All right, now that I got Spellforce 2 out of the way, I think I’m back to getting my Steam backlog down at a decent pace.
This is a fighting game with twin-stick shooter elements. The game is divided into two main parts: walking segments, where you slowly walk toward the next arena, and fighting segments, where you actually fight one of the bosses (or “jailers” as the game calls them). The walking segments have fixed camera positions, and they seemingly exist only to let your partner give you cryptic world-building between bosses. Some of the game’s camera positions are more “artsy” than the ones in Koudelka, which can sometimes make it a bit hard to tell where you’re supposed to go. Why can’t this game just have normal cut-scenes like most other games do? The crossover appeal of “fighting game” and “walking simulator” isn’t perfect, you know. Luckily, you can just push the A button to auto-walk to the next fight segment (not that the game tells you this or anything).
The fighting segments are where the game-play is really at, and these are also divided into two segments: free-roam and close-quarters. In the free-roaming segments, you have access to all of your abilities: left stick to run, right stick to aim/shoot, B to parry, A to dash/dodge, and X to attack with your sword. You can also use the left shoulder buttons to dodge, which is useful if you’re using the right-stick to attack. The only change with close-quarters segments is that your gun is disabled and the boss has a ring around it that you can’t get out of. The controls are all decently responsive with one crucial exception: dashing has to be charged before you can use it. Keep in mind that this is otherwise a very fast paced game, with enemies giving you only a split second to parry and counterattack (to the point where it can feel like not-enough-time unless you already know what the attack pattern is), so having a dodge move that literally will not work if you don’t hold the button down for long enough is…out of place, to say the least. What’s even more annoying is that the distance you dash increases the longer you hold the button down, so even if you do have enough time to consciously remind yourself of the unresponsiveness of the dodge move, you can’t hold it down too long or you’ll end up dashing into the attack right afterward and taking damage anyway. It honestly feels like the game was built around a more responsive and consistent dash mechanic, but it was changed at the last minute for no good reason, and the game as a whole suffers because of it. The game could have at least added a marker showing where you’d end up after letting go of the dash button, but it didn’t even do that, so you kinda have to guess each time.
If it weren’t for that, this wouldn’t be a bad little game. Each consecutive boss does a pretty good job of building on the core attacks, with each attack giving you enough time to see it coming (though not necessarily enough time to react, as stated previously), and there are even a few arenas that have level design. Each boss has a set number of phases, represented by the squares below their health bar; when you deplete a boss’s health bar, a square turns hollow, the health bar refills, and the boss goes into its next phase; get Game Over, and you have to start the fight from the first phase again. It’s a tried-and-true formula that many old-school games use, but the devs made a few changes to the formula seemingly without thinking through how it would affect the end-user experience. The main difference is that your character also has “phases”: if your health depletes to zero, one of the three squares below your health becomes hollow and your health fills back up. The issue I have is that, whenever either character loses a phase, both your health and the enemy’s health fill back up (and if you’re the one who depleted the enemy’s health, you regain a phase). Despite this, the game still makes you redo the phases you’ve beaten already if you get a Game Over. Normally, these old-school games have the excuse that getting better at fighting an earlier phase of a boss would leave you with more health to fight the next phase, but since your health refills after beating an enemy’s phase anyway, being forced to redo the earlier phases is nothing but an exercise in tedium since it doesn’t matter how well you do on that specific phase; as long as you win, you’ll be in top shape for the next phase. It’s not as big a deal as the dash mechanic, but it’s still pretty annoying.
Anyway, as I was saying, each boss does a pretty good job of differentiating itself from the previous bosses. The first boss only has the core set of attacks and sets the tone for how quickly you need to react to said attacks. The second boss introduces laser attacks while also having destructible, regenerating walls and a hole in the center of the arena; you can’t walk into it, but it damages you if you dash into it. The third boss goes back to having a flat, circular arena, but begins the fight being surrounded by shields that can only be damaged by your gun (but which also reflect your shots); this phase takes a bit too long to get past IMO (especially since the shields spin around and can regenerate), but at least this is only for that one phase, with other phases having things like defense towers that you have to destroy before you can reach the boss. The fourth boss introduces more complex bullet patterns, but can disappear and drag you into a quick time event where you have to move the control sticks left and right to avoid taking damage (this normally only happens when you mistime a counterattack and lock swords with the boss). The fifth boss carries a shield that can’t be damaged, so it isn’t uncommon for you to end up just waiting for the boss to do something so you have an opening. Also, the last phase of this boss starts with a series of melee attacks while the boss is invincible, so you just have to stand there parrying until it’s over. It goes on long enough that you think you might have to do something to stop it, like a perfect parry to stun the boss or something, but no, that’ll just get you killed; you just have to wait it out with normal parries. The sixth boss is rather unique since it has entire phases that are free-form only, meaning you’ll fight almost exclusively with the gun while dodging projectiles. It also brings back having a unique arena, this time with no walls, so you can fall off the edge and take damage just like if you fell into the hole in the second boss’s arena. Around halfway through the fight, more platforms appear that surround the initial arena, and the game even puts some more defense towers on said platforms, with the boss’s projectile waves becoming more complex as you destroy more towers, which is neat.
The seventh boss is easily the worst one. It starts with you getting attacked by some drones, which is kinda neat since the game has normally just been a boss rush, but then the boss targets you with a sniper laser, so you have to take cover behind some barriers. At first, this doesn’t seem so bad; follow the laser while avoiding the attacks so you can find the boss and deal damage, but when you dash onto the platform the boss is on, it runs away. If you try shooting the boss, it’ll just run through your bullets, invincible. No matter what I did, I couldn’t damage the boss, so I looked up a walkthrough, and basically just said “go up and shoot her,” but as stated earlier, that didn’t work, so I watched the accompanying video, and it turns out you have to be targeted by the laser, then dash onto the boss’s platform and take cover behind one of the little walls on said platform, then wait for the boss to shoot at the wall, which will destroy it (unlike the larger walls in the main arena), and then you shoot the boss, and that’s how you trigger the main part of the phase. Not only is that series of steps pretty arbitrary for an action game like this, but any deviation from those steps results in the boss turning invincible and running away. Even if it weren’t for how the game handles the dash mechanic, this alone would be enough for me to say the game isn’t worth full price (I’ve played $15 games that are better designed). Honestly, that kind of arbitrary logic is better suited in a riddle-based “puzzle” game like Antichamber, not a fighting game.
Back to the bosses: the eighth boss is more centered around close-quarters attacks, in contrast to the sixth boss. To be honest, the game does some arbitrary things with this boss as well, but it isn’t nearly as bad as the previous boss. For example, the boss can attack you with a series of melee attacks that can be parried, just like all bosses with close-quarters phases, and just like those other bosses, you can counterattack between the enemy’s attacks during the first phase. The second phase has the boss clearly dash away after the first attack, clearly showing that trying to counterattack after the first attack will result in a miss and an opening for the boss, so it’s still fine, but the third and fourth phases send you to a thin, linear arena. At this part, if the boss uses melee attacks and you try to counter after the first or second attack, the boss will immediately dash away, but if you counter after the third attack, you’ll deal damage, despite there being no clear visual (or even audio) indication that this third attack is any different from the other two. During these phases, the boss can also send out fast-moving projectile waves, and this is where the dash mechanic’s failings are put into clear focus: once you dash past the first one, you’ll end up right in front of the second one, so there isn’t enough time to dash past it; what you have to do is dash backward with what little space you have left so you can make it past the next wave. Honestly, all of this ends up making the ninth boss super easy in comparison. However, I will say that the ninth boss was the closest the game got to having proper levels: between each phase, there’s a series of platforms you have to dash across while simultaneously avoiding projectiles and lasers, and it’s the one point in the game where the charged dash is actually useful and not a detriment. I kinda wish the game had more segments like this so it isn’t just a glorified boss rush. Also, right before the ninth boss, your companion hypes up a thing that’s supposed to stop you “for good,” but it ends up being a cut-scene, and not even one with quick time events, which is disappointing.
Once you beat the ninth boss, the credits roll. After the credits, you can access a post-game boss, but not before another walking segment, except this time there’s no way to auto-walk to your destination! At least you get to run and have free movement of the camera, so you can better see where to go. Once you make it to the post-game boss, you’ll see that it exclusively focuses on the free-form part of the boss fights (even more so than the sixth boss), so you won’t be using the sword at all. Aside from the aforementioned problems with the dash mechanic, it’s not too bad, though the final phase brings back the “I’m invincible and you just have to wait past my attacks for a while” that the fifth boss had. At least it’s a more climactic battle and more proper conclusion than the ninth boss was.
Overall, this game is hard to recommend. Most of the game works, and it’s fun when that happens, but the unresponsive dash mechanic really brings the whole game down, and the arbitrary set of moves to trigger the sniper boss’s proper attack phase just adds salt to the wound.
P.S. Whenever you turn the game off and turn it back on, the title screen repeats a line of narration from the previous walking segment, but you can’t skip it, so you have to sit there listening to what the game already told you last time before the game lets you start playing again. It might’ve been kinda neat if the game would’ve let you skip it.