‘COMPOUND’ Review – A Retro Roguelite Shooter That’s An Instant Classic – Road to VR

COMPOUND is a roguelite shooter fresh out of Steam Early Access that unabashedly owes a lot of its DNA to classic first-person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993). Far from being just a version of those old school games translated to VR, Compound brings its own stylish take to the genre and integrates VR-native mechanics at its core, which makes it feel right at home in the 21st century.

COMPOUND Details:

Available On: SteamVR, Quest 2 coming “soon”
Release Date:  July 19th, 2022
Price: $20
Developer:  Bevan McKechnie
Publisher:  notdead
Reviewed On:  Quest 2 via Link

Gameplay

You’re not fighting the Nazi regime or demons escaped from Hell in Compound; the enemy du jour hits much closer to home, especially now. It’s not clear what leads you to attacking the evil corporation that, like many, has unimaginable wealth and power while you’re living in a one-room apartment in a dingy flophouse, but you’re on your way up John McClane-style guns a’blazing just the same.

The corporation sells the disease and the cure. It makes zombie-like creatures in vats of goo. Everything is out to get you. The CEO is a rich dickhead who flies around in a helicopter. Enough said.

Image courtesy notdead

Starting out in the sewers, your objective is to rid each level of enemies before moving upwards. The further up the corporate ladder you go—or rather, corporate elevator—the larger and more difficult the levels become. It’s a tried and true theme that also does a good job of making you feel like you’re actually moving up a large tower instead of just going through random rooms and ganking random dudes.

There’s a good range of enemies too, which go from standard foot soldier with slow shooting bullets, to one-off baddies that have shields, high HP, and guns that can put you back to your dingy apartment in just a few quick blasts. There are flying drones, some of which explode on contact, little tiny guys that have strong shields, and a few types of tank-style mechs that will easily end your run. Anyway, here’s me forgetting that my shotgun pistol isn’t great at ranged attacks:

Dodging bullets and taking cover is a big part of how you survive, as enemy bullet blasts are telegraphed clearly and are generally slow enough to either physically dodge or backtrack to appropriate cover. Simply put, you can’t just bust into a room and hope for the best either since you only have 5 health points. Getting that critical headshot and having the right tool for the job is important.

Compound can be played seated, although you’ll get most of your fun on your feet for full effect. Oh, here’s an early attempt at me shooting the submachine gun and doing a bit of the ol’ tactical retreat, wild snap-turning included since I played this bit from my office chair.

Level layouts are randomized, although replay value really comes down to the three difficulty levels available and smorgasbord of unique guns that you’ll unlock throughout your continuous attempts at conquering the tower.

There are some modifier syringes to choose at the start that rebalances the action in specific ways before you go in for a run, like lowering enemy HP while upping the number of enemies. Many players will probably opt to skip these until they get a much stronger grip on the game and its various enemies/guns though.

Image courtesy Bevan McKechnie

The game includes three comic-book style story endings, and a BFG-inspired super weapon that unlocks once you’ve beaten the game. You can run through as quickly as 40 minutes for one complete loop, start to finish, although you can save and quit as soon as you’re done with a level if you need a break from the action.

In the end, Compound is one of those games that, although probably more appealing to VR veterans, is actually easy enough for most anyone to pick up thanks to its inclusion of an easy difficulty level and straight forward objective. Ok, there may be one caveat there for newcomers, which I talk about in the Immersion section below.

Immersion

I may only have one gripe with Compound, and it’s the reloading scheme. I was conflicted on whether to include this in the Gameplay section, but it just makes more sense in Immersion since it’s such a big part of the game’s overall feel. Reloading in Compound is unique and it may be a bit too fiddly for most at first. I love-hate it, and here’s why:

You don’t have an on-body holstering system like in other games, but rather a gun-cycling system that allows you a maximum of four weapons—two bound to each hand. Press a button and you toggle to your secondary gun. That’s well and good, but the big pain point here is you need a free hand to grab ammo and physically reload the weapon, which is basically all the time. If you’re looking to pack the maximum four-weapon limit, this forces you to let go of a gun so you can feed it. You can solve this by juggling less weapons, always leaving a hand open for those tasks, but it will definitely leave you with less options down the road.

YouTuber ‘VR Trooper’ does a great job of showing this in action in their 40-minute full playthrough video (spoilers). Here’s a slice of the reloading juggle most people will do before it becomes second nature.

The reloading process in a nutshell: once your gun goes dry, you need to summon a magazine or munition by pulling the trigger on your empty, non-firing hand. You stick the thing into the gun’s receptacle, and then click a button on your firing hand to charge a round or close the breech. Because it’s relying on multiple button presses and not a more direct holstering system (i.e. grab it and use it), it comes off as a bit too abstracted and confusing at first.

The bottleneck is there for a couple of good reasons though. You can see VR Trooper fiddling with ammo above, accidentally selecting the shotgun and firing it, and then properly summoning the ammo again. That happens a lot at first. And while other games might heavily abstract that reloading mechanic to a much quicker and “easier” action, like letting you reload just by flicking your wrist, Compound’s method forces you to build muscle memory, which is in itself another skill to master. So while not terribly realistic, it might make sense from a pacing perspective.

The core reason to juggling a number of temptingly powerful guns—each with their own uses and power levels—is it forces you to think harder about how much ammo you have in the weapon before heading into a room. The core reason for multi-step reloading is it forces you to engage with the guns more directly and know each of their loading mechanics by heart. I like that, even if I hated fiddling with buttons that maybe ought to be replaced with an on-body holster.

Note: The game sidestep manual reloading by allowing you to select a mode from the vending machines called ‘Extra Arms’which adds a slower auto-reload function to the game. If none of the above sounds like a plus, you can always go for the free-to-use, no penalty mode to reload.

As for level design, Compound feels highly varied, even if each level is almost always built around a single floor with a central elevator. Your trusty MapMan 9000 will help you traverse the level, and even return to the elevator by teleporting so you can bypass all of the inevitable backtracking.

Image captured by Road to VR

Although inspired by the classics, Compound thankfully offloads a lot of the UI you’d expect to occupy your POV to an arm-mounted screens that you can look at when there’s downtime. One arm has a level map with progressively unlockable teleport nodes while another has your ammo and health stats.

The game does however float some text at you for key moments, like when your health is critical or you’ve achieved a critical hit on a baddie. Something that can’t be understated about enemies in Compound is how they react to bullets. Baddies satisfyingly fly away when you blast them with a shotgun, and tanks crumble to smoldering wreckage after a choice grenade. There’s never a doubt if you hit something, and whether the hit was classified as critical or not.

Image courtesy Bevan McKechnie

Colors pop and do a great job of naturally differentiating the various enemies and handful of environmental hazards strewn about the levels too. Positional audio is also a big component since it cues you into what may be lurking behind a door, or whether a baddies is flying towards your position.

Comfort

The game is a labyrinth full of moving enemies with gads of bullets to dodge, which means you’ll be strafing and turning around like crazy during fire fights if you don’t carefully plan your next move. There are a few comfort modes that help with this, namely teleport and snap-turn, both of which really take the edge off the game’s expectation for frenetic motion.

Since a majority of the game’s levels are placed on a single floor (no stairs) and there’s no jumping involved, Compound proves to be one of the most comfortable examples VR shooter.

COMPOUND Comfort Settings – July 27th, 2022

Turning
Artificial turning
Smooth-turn
Adjustable speed
Snap-turn
Adjustable increments
Movement
Artificial movement
Smooth-move
Adjustable speed
Teleport-move
Blinders
Adjustable strength
Head-based
Controller-based
Swappable movement hand
Posture
Standing mode
Seated mode
Artificial crouch
Real crouch
Accessibility
Subtitles
Languages
Alternate audio
Languages
Adjustable difficulty
Two hands required
Real crouch required
Hearing required
Adjustable player height

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