Review by Bloomer

Reviewed: 02/25/01 | Updated: 02/25/01

Harsh and highly troubled space opera still has enough dark charms to draw you inside.

Pax Corpus, the game with the sexy Latin-esque name that just rolls off the tongue, is a 3rd-person action-adventure game set in a dark future.

On the war-torn world of Oz Nama, the enormous Alcyon Corporation under the leadership of seductive megalomaniac Kiyiana Soro, has slain or enslaved all of the male members of society. The remaining women reproduce by means of the cloning technology created by Alcyon as they live out their lives in a sterile and oppressive utopia.

Kiyiana's latest move to crush any kind of rebellion is the development of the Pax Corpus project with her colleague Dr. Ellys. The Pax Corpus is a strange weapon/entity which grants its 'victims' immortality at the same time as it drains their personality and free will. Ellys realises too late the power of her creation and tries to flee the planet with it. Kiyiana wants it back. And an interested 3rd party, the foxy mercenary named Kahlee whom you will play in this game, decides that she will save the world by tracking down Ellys and getting her hands on the Pax Corpus before Kiyiana does.

One hell of a great story, is it not? Unfortunately, gameplay is never as sophisticated as the story demands. But at least the world of Oz Nama and its grim neon atmosphere is evoked successfully. There is a lot of weirdness and imagination in this game which, in the end, save it for me from some very harsh and numerous technical problems.

I've seen this game uncharitably dubbed 'Tomb Raider in Space'. One look at a screenshot will reveal why. The foxy Kahlee is presented in the same chased-by-the-camera style as Lara Croft, and apparently she has to do a lot of the same leaping, shooting and puzzling in a hostile environment as well. But why will one game be hailed as a 'successor' while another is dismissed as a clone? It's going to be decided by the soundness of the game. And the many weaknesses in Pax Corpus' game engine must have invited derision of the latter kind.

There was the potential for brilliant and acrobatically inspired gunfights between the rogue Kahlee and the fearsome cyborg guards who are always on the lookout for her. You can roll, cartwheel, dodge and somersault about, and Kahlee handles pretty well with the playstation controller. But the guards behave erratically. They're slow, slack, sometimes unobservant. Sometimes they'll dodge aside... when you weren't firing at them. When you get up too close to them, their gunfire becomes ropey and they rotate on the spot. They lose track of you too fast and for no apparent reason at times. The programming is just too slack all around here.

Other enemies you have to play with include small aggressive hover droids, foetus-like exploding aliens, mutant animals, vicious dogs, ghouls in the 'crypt' level, plus irradiated victims of the Pax Corpus who are recognisable by a blue gleam. Kahlee has both physical health and a Pax Corpus radiation meter. It's a clever idea that she can be healed in body by flirting with the radiation. Get in range, absorb some of the dangerous Pax Corpus energy, then get out of its range before you're overdosed and the energy will flow back into your health meter.

You can take enemies out with your own blaster, which is fun and utilises lock-on and auto-aim features. Or you can go in for some hand-to-hand combat. But hand-to-hand also has holes in it, the major one being that collision detection is poor. Your roundhouse kicks often miss, seeming to pass right through your enemy. This kind of thing will make you cringe initially and disrupt the suspension of disbelief.

That is a shame, because it is nice that Kahlee moves through a world which does seem to be very much alive, and feels 'real' (unlike Miss Croft perhaps? Whose searches take her through the dead realms of archaeology). Guards are out looking for Kahlee. She's a wanted woman chasing another wanted woman. When you arrive on the 2nd level in the train station, there is a tense feeling of both searching and being sought, created mostly by a fine soundtrack with ominous boarding announcements. This is the kind of thing that is going to save Pax Corpus from such blunders as the magical missing roundhouse kicks.

The overall visual style for Pax Corpus is quite distinctive. It manages to survive through graphics which are blunt and first-generation as far as the playstation is concerned (Pax Corpus is a 1997 game.) The futuristic feminine world might remind you of a dimmer version of the anime series Aeon Flux. Dark blues and neon effects sketch out the stark cities, prisons, temples and laboratories you will explore as you pursue your goals. Resolution isn't great, the framerate isn't phenomenal and there is plenty of clipping. Some levels are just outright too dark. Nevertheless, the angularity of the structures, and especially the women in the game, comes through. The guards have a properly scary attitude about them. The motion of Kahlee's icy and confident stride stands out as especially brilliant. It's rare that a game manages to evoke an entire character so strongly through bodily movement alone, but Pax Corpus has pulled off this eerie feat.

In the graphics department, there are also some nice FMVs to introduce the game and which further the story between levels. The image quality is very attractive, even if the framerate is a little low.

Pax Corpus has some good sound effects and a soundtrack which contributes significantly to the atmosphere. Guards will yell out 'HALT!' or 'You're under arrest' before you zap them. Kahlee's grunts of exertion (or pain) have a nice guttural quality. There are many distinctive original sounds, such as the blissful 'chord' that occurs when Kahlee enters or leaves the dangerous radiation of the Pax Corpus. The music is pretty sparse or chilly in style, but does manage to create a lot of the game's moods on its own.

Level three, featuring a train carriage full of aliens and a 'boss fight' confrontation with doc Ellys, is likely to be the first time a player starts to die with any frequency. As such, it's at this point that another of the great technical pains of the game is revealed. Levels must be loaded in full from the CD before playing them. And if you die, the level must be reloaded, taking 20-40 seconds. Worse still, there is no save game system. The password system on offer is ridiculously harsh, because there are 20 levels in Pax Corpus spread over 6 missions, and only 4 basic passwords granted to access the start of missions 2-5. Some missions are huge. Mission two for instance is six levels long. So if you die on the sixth level of mission two, then have to turn the playstation off, you're going to have to play all the way through mission two again from its first level when you come back to it next time. Nasty.

The loading screen features a spectacularly nice portrait of Kahlee, but even staring at her for hours probably won't make anyone forgive the way the game might have treated them in death.

From mission two onwards, you begin to encounter a wider variety of what the game has to offer. The prison breakout level boasts a surprisingly complicated locking system, which may baffle at first, or which you might even ignore as you bludgeon your way through to the more 'ultimate' solution for the level. Your major environmental nemesis is soon introduced: The laser forcefield. These forcefields consist of a grid of red lasers which you must slip around with a series of leaps and rolls. This is fun, future spy-type stuff, but with a fatal exception. When Kahlee is fried on lasers, she'll try to roll to her feet in an overly dramatic way. This may look cool, but you have no control over the direction of the roll, and she won't avoid lasers on her own, thanks again to a dumb game engine. So you might watch her roll stupidly and repeatedly into the lasers, prompting you to scream and cry out at your ludicrous death.

The difficulty level of puzzles is all over the place. There's plenty of basic switch and door stuff throughout, lots of lasers and lots of somersaulting between platforms suspended over bottomless chasms. The hardest level involves cloned duplicates of Kahlee, whom you can play along with Kahlee herself - this is astonishingly complicated, not to mention savage. Endless jumps to make without falling into an abyss, near-impossible battles with hover droids to survive... one mistake and you have to go through it all again. This kind of thing will mentally destroy most people.

Another case in point: An early boss fight with 'the executioner' proved so infuriating (combined with the fact I had to redo the whole level featuring him every time he killed me), that I was compelled to chase up a walkthrough for the game to learn the secret to beating him. By this time, only the 5th level of the game, I was feeling pretty mauled by the whole experience, but too intrigued to let go. Instead of giving up, I insanely decided I would go on to create an FAQ for Pax Corpus so that I could spare someone else my own experience! But I'd expect almost no-one else to feel this way.

I can't lie. Pax Corpus is really messed up in many ways that will repel the average gamer, or those who like to play numerous games as opposed to exploring one for a long period of time in detail. Graphics are unspectacular and too dark at times (though with a good visual style), enemies are poorly programmed, combat programming is full of holes, puzzles are unevenly distributed and schizophrenic in terms of difficulty, load times are far too long, dying has repercussions that are too extreme, and the password system is ridiculous and too hard. Upon my initial reactions to this game, I would have given it a review score of between 4 and 6.

Yet, I found myself entranced by the world presented in the game. The strange all-female society, the bizarre Pax Corpus itself, the sci-fi story implications of what it all means. I like Kahlee, I like her cyborg enemies, and I like the creepy minimal soundtrack that holds this dark world together. If the whole feel of Pax Corpus wasn't so unusual, I would have stuck with my initial low score. But in the end, I found myself falling in love with the game (against reason - yep, it's one of those inexplicable cases) which is why I went on to write about it, and the reason I give it a higher score in spite of its problems.

Pax Corpus doesn't have a lot of competitors. I still haven't seen many other sci-fi action-adventures presented in realistic style. If you like Tomb Raider, Pax Corpus is a weird spin on the genre that you might be interested in. If you like unusual games or stories of any genre - look no further. If on the other hand you prefer a really tight game, Pax Corpus is going to annoy you. What will probably make or break Pax Corpus for any one person is whether or not its seductive atmosphere can involve you enough to get past the extremely harsh and often flawed gameplay. Replay value isn't huge, but then again, the game is so hard upfront it might take you a long time to complete it initially.

Personally, I was pulled into the world of Pax Corpus and I will always encourage others to try out this dark and curious game.

--Pax Corpus-- 7/10

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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