"...procedural generation, on its own, does nothing to distinguish an otherwise relatively bland and by the numbers take on the Metroidvania genre."
After being starved for years, Metroidvania fans recently have been served up a plethora of games in the genre. Some of them are really good. Games like Hollow Knight and Timespinner bring unique things to the genre, pushing those games past their inspirations in many ways. Some have outstanding new gameplay mechanics, while others tell a particularly compelling story, or have outstanding music. So, in 2018, a successful Metroidvania needs to do something to distinguish itself. Along comes Chasm. What distinguishes it? It's been in development for over 5 years, and its two claims to fame are its unique pixel art, and especially its roguelite, procedural generation-based dungeons. Unfortunately, while both of those elements bring their charms, nothing Chasm does elevates it to the upper echelons of Metroidvanias in 2018.
The story of Chasm opens in the kingdom of Guildea. You play as a knight in training, and your last mission to prove yourself worthy of knighthood sent you to the small, wintry mining town of Karthas. Everyone in town has disappeared in the mines, they're now infested with monsters, and it's your job to discover why. Of course, once you start exploring the area beneath Karthas, you discover that both the monsters' and the townspeople's disappearances are the result of some ancient evil that's about to be re-awoken. Sound familiar? It should. The story is entirely devoid of surprises, which might not be a problem if it was told well. It's not. As you traverse the mines, a number of journal entries slowly fill you in on why the villagers are disappearing. Clearly, we're supposed to be interested, but these entries are poorly written and cliche ridden. The few NPCs you encounter only serve as functions, without an ounce of personality. The developers put enough work into the story that it seems like we're supposed to care, but unfortunately they forgot to tell one that was compelling.
Exploring the area beneath Karthas is the crux of the gameplay. You progress through the mines, eventually leading to new areas. Each area is multi-tiered, and has a variety of areas to explore. In each area, there is generally a power-up, like a parachute or wall jumping, that will help you progress further or go back to an old area and find secrets. There's a nice variety to the areas, but sometimes the new areas leaned too heavily on using the recently acquired upgrades, almost exclusively in some cases. It would have been nice to have a little more variety on that front. As you progress through the mines, you find the missing villagers from the town who then go back up to Karthas, usually selling something of use, like healing items, weapons, and magic, and they also provide sidequests. It's satisfying to gather the villagers and see the town come back to life, and the sidequests and wares they offer are worth the time it takes to locate them.
The main draw of this game is its procedurally-generated dungeons. Each time you start a new game, you're given a 'seed' that generates a random sequence of rooms in each area of the game. So, that means that each playthrough is a little different, unless you choose to play the same seed again. It's such a cool concept. I'll admit that I was a little leary when I started, though: I was concerned that the rooms wouldn't congeal, and I usually prefer a more controlled experience. Luckily my fears were mostly unfounded. The rooms all came together nicely, creating solid variety in the types of platforming challenges in each area. If I hadn't known about the "roguelite" elements of the game beforehand, I probably wouldn't have guessed that the rooms were randomly sequenced.
That aside, I do have a few issues with the dungeon design. Sometimes, save points were a bit too few and far between. Some of the platforming is very difficult, bordering on unfair, especially as you reach the late game. This issue is compounded by the somewhat sluggish controls, in particular with wall jumping. There was always one right before the boss, but I found myself backtracking far too often to make sure I didn't lose my progress, since I wasn't sure when the next save spot would come along. Which brings me to my largest problem with the design: backtracking. Of course, backtracking once you find the next upgrade is part of any good Metroidvania. The promise is that there is a worthy reward once you go back. Unfortunately, in most cases, you either get a weapon that often is not as powerful as what you're already using, or a few strong healing items. Plus, backtracking to get to new areas is a little too common. While fast travel does exist via a few doors scattered throughout the dungeons, these were too uncommon, and it was hard to tell where the doors would lead at times. I can't help but wonder how many of these issues cropped up because of the procedural generation elements of the game. To be sure, Bit Kid should be commended for making it work as well as it did, but I wish they'd spent a little more time polishing the rest of the experience on this front.
The combat is mostly what you'd expect. You acquire a number of different types of weapons throughout the game, including swords, daggers, axes, hammers, etc. Each weapon has different speed and range, so your playstyle, and the enemies you encounter, will determine which ones work best. You also have magic you can map to another button, such as daggers and shields, and you can make those spells more powerful as you progress through the game. Each enemy encounter is a mix of dodging the enemy attacks and finding the right openings to attack. As you fight each enemy, you'll learn their moves and learn how to best approach them. Stats progress slowly as you level up. If you've played Symphony of the Night, or other similar games released in the past years, you've done this before. But, I'll be honest: this game is hard. Even for a seasoned platformer and Metroidvania player, I struggled a lot at the beginning and the end of the game. Early on, when I was low options and health, I died a lot. Later, the bosses became so difficult that I couldn't figure out how to dodge most of their attacks. Healing items are also expensive and rare. It doesn't help that the controls are a little sluggish at times, particularly when platforming. While nothing Chasm does from a combat or platforming perspective might be new, if you're interested in a challenge, you'll find it here.
Graphically, the spritework is indeed excellent. Each enemy animation is detailed and interesting, and it's really gorgeous. Bit Kid clearly spent a lot of time on this, and it shows. Unfortunately, outside of the spritework, the environments are pretty bland. While each area has a unique look, a lot of them are pretty washed out, and get overly repetitive. Similarly, the musical score only changes when you move between areas, and it's not particularly memorable. I'd have a hard time picking out a track from Chasm even now.
What Bit Kid does with Chasm is ambitious. I'm impressed that the procedural generation is so well executed. The problem is the procedural generation, on its own, does nothing to distinguish an otherwise relatively bland and by the numbers take on the Metroidvania genre. Add to that a few frustrations with the control and lack of variety in the game, and what we get is a game which might be worth checking out if you're really looking for a new game in the genre, but you'd likely be better off checking out the myriad of superior options which have been released in the last few years.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.