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Necropolis Review – Light Souls

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Let’s get it right out of the way: Necropolis wouldn’t exist without the Souls series. This is not to imply it’s a rip-off, because it most certainly is not. Nor is it an homage. At most, it gets close to being a parody of the revered series, and in it’s worst moments, it becomes a cynical exercise in ticking Souls-like boxes without having a real understanding the mechanics and intricacies of its obvious inspiration.

The player starts out as a slim, stylized hooded figure with nothing but a sword, a shield, and a few rations, immediately thrown into the titular Necropolis, a dungeon that randomly generates after each death. As soon as the player takes the first few steps, he or she is taunted by a shadowy figure soon revealed to be a giant floating pyramid head–a permanent (text-based) voice in your ear that multitasks as quest-giver, experience dispenser, and comic relief.

Growth in Necropolis is both loot-based and generational. The player can equip loot found along the way or bought from the odd vendor with acquired gems. This equipment can translate into boosts to attack and defend, and even some special attacks. Consumables are also available to find and craft, and bring a variety of buffs and effects to the table.

Completed quests and repeated attempts at conquering the dungeon will see each death rewarding the player with Tokens of Favor, a currency that can be spent to unlock codexes that empower your character in a variety of ways once equipped and are then made available for your later incarnations to use.

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The writing, by the way, is the game’s strongest point. It constantly and brilliantly makes fun of Dark Souls’ trademark gothic, overly elaborate dialog and lore, and not in a nasty or disrespectful way. As someone who lavishes attention over every item description and dialog line in the Souls games, I found myself laughing out loud often.

The game also looks good. The style may feel overly simplistic in screenshots, but the straight sharp lines and simple polygonal surfaces make for a compelling and atmospheric dungeon setting. The enemy designs are a bit more varying in quality, with some very stylish foes being presented side-by-side with Unity Asset Store rejects. The animation, in the meantime, is fluid but occasionally feels a bit too mechanical.

What’s mostly lacking for Necropolis to rise above the status of curiosity is what is arguably one of the hardest tasks for any action game: the precision and feel of the character’s movement. Basic running, jumping, and strafing feels floaty, dodging is doubly so–a real mess–and while the weapons have particular sensations of weight and rhythm, they never feel quite right; the same can be said for the enemies. Readability and pattern recognition is part of what leads to the sense of mastery crucial to this kind of game, and floaty animations just never allow the player to feel like he or she has grasped it properly.

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It bears saying that none of these things are game-breaking, but here is where the obvious Dark Souls inspiration casts its long shadow; someone who hasn’t played the Souls games will probably feel that the combat mechanics and character movement are “ok.” But players used to From Software’s opus will find themselves  unable to let go of the comparison, and it’s not a favorable one to Necropolis.

On the other hand, the structure of the game does it no favors either. Its randomly generated nature fails to give the dungeon any kind of personality or intricacy, and once you’ve learned how to avoid the traps and have gotten a solid grasp on combat, little will test you.

By then, what initially presented itself as a gauntlet to be conquered will, with alarming speed, turn into a pretty straightforward dungeon crawl–and soon after, into a boring slog. You’ll be wishing you were done with it a long time before you get to the game’s final stretch, never a good sign.
So what are you left with if you strip away Dark Souls’ finely tuned combat mechanics and intricate word design? As it turns out, some endearing lines poking fun at one of gaming’s modern classics, and not a whole lot more.

Necropolis was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.

Developer: Harebrained Schemes | Publisher: Harebrained Schemes (PC)/Bandai Namco (Consoles) | Genre: Action RPG, Rogue-like | Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: N/A | Release Date: Out Now (PC) / Summer 2016 (Consoles)

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Review

The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not

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The Great Perhaps gameplay screenshot 1

Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.  

One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.

The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.  

Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals. 

This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell. 

The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying. 

Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.

Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.    

The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.  

The Great Perhaps gameplay screenshot 2

So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.

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