Hey kids! Do you like dungeon-crawly-hacky-slashy-beat-’em-ups? Of course you do. Do you also like local couch co-op? You’d be mad not to. Do you also like a completely psychotic random number generator that will have you walking on a razor’s edge for the entire play session? If so, read on!
Alternate Fire has been following this game since the Early Access was available on Steam. We did a video preview of a beta build of the game here. The first official release of the game was made available a few days ago on September 1, 2016. So how does it stack up?
The prime trope at work here is that an evil duke/wizard guy has been messing around with arcane powers that his mother really should have warned him about and has inadvertently brought a bunch of demons and monsters into his castle. They have overrun the castle and surrounding land. This of course has attracted errant adventurers from afar hoping to win fortune and glory. You begin the game as one of these faceless wanderers and are soon captured and thrown into a dungeon. A mysterious stranger opens the cell door for you and implores you to fight for your freedom and save the castle. Since you really have nothing better to do, off you go.
If you’ve played any beat-em-ups at all, you can probably figure out the ropes pretty quickly. You begin with meager equipment and cut your path through mobs of monsters that are all too happy to run into the end of your weapon, collecting better loot and gear along the way. Players of Castle Crashers will find a similar look and feel here. The dungeons are randomly generated, as are the type and number of enemies that will appear in each room. The process for each room is simple: clear the room of baddies, and a loot chest will drop into the room and you will be allowed to progress into the next area. In many rooms, you are given a choice of two separate paths once you’ve cleared the room of baddies. Sometimes one of these choices will lead you to a merchant or a secret chest (I found that following the path to the north or south instead of the east or west seemed to yield these optional rooms more often than not, but it’s not a guarantee). Get through all of the rooms in a level and you’ll face one of several bosses for that level, which is also randomly determined. Killing a boss for the first time in a game will cause new items and weapons to appear as potential drops in the castle.
Many of the aforementioned reward chests will contain the goods to keep you going through the next room. The game is quite challenging, and it seems the designers knew this since they give you copious amounts of food to guzzle down during combat to keep your health up. Your food is contained in your inventory, along with items like potions, bombs, daggers, magical crystals, and other various one-off items. You can quickly switch through your items with the bumper buttons and use them with the trigger buttons (Did I mention that a controller is a must for this game?). Your inventory has a limited number of slots, but food items stack into one slot up to a maximum of 9 “like” food items. There are also many different “passive” items that you pick up once and do not consume an inventory slot. These passives buff your character for the rest of the game. In a merciful design decision, there are no permanent debuff effects that I have encountered.
Potions are an interesting affair, and quite often a source of frustration. When you first pick up a potion, you have no idea what it will do. It’s a complete crap-shoot. Sometimes you’ll get an effect that turns the tide of the battle in your favor, and other times you’ve accelerated your progress towards the “Game Over” screen. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a boss battle and been down to only one potion in my inventory and thought, “What the hell?” only to curse the video game gods as they literally give my character rancid farts (yes, it’s a thing here). Once you’ve used a potion, if you get the same potion again, you can see the name of the potion in your inventory before using it. If you’re now wondering how often that happens during a play session, the answer is: not very often. There is a random drop that will allow you to identify potions before using them, but good luck getting that to drop when you need it.
There are several different weapon types in the game, which change how you approach combat. As of this writing, there are large swords, two-handed blades, sword and shield combos, staves, bows, muskets, and spears. Each weapon type has a main attack and an alternate ability for the weapon type. For instance, staves have the ability to teleport the player a short distance in the direction pushed on the controller. Each weapon type has several different named weapons in its type, which determines the special attack. So there are staves, and each staff can teleport the player as the alternate, but the special attack for each staff is unique to the staff. So there’s a fire staff that rapidly shoots fire, an ice staff that lays down ice crystals in front of the player, and a “blighted” staff that makes an eyeball appear above the player that pops up tentacles that hit enemies in a radius around the player.
I do feel like the game should allow the player to switch between two different weapons at will. The game seems to skew towards ranged weapons for all the general mobs, but some of the bosses seem to really require melee weapons to be effective. I feel that the player becomes unnecessarily punished for choosing a particular combat style that works really well for 90% of the game, and then works abysmally for the other 10% of the game, and that 10% results in yet another death. I think that there should be one or two other methods of moving around the battlefield with the melee weapons. The staves allow the player to teleport out of harm’s away, and the muskets allow the player to jump backwards while facing the same direction, so you can just keep shooting and jumping backwards. With melee weapons, you’re constantly trying to line up your attacks and having to abort and run out of the danger zone in the middle of a big mob of monsters. But then again, it’s difficult to be TOO negative about tough combat since death is an expected part of the game.
So once your character dies, a demon speaks to you and says that he can use the souls that you collected from your slain enemies to buff up other heroes. Basically what happens is that you fight and die in order to make your next character more powerful. You’re presented with a skill tree that lets you increase basic character stats, but also lets you choose perks like having more starting weapons and items available to you. Through this cycle of death and rebirth, you will slowly start to make your way further through the game.
To be fair, this mechanic is simultaneously interesting and occasionally frustrating. Sometimes I actually really liked it. You’ll have play sessions where you’ll be fighting for your life, having lots of great battles and getting lucky with potions and item drops. You know that you might not make it to the end but it’s okay, you gathered up a LOT of souls for your character upgrade, and the next character is going to kick ass! But sometimes you’ll be an unfortunate victim of circumstance and not quite make it far enough in a certain play session to really upgrade anything. With each upgrade, the remaining unpicked upgrades end up costing more and more. So it’s possible to get into a state where you play through a level but didn’t gain enough souls to actually level anything up. What happens to the unused souls? They are lost and discarded forever. It IS possible to choose some upgrades where you get to keep a certain percentage of your unused souls and carry them through to the next character, but it’s a hard choice when faced with either increasing your attack power or choosing to keep more of your unused souls, which you won’t get to benefit from until the NEXT time you play the game and die. This is not a game for the easily frustrated.
Whatever random generator is at work here can be your friend or your worst enemy on various playthroughs. Sometimes you’ll be showered with gifts from chests, getting the perfect armor that buffs stats for the weapon that you’re carrying, and acquiring many different passive items that increase your attack and defense stats. Other times you’ll quash a whole room of boulder-chucking cyclopes only to watch two apples and a banana pop out of a chest (these don’t offer much in the way of health). Something that I do really like about the game is that I keep finding unexpected surprises on subsequent plays. I encountered a particular enemy for the first time on the second level during my fourth or fifth playthrough. I thought I had encountered every enemy type on the second level, only to be surprised by the appearance of this new one. Just yesterday the game threw me a curve in the cavern levels where a particular room was unlit and I could only see a very small radius around my character. I didn’t encounter this until my tenth or so time through the cavern area. There seemed to be a sizable collection of different weapons available, some with interesting or humorous special attacks. One of the large “swords” is a slab of meat where the special attack throws a chunk of meat in the air which causes a huge landshark to pop out of the ground and lunge for the food, dealing damage to any characters in its wake, including you. I’m sure that I have yet to discover all of the unique weapons and items in the game.
The local co-op is quite fun, and might serve to help make the game easier since if a player falls, the other player can revive them. There is no equivalent for this during single player; if your health goes to zero, you are dead. There is a cost for this added multiplayer bonus however, since it did seem that there were a lot more mobs when a player was added. The developer has promised to deliver online co-op shortly, so here’s hoping that some master player will help me on future attempts.
So is this game worth your time? I am going to absolutely recommend it, with the caveat that despite its rather innocent appearance, this is not a game for the casual player or someone easily discouraged. The game is especially difficult the first few times when your character is basically worthless. Only by masochistically slogging through the unavoidable deaths and building your future heroes up will you start to see some of the more interesting parts of the game. The game doesn’t do anything fantastically different, but the unique leveling system and assortment of fun weapons and items keep it fresh. I do think that the game could benefit from randomizing the order of levels in some way as well, since it can become somewhat tiring to see the first level so many times, even with the random room generation. The devs have said that they will continue to update the game for the foreseeable future, so at the $10 price tag that the game is currently sitting at, this is definitely worth your time.