Back in 1993, GamePro magazine claimed that The Chaos Engine's (renamed Solider of Fortune for American audiences) overhead gunfighting had "never played better" and that it's a "fun fight to the finish." GamePro wasn't alone, as pretty much every critic working in the early 1990s raved about this tough-as-nails action game. Sega Power went as far as to name it the best game of 1993, ahead of some truly tough competitors.
I have wondered about this game for more than two decades, curious what everybody was gushing about back in the 16-bit era. Is it possible that I missed out on one of the best games of all time? Is this like skipping past Super Mario Bros. or never hearing about Contra? Now that I've played the recently released PC update/port, I am convinced that the only thing I missed out on was fits of anger and frustration.
Opting for the original Amiga title and not the Americanized name, The Chaos Engine: Remastered brings overhead steampunk action to the modern PC. It's not exactly a remake, as the graphics haven't been redrawn and the presentation is pretty much exactly what it was twenty years ago. There are a few tweaks to the checkpointing system and control set-up, but, for better or worse, this is exactly the same game the critics raved about back in the early 1990s.
Although it looks like just another run-and-gun Ikari Warriors clone, The Chaos Engine offers a dark science fiction story involving time travel and alternate realities. As it turns out, a man from the distant future travels back in time, bringing his powerful technology along for the ride. Unfortunately, this tech ends up in the wrong hands and the evil Baron Fortesque uses it for his own personal means. Unfortunately, by tampering with space and time, the Baron created a new timeline, turning humans into savages and resurrecting terrifying dinosaurs.
Worried that everything would continue to spiral out of control, what was left of the government sprang into action. They hired the best mercenary soldiers they could find to shut down the Baron's technology (known as the Chaos Engine) and, with any luck, save humanity.
Regardless of whether you're playing with a friend or by yourself, these hired guns always work in pairs. Each hired gun is a little different, complete with unique stats and weapon. You can hire a slow and powerful merc, one that is geared towards speed, and a bunch that fall somewhere in between. And maybe, if you choose carefully, you might even have a little money left over for upgrades.
The gameplay combines the arcade thrills of Commando with the labyrinthine level designs of Gauntlet. Each stage plays out in a giant maze, forcing the two mercenaries to kill a variety of bad guys and find keys that will open up new areas to explore. This is the formula for all four locations, which include the forest, workshop, cellar and the Baron's mansion. Each stage is spilt into four levels, each with their own set of enemies (crawling hands, fat men with bowling balls, drones, etc.) and puzzles to solve.
On top of fighting increasingly bizarre baddies and traveling deeper into the maze, Chaos Engine gives players a chance to spend the money they pick up along the way. Upgrades and abilities can be purchased every couple of levels, giving players an incentive to search every last corner of the stage for hidden treasures. You will also be able to upgrade the computer-controlled character, assuming you aren't playing with a friend.
I really love the game's science fiction theme and deep upgrade system. I am also a fan of large stages and the addition of online and local multiplayer modes. Chaos Engine expands on the run-and-gun formula in a lot of really exciting ways. With all this going for it, I began to wonder why I wasn't having any fun.
Many of the problems stem from the abusive difficulty level. I'm all for difficult games, but there are far too many cheap hits found in The Chaos Engine. This "enhanced" edition features mid-level checkpoints, which makes the game slightly less punishing. However, even with the checkpoints, this is not a game you'll beat in an hour. It requires players to try and try again, over and over until they finally memorize every level and can predict all of the cheap hits.
When you die, The Chaos Engine mocks you with a continue option. The good news is that continuing the game will take players straight to where they died, just as you would expect. Unfortunately, it doesn't refill any health or start the player with more lives. In fact, there were times when I continued only to find my hired gun with one hit left and no lives to spare. I was better off starting the game over from scratch.
Even with continues and a password system, I constantly found myself starting The Chaos Engine over. Levels that were once fun to explore suddenly became tedious. The game began to feel like a thankless job. It didn't help that the gameplay fought against me every step of the way and the animation was far from smooth. With a friend or solo, the cheap difficulty ruined an otherwise engaging experience.
While I found the experience too punishing, I'm sure there are longtime fans who have memorized every maze and can breeze through the entire game in a couple hours. Those gamers who grew up with The Chaos Engine will likely enjoy this more than I did. The developers haven't touched the graphics, which is something I appreciate. The music is also taken directly from the original Amiga CD release. For many European gamers, this will no doubt bring back a lot of fond memories.
I wish I could share the love for this twenty year old game, but alas I couldn't get over the cheap deaths and unfair difficulty. It's filled with bits and pieces that I love and respect, but they never quite come together like they should. This enhanced version of The Chaos Engine could use a few more enhancements.