In Extremis has skillfully eluded me for going on three years now. It was made by a little French house named Blue Sphere, with a scant four titles to their name. I don’t remember where or when I picked it up. A combination of obscure developer and obscure game meant that no one really bothered to store any information about it. Its only real claim to fame is ripping off assets from Alien (which it does, brazenly, but we’ll save that for later).
The French version’s been on abandonware sites for years, but the English version, and its documentation, has fallen off the face of the Earth. So after some ham-fisted Babelfish time with a newly-discovered French manual, and a few days of good old experimenting, I’m ready to present to you what is probably the only in-depth review you will ever read for In Extremis.
The plot is typical sci-fi fare. You’re the pilot of a patrol craft. The important little part that prevents your ship from exploding suffers a sudden, catastrophic failure. Your only option is to bail out and stow away on the creepy science vessel adrift nearby. Now you’re stuck, alone, on an infested ship with nowhere to go but further in. It looks like Doom, smells like Event Horizon, but predates both. And truthfully, the gameplay is standard FPS. But it’s the little survival horror elements that caused my curiosity to perk up and start taking notes.
First off, there are plenty of aliens and barely enough ammo. None of your weapons can be reloaded, and you can only carry one at a time, so finding and rationing your next weapon is pretty critical. Second, your oxygen is always steadily depleting (marked by a green bar on your HUD). There are no “refill stations” or anything similar, so you have to fanatically seek out new oxygen tanks.
When you find a reserve tank, it will sit in your inventory until you manually swap them out (your view does a neat, slow fade to white to simulate lightheadedness when your current tank goes dry). However, the tank you pick up won’t usually be full, so finding new oxygen is never far from your mind. Similarly, there are batteries you can find to power a radar on your HUD, or a set of night-vision goggles. Running either drains power, and carefree use could leave you in the dark (hyuk hyuk) when you need them the most.
The key hunt is still a prominent feature, but with a decent twist. You’ll find command cards as you progress. Command cards are inserted into special terminals on every level, which (if the card is valid for that level) will display a code for the current level and the next. Those codes are used to open up lockers, complete with a nifty hand interface where you manually punch the numbers in. Lockers provide you with guns, inventory items, and the occasional new card. Repeat the process down the line, including a separate set of elevator cards to open up new levels. You can only carry three cards at a time, so as you swap old cards with new ones, you lose access to previous levels while opening new areas of the ship.
At least I was impressed. Even more so considering that every company post-Wolfenstein seemed content to crank out an FPS that simply featured somewhat different enemies at the business end of somewhat different guns. Meanwhile, this team is keeping it interesting. I usually like having more to think about than “Ahh! What’s that?!” followed promptly by “Ahh! Shoot it!”
Don’t worry though. Shooting there will be. Each level is populated by one of a few sets of alien foes. Most are vaguely humanoid and about your height. Some are stouter, forcing you to crouch to hit them. Some, like the worms or ceiling-walkers, move erratically and force you to be careful with your aim or risk wasting ammo. All the aliens have the same basic AI. They will charge once you get within an activation range, opening doors and navigating corners if needed. Difficulty is only measured by their resistance to your current gun – enemies get tougher as you progress further and find better weapons. However, they do display some very basic intelligence and will sometimes retreat around corners if they can’t close to biting/clawing range without taking an excess of gunfire. It’s actually sort of a clever move, and forces you to cautiously go after them.
Guns will always shoot little pockets of energy, but some will have automatic fire, one goes back to semi-auto while shooting out bolts of plasma that crackle around hit enemies, and the best has full-auto super-powered lasers. They’re a bit similar overall, but certainly increase in power as you go down the list. All enemies splatter in large explosions of teeth (you’ll see), and leave dripping goo on your visor at close range.
Most levels feature a set number of pre-placed baddies. A few will feature hives (actually, they look like the ends of large pipes) that act as fixed spawn points for an endless stream of additional foes. These levels will test both your ammo and your resolve, because you’re fighting at almost every moment. As you kill one, the next is coming through a door, plus the static baddies that are in the room already. If you trace (and blast) them all the way back to the spawn, you can blow it closed with a bomb found in lockers and held in your inventory. You’ll plant it, have ten seconds to run, and then enjoy the aftershocks and a newly silent level. Again, pretty neat stuff, and especially for 1993.
Unfortunately, the execution derails it. The difficulty is simply too extreme. Many times I entered a “hive level” but had no bomb, and couldn’t find one on the current level. There’s a chance I missed it, because the game doesn’t seem incompetent, but I simply couldn’t get past those levels without running out of ammo.
Similarly, you cannot save your game. Instead, you get a password at the start of certain levels. This system works just fine, except that the passwords are fixed and unchanging – you’re not returning to your game. This manifests itself in less oxygen than you had when you hit the checkpoint, a different gun, disappearing bombs, etc. Again, it would be okay, except it doesn’t seem that you’re given the right tools to continue. Card access always matches up, but one password dropped me in a hive level with no bomb, while another swapped the gun that I had with one totally underpowered for the enemies I was facing.
Enemies are also a bit unfair. All can only attack at close range, giving you a theoretical chance to kill them first, but the level’s sharp corners and your sluggish movement (replicating a space suit, I guess) means they can frequently get the drop on you. Each time any enemy strikes, you’ll get thrown back and up into the air. Like a Killer Instinct combo, they can easily pin you against a wall and keep you in the air indefinitely. If it’s a enemy you have to crouch to hit, you will never be able to shoot your way out of this.
Hive levels are the worst. Enemies spawn so fast (sometimes in groups of two or three) than they can easily knock you back and prevent any forward progress. I was able to muscle past a line of them one time, only to have the door ahead open to admit more. They literally crowd-surfed me all the way back to start.
Strangely enough, health is rarely an issue. You can find syringes that boost any amount of health back to full, and can carry two of these at a time. Most saves start you with two in your inventory. Individual enemy attacks are also surprisingly weak, and they’ll really only kill you if they can pin you in a corner. Even then, we’re talking over a minute before groups of them can wear your health out.
Instead, it’s the oxygen that will kill you every time. Those bottles are the most precious and rare commodity on the ship, and they’re never, ever where you need them to be. On a rough estimate, I’d say I found five total tanks across 28+ levels of ship. You run out in about two levels of standard searching. You will end games to lack of oxygen, and there doesn’t appear to be anything you can do about it. Loading a password save will return some air to your tank, but none of the passwords give you a spare. Maybe you’re supposed to gack the first time and use the knowledge to speed run through a second time, but that doesn’t seem quite right, and you’ll still have all the enemies to deal with.
Graphically, it looks sharp. The Giger biomechanical look comes across in the appropriate levels, and even the ones with panels of blinking lights look more foreboding and less Buck Rogers. There are only a few different tilesets, and they usually just cycle through them as you move down the levels, so levels do start to look like indistinct repeats. Still, the textures look good, and there’s consistency inside the levels. It’s totally unclear as to who would ever build a ship like this (it’s not supposed to be an alien vessel) but the atmosphere and some well-placed props do a nice job of being creepy in all the right places. Textured floors, ceilings, doors that open automatically as you approach, and the ability to crouch make up the important technical achievements. The engine does clunk along a bit, and turning is a little choppy, but you never feel like the engine is moving slower than your character is supposed to.
Audio is limited. There’s no music, and levels are silent except for the distant clomping of your boots. I think they were going for a representation of being in a near-vacuum, but as the weapon and alien effects don’t follow this theory, maybe they were just being cheap. And as I mentioned in the beginning, every piece of audio is nicked (illegally, they say) from film or TV. You’ll recognize alarms from Star Trek. The gunshots are photon torpedoes from the same. The computer noises and all of the intro movie sounds are from Alien. There’s not so many of them that it’s a fun little “spot the illegal rip” side game, but enough that they should have been ashamed.
I really wanted to like In Extremis, though I’m not sure why. I suppose because its survival horror trappings put a nice spin on the standard sci-fi FPS. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out. Clunking along at this engine’s pace feels more boring than tense, the save system seems mostly broken, some levels are far too difficult to beat, and your dwindling oxygen is irrationally limited. I love the idea of a horror FPS, and though Blue Sphere put some admirable thought into this one, it isn’t the one to do the idea justice.
NOTE – Since I doubt the availability of information for this one is going to get any easier, allow me to help out those that are still curious. You’ll need the initial code found only in the manual to get anywhere. IJEKAH will open the lockers on the first level, allowing you to get your first keycard. You can take the rest from there.
More than a Doom clone. Sci-fi with a little bit of horror and inventory management.
Password save system leaves you ill-equipped. Levels with spawn points a good idea, but overzealous in their spawning. Otherwise, it’d be a pretty great game if you weren’t consistently running out of oxygen faster than you can find replacements.