The Citadel came out last year, but it showed up in my Steam recommendations recently — and has also had a number of updates since its original launch. So I thought it was high time we took a look at it!
Traditionally, Japan wasn’t the first place you’d look for quality first- or third-person shooters, since for the longest time the genre never really captured the imagination of the Japanese game-playing public for one reason or another. The situation has changed somewhat in the last few years with the advent of popular titles such as Splatoon and the incredible popularity of Apex Legends among the VTuber community — and that has doubtless empowered a few developers to explore the genre for themselves.
One such example is Doekuramori, a Japanese developer who drew heavy inspiration from classic first-person shooters such as Doom, Wolfenstein 3D and Marathon to create The Citadel. Speaking with Niche Gamer in late 2020, he also noted that he had borrowed some ideas from Metroid, Outlaws and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. — as well as Touhou, of all things. Not only that, there are some strong narrative and aesthetic inspirations from manga and anime series such as BLAME, Metabarons, RELICS, Heavy Metal and Aeon Flux.
In The Citadel, you take on control of a protagonist known as The Martyr in a ruined, futuristic world. The world has stopped turning, and many members of humanity have elected to prolong their lifespans by mechanising their bodies. Trapped in an eternal dusk, humanity cannot move onto the “light side” of the planet, since they will burn up, and cannot move to the “dark side”, or they will freeze.
Sensing humanity was on the brink of extinction, a race of beings calling themselves “angels” rose up and offered a promise of saving humanity. They were not real angels, however; and their “god” was a creation of their own. And since anything that can possibly go wrong in a post-apocalyptic setting almost certainly will go wrong, their creation is now out of control, driving fake angel and mechanised human alike insane. Thus it falls to our heroine, one of the only non-mechanised humans left in existence, to sort this whole mess out once and for all.
The Citadel begins with a difficulty selection system that is an obvious homage to Quake: by running down a simple hallway, you select the easier difficulty level, while by making a perilous jump, you switch to the harder level. After this, you begin your mission in a “hub” area which can be returned to at any time; here, there are a few reference materials that provide tutorial information, as well as a couple of characters who can be spoken to.
At the outset of the game, your job is to head into the first “act”, fight your way through and defeat the boss at the end. After this, you’re free to approach the remaining acts in whatever order you see fit — though all must be completed in order to clear the game.
Each act consists of four main levels and a boss stage. The main stages require you to work your way through a maze-like level, collecting keys and defeating enemies, while the boss stages tend to be pretty straightforward arenas.
The level designs in the main stages are where The Citadel shines most brightly. While the game lacks variation in its wall textures and colour palette, this is more than made up for by how interesting it is to get around the various stages. Clearly designed with some inspiration from classic grid-based dungeon crawlers as much as old-school first-person shooters, every stage is one you’ll need to explore thoroughly in order to determine how to proceed, and there’s never just a straightforward linear path to follow.
There is a ton of variety in the enemy encounters you’ll have to deal with along the way, too. Sometimes you’ll be in an enclosed arena with a large quantity of enemies; sometimes you’ll be in an open, outdoor area with enemies atop spires and parapets; at other times still you’ll be facing off against giant tank-like opponents. Every encounter needs considering carefully before you jump in; while your character is extremely agile — unusually for a first-person shooter, you can double-jump and mantle obstacles as well as running around — you can’t take much damage before you’re floored.
There are some really interesting mechanics in The Citadel. Firstly, the weapons are all very satisfying to use, and several of them have alternate fire modes — the battle rifle, for example, can either fire sprays of bullets or an energy beam. Different weapons are appropriate for different situations — for example, the aforementioned energy beam is superb for dealing with heavily armoured enemies, while the standard pistol you get very early in the game is fantastic for picking off distant enemies.
Notably, all of the weapons in the game are projectile-based rather than using hitscan mechanics. This means you can always see incoming and outgoing shots, and dodge the latter. It also means that the game convincingly simulates things like recoil and bullet fall-off at greater distances — to hit distant targets with the pistol, you’ll probably want to aim a little above them, for example.
The projectile nature of the enemy shots becomes particularly apparent in the boss battles, which is also where the Touhou inspirations come in. Boss fights are very much “bullet hell” affairs from the first person, so you’ll need to nimbly dodge the attack patterns that keep coming your way while simultaneously unloading everything you have into the boss’ weak spot.
On top of all this, weapons require manual reloading — in the case of weapons that make use of bullets or shells, that means you need to hammer the reload button to top them up. The frantic nature of this — particularly in the middle of a firefight — brings an exciting arcade-style intensity to the gameplay, and it really works well; when fighting with a weapon that encourages “duck and cover” gameplay, like the pistol, it almost feels like playing a classic light-gun shooter.
The other interesting and unusual mechanic in the game is how it handles health. Rather than simply having a percentage health statistic as in classic ’90s shooters, in The Citadel you have three important stats. Blood determines your current health, oxygen determines how long you can sprint for, and food determines your maximum levels of the other two. As such, as time goes on you’ll need to remember to eat in order to keep your maximum health topped up as much as you’ll have to heal in the moment-to-moment gameplay to keep from dying.
Collectibles to restore all three of these stats aren’t in short supply so it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself in a “struggling to survive” sort of situation, but it’s an interesting touch regardless — and one which adds a distinct feeling to the game as a whole. In fact, it’s one of several features in the game that gives it something of a feeling of the classic System Shock games as much as it does the more frantic side of ’90s first-person shooters — the others being the ability to lean around corners, the necessity to manage your weapons’ condition, and the fact that automatic weapons can get jammed in the midst of battle.
Interestingly, these latter mechanics can all be switched off if desired, and the game’s difficulty levels can be tweaked by the player in various ways, allowing for a truly customised experience. You can even turn off the gorier aspects of the game if you so desire.
Ah yes, the gore; last year, Doekuramori was subject to a harassment campaign owing to the fact that the game is extremely gory, and the vast majority of the enemies appear to be anime-style women inside their armour, robes or whatever they happen to be wearing. Blasting an enemy generally shatters them into a shower of gibs, often leaving their heads and faces visible, and some people took great umbrage at this, because someone somewhere takes great umbrage at everything these days.
Doekuramori and the game’s publisher Top Hat Games had to come out with a statement explaining that the game was not intended to fetishise violence.
“I am not a guro artist,” explained Doekuramori. “I don’t make guro works or doujin. My interests are Touhou, Lost in Abyss and biomechanism. I also very much like dark themes and games that have dark themes and an oppressive feeling.
“I am interested in biomechanism,” he continued, “like how people will merge with machines in the future. And what kind of conception that will make, like Ghost in the Shell meets H.R. Giger. It’s a strange aesthetic, and I think it creates an interesting image. But it’s not Guro.
“The Citadel features gibbing and violence because I identified that as a big part of the aesthetics of the classic retro shooter,” he concluded. “Ultra violence. Because I draw anime style, I interpret that through the way I draw. It is not a ‘fetish’.”
Indeed, if you have any familiarity with anime from the same period that games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom came out, you’ll doubtless be aware that a big part of the OVA scene in particular featured a lot of gruesome, horrific imagery — and, yes, that often involved violence against women.
The difference between The Citadel and some of the more gruesome ’90s OVAs is that the violence here is not sexualised; there’s no sexual violence, no rape, none of the stuff you’d see in something like Urotsukidoji. If anything, the violence here brings to light the fact that the seemingly faceless enemies you’re obliterating over the course of the game were once human, which is an effective horror trope that we’ve seen in quite a few games over the years.
Plus Doekuramori reckons it’s possible to get through the whole game without killing anyone. Now there’s a challenge for you to take on!
While your enjoyment of The Citadel may hinge on whether or not you can stomach its more violent elements — and it’s worth noting that you can turn off the gore if you prefer — this is genuinely one of the most enjoyable first-person shooters I’ve played for a long time.
It’d be nice to see some more varied textures on the level walls as you progress through the game, but as previously noted, the wonderful level designs, interesting encounters and well-implemented mechanics more than make up for this slight aesthetic shortcoming — and as a result, The Citadel is a fun, engaging and highly memorable experience that is well worth taking the time to blast your way through.
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