What's got 10,000 screens, hordes of vicious robots out for your blood, and a zillion complex puzzles for you to solve? We drop Phil South into Firebird's Sentinel to see if he's king of the castle!
It's dark. All you con see is the wall of a high computer-generated cliff. As you rotate on the spot, you can see a small clump of trees, which you quickly absorb for their energy. You can't see any more without tilting your head... then as you look up you can see it, its slowly rotating body towering over you. All too soon its malevolent eye turns on you, and you start to feel the energy being sucked from your body. Finally, as your consciousness blinks out, you see the face of your destroyer... the evil Sentinel. Oh well, better luck next life.
It's rare than an original game concept comes out, so when one appears it takes you completely by surprise. Sentinel is just such a game. It's a new kind of strategy/arcade idea, which draws from elements common in a range of traditional strategy formats. It takes place in stunning 3D renderings of 10,000 different landscapes through which the player moves, (or more precisely, teleports) in his quest to destroy the evil Sentinel. Yes, you must destroy him... but the catch is that if he sees you, he'll absorb your energy and you're dead!
On each landscape there's a finite amount of energy to be had, in the form of trees which are dotted around the computer generated hills and valleys in a more or less random way. You have to absorb the trees to get any goodness out of them. Having gained a bit of energy, you can then project it out of your robot body, by creating something tangible, like another tree, a boulder or a fresh robot. Now, and here comes the clever bit, you can teleport yourself (accompanied by a digitised riff from a synthesiser, a sort of Whaaanggg!) into that new robot body and absorb the one you just left, and in this way you move across the landscape. The reason you absorb the robot you just left is because the amount of energy remains constant in the landscape - so if you expend energy to make a new robot, you must gain some of that energy back by absorbing your old robot. As to why you need as much energy as possible, we'll go into that in a minute.
Your view of the computerised landscapes appears as if you're looking out of the head of the robot. You're able to pan round to look for the Sentinel and, using the crosshaired sight, orient on and absorb trees. This may all sound a bit easy-peasy to you, but there's one major point to the gameplay which prevents you from just scooting around, teleporting wherever you please and eating every tree you can see. You can't absorb anything unless you can look down on the square the object stands on, and that goes for boulders, trees, your robots and even the Sentinel itself. If you can't see it, you can't eat it! This can be very frustrating if you can see the top of a tree but can't see the square it's standing on. (The secret is to always go for extra height, but we'll get to that later!) Once you've managed to absorb the Sentinel and climbed up to where he was standing you can hyperspace to the next level. Here's another clever bit - depending on the number of points you have left when you've absorbed the Sentinel, you go on to a higher level. The more points, the higher the level. The entry code for the level you've achieved is displayed across the sccreen and you type this in when asked for it. And if you write it down on a bit of paper, you can go straight to that level next time you play and so save yourself the worry of going through from level one again.
The graphics are totally brilliant, being by far the best 3D effect I've seen on the Speccy, and the digitised or sampled music is great. It sounds like that spooky synth music you used to get in Dr Who. (Daaann dannn dannnnnn! Ooooooo!) Soo-parb!
If you find this all a bit hard to grasp, and who could blame you, don't worry. We've constructed a little Sentinel universe in microcosm, from which you should be able to draw all the conclusions you could possibly want. So sit back, and we'll take you forth into the dangerous realm of ... (deep voice) The Sentinel!
To move around a Sentinel landscape, you have to place a robot on a square, and teleport to it. To make new robots for yourself, you have to eat three trees! (It's okay, I know they're a bit dry, but drink some water!) And don't forget to absorb the robots you leave behind, 'cos if you don't you're going to run out of energy.
It's a good plan to get as much height as possible very early on. If you start by placing two blocks in plain sight (so you can retrieve the robot you started in) you can gain energy very quickly. The more energy you get, the more boulders you can put down and then you can get to the Sentinel!
Don't waste time looking around every two seconds to see where the Sentinel (or indeed a Sentry) is looking. If you've memorised where he is in relation to your current position, you can work out a way which will take you around the landscape, just out of his line of sight. Always teleport to where he will be or has been looking.
If the Sentinel can't see your feet he can absorb you, but that won't stop him from turning the closest tree into a Meanie. Meanies rotate much faster than you and can Hyperspace you against your will unless you can absorb them first. So when you hear the low clicking... watch out! There's a Meanie about!
Here he is, the king of the castle. And your job (you dirty rascal), is to topple him from his perch before he rotates your way and spots you. Trouble is, he's in a higher level than you, and you need a lot of energy before you can build yourself up to his level. The only way around the landscape is to keep out of sight.
One some levels, from about 10 upwards, there are Sentries on guard too! This makes it very difficult to manoeuvre yourself into a position where you can't be seen, but it can be done. Just turn 360' before you begin moving, and memorise where the Sentinel an Sentries are so you can avoid their steely gaze (bzzzzt!)
Don't panic! Well, okay, go ahead. If you get in a very tight spot (like anywhere in the game, for example) you can escape by hitting the Hyperspace button. You should only use this very sparingly, because it uses a lot of energy, and you wouldn't want to blow yourself up by not having enough power, would you?
Keep a weather eye out for the scanner window in the top right of your viewer window. If it goes fuzzy, you're being watched by a Sentinel or a Sentry. From then on you've got about ten seconds before your energy is sucked out through your ear! So when you hear the fuzzy sound and your scanner goes all snowy, get the hell out of there!
And finally, when you've avoided the Big Lad's gaze and sneaked up on him, you can absorb him by focussing your crosshairs on the top surface of his pedestal and pressing 'A'. Once you've got him you can't absorb any more energy, so prepare yourself by absorbing as much stuff as you can before destroying old Big Nose.