Added to the lair: 10/6/20
They screwed with an already bad attitude
Lifeforce Tenka (Codename: Tenka in the US) is a decent FPS that, had it come out before Quake, probably would have been more widely known and better regarded. Unfortunately it fell into Quake's imposing shadow and, like so many others, falls short of the standard that id's masterpiece set.
The story is... vague; at least within the confines of the game itself. The intro cutscene sheds very little light on what exactly is going on. You’re some guy that woke up from some type of stasis, something went wrong with the revival procedure and now you have a strange voice in your head telling you to do things. And that’s… about it. The manual explains that it’s the year 2096 and Earth’s really gone down the crapper - “polluted, war-torn, and semi-derelict” - so you’ve bided your time and saved up enough money to move to an off-world colony and find a better life (sounds like someone took those commercials blared by the future-blimps in Blade Runner pretty seriously). Unfortunately, once he arrives he finds that things don’t live up to the advertising and is confronted with the evil machinations of Trojan Inc. who are using colonists as a resource to create a mutant army. Guess you’re gonna have to do something about that. How much of this you’d actually get from the in-game voiceover and cutscenes... I’m not sure.
There’s no dialogue or story elements while actually playing the levels, it all takes place in between missions and what’s there frequently reveals very little. This isn’t exactly the end of the world since numerous games in the genre - including the aforementioned Quake - have even less in the way of a story, but those games seemed to embrace that and knew when to get the story out of the way, often relegating the story elements to a text crawl at the end of a chapter. In Tenka’s case, it’s presented after every level - sometimes with cutscenes but more often with a voiceover - and so much of it ends up telling you virtually nothing that it can feel like it’s wasting your time. This is when it’s not making you feel like you’re missing something by referencing something or someone with an apparent assumption that we have any idea what they’re talking about. It’s not that I hated the story, per se, so much as I constantly wanted it to get on with it. Even an hour into the game you’re still not going to have much of an idea what’s going on.
The gameplay is pretty standard stuff. You run around, shoot baddies, find keys, flip switches, pickup ammo, health, and upgrades and find the exit. Nothing revolutionary, but it does its job.
As you kill enemies, they’ll sometimes drop green boxes that gradually upgrade your weapon to give it more attachments and functionality. You really only have one weapon, but you can modify it on the fly as you unlock upgrades. I like this in theory, and I really like the Lawgiver-like nature of your weapon, but the problem is that this upgrade process takes far too long. If you kill all the enemies in a level you get enough upgrades to unlock a new weapon mode every 5-ish levels, which results in you having a very limited arsenal for significant lengths of time. Each level can be between 5 and 15 minutes long. Imagine if you didn’t have access to anything but the starting weapon in Doom or Quake until five levels (or 30+ minutes) into the game… it’s kindof absurd really. I think they had a good idea with the modular weapon mechanic - I realize that it’s essentially a superficial difference to cram most of the standard FPS arsenal into a single weapon rather than split across separate ones, but it’s still neat - but I wish they hadn’t opted to dole it out so slowly. Eventually you get cool stuff like a laser and rocket launcher, but it takes too long to get there.
The enemies are often pretty neat looking, including a few that look like something out of The Thing. It’s sortof a mix of weird mutant monsters and robots. A few of them even allow for some basic dismemberment which is always a nice touch, though it’s to a more limited degree than Chasm: The Rift (Tenka came out 4 months earlier though, to be fair). Overall, I thought the enemy designs were quiet creative and interesting to look at so I think that deserves some serious credit.
The game has some excellent music. I suppose that should come as no surprise with Psygnosis attached. There were several occasions when I nodded my head and thought “Yeah, this is great!”. They do repeat some of the tracks between levels, which is kindof unfortunate but understandable. It’s not really a problem though considering what’s there is really good. I’ve got nothing but praise there, honestly. The sound in general is pretty good, with some good sound effects including those of the weapons and enemies. I particularly like the little robotic voice your weapon makes when switching modes. The voice acting for your character (heard between levels) is… pretty bad honestly. It’s certainly not the worst I’ve ever heard but it’s very hammy and over the top. It ends up sounding pretty cartoony and doesn’t fit the tone they were clearly going for at all.
The graphics are pretty good from a technical perspective for games of this era, and it is true 3D rather than faux-3D like Chasm or Build Engine games. The problem is that the color palette is extremely muted and it ends up making a lot of areas kinda samey. Even when different textures are used (which look decent in general), they seem to all pull from the same palette of dark browns, grays, blues, and greens and you end up with warehouses looking not all that dissimilar to apartment buildings and sewers. It all just becomes a bit of a dark and muddy mess. I get that they were going for a dark cyberpunk aesthetic, but I think they could have still done that with a wider range of colors and helped differentiate the areas better.
The biggest issue I have with the game is the level design. Many of the levels are laid out very poorly in a rather incoherent manner - there are levels where you’ll be walking forward and then a hallway will follow an S shape, sometimes multiple times in a row, for literally zero reason whatsoever. When you combine this with the aforementioned aesthetic sameyness of areas, you have the recipe for confusion and frustration; not helped by the absence of a map. It’s the kind of level design that makes you question “Why would any intelligent human, alien, sentient machine, hyper-intelligent fish, etc. ever design their buildings like this? At what point would they ever do that?” The answer is: they wouldn’t. And, with that in mind, I can’t help but wonder why they were laid out in such a way here. I don’t know if this was some attempt to pad the game length - making players stumble around repeatedly to get their bearings - but, whatever the cause, it’s just bad. They do give you some navigational beacons (breadcrumbs basically) that you can drop as you walk around, and they'll show up on the radar, but I didn't find them overly useful to be honest, and they did not spontaneously make the level design good.
Tenka certainly isn't a perfect game, but it is a solid shooter that I'd consider to be relatively underrated. It has a lot going for it and is still an enjoyable time despite its shortcomings. Check it out!