Fantastic core gameplay, but some unfair enemies in later levels
Descent was developed by Parallax Software and released in 1995 for MS-DOS. like its sequels Decent II and Descent 3, the game puts the player in control of a little space ship that has to traverse underground mines and free them from their robot infestation. The control scheme allows full six degrees of freedom in the navigation through the 3D labyrinth.
The structure of a level is noticeably simpler then in Descent II and Descent 3, puzzles or switches are not provided, instead everything is essentially based around three color coded keys. The blue key is always the key the player collects first, the yellow the second and the red one unlocks the generator room. The generator room is the final goal of the level, it contains the generator of the mine which has to be destroyed. Once the generator starts to explode the player has to reach an emergency exist under the stress of a time limit, but as the auto-map does a good job of highlighting unopened doors, finding those emergency exits in time is generally not that big of a problem. The rooms in Descent are also much smaller then in later games, giving it more of a claustrophobic feel.
Unlike in the successors, in the first Descent there is no guide bot, so instead the player has to rely on his own navigation skills and the auto-map and while navigation on the auto-map is a bit more complicated then it should be, the map itself is quite informative. Doors that are locked by a color coded key, are clearly marked, and keys that have been seen, but not collected are marked as well. Hostages, can be rescued for extra points are shown on the map as well. Thus finding out where one has to go next isn't all that difficult.
Unlike Descent 3, which would respawn you as often as you needed, here there is a limited number of lives the player has available, he starts out with three and can collect additional ones over the course of the game. Once all lives are lost the game is over, the player is however free to restart or replay any level with the original three lives. Checkpoints or reset points are not provided, the player is always jumped back to the start of the level. The game does however contain regular load and save functions, so one doesn't need to rely on the limited lives and can instead just load an old savegame again.
Enemy design is a bit of a mixed bag in Descent, in the early parts of the game, the enemies are a lot of fun to fight, their projectiles fly slow enough to make evasion or dodging reasonably easy, so that the game can develop a great pace. Later on in the game, around level 10 however, the enemy design starts to feel overpowered and unfair, as two enemy types will pop up, one with a Vulcan gun and one with a homing missile, that are essentially undodgable, worse is that it is often even impossible to hit them by surprise, as they will attack before the player even had a chance to fire. Those enemies can slow down the pace of the game a lot and require an endless number of load and save cycles. At that point in the game I switched from the default difficulty to the easiest one, as the frustration with those enemies sucked all the fun out of the game and lead to an extremely careful play that took most of the smoothness of the navigation away. With the lower difficulty the game became much more manageable again and the mentioned enemies tended to get rarer in later levels. There are some rumors floating around the net that this trouble might be caused by some parts of the code being dependent on CPU speed and thus having enemies react faster then they should, but I haven't tested that.
The available weapons are mostly the same as in the sequels, there is a default laser that can be leveled up in a few steps, a spread cannon, a vulcan gun, a plasma weapon, a fusion canon, regular and homing missiles as well super and mega missiles. Bombs are provided as well, but like in the sequels I hardly found any use for them, as there are to few enemy that actively follow you, making a static bomb not very useful.
Weapon switching in the game is problematic, as unlike its successors, it doesn't provide any way to select which weapons are auto select and which aren't. Thus it can happen that a mega-missile or similar super weapons get auto selected and wasted by accident.
Control configuration in the game is pretty flexible, allowing you to map and invert any axis you like. Due to the restrictions of MS-DOS there are however only four buttons and four axis available, thus an external application to map joystick buttons to keyboard events is needed to make the game fully playable with a modern gamepad.
The auto-level support in Descent, that automatically rotates your ship to the level structure, while available, is much more problematic then the one in Descent 3, as it won't align you to the horizon, but to one of the four walls of the room you are in. This causes, especially in more complicated rooms, some annoyances as the auto-level will level you sometimes against a beveled decorative edge, instead of the logical wall of the room. The auto-level also causes the manual leveling to miss behave, as it will respond sluggish and not properly listen to player input, thus an override of a miss leveled ship isn't really possible without disabling auto-level completely.
Graphics come along in classic 320x200 and while simplistic I quite like them. The enemies are full 3D objects, not just sprites and the light effects are, like in all parts of the series, great. The ability to shoot light fixtures around is already provided in this game.
Overall I enjoyed Descent a lot and more then Descent 3. The controls are extremely smooth, most enemies are fun to fight, attacks are easy to dodge and the level design gets quite interesting and varied for what is essentially just a series of connected textured cubes. The levels are also tighter, giving the game a more focused feel then Descent 3, which sometimes got lost in overly huge rooms and annoying puzzles. The story doesn't provided much beyond a quick description on where you have to go and what you have to kill. The game is around 15 hours long, featuring 27 levels, three of them secret.
The only real downer is not so great auto-leveling and the difficulty spike around level 10, the game gets quite insane at that point and pulled a lot of the fun out of it, switching difficulty level let me work around that, but the two mentioned enemy types where still quite annoying. A bit more balancing would have been welcome, but even with that fault taken into account, the game was great.