One thing I’ve been pushing to do more this year is to tackle my long, burgeoning backlog. I’m limiting this to 360, PS3, PC and Wii stuff, because if I did every game I didn’t finish, I’d be looking into finishing stuff like Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 among many other older games, leaving me with a task that may be impossible to finish in my lifetime. I’ve been making a slight dent at that backlog in recent months, tackling Borderlands and all the DLC campaigns, Saints Row: The Third (note to self: reinstall SR3 to tackle the DLC campaigns before Saints Row IV hits in August), F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.

Yesterday, I had completed Chaser, a first-person shooter developed by Slovakian developer Cauldron HQ and published by JoWood Productions in 2004. I had heard of the game in the past thanks to a PC Gamer demo disc featuring a demo of the game’s multiplayer. While the demo was not amazing by any stretch, it did seem like an interesting shooter for its time. Fast forward to 2012, when I see the game on a Steam daily deal for $2.50, which later got reduced even further to $1.25. I have a soft spot for bargains, and when a game hits that $2 or less threshold, it’s an immediate impulse purchase. So then it sat on my Steam backlog until recently, when I had decided to install it shortly after beating Redneck Rampage, wanting another “old-school” FPS fix.

You play as John Chaser, an amnesiac stuck on a spaceship being hunted down, with no memories of what happened prior. You eventually make it to Earth and become acquaintances with members of “The Family,” as you try to do missions to find out who you are and what happened. Eventually you find the truth, befriend a few people along the way, and find out you were doing a mission on Mars. So you get your ass to Mars, go to the Hilton and flash the Brubaker ID at the desk.

Cauldron’s CloakNT Engine makes for large, expansive levels. Impressive for a game released in 2004, however it makes later stages like the last few levels drag on considerably.

Okay, I know a Total Recall reference sounds dumb here, but Cauldron clearly was looking at the Schwarzenegger sci-fi classic for inspiration: From the amnesiac main character, to befriending people who would later be enemies, being chased through a spaceport, even having to go through murky Mars caves to find the truth. This is the closest we’llget to a “Total Recall: The Video Game” that isn’t that terrible NES game from 20 years ago.

Let’s be honest here, shooting a bunch of dudes is better than punching midgets and dodging glory holes.

The game is not perfect, though. Being made by a game studio where English is not their primary language, there’s that weird case of “euro jank” to Chaser‘s design. Voice acting is a very mixed bag, leading to awkward line deliveries and unusual word usage. Subtitles don’t always match what’s spoken. Jumping physics seem a bit off, where you might miss jumps more than you hit them. There are many points where it’s not clear where to go next, leading to lots of walking around and backtracking, among other problems that are common to unpolished shooters. Even the game’s ending is especially bleak. I won’t spoil it, but I was honestly expecting a much different outcome, preferably with a choice, like with Singularity.

Chaser is not only a rough game, it’s also very difficult. On Normal difficulty, it didn’t take much for the bad guys to whittle my full health and armor down to zero pretty quick. Enemies occasionally drop medkits and armor, but you’ll lose it as quickly as you gain it. This even applies to fall damage — later stages have you dropping down on pipes, taking off small bits of your health as you descend, making it pretty easy to miss a jump and crater, forcing you to try it repeatedly. Lately I’ve been trying to avoid playing games on harder difficulties, but Chaser was incredibly difficult to play on Normal, leaving me to go through the remaining 2/3s of the game on Easy just to get through. Even on Easy difficulty, some of the later stages still kicked my ass, with enemies having grenade launchers that killed me instantly even with near-full health and armor. Thank god for quick saves.

That isn’t to say this game is bad per se, it’s just difficult because it’s clearly made in a different mindset than most first-person shooters today. There’s a reason regenerating health and linear corridors are almost standard in shooters today, because what Chaser does hearkens back to the late ’90s era of first-person shooter design: reflexes, speed, exploration, backtracking, rationing your items, and quick saving often to make progress. The average gamer today would likely have a very difficult time playing through Chaser if they’re used to Call of Duty style game play.

Despite that challenge, I enjoyed the varied levels — from space stations, to cities, to Russian tundra, even the redness of Mars. The soundtrack was good, reminding of the MOD music that permeated Unreal Tournament, and was a lengthy game compared to its contemporaries. It’s on Steam at an affordable price of $5, it’s worth checking out if you want some old-school FPS design. Just remember that it’s gonna kick your ass, but stick with it. Despite the euro jank, it’s not a bad shooter. I’ve played worse shooters out there. Much worse. (See the Budget Hell entries if you don’t believe me.)