the least favourable of the three does not make it a bad game. The quality of the work shows for itself. The sprite work is detailed with some nice animation giving them life in the interestingly designed levels make it more than a simple Doom clone. The Saturn version has gone down in history, if only for the Death Tank mini-game. Under the surface, it's also a revolutionary adventure way ahead of its time. The PlayStation version is very similar in game-play to the Saturn's but with some minor alterations to the levels making it different enough to be its own game. It's playable on PC thanks to a near-perfect emulation performance makes it a far better than that of the Saturn, which I've yet to adequately get running in such a way that I can share. (EDIT: since writing this review, Saturn emulation has turned a corner. I've now included in the console version below.)
After Powerslave, Lobotomy only released two more games for the Saturn: Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. Both are considered among the best 'ports' of each game, but in truth, they were re-made and re-built from the ground up using their own SlaveDriver engine. This cost a lot more money than they were anticipating having underbid themselves into liquidation. If only their business acumen matched their talent and enthusiasm.
There's a lot of fun to be had with this trilogy of games, each different in their own way. I highly recommend the PlayStation version over the DOS one, but both are very much worth your time.
As of 19th November 2020, the PC version of Poweslave is now available to buy on GOG.
Buy from GOG
As of 10th February 2022, the upgraded Console version called Poweslave Exhumed is available to buy on GOG.
Buy from GOG
Powerslave (Exhumed) is © Lobotomy Software
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me