“Does that horse with spikes have a grenade launcher?” this is one of the many strange questions I asked myself during the game HROT. This Slavic shooter straddles a curious line between ultra-bleak Soviet satire and dumb memetic joke factory. It’s not the best thing about HROT, we’ll talk about that in a couple of paragraphs. But the balance of these two strands of personality determines the quality of HROT. At the beginning, they exist in perfect symbiosis, but the relationship becomes less stable as the game progresses.

The year is 1986, and something is seriously wrong in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. What it might be isn’t clearly stated, but given the year, the ringing of Geiger counters, and the vomiting of soldiers through their gas masks wandering the deserted streets, a nuclear disaster at the infamous Ukrainian power plant isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination. Anyway, everyone who didn’t die from the fallout is now being hunted by an army of (presumably Russian, but again, that’s not explained) soldiers. Leaving the bomb shelter under the Prague Cosmonautů Metro station (now named after Háje), you take it upon yourself to defend your glorious homeland from these invaders.

Of all the retro shooters released in the last five years, HROT is the most committed to recreating the look and feel of early 3D action games. We’ve seen retro shooters built into modern engines like Unity, but as far as I know, none in a dedicated engine designed specifically to look thirty years old. HROT does just that and does it brilliantly. From its boxy buildings to its flat ashen skybox to its quivering character models that appear to have been hammered out, HROT looks exactly like something I would have played on my PC back in 1997 (despite being completely out of place age). The simple geometry and unrelenting brown aesthetic also fit perfectly with the brutalist architecture of the late Soviet environment of the game.

But HROT’s greatest strength is not what it looks like, but what lies within all its brick-and-mortar institutions. HROT’s 21 levels aren’t the biggest or most conceptually ambitious I’ve seen in retro shooters, but they’re the most faithful FPS‘ origins in dungeon crawling RPGs. Almost every level is a tangled maze of corridors filled with traps, hazards, monster closets, hidden paths and secrets, making instant exploration endlessly fun. HROT especially likes to trick you with its switches and switches. Inserting the key into the lock can open the door in front of you, but it can also open a wall to the side or simply teleport you to a new location, which is usually filled with enemies waiting to kill you.

As with the visual presentation, HROT elegantly blends these ideas with the setting. This is natural for the repressive Soviet dictatorship, riddled with invisible rooms and hidden passageways, a world where paranoia reigns not only in the atmosphere but in the architecture itself. In one example, you enter an austere government conference room with a large table and chairs in the center. You press the button that says “emergency shelter” and the entire room begins to descend to Earth. Of all the retro shooters to graduate from John Romero’s level design school, this one was the hardest to learn.

Although the main inspiration of HROT is Earthquakethere is a considerable amount Duke Nukem also here. The entry levels are filled with interactive objects ranging from telephones and pool tables to fully functional piano keyboards. There’s even a motorcycle that you can ride in certain levels, and the game even makes a half-decent use of it on one of them. Unlike the more generic level design, these elements fade away significantly after the first few levels. They never completely go away, but you can see a point where it becomes impractical for a developer to fill levels with interactive gimmicks.

“While HROT’s main inspiration is Quake, there’s a lot of Duke Nukem in there too”

As an ode to classic FPS level design, HROT is excellent. As a shooter, it’s good, adequate, satisfying, but not amazing. Once again, HROT wears its Quake inspiration on its ragged, bloody sleeve, from its jumping grenades that pose as much of a threat to you as your enemies, to its undead enemies that throw chunks of themselves at you. Movement is friction-free, and the game offers an impressive menagerie of monsters to explode, from sickening, mat-wearing, shotgun-toting soldiers to gas-masked horses and Hind-D helicopters. His choice of weapons, on the other hand, does not cause much joy. The double-barrelled shotgun and grenade launcher (or “Hussite hand cannon” as it’s called in-game) are satisfying enough to push you forward, but every other weapon is either mediocre or downright lame. The pistol is pathetic, the submachine gun is petty, and the flashgun is a deep disappointment.

This isn’t much of a problem when HROT’s level design and overall atmosphere is in full flow, which is constantly happening in the first episode. Here, the game’s socialist parody and nuclear alarm are in perfect sync. Wandering through Prague’s abandoned streets, gymnasiums and cultural centers, you’ll come across photographs of Czechoslovakia’s first communist dictator, Klement Gottwald, whom you can kiss to show your devotion to the nation. Later, you’ll descend into some sort of underground chamber covered in desiccated corpses as that crackling Geiger counter builds to a mind-blowing crescendo.

Starting in the second episode, HROT’s personality becomes increasingly disjointed. Episode two splits the action between a modern environment and levels inspired by the medieval history of the Czech Republic. These levels remain entertaining on their own and never lose sight of the main themes (for example, the first two levels have you descending from a bohemian castle into a uranium mine). But Crooked cultists and supernatural elements feel out of place.

The latest episode, meanwhile, is all over the place. It begins with a flashback to the 1937 sci-fi novel War of the Newts, after which your character wakes up in an extremely creepy hospital, which also happens to be an amusement park ride for some reason. Then there’s a level where you’re followed by a trio of small rat-eating dogs, before the episode ends with a few wave scenarios and a boss battle against an actual meme. It’s absolutely wild, not necessarily bad, but nothing like the first episode.

In a way, it’s only fitting that HROT should repeat the mistakes of the games that inspired it, putting all the best bits into that first episode, inherited from the free-to-play model, and then following it up with level packs that have sparks of brilliance but don’t have the same consistency. I don’t regret playing it, these brown and twisting murder dungeons speak volumes to the blackened husk of my soul. But it’s a treat designed specifically for shooter enthusiasts, and probably not the place to start your adventure into the imaginary FPS past.