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Saints of Virtue

1999


Of all the games in this rundown, Saints of Virtue is probably the one with the most information available about its development and content. The developers - a trio of ex-industry professionals who named themselves Shine Studios - put out a handful of newsletters on their website that included tidbits about the making of the game. The game was also a minor hit among the proper audiences, even managing to avoid abandonware hell via a downloadable re-release in 2008. And while it is neither the best-selling Christian FPS game (nor the best looking), it can lay claim to some huge (compared to the competition) game worlds and fairly deep levels of symbolism and allegory. Let this set the record straight: though Saints of Virtue has been used as a punching bag by many an internet comedy site and YouTube "Let's Play", there is a quality game here.

As mentioned, Shine Studios was a three-man effort composed of Michael Ulrich, Dave Slayback, and Bud Gillian. Slayback worked for Sierra as a systems developer and programmer on Police Quest II and Quest for Glory IV, among other games. Ulrich had been employed at Sculptured Software as an artist and animator and was carried forward into Acclaim when Sculptured was bought out by that company. He is now on the art team at 2K Sports. Bud Gillan was a teacher, and that's about all we know. Shine Studios had no office or company headquarters - Slayback, Ulrich, and Gillan lived on opposite sides of the country and used remote conferencing to collaborate.

We can assume Slayback and Ulrich's combined experience were what landed Shine with a publishing agreement through Cactus Game Design - a company which still publishes Christian games of various descriptions. While it had a publisher, Shine was apparently lacking on capital. When they began development on Saints of Virtue in late 1997, the only polygonal engines for license were out of their price range (id Tech and Unreal), and they had no time to develop a new one from scratch. Instead they chose to go with a basic 3D engine that offered cheap licenses and royalty-free publishing agreements. The engine was ACKNEX-3 (now known as 3D Gamestudio, currently in the 8th iteration), and offered a tech level somewhere between Doom and the original Quake.

The development cycle wrapped in 12 months, and Saints of Virtue hit bookstores and online retailers in December of 1999 - running on an engine from 1997 that used tech from 1995. That said, Ulrich's art direction saved Saints of Virtue from what could have been a disaster on par with The War in Heaven. Instead of ungainly low-poly models and garish textures, Saints of Virtue uses 2D sprites for all of the enemies and objects in the game (much like Doom), yet still retains 3D geometry for the game world itself. Unfortunately there are no control mapping features and the mouselook feels all wrong. You'll be playing this with arrow keys, and God help you if you're using a laptop without a numpad. As a result even walking and jumping - much less combat - can be a chore.

The storyline concerns a young Christian's internal struggle and the game itself takes place in the "Kingdom of the Heart", a sort of nightmare world thick with allegory. There are four levels, each representing some sort of worldview - The Amphitheater of Apathy, the Labyrinths of Legalism, the New Age Nirvana, etcetera. There are no bosses and few scripted events; most of the game involved battling enemies and solving various puzzles. The enemies are Masks of Humanity - various vices represented abstractly as floating heads: Guilt, Fear, Vanity, Arrogance, and so on. As in The War in Heaven, you're armed with the Sword of the Spirit, except that here the sword shoots projectiles. So it's your basic shooter, except that it's so hard to aim and move at the same time that most fights are just toe-to-toe drag out fights between you and a roaring Mask.

The rest of the gameplay involves a lot of really cryptic puzzle solving involving inventory items and in-game traps. You might have to platform your way across moving tiles or work your way through a maze with rotating rooms, using rocks to mark your path. Each of the four levels requires you to collect X amount of some sort of item in order to open the portal to the next level, and you can generally collect these items in the main level's multiple sublevels. This involves a lot of backtracking, e.g. the Rusty Key found in the Media Maze goes to a door on the second floor of the Mall of Distractions... Luckily the enemies stay dead so you don't have to wade through them again. Also helpful is the developer tip guide, which contains everything you need to know to get through the game.

It would be worthwhile to note here that the game - and this is a trait that our games from here on out will share - has a fairly dark feel. Most of the landscapes are blasted wastelands and the enemies themselves have a sort of torture-horror vibe (shackles, cracking skin). There are no NPCs or cutscenes, just miles of surreal corridors and wide-open spaces and grunting, groaning Masks. The interstitial music are hair-metal tracks by a Christian group called New Jerusalem, but the actual game music is all moaning, creaking, minimalistic ambience that can get to you after a while. Much of the time the only sounds are the slap of your own boots on baked earth. The Kingdom of the Heart is a fairly depressing place.

The game is still for sale from the Shine's website as a downloadable .EXE, with absolutely no DRM, for $9.99. One caveat: although you can get it to run on Windows 7 x64 and other modern Windows systems in Windowed mode, there are a few framerate-dependent glitches. If your framerate exceeds 60FPS, your jump height will be four or five times higher than it should be, and the second weapon you acquire will fire far too slowly. Use an FPS limiter to bypass this issue.

Shine Studios was working on another Christian game, albeit not a sequel to Saints of Virtue, when they folded. No other information is available on it, and it seems to have never gotten past the initial concept stage.


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