When I first read about the turn-based VR RPG Arcaxer, I was skeptical. I love turn-based RPGs and VR, but they seem like two things that shouldn’t go together at first blush. I like VR games for how immersive they can be, and action gameplay goes hand in hand with that. I want to be moving my body, not selecting actions from menus! Why use such an action-oriented medium for a traditionally slow style of combat?
Fortunately, Arcaxer manages to create a combat system that satisfies my taste for turn-based combat while also taking advantage of the VR medium. On your turn, you’ll physically move to hack and slash, fire weapons, and sling Hax (basically Arcaxer’s spells) at monsters. Unlike in most turn-based games, enemies move around, so you have to aim to hit them. Once your turn ends, you’ll have to physically move out of the way to dodge enemy attacks.
This simple combat system, supported by a variety of Hax, manages to stay interesting for the entire game. Smart enemy design also ensures that you never fall into the boring pattern of using the same attacks all the time. Flying enemies force you to stop using melee attacks, while quick-moving grounded enemies are much easier to hit with your sword than with a Hax. Enemies also all come with their own unique attack patterns, so you’ll have to be quick on your feet to avoid taking damage.
Avoiding damage is important, as the game revolves around ascending a massive dungeon. Each floor is randomly generated, and healing tools are limited. You can get some potions, and there is a healing Hax that can only be used in combat. As a result, dungeons play out like a war of attrition. Random battles are unlikely to kill you, but many of them in a row can chip away at your health over time, leaving you weak before a boss fight.
Boss fights are the trickiest battles in the game. Bosses typically have multiple unique attacks, all of which last multiple seconds and can be difficult to dodge. Towards the end of the fight, the boss often uses multiple attacks at once, and you’ll have to quickly shift and contort your body to avoid all of them.
My strategy throughout the game was to save up health potions and try to get to each boss with as much health as possible so that I could afford a few mistakes while learning their attack patterns. Some bosses can be very difficult to defeat, but you can always spend some time grinding if you’re having trouble with an attack pattern, though this is never necessary if you get to be an expert at dodging attacks.
All of this combat is in the name of climbing the Stack, a giant tower full of monsters called Toxins. Arcaxer takes place in a virtual world called the Sim, which is occupied entirely by AI. The AI residents of the Sim behave like typical people but are defenseless against the Toxins. Toxins are the only creatures in the Sim that can use Hax — that is, until you come along. As the only AI that can use Hax, it’s your job to defeat Toxins and discover what lies on top of the Stack.
This simple plot hook drives the bulk of the game. Throughout your ascension of the Stack, you’ll meet helpful NPCs and antagonistic ones. The NPCs give you your first taste of Arcaxer’s writing. All of them are wacky, frequently cracking jokes and making sarcastic comments. While I didn’t find the story gripping, most NPCs were funny enough that I wanted to keep playing just to see what they might say next. My favorite character was an early-game NPC named Sydney. Sydney is a scientist who helps set up your Hax and introduces you to The Hub, the city you’ll spend time in between trips to the Stack.
The Hub provides all of the essentials that players have come to expect from RPGs. You can buy items, talk to NPCs, or work out to increase your stats. You can even ride a hoverboard. The workout minigames include simple tasks like hitting a punching bag to increase your strength. If you really wanted to, you could grind these minigames for a long time and power through the Stack. I found the minigames boring after a few plays, and spending a lot of time on them wasn’t necessary to succeed in the game’s dungeons.
The Hub is also where players are properly introduced to Arcaxer’s comedy. At times, Arcaxer is like playing a fever dream. One moment you’re walking through town, talking to voiceless NPCs, and the next you step into a shop where a fully voiced shopkeeper yells, “WHAT THE $%@# DO YOU WANT?”
Arcaxer’s zany sense of humor continues in the Stack. Images of the doge meme are plastered all over walls, and you can go from fighting typical enemies like imps to unusual opponents like rubber clowns that bounce all around when you hit them. My favorite joke in the game is a Hax whose sole function is to turn the target blue. You only get four Hax slots, so there’s a special mix of frustration and humor when you realize you swapped out a useful Hax for something that just palette swaps an enemy.
The wacky enemies can make the dungeons feel like they lack an aesthetic or theme, but the simulation setting makes random enemies and internet memes feel less out of place than they would otherwise. The game also frequently breaks the fourth wall to remind you that you’re in a simulation.
While the enemy variety is a strong point of the game, exploring the dungeons can be dull. Each floor is randomly generated, but there aren’t any particularly interesting layouts. At first, each floor of the Stack contains numerous empty rooms, a few easy-to-avoid traps, and an enemy or two. Later, new traps, environments, and puzzles are added, but exploration never felt like a strong point in Arcaxer.
Notably, while exploring dungeons, you can play in first person or third person with an isometric camera. I expected to play in first person, as in most VR games, but Arcaxer’s assets just don’t look good close up. Instead, I used the isometric camera. While it feels a little weird to play a VR game with an isometric camera, it works well here.
Arcaxer’s dungeons are easier to navigate in third person, and the assets look better when the camera isn’t close enough to them to see the details. Still, I appreciate that you can switch perspectives at the press of a button. I would often switch to first person whenever a new character was introduced so that I could get a closer look at their appearance. Most character designs are colorful and have some element that makes them stand out. I particularly enjoy the protagonist, who has a giant USB stick affixed to his back.
Beyond Arcaxer’s story, you can explore the Stack endlessly by resetting it to randomize the floors. It’s nice that there is some incentive to play more, but I wish there were more modes of play that focused on combat. Combat is by far the best part of the game, and replaying floors without any new jokes or plot to break up the exploration can be a chore. Something like a boss rush mode or a mode where you just dodge attacks would have been great. If it sped up over time, it could even act as some light cardio!
On the whole, Arcaxer manages to do a lot with a little. While the floors of the Stack can become a little bland, and there aren’t a ton of locations and characters, Arcaxer spices things up with its genuinely funny script and addicting combat. The story provides just enough impetus to start your adventure, then gets out of the way and lets its goofy characters and combat carry the rest of the game. Perhaps most importantly, despite being a third-person game with turn-based combat, Arcaxer succeeds in using the VR medium to add immersion and support its unique gameplay.