Sunday, April 21, 2024

Wolcen - Thoughts

A genre I didn't expect having so much resistance to is the Action RPG. I was an active participant in its heyday, having grown up on the unforgettable one-two punch of Diablo and Diablo II. But I suppose in retrospect I didn't play them a lot—or rather, I didn't play them as much as my peers tended to. After finishing both games, my relationship with ARPGs was mostly casual: I played Diablo 3 a decent amount, bounced off of Titan Quest and Path of Exile, and liked Grim Dawn but sadly never finished it. I've always kept my eye out for projects on the horizon that looked interesting despite my own personal struggles with the genre, because I was waiting for an experience to finally click with me.

Yet there's also an irrepressible, morbid side to my desires. I'm enthralled by broken dreams, overambition, and an out-of-depth arrogance. I love writing about games that fail the player, because even though I may detest the title while playing it, it's fascinating to pick apart a game's design and ponder what went wrong. That's why Wolcen has always had a giant red bullseye on its back, begging me to play it. The game released to aggressively mixed reviews on Steam and had its fanbase quickly burn out, despite receiving numerous post-launch updates in an attempt to resuscitate the community. And if the fans of the genre abandoned Wolcen, a game that by all impressions looks pretty good, then what hope did it have for me, a jaded apostate that has abandoned the genre?

Well guess what? Wolcen is fine. Well... "fine" is a bit of an oversimplification—Wolcen is a mediocre action romp that looks and sounds great but fundamentally misses the mark. It's not a game that will leave you itching to try out a different build or strategize around unique gear you discover; Wolcen is firmly a "play, theorycraft, and wipe your hands once done" type of experience. I think that kind of thing can be a huge disappointment for ARPG addicts looking for the next juicy hit to keep coming back to, but for someone like me that bounces quickly from game to game, it was an unexpectedly fun ride. Personally the best part of an ARPG is near its start anyway, when you first get to submerge your hands into the gooey, squishy clay that is character building—and Wolcen's clay reservoir is practically overflowing.

Besides its above-average presentation, the best thing Wolcen has going for it is a massive passive skill tree that puts Diablo IV to shame. It's not as mind-bogglingly large as Path of Exile but it's still deeper and wider than many of its contemporaries, giving you a ton of pathways and connections to mull over. You start by picking one of three core "builds" to focus on, and as you spread out you'll run into two secondary builds further in and four tertiary builds on the outer rim. You can also cross into adjacent builds pretty quickly and rotate bits of the web to make it easier to beeline for a tertiary build from the start. Additionally, there are larger nodes that grant build-defining skills sprinkled throughout, although most of the ones on the outer rim tend to come with a downside that make them risky to take (at least for my build). Still, no matter if you're big on experimenting with wacky triple-class shenanigans or laser-focused on damage of a single type, it's hard not to find something to love within Wolcen's giant web of possibilities.

The downside to all of this is that Wolcen's active skills fail to support the range of options here. Similar to the passive tree, there are three core active skill types: melee, range, and magic. You can pick up as many as you want (provided you have the money) but your access to them is limited by the weapon you have equipped (ie if you wield an arcane staff you can't use melee or range skills). While that may sound like an acceptable restriction, what kills the game's variety is that skills are woefully scant: there are 18 skills for magic, 13 for range, and only 12 for melee. With 6 skills able to be loaded into your hotbar, and most of them being simple do-damage doodads, it's going to feel like there's not much room for build variety. Wolcen tries to remedy this with a rune system similar to Diablo III (but with 16 skill runes instead of 5), but I never felt this made up for the lack of active skills on offer. If anything it made the game slightly more confusing to sift through, as a skill's true value was often hidden somewhere amidst its runes.

For my playthrough, I kept my build in Wolcen deliciously simple: I was a big strong lad that liked to smash things with his right-click hammer. I knew to follow ARPG 101: get a good damage ability, get a quick escape ability, and then everything else is supplemental (AoE, utility, buffs, debuffs, etc). Due to Wolcen's limited skills, the three non-damage supplemental abilities I picked up were the only three the melee class offered: a shout, an AoE buff, and a summon of all things. Everything else would compete for resources against my big bonk attack, and pretty early on I found the bonk to be unparalleled at pulping foes. I zipped across the passive skill web to pick up as many +physical damage nodes as possible, and when I ran out of those I doubled down on becoming a tank, pumping my resistances up to 55% across the board. It was a fun experience that kept me engaged for the most part—but I couldn't help but feel everything was so... arbitrary.

For instance, I spent a long time trying to figure out if I should be going for high HP or high resistance. I received plenty of gear for both builds and could easily pick up nodes to support whichever choice I made, seeing as they were both major pillars for melee builds. But what truly muddled my options was that raw and multiplicative numbers are hidden—you're only given the total of your statistics, not the raw value nor what it's being multiplied by. This forces you to flick back and forth between your stats tab and the passive skill tree with each change, as you're never really sure just how much "10% more resistance" adds to your overall resistance (for me it was closer to 2% total). The same is true for all damage types, attack speed, crit chance, force shield—basically every upgrade on the passive skill tree gets put into an equation you never get to see.

That's why it was so hard for me to figure out my defense strategy. Is 10% more resistance better than 8% more max HP when I can't see the cumulative total for either until after I level up? And considering the lightning-fast speed at which new gear dropped ("rare" quality? More like I "rare"ly get anything else), I was changing out my equipment so fast that old comparisons I made were immediately outdated. I wound up waffling between the two defense stats, ultimately looking for gear that provided both but willing to lean into resistance if the stat was high enough. I encountered a similar hurdle when I found a unique weapon near the end of the game, one that gave a huge amount of arcane bonuses if I switched to that damage type. But since Wolcen doesn't offer a way to save different loadouts or view your total stats while respeccing, I spent 10 minutes remaking my character to an arcane-melee man, saw my damage would be a tiny bit less, and then spent 10 minutes trying to rebuild my original bonklord. Thankfully respeccing is fairly cheap, but the process was so tedious and unproductive that I never again considered altering my build.

As far as the campaign goes, Wolcen does an admirable job, although the first three acts aren't anything to write home about. The story here is unabashedly about Warhammer 40k marines in a fantasy universe (so Warhammer?), bombarding you with an incredible amount of side chatter in an attempt to endear you to its lore. For some folks this will provide a great incentive to care about Wolcen's grim universe and quippy cast of characters, but for those used to every other ARPG, the dialogue will only get in the way of whatever media is playing on your second monitor. That, and the prose itself isn't particularly gripping; it reminds me most of 90s comic book writing, the kind you'd find under a Liefeld-esque cover where a gallon of blood drips off the main character's spiked gauntlets. As you play it you'll realize that Wolcen suffers from a self-consciousness problem: it's trying to be what it thinks is cool, and you can't help but notice the "trying" part while playing.

Wolcen's final act however, is definitely one of the most interesting things about it. In it, a big bad demon is coming to attack your hub city, and each time you embark on a mission he gets a little bit closer to arriving. In order to give yourself a fighting chance you have to pick and choose missions that will weaken him and his forces, along with bolstering your city's defenses and productivity. The final boss starts at roughly 15 levels above you, so your first attempt at tackling him will likely end in crushing demise. Afterwards, you'll be whisked back to the start of the demon invasion with only your gear, levels, and a few town upgrades intact. It's a cool idea with a tiny roguelite spin on it that I vastly prefer to the boring, dungeon-delving act structure that most ARPGs religiously follow.

But just like the rest of the game, Wolcen's final act is poorly thought out. Upgrading your town is cool in theory, but in reality you only have about two dozen upgrades to choose from, with a good chunk of those being "increase productivity for your city". Early on I thought the idea of a garrison was great since it could gather gold and items for you between missions, but the gold they accrued was pitifully low (2000?! When it costs 15k to build anything?!!) and the gear was worse than the whites I'd stumble across laying by the side of the road. Mission variety—while decent—was severely imbalanced too, with some missions taking over 10 minutes to complete while others (specifically headhunter) could be wrapped up in under 10 seconds. And the weirdest of all is that a bunch of postgame stuff (building structures, bounty maps, hunt trophies) would show up during this act but you can't interface with any of it until the final boss is slain. Like, why give me a bounty map or show me the trophy vendor when I can't access either? Why prevent the player from building the transmutation forge or enneract lab or salt baths until after the hardest battle has concluded? Ultimately the final act felt underbaked and aimless, reaching for greatness but falling short the way a middle schooler would playing college basketball.

Make no mistake: I liked my time with Wolcen. I don't feel comfortable calling it a good game, but it definitely didn't feel like a bad one—it's mostly just janky and imbalanced. Imagine a shiny new office desk with plenty of papers atop it, ready for you to scribble down your zany character builds. But on closer inspection you'll see that the desk's nails were never fully hammered in, the screws only slightly turned, and the panels assembled from disparate types of wood. The desk is sturdy enough that you can write on it for some 20 hours or more, but to spend longer than that—to feverishly draw harder than you have been—is to send the whole thing toppling down. Wolcen is a fine experience, but at the end of the day the classics of old will outlast it—and it won't be a surprise why.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

If you're curious what a western spin on Earth Defense Force looks like, then I would recommend to keep dreaming because Insect Armageddon is a grim portrayal. I may have been lukewarm on EDF 4.1 seven years ago, but that's largely because I didn't expect it to be a simple retread of EDF 2017 in a bigger, more bloated package. Insect Armageddon takes that formula and applies its own tweaks, producing a game that's similar in style but quite different in taste. Frankly: it's a colorless experience, one that swaps out cheesy authenticity for American pulp and jargon, rightfully earning its place as the worst game in the franchise.

Insect Armageddon can be lambasted for a plethora of reasons, including but not limited to: drab artstyle, short campaign, no large swarms, cliffhanger ending, boring music, and only a single setting for the entire game (city). While these shortcomings already condemn the game to mediocrity, what sticks out as the most egregious to me are the lesser details—things easily missed unless you're accustomed to the eccentricities of the series. I don't deny that a newbie could play Insect Armageddon and have some harmless fun with it, but they won't know what they're missing until they play a Sandlot title. And then, like the transition from Dominos to a New York pizzeria, the disparity will be staggering.

My first issue is one that immediately kills any kind of love I could have for the game: the chatter. Camp is ingrained in EDF's DNA just as much as its bald-faced commitment to its delivery. Insect Armageddon however, prefers its camp to be low brow and satirical, poking fun at itself rather than taking the alien invasion seriously. Gone are the worldwide updates, shocking monster reveals, and frantic cries of fleeing civilians—instead you'll mostly have your operator stoically telling you what to do all while your teammates crack terrible jokes. Prepare for comments like: "these bugs smell worse than my mother-in-law", "remember the Alamo!", and "forgot my deodorant this morning! Gonna have to burn this armor when this is done!" All of these are a far cry from the beautiful, inane simplicity of "go home, bugs!", "I agree, guns are the best!" and "do you like death? Then die!"

It's hard to put into words why this precise brand of camp—the self-serious corniness—is integral to the series, but I feel it's as essential as the act of shooting bugs itself. The difference between Sandlot's EDF and Vicious Cycle Software's is akin that between bad 70's sci-fi movies and films made by The Asylum. The former may or may not be aware of the tremendously low quality of its material, but it is committed to presenting it as an earnest and pressing tale. Meanwhile, the latter is made to entertain folks that grew up on such schlock, winking and nodding at the viewer over its own ludicrous script. In a way, you can derive meaning from the former—while the latter is intentionally devoid of it.

Similarly, Insect Armageddon thinks of itself as a big bug attack game, rather than a big bug attack story, prioritizing objectives over events. There's very little reason or urgency beyond what your handler tells you is "mission critical", and even those orders are one step removed from her, coming from a faceless bureaucracy (which the game tries to paint as morally dubious in a poor attempt to raise stakes). Gone is the focus on the human element in this equation: the boots on the ground trying to maintain their sanity and morale in an outlandish horror scenario. This ultimately keeps the player from investing in Insect Armageddon's storyline, as they're not fighting to save the world or their country or even a single town—they're simply doing their assigned mission. In other EDF games you're part of a (hyper) nationalistic, collectivist unit that knows that if it falls, so too will the world; in Insect Armageddon you're an expendable military grunt that will speak only when spoken to, and that doesn't bother you one bit.

Things don't fare better in the gameplay department either, as Insect Armageddon doesn't understand the power trip inherent in EDF's arsenal. In the other games, weapons sound weighty and pack a mighty punch, rocketing bugs off into the stratosphere after a congratulatory explosion of alien blood. Here however, it feels as though you're firing low-velocity needles into your foes, their corpses rarely bouncing into another block (before instantly disappearing). Rocketing hordes will never see their bodies careening off into the far reaches of space, and larger enemies brush off your shots entirely, sometimes spewing a meager pink mist to show you're hitting their weak spot. Compare that to the hectors in EDF 2017, where laying into one with an assault rifle sees them jostling around like a drunk frat boy atop a mechanical bull. From the sound to the animation to the reaction of the aliens, none of the guns in Insect Armageddon are made to be satisfying to use—and that's a death knell for a shooter the way terrible physics are for a platformer.

On the bright side, one of the things Insect Armageddon can laud over its older sibling is its class system. From here on out, EDF includes four distinct classes for players to swap between, and the series is all the better for it. But like with 4.1, progress between classes is not shared, so switching from Wing Diver to Fencer will have you starting from rock bottom progression-wise. Thanks to Insect Armageddon's experience system, it's not that hard to go from one class to another early on, as your health and weapons are meted out by your experience level rather than random drops out in the field. But this too comes with its own downside, as you no longer get to collect piles of goodies between every fight—instead, only health pick-ups dot the battlefield, which are more useless than usual as you'll rarely be returning from whence you came. Occasionally bigger enemies will drop a weapon pick-up, but these too are gated by level requirement—meaning if you pick up a level 4 weapon when you're level 2, then you better get to grinding soldier.

The only other thing Insect Armageddon got right are its new enemies. Although ticks prompt an annoying QTE mash-fest once they latch on, they're a good low HP swarm enemy to stay on the lookout for, and their big bad momma looks properly grotesque. Wasps are nasty aerial units that are good at distracting the player, mantises are mobile titans that are the right level of dangerous, and the daddy long legs is an awesome variation on the walking fortress concept that sadly doesn't see enough use. That's about all there are for new additions (though hectors are fairly different from their 2017 counterparts), and for as short as the game is, I think it did an admirable job of spicing things up... at least for the enemies.

The mission structure on the other hand is exhaustingly repetitive, constantly ferrying you from one ant hill or crashed plane to the next. Occasionally your battles will be broken up with a stationary turret or vehicle section, but it's nevertheless surprising just how unexciting and routine the game feels even with a five hour runtime. Part of the problem is that Insect Armageddon has a misguided preference for long missions, throwing two dozen waves of enemies at the player over the course of a single level, rather than the 3-4 waves you'd see normally. Each bug barrage gradually wears on the player as each wave pops up without reprieve—and given that this all takes place in the same washed-out city, it's not as though you'll feel progress moving from one mission to the next. Plus, the longer mission structure runs antithetical to EDF's giant armament selection, limiting the chances you have to experiment around with different weapon loadouts. By the end of the game, the only missions I remember with some clarity are the giant hector, ditch, and bug queen missions—the first because it's the quickest level to grind experience for, the second because it seemed to go on forever, and the last because I was completely unaware that it was the end of the game.

That's right—there's no mothership finale! It does indeed show up to shoot at you, but all you can do is flee from it, your tail tucked between your legs.

In retrospect, I think I was too harsh on EDF 4.1. I expected more out of the franchise... despite having not known that every game is more or less a remix of the very first Chikyū Bōeigun (including story beats, enemy design, and stage themes). After Insect Armageddon was over, I actually returned to EDF 4.1 for a couple missions just to make sure I wasn't imagining things. And nope—that game is still rock solid, even if it is too big for its own good. Insect Armageddon on the other hand I will probably never revisit. It's not abysmal nor a blatant waste of time, but the problem is that in a series so steeped in unflagging repetition, there's almost no reason to play an inferior iteration. Every other EDF game delivers on the promise of a world uniting to fight back against an alien menace except for this one, and because of that, I don't feel guilty leaving it behind.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Stella Glow - Thoughts

From the word "go", Stella Glow shoots itself in the foot. For a handheld game, its offers a tantalizing package: a fun bundle of anime characters, an item crafting system, battlefields that make good use of height, some downtime relationship management, and hours of cutscenes to sit back and watch... er, read. But for every cool feature hides an ugly flaw, some so terrible that it makes it impossible to recommend Stella Glow to those that would admire it most. Which is a shame, because it can be an enjoyable experience when all the pieces finally come together...

... but to get to that point, you have to suffer through eight hours of the worst the game has to offer.

Stella Glow's introduction is interminably long. For the first five combats you'll be relegated to 1-2 characters, with only the main character capable of using special abilities. This keeps battles woefully basic, imitating oldschool RPGs where most encounters are optimally solved via attack spam. Except instead of battles lasting under a minute, Stella Glow's scuffles are painstakingly lengthy, filled with a lot of movement animations, buff/debuff notifications, and languid battlefield effects. By the second fight you'll be wondering when the game picks up; by the fifth you'll be dreading that it won't.

Finally assembling the core cast in Chapter 1 doesn't alleviate matters either, as they're too frequently separated from one another and lack diversity. While it helps having more characters on the battlefield to control, it will take some time for each character to learn an ability other than "big attack"—and since you'll be facing the same enemies for the entire game (there's a total of like, 20 monsters), battles won't feel more interesting as much as they'll just feel longerStella Glow touts itself as a strategy RPG, but there's very little "strategy" involved in its first quarter: simply whack enemies from the side and heal if low on health. Combat isn't just simple—it's rudimentary and lacking.

By the time you reach Amatsu (the game's Japanese-style "fire" city) your feelings on Stella Glow will likely settle. Most of the mechanics and systems finally plateau here: you'll get accustomed to the free time system, understand how to craft and use orbs, know what "tuning" entails, have a good grasp on the story, and know how to handle combat by this point. Each party member will have 1-2 abilities to alternate between during battles and you'll finally be given the chance to switch out party members for one another, curating a team you prefer. However, none of these ever coalesce to form a satisfying hook; Stella Glow will waffle for too long between mediocre and decent, rarely breaking out of those bounds in either direction. Ultimately I'd describe it as an "okay" game—and sometimes, "okay" can be worse than both good or bad.

Yet one categorically bad thing about Stella Glow—which will irritate you like a toothpick caught in your throat—is that the game is slow as molasses. I mentioned before that the animations were languid, but another baffling issue is how enemies will loiter in the turn order queue. Every creature on the map gets a place in the queue, and those that do less actions on their turn will have their next turn pop up quicker. But Stella Glow's enemies are the patient sort, calmly waiting until your characters approaches their doorstep to act... which constantly places them ahead of your active characters in the queue. Over and over again the camera will pan over to these slackers and wait a beat, obsessively reminding you how much of the battle still remains.

This may start off as a minor annoyance but it becomes downright vexing later, with entire turn order rows clogged with inactive enemies (seriously, try Sakuya's 2nd tuning mission and tell me with a straight face that it doesn't intentionally seek to waste your time). It never lets up either, with even the endgame missions featuring legions of enemies that will lazily sit on their hands and watch the fight unfold. This grievance alone is so exhausting that it dooms Stella Glow to the "do not play" dustbin, which is a shame because the solution is so simple (warp them in later or just skip their turns!) The only saving grace is that while you're in Amatsu, you at least get to while your time away with its awesome battle theme, the best theme in the game (outside of the final boss).

The conducting ability is perhaps the most novel concept Stella Glow brings to the table, but it's equal parts inventive and bewildering. As a battle unfolds, a five-tiered status bar at the top of the screen will slowly accumulate levels, which can be spent on powerful AoE abilities. The lower tiers can dish out devastating attacks or multi-target buffs, while the higher tiers are legitimately game-changing, granting a full-party HP/MP restore or disabling every enemy on the map for four turns straight. The problem with this is that the non-witch party members (those that can't be conducted) lose a lot of their value as the game goes on, and even then witches like Sakuya and Mordimort have flat-out worse songs than Lisette and Popo (the full-team-heal, full-enemy-shutdown duo respectively). I appreciate the options that conducting adds to a strategy-light game like this, but it only serves to remind me that more could and should have been done to broaden the playing field.

Although I've spent an ample amount of time bemoaning Stella Glow's failures as a SRPG, I should note that the game is actually half RPG, half visual novel—that is, expect to read it just as much as you play it. In the story-department Stella Glow fares much better (the protagonist in particular is thankfully level-headed and proactive), but I still wouldn't describe it as captivating, well-written, or deep. Expect some decent characters (Klaus, Rusty, and Hilda), some stupid characters (Keith, Marie, Nonoka), and some that fall in-between that you can't help but love how annoying they are (Popo, Archibald). It's moe-heavy, rebel-against-god fluff at the end of the day, even if the story does throw out some cool ideas here and there. For instance, the most ambitious portion of the story upheaves the happy-go-lucky status quo, dangling some serious stakes in front of the player. Sadly you'll likely see it coming a stage or two beforehand, and its melodramatic after-effects can linger for a little too long.

I had basically no experience with developer Imageepoch before playing Stella Glow, and now learning that this was their last title released, I'm not sure what to think after hitting the credits on their portable swan song. In a way, it leaves me kind of curious: this was their culmination after 10 years of video game development? Did they peak early with Luminous Arc? Do they even have any die-hard fans? In any case, none of this changes the fact that Stella Glow lacks the luster to be called a hidden gem. I think the best thing you can say about it is that it at least tries to be its own "thing", even if that thing is a housed inside a box of trite anime nonsense mixed with some of the slowest, dullest SRPG combat I've ever experienced. Oh well.


Images obtained from:,,,

Monday, February 12, 2024

Superliminal - Thoughts

Among gaming's innumerable copycats, the Portal-likes are arguably the most creative. That's due in large part to the imitators' aversion to copying the central portal mechanic; rather, what they fancy is Portal's sardonic writing, compartmentalized structure, and science-first focus. This tends to make it obvious when you're playing a puzzler that comes from the school of Portal—but thankfully it's a good school, encouraging its students to break Newtonian Physics in creative new ways.

Superliminal is a recent graduate from this school, one that earned high marks with a relatively obscure focus: perception.

Of course, video games are no stranger to visual trickery. Almost every genre utilizes silent warps and illusory walls (horror games are smitten with mind games), but there aren't too many crunchy puzzlers built around this idea. Major titles like The Witness and Antichamber feature a decent chunk of perspective puzzles to grapple with, but those are merely fractions of a larger, more surreal whole. Superliminal on the other hand simple is humble and down to earth, placing the player in an empty workshop where everything functions as you think it should. Well, except for the fact that you have the uncanny ability to expand and shrink objects just by touching them. But it's not your fingers that are doing the manipulating, oddly enough—rather, it's how your see objects in relation to their surroundings that changes their physicality.

The easiest way to explain Superliminal's mechanics is to harken back to being a bored kid. There isn't a child alive that could resist bringing their index finger and thumb close to their eye and squishing members of their family, all while making a loud, wet "pblsbh!" noise. Depth is ignored in this silly action, rendering the squisher's fingers as large as their eyes see them and their unwitting victim as small as they are distant. And this is exactly how Superliminal works: bring a chess piece close to your vision and it will balloon in size when you drop it. Likewise, you can glance down at an apple between your feet and instantly pick it up, reducing it to no bigger than a grape. It's a phenomenally cool system that takes a bit of work to get used to, especially once you start trying to make stairs by cloning a single object.

Thankfully, Superliminal teaches you the ropes via a series of Portal-esque quarantine puzzles. You'll learn and re-learn the ins and outs of this strange new perspective mechanic, discovering how to fit large objects into tiny crevices and expanding morsels of food into indestructible loading ramps. Afterwards, the puzzles get a lot more obscure and intermittent, eschewing with the room-by-room challenges for more varied and unorthodox sandboxes. Yet the game never morphs into anything too complex or oversaturated; like Portal, the developer's goal is to stimulate, not stymie you. Superliminal is carefully curated so that you'll reach the credits in under three hours—provided you don't mind getting lost now and then.

Unlike Portal however, Superliminal rarely activates the lightbulb in your mind. The game is at its strongest when it introduces new mechanics for you to play around with (Induction, Clone, Dollhouse), but that's only a third of the game's material—if not less. The majority of Superliminal's challenge comes from navigational struggles, like finding a hidden object or escaping from an infinitely looping hallway. The final leg in particular leans heavily into optical illusions and obfuscated pathways, feeling less inspiring and more... disappointingly monotonous. Maybe I just wanted more cuboid puzzle rooms, unprepared for the game to pivot from Portal to The Beginner's Guide. In any case, I was pleased with Superliminal by the end, though not as ecstatic as I was when I first started it.

A minor thing that hammered this point home was the game's challenge mode. Similar to Portal (speaking of monotonous, how many times have I said that by now?), Superliminal tasks the player with using the fewest moves possible to reach a puzzle's solution. Every jump and interaction will be marked down once you begin a puzzle, with some of the restrictions initially feeling ludicrous, if not downright impossible (even the first puzzle is no joke!) But like the main game, the challenges shift from finding creative solutions to standing in precise spots to execute obvious but increasingly annoying maneuvers; it's less about thinking outside the box and more about finding the exact right-sized box to stand atop of. Towards the end, a lot of the challenge solutions become identical to those you discover during first playthrough, just with a minor tweak (if any) added. It's nothing that ruins the game, but merely reinforces the fact that the game was strictly designed with your initial playthrough in mind.

Superliminal is an excellent experience that's only so-so as a puzzler. During your first playthrough you'll run into some brilliant, mind-bending situations!... which will sadly lose their luster on replay. Like the perspective mechanic itself, the longer you toy with Superliminal's illusions, the less magical and more mechanical the game itself will become. The challenge mode in particular feels like a strange afterthought, more concerned with quizzing you on where and how you place its objects down, rather than on what you're doing or why. But if you avoid over-analyzing and instead sit back and relax, Superliminal takes you on a wild wide full of surprises, proving at the end of the day that it learned the right lessons in Portal school. What's big can be small, what's thin can be large, and maybe the exit you're looking for isn't going to be the one you're walking through.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Starfield - Thoughts

There are two questions swirling about in my head, and I am unsure which will lead me to the answers that I seek: "how did this get made?" or "why did this get made?" It's an issue of intention, stemming from the same source of bewilderment: Starfield.  As Bethesda's next big premier franchise, it was easy to get drawn into its grandiose mystique, wondering what they've learned from working on Elder Scrolls and Fallout. I stayed away from any prerelease coverage once I knew it would be coming to Game Pass, allowing me to dive in head-first, ready to explore its boundless universe.

I emerge out the other side confused and wildly irritated. Why is Starfield the way that it is? The question jut out at me again and again, like a turgid hangnail I could never clip. The game raises too many red flags for a seasoned developer, especially one with a devoted fanbase eager to show them where and how to make improvements. It stands to reason then that this is all by design, Bethesda intending for the game's foibles to come off better than they do. But the sheer clunkiness of Starfield's systems and its puddle-deep universe reek of something worse than simple scope creep or design oversight—it's a fundamentally slipshod experience that relies on you being too dumb to put it down.

Note that this isn't to say Starfield is devoid of merits. There's a lot to like here: the setting is well-fleshed out, the alien design is beautifully weird, the gunplay is leagues better than Fallout 4 (which was leagues better than Fallout 3), and Constellation feels like a proper family by the end of your journey. Your companions start off somewhat uninspired but grow considerably more interesting during your travels, and I like the motivation behind the enigmatic Starborn. On the surface, Starfield is both competent and confident, able to justify the hundreds of hours its fans will inevitably pour into it. But if you so much as scratch Starfield's pristine shell, you'll uncover the ashen remains of Bethesda games of old.

Skyrim's horrid inventory system makes its ugly return here, offering few ways to customize or manually sort through hundreds of items—and no way to mark anything as a ware to sell later. Important quest items and lore get piled into your "misc" tab, which is also where all of the game's junk gets shoveled into. There's no visual preview for any of the items in your inventory either, forcing you to manually flick through them one by one if you're looking for a specific weapon or ammo casing that you forgot the name of. Likewise, containers you loot out in the wild like locked chests and dead bodies only reveal the names of their contents, requiring a load to your inventory to glance at their sell value or individual statistics. I can't think of a single person that thought Skyrim's inventory system was flawless, which is why it's so baffling to me that it's been preserved here like a precious amber insect over ten years later.

The inventory system is its own can of worms, but I also have a special hatred in my heart for Starfield's physical marketplace—or lack thereof. For the first 20 hours I had no idea how to navigate it, burdened with questions the game had no care to answer. Where is the best place to buy ship parts? Digipicks? Offload contraband? Where are all the stores on New Atlantis? Are there merchants that can mod my weapons? Why can't I upgrade my reactor's capacity? Why don't any of these cities have any goddamn maps?! For far too long I'd wander around like a sleepless drunk, trying to remember what shops such as Outland, Whetstone, and Enhance sell (did you know one of them is an eatery?), with my stamina depleting every few steps thanks to the game's appallingly low carry capacity. And even when I did find the seller I was looking for, more than once I wound up buying some of their useless stock because your inventory screen and their inventory screen look the exact same.

The more of it I played, the more Starfield's atrocious inventory got on my nerves. Why can't the items you purchase get transferred directly to your ship? Why do I have to manually lug ship parts back to my vessel's miniscule vault? And why aren't direct heals (ie ship parts and med packs—the most used items in the game) given their own tab, instead of being lumped in amongst a bunch of useless food stuffs and situational drugs? Why do I have to remember the ammo types of my weapons when purchasing ammunition, instead of the game simply telling me I have a weapon that uses the ammo I'm looking at? Why are weapons denoted by color rarity when their preceding adjective (calibrated, refined, advanced, etc) is far more indicative of their value? Why isn't there an option to turn off contextual pick-ups for items (like staplers and beakers) that are worth less than ten credits? And why in god's name do you not auto-dump all of your heavy metal minerals onto you ship when you board it?! Who in their right mind wants to walk around with chunks of titanium and lead in their pockets, dragging down their pants until their pasty-white dumb ass is exposed?

The underlying issue this all points toward is that no matter how fun Starfield might look to play, it's a royal pain to navigate. And nowhere is this point more aggressively obvious than in its spacefaring, a veritable black hole dense enough that you can't grav jump away from it. Your spaceship, for as cool and customizable as it may be, is a glorified loading screen for 90% of the game. And this is in addition to the game's other unavoidable loading screens which bookend it! So you'll load to get into your ship, use your ship to click on your destination, and then load again to arrive. As if that wasn't enough, these bits are also bookended by unskippable animations, forming a sandwich so thick with loading that only the grotesque hoagie from Sonic '06 can rival it. This is no exaggeration—Starfield avoids taking the crown of inactivity solely because it loads faster than Sonic '06, not less.

This issue only gets compounded when you're trying to venture out to far-off solar systems, as you have to manually jump to every unexplored system on the way. At the start of the game this isn't a problem as exploring is still a novel idea; every moon could hide secret, every outpost a valuable quest to stumble upon. But there is nothing of value in Starfield's procedurally generated galaxy—just the same abandoned outposts, abandoned mines, and boring laboratories. Each rendition has only a few variations too, with the abandoned mine being the worst offender that you'll have to venture through it multiple times even within the main storyline. Eventually you'll learn to skip every celestial body you come upon, sticking to your terribly-organized quest log—and thus rendering every unexplored solar system between you and your objective another unnecessary loading screen to suffer through.

Occasionally space combat breaks out to remind you to stay awake, but it's a strongly love-it-or-hate-it affair. I commend Bethesda for doing a decent job in handling how it plays and giving you full control over your ship's systems (even if it's impossible to manage in the midst of combat), but the problem is that space combat is significantly more volatile than regular-ol' ground-based shootouts. Better weapons, engines, and ships are harder to come by due to their hefty price tags, and one enemy on your tail is harder to shake than an army of mercs bumbling about a space station. Not only is it impossible to tell what kind of weapons your enemy might have on them, but it's also difficult to discern what in your arsenal is effective due to how infrequent the dogfights are. Plus when you're outmatched in a gunfight on land, you can often hide behind a nearby rock to swap equipment or pump your veins full of performance-enhancing drugs. Meanwhile in space, your tin can is going to get shredded time and time again, with no way to alter the outcome. It's strangely antithetical to Bethesda's playstyle, narrowing the solutions from "play smarter" the singlular, boring "get better gear, dummy." Well, that and "dump more points into the spacefaring skill tree."

Like with a lot of other systems in Starfield, the skill trees are one step forward, two steps back. On paper it works well: each tree type is well-organized and allows players to put up to four points into a single skill, provided they complete a number of fun sub-objectives throughout their travels. But in Bethesda's quest to make levelling-up as gratifying as possible, they've hamstrung the player's abilities, planting essential skills across the breadth of their tree. Things like being able to use your jetpack, pilot better ships, hack, see your stealth meter, parlay with NPCs, and carry more equipment are all relegated to skill tree upgrades, and you'll learn early on that level-ups are about as infrequent as the space battles. On the bright side this means there's always something on the horizon that you'll be anxious to pick up. Most of the time however, it makes the game feel frustrating and intentionally hobbled, requiring at least 10-20 levels to get properly settled (and even then, you'll wish you could dump even more points into carrying capacity).

For some folks, Starfield will scratch a special itch they can't get anywhere else—and look, I've been a fan of From Software since PS3's Demon's Souls, I get it. But like No Man's Sky years before it, you have to admit that the game is squandered potential made manifest. I went into Starfield without a chip on my shoulder but it beat me down with its draconic inventory system and fetish for loading screens. As a follow-up to Fallout 4 it feels shockingly unambitious; as a game from 2023 it is categorically outdated. Starfield's universe emulates—almost zealously—the very concept of outer space, filled with vast nothingness that's interspersed with boring, ubiquitous rocks. Sprinkled about are moments of that special Bethesda magic (Barrett is a real sweetheart), but like a total eclipse, its pros are overshadowed by the immense dullness of it all. There are thousands upon thousands of worse video games out there, but none of that changes the fact that Starfield was one of the most irritating games I've played this decade, if not my entire life.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Super Mario World - Thoughts

When I think of a games similar to Super Mario World, the first thing that comes to my mind is Doom of all things. It's not as though the two are similar thematically, visually, or even gameplay-wise—rather, it's that they owe much of their sustained prominence to their devoted fanbases. Don't get me wrong, the base games are plenty of fun and all, but they're just the tip of a massive historical iceberg. Both communities are alive and well in 2023, releasing new custom edits every week, often with superior visuals, stage design, graphics, music, power-ups—you name it. And while a smattering of Doom clones have transcended to a commercial debut (REKKR, Age of Hell, Supplice), Super Mario World hacks remain just as impressive in their own right, requiring equal amounts of skill, dedication, and technical know-how to create.

Yet what really ties these two together in my mind is that in nine out of ten cases, I'd rather play the fan creations than revisit the originals. Part of it is simply oversaturation, having played both games until the stages were embedded in my mind like the creases of my brain. But another part is that the games are unimpressively solid, being good enough to recommend to genre newcomers... yet never blowing me away on replay. I confess it's a strange stance to hold; I wouldn't wince at anyone calling either title their favorite game of all time, as they're both worthy of such adoration. Perhaps I just find Doom and Super Mario World more mundane than magical nowadays, unable to rekindle the same spark that jolted through me as a child.

But enough with the comparisons—let's dig into the SNES's launch day juggernaut: Super Mario World.

From the moment the player is put in control, World reveals that it is a joy to play. The nuts and bolts of Mario's physics have been tightened to pit stop perfection, ramping up the plumber's acceleration while granting more control over his aerial movement. Gone are the racoon leaf and p-wing, replaced by a versatile cape that requires a bit more work in order to stay airborne. But once you master it, the cape grants unparalleled freedom, allowing the player to bypass entire stages up in the safety of the clouds. Yoshi is also a welcome addition, capable of different abilities based on the last shell slurped up. Additionally, Yoshi provides the player with a small buffer of health, one they can replenish so long as they can catch the scuttling dinosaur after taking a hit. Neither of these power-ups are game changers in the grand scheme of things, but they're honestly the most fun renditions of their kind (flying & mount) that the series would ever see.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is a difficult act to follow up on, but World tries its damnedest, handing the player 73 varied courses to sprint through. Unlike SMB3 however, these stages are rarely rapid-fire affairs; expect chunky gauntlets stuffed with 5 dragon coins, a mid-level checkpoint, and the occasional hidden exit. This boosts World's playtime to over double that of 3, but new players need not worry—saving is now a staple for every Mario game going forward! No more frustrations with power-outages tanking your runs or having to start over if you want to replay your favorite level. In fact, replaying stages is now encouraged, as there are two routes through every overworld (sans Dinosaur Island), with the fully optional Star World itself housing a super-secret, extra-challenging Special world. The golden age of brief, single-session Mario games is over—the sprawling overworld buffets are here to say.

And filling the buffet trays are a curated blend of new obstacles mixed with old. Of course, World still includes the traditional Mario staples like koopas, bullet bills, lakitus, and podoboos. But the imaginative new additions are the show stealers: spell-slinging magikoopas, towering pokeys, patrolling fuzzies, fireproof dino rhinos, and the doggedly-annoying rip van fish, just to name a few. The spectral bestiary also receives its own expansion, with a host of Boo cousins (big boo, boo circles, fishin' boo) coming over to crash at the ghost houses, which have transformed from wannabe-castles to (the superior) puzzle-mazes. And last but certainly not least are the ever-tenacious chargin' chucks, the natural evolution of the hammer bro that ditches the obnoxious tool-tossing for a wider variety of attacks, adding a little extra spice to your platforming purview.

Super Mario World isn't content to stop there either: there are plenty of non-hostile objects to encounter along your journey, like climbable fences, rope pulleys, portable springs, countdown platforms, magic keys, and a balloon power-up that... well the p-balloon kind of sucks, but the other items are cool. However, the game's most interesting "item" has to be its colored blocks, which make their first (and only!) appearance in the franchise here. To activate them, you must first find a secret exit that leads to one of the four colored switch palaces, and then beating said palace will activate its corresponding blocks permanently for every level they appear in. This grants a range of benefits, from additional power-ups, to pit protection, to even a new means by which to reach a secret exit. The colored blocks may come off as little more than set dressing if you're used to playing with all of them "on" at all times, but I appreciate how much more difficult the game becomes if you opt to skip all of the switch palaces, giving World its own pseudo-"hard mode". I think it's worth a playthrough if you've never done it before.

Of course, if you really want to to crank up the challenge in Super Mario World, the Special stages eagerly await your attendance. Here you will be tested and battered, starting with a rain of projectiles in Tubular, to brutal single-block jumps in Awesome, to the busy bullet bill forest of Outrageous. It's a fantastic set of bonus stages that, while downright tame compared to the torture chambers fans cook up nowadays, struck terror into many a young child—myself included. It's an excellent postgame gauntlet similar to the lettered worlds of Japan's Super Mario Bros. 2, albeit a lot easier to access and considerably more creative. Sure, the reward for beating the Special stages is essentially a lame novelty (some bizarre palette swaps), but the levels merit a playthrough on their awesome challenge alone. Despite the optional nature of the Special stages, I always make sure to cap off a replay of World by blasting through them.

Would that I could lay the same praise upon Star Road—the unique warp zone world—but here are where my Super Mario World gripes bubble to the surface. While every other world is packed with decent-to-excellent levels, Star Road reeks of nothing but stinkers. Stage 1 feels like a subzone outtake, Stage 2 is a featureless hallway, and Stage 3 is probably the shortest—and thus worst—Mario level of all time. Only Stages 4 & 5 have any sort of competent level design, and even then it's nothing exceptional. The best thing about Star Road is that it's thankfully short, but even then you'll still have to play through it twice if you're looking to achieve the game's 96 exit completion.

Worse yet is that Star Road is useless as a warp zone; its only practical use is as shortcut for the overworld once completed. Using Star Road to skip worlds is impossible due to the fact that the warp nodes leave you stranded unless you've completed the pathway to them on the overworld. The one level you can reach early is Bowser's Castle—the final stage—which is a far cry from the flexibility of 3's warp whistle. Plus most folks will have to discover the red and blue switch palaces to finish Star Road's Stage 4, which makes roughly a third of the game mandatory to play through anyway. From top to bottom, Star Road is a celestial blunder.

Another lackluster addition to Super Mario World are its newfangled dino coins. Spread around each stage are five golden bits that will grant you an extra life once gathered together, marking the start of what would eventually become New's collectible star coins. The dino coins are neat in that they double down on the exploration aspect of Mario... except for the fact that World doesn't keep track of any of the coins you've picked up. Even if it did, the coins are startlingly inconsistent: some stages have more than five, some should have them but don't, and a ton of coins are placed in utterly effortless spots. While it's not fair to blame World for failing to utilize its collectible in a way that future titles would, I still can't view the dino coins as anything but missed potential. There's a reason that among the vast additions World brought to the series, nearly nobody mentions this prehistoric specie.

And then there's the game's hideously boring bosses. On one hand the Super Mario Bros. series has never been fixated around its boss fights—and thus doesn't need them to be compelling—but on the other hand there's plenty of games with excellent and creative battles, illustrating how well a boss can fit when done right (Yoshi's Island, Land 2, NSMB Wii). Super Mario World doesn't have a high bar to clear when compared to its predecessors, but its feeble boss roster fails outdo the variety of 2 and the dynamism of 3. Reznor and Big Boo are fought in nearly the same manner in every encounter, and the only good Koopa Kids are the Lemmy/Wendy variations. Every other fight ends just as quickly as it started, and I could write a thousand words alone on how pathetic the Bowser finale is. I'll just say that any final boss that allows you to crouch in a corner like a coward for the majority of the fight is a real stinker in my book.

Lastly—and the point I'm least passionate about—is that the Super Mario World is kind of ugly. There are a couple of addendums that come with this gripe, like how the game a launch title, that the pastel palette hasn't aged as poorly as other SNES titles, or that its simplistic art matches World's laser focus on pure platforming. But these are ultimately excuses—not remedies. Foreground blocks are mostly made of a single color, backgrounds are sparsely detailed and frequently repetitive, and the animations aren't anything to write home about. World looks its best when you're inside of a ghost house of all things, but what you'll see far more are the repetitive gray caverns of the underground—areas which fail to leave any kind of impression on your memory. For the record, I don't hate or detest the art style... but I'm far from being enamored with it either. Honestly, World's visuals are just disappointingly dull in retrospect.

Looking back on what I've written, what befuddles me the most about all of this is that Super Mario World  remains a 9/10 experience at the end of the day, capable of rivaling the best platformers of the last thirty years. All of its issues are vain, minor blemishes that only stand out if you're paid to scrutinizing the game, as your first reaction upon playing it isn't to gawk at the flaws, but to simply mutter in amazement, "wow this is fun." What makes World excel is that it is Mario to its binary core: a fun platformer with controls that prioritize speed and ease, the two things that Donkey Kong Country would steal and hone in on. During a casual playthrough, World's missteps come across as eccentricities you'll blow by faster than the rolling hills in the background, all while you bounce atop the heads of paratroopers and monty moles. It's only under a lens thick enough to hammer nails with that the game's ugliness comes out—and even then, it's rarely more than a trifling crack.

Perhaps an unshakeable issue I have with Super Mario World is how the game fares in hindsight. For me at least, a lot of other Mario titles offer a more enticing package: some games have better overworlds, or more dynamic levels, or more powerups, more stages, better bosses, better visuals, etc. Though one could make the same argument for Super Mario Bros. 3, I feel that time has been kind to that 8-bit goliath, its vicious limitations making it shine even brighter in retrospect. Super Mario World is great—phenomenal, even!—well-deserving of its favoritism and fandom... but I just don't find it as immutable or flawless as its siblings. The fact that fans have made more impressive iterations on World using its formula means there's room for improvement; as gratifying as an "A-" is to receive, the existence of an A+ means things could be better.

Of course, even after saying all of this, I'll still fully play through Super Mario World at least a dozen more times before I kick the bucket—and I'll have a ripping good time every time I do. I can reason out a myriad of excuses for preferring or Galaxy or NSMB Wii over it, but none of those post hoc arguments can take away from the fact that the game is sheer fun distilled into a delicious little brew. It's something the World community has known about for decades, understanding that World's sublime engine—not its nostalgia—is what gives the game it's immortal reputation. Super Mario World may not be the best game of all time, but like with Doom, it will forever stand shoulder to shoulder among the best.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Caveblazers - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Few games miss the mark as sloppily as Caveblazers does. A Spelunky clone with Terraria-esque items isn't exactly a novel idea, but the concept does have decent legs. All one has to do is offer a smorgasbord of weapons & enemies, tune the controls to a buttery smoothness, and then coat it all in a bland-but-serviceable pixel art dress—et voila! a b-grade roguelite is born! Even if it's unable to surpass its idols, the game should be strong enough to establish its own niche fanbase, standing proud amidst the great field of roguelites...

... at least in theory. In reality, Caveblazers stumbles in a myriad of small ways, dragging even its best aspects down into the muck of mediocrity. It's not such a precipitous drop that I'd laugh at anyone claiming the game to be one of their favorites, but a few hours are all you need to understand why Caveblazers has failed to gain traction. To put it plainly: the game is willfully annoying in the worst ways possible.

First off, the main bosses are a masterclass in obnoxious design. There are a total of eight big baddies to topple (four of which you'll face on a full run) that vary drastically in strength and difficulty. And I do mean drastically; on the far ends of the spectrum you have Azguard and Chrono'boid, the former rarely managing to hit you more than once while the latter is unironically harder than all three phases of the final boss. And then you have bosses like Grubbington & Iron Face: unpredictable but easily bested goons, which are counterbalanced by Medusa & Deathrig: repetitive slogs that will punish the slightest miscalculations. The last two fiends—Felfang & Goliath—are messy, manic fights that you'll either coast through with ease, or be sent flying around the room like divorcee's stress ball.

Imbalanced bosses may be par for the course in gaming, but here's the kicker: these bosses can be encountered in any order, with nothing but their HP values changed. Hell, even their damage remains the same! This means you'll often face the game's hardest bosses right off the bat, all while you're probably still stuck with your impotent starter weapons, tiny health bar, and whatever two blessings Caveblazers has deigned to give you. Occasionally you might manage to pull through. but your rewards are also randomized, ranging anywhere from healing items, to much-needed blessings, to shit-tier bombs you'll never use even in an emergency. So there's always a chance you could strike it rich and get a piece of equipment that carries you to the end of the game... or—and what occurs more often—simply bleed out from a thousand little cuts, in spite of all your hard work.

And look, I get it—roguelites are all about the individuality of a run, and making do with the scraps you've been given. Of course an early jetpack in Spelunky or an S-tier chest in Enter the Gungeon can swing momentum wildly in your favor, but the difference here is that Caveblazers refuses to offer the player meaningful decisions. There aren't any shops here, nor stage branches, nor optional challenges beyond the secret arena in the first level. In this linear land you'll live and die by Caveblazer's RNG, subject to its capricious whims like a raft caught in a tempest. Even the gambling shrines have a massive loot table, dropping anything from a powerful new weapon to yet another shit-tier bomb—and those shrines aren't cheap!

There are two quasi-remedies to Caveblazer's RNG-dependance, but I find that neither is a reliable fix. The first is perhaps the coolest mechanic unique to the game: altars where you can combine items together. The hitch is that it has to be two of the same item, but the resulting super-item is almost always worth it, and you'll likely to stumble across a duplicate to use somewhere during your journey (it's usually another ring). The second is far more game-changing: a run-modifier that adds a shop to the end of every odd-numbered floor. But to unlock it, you'll have to delve pretty deep through the game and know exactly where to look for the relic. Not only that, but it also removes the free blessings offered to the player, a change that initially makes the game harder as you have to divest funds away from healing in order to now afford equipment and blessings. So it's not a step in the right direction as much as it's an equally-punishing sideways hobble.

Speaking of equipment, Caveblazers offers players both sword and bow to conquer its perilous depths with, but your survival depends largely on your use of the latter. Enemies in this game are quicker, stronger, and more ruthless than you could ever be, able to react instantaneously amidst the chaos of combat, all while you're still processing which one of you just took damage. This leaves you fundamentally outclassed—that is, until you take potshots at them a screen away, where they'll happily let themselves be used as target practice. As someone that tried his damnedest to make melee builds work (and they can, but you need both range upgrades and lifesteal), trust me when I claim it's far easier to find a decent bow and to lean on that for the rest of the game. Plus if you stumble across some arrow blessings like pierce, double damage, and ricochet, your enemies will be lucky if they ever share a screen with you again.

What really kills melee builds in this game however is the fact that half of the bosses prefer to hover outside of your attack range. Some may welcome a good thwacking (Felfang, Grubbington) but most are aerial threats that either spend no time on the ground (Deathrig, Goliath) or punish you when you decide to get up close and personal (Iron Face, Chrono'boid). The last boss in particular loves to be a floating, squirrely little cad, bombarding you from afar with homing explosives. Again, it's not to say melee builds are impossible (though they kind of are against the last boss), but rather that the path of least resistance winds down the obvious road of archery.

Even then, the road is still riddled with plenty of resistance, with most of it coming from a handful of enemies: Jumpers, Kullos, and Demon Orcs. The Jumper is Caveblazer's resident Creeper, able to fling its explosive body around at great distances whenever it wants. While they're the most nettlesome of the lot (expect to take plenty of explosions on the chin), the Kullos are the most dangerous, able to slip through your barrage of arrows and harass you 'til death do you part. Demon Orcs are out of depth monsters that make rare appearances but can be a stubborn adversary, relentlessly hunting you down and deflecting a majority of your attacks. Tiki Grubs and Cave Trolls also earn honorable mentions for being able to single-handedly end runs, but the evil trinity above earn their infamy for how early and often they appear. Unlike Spelunky, Caveblazers's traps, hazards, and foes don't really scale as you progress; Kullos are the most dangerous enemy at the start of the game, and they'll remain the most dangerous enemy by the end of it.

All of these systems add up to make Caveblazers a wildly imbalanced experience, where a dozen little roadblocks can equal your inevitable end. Causes for defeat are numerous: it could be a combination of enemies you're fighting, or an important blessing missing from your repertoire, or a lack of decent equipment before facing your first boss. And there are more major issues I haven't even covered: sometimes blessings are hidden behind walls you have to bomb when you have no bombs (and no, the shit-tier bombs don't destroy terrain). Sometimes you'll be saving up for a health shrine that won't appear for multiple floors in a row. And the potion system is atrocious, devoid of the typical means to identify what it does before quaffing it (ie identify scroll or vendor appraisal). You either have to toss it to a specific genus of monster and remember of color potion they drank, or throw your dice to the wind and hope its not a permanent debuff to an integral stat... something that'll happen far more often than it feels like it should.

The amateur game designer in me is stupefied over Caveblazers. I feel like its problems are glaringly obvious after you spend a short amount of time with it... but perhaps the twisted truth is that all these eccentricates are intentional. For all I know, Deadpan Games may see Caveblazers as a resounding success, evoking a heady blend of dungeon-delving randomness with precision-based combat. But it's a messy, unwieldy concoction, one that grows more bitter the further you delve. The dungeon's offerings are too random, its combat too frantic to feel graceful (or even controllable), and even your wins can feel as undeserved and capricious as your deaths do. Caveblazers makes a valiant attempt at being a well-built roguelite, but all it proves is how difficult it is to even reach the shadows of the genre's greatest.