A Classic Game of the Month and Featured Game, Darren Hewer's Death is the classical ZZT action game perfected, the essence of vanilla* ZZT bang-bang shooty action distilled, and also the encapsulation of a certain straight-faced grimness (or edginess) appropriate for its time.
As a prisoner of war subjected to some kind of illegal experiment involving drugs, you find yourself in a courtyard. It looks like the only way out is through a castle up ahead. To defeat a mysterious entity called the Tattvat. Is this part of a prophecy, the raving of dying souls, or some drug-induced hallucination?
Whatever it might turn out to be, you will be fighting your way out of here.
You will need quick reflexes and some marshaling of your resources to make sure you don't join the corpses you meet! The castle is populated by a diverse host of enemies that are out for your blood. All are custom objects with well thought-out attack patterns. A demon spawns built-in enemies by 'ripping parts of itself' and throwing them at you. Another is a proper bullet sponge, even after you have felled it. Others swarm and block you if you're not careful, and none can be one-shotted. Hewer balances out enemies carefully across boards to avoid friendly fire incidents and forces you to not go in all guns blazing each time. And that's not even counting the booby-traps! The castle is large and sprawling, so you might want to do it in more than one sitting. And there are convincing stabs at making your progress non-linear.
The game gives you enough supplies (ammo, torches and health pickups) to give you a fair chance but you have to manage them at times. Pointedly, they're not provided in those classic Darren Hewer intersection-sign supply chests. Nope, we're not in ZZT land anymore. If you want to play for score, several treasure items can be found in the game world too.
Right off the bat you know this game is dead serious. After being filled in on your backstory (accompanied by a menacing drone), you are welcomed by poisoned-apple trees! And that's even before you make your way to an ominous-looking castle. The graphics are muted, largely sticking to an oppressive grey/red/black motif to depict the insides of a sinister castle (or is it more?). Linewalls are used creatively to create choking, overgrown vines. Occasional occult and blasphemous (but never tasteless - props to this!) art ram home the mood the game is going for. The endgame is graced by two lovely art boards that both serve as a good reward for making it this far and underline how Hewer's earlier minimalist style succeeded in setting an oppressive tone.
Besides the excellent action, Death doubles as a kind of mood piece, showcasing a kind of seriousness that a lot of teenagers and young adults affect to project maturity, as they discover philosophical concepts, take their first steps in expanding their world view and experience (real or feigned) disillusionment with "the real world". The fact that the villain's name is derived from a philosophical Sanskrit term for "reality" is not to be ignored.
As we were awakened to what the 'real world' and 'reality' imply, and how subjectively people can use these terms, we could always rely on the reality that is within us-that is us.
*Let it be known that I like vanilla ice cream.