Archvale is likely the poster child of what many folks envision when they imagine an indie game. While in no way Super Meat Boy, La-Mulana, or The Witness caliber, Archvale is one part genre mixing, one part odd balance decisions, one part bugs, and two parts fun. I tackled this humble romp cooperatively over about eight hours, managing to get all of the achievements on hard mode. I can’t say I recommend this one for everyone, but bullet hell fanatics with a desire to manage stats and equipment will find something to chew on here.
Archvale takes place in a world following a cruel king’s exit from this mortal realm, leaving behind annoying undying that dwell between each humble village. The people seem content enough, but the protagonist insists on finding the fabled Archvale to uncover the truth or some such. In terms of storytelling, character development, and dialogue, Archvale is pretty derivative and thin.
Gameplay is why we’re here! How have we not had noteworthy bullet hell/RPG hybrids to date? Imagine any bullet hell you want with enemies over a set grid spawning in with different attack patterns demanding your attention, that being a swing of a melee, pluck of a bowstring, or wave of a wand. Once a room is clear, move on to the next grid section and do this repeatedly until a town or dungeon appears. Some grids on the map contain treasures, buffs, or, most commonly, a shrine to save, heal, and teleport to/from; the shrines occur quite frequently.
Heroes can chug pots to replenish some health, but these are finite until returning to a shrine. Most of the gameplay is pretty simple: dodge bullets, hit enemies. No special abilities here. Several weapon patterns occur throughout the game, making weapon choice initially engaging, but once players find a powerful weapon suiting their playstyle, the wonder wears off. My brother and I found one weapon in particular especially strong and used that for the majority of the game until the end-game.
Players can craft equipment or find drops throughout the world, but trying out new gear all the time can be a headache, as the badge and equipment system tends to buff a particular weapon type (melee, bow, magic). Badges are rare finds equipped using badge points, and these decisions can be interesting; don’t worry about commitment because badges can come on and off no problem. Trouble is, the large number of weapon-type specific badges makes some choices linear and not all that creative. Badges tend to have simple effects like enhance damage or add a debuff to attacks. Crafting is mostly going to benefit armor, since sticking with a weapon is a tempting offer once players invest money into upgrading it. Having predictability in a game like this also makes getting through it more appealing, as constantly swapping weapons can make adapting to new or even recurrent enemies a struggle.
So, since the hero is pretty static, the joy in Archvale comes from the variety of enemies, which are both vast and thought-provoking. Some enemies spawn other enemies, some have challenging bullet patterns, and others are highly mobile. The actual design of each isolated enemy isn’t anything too creative, but the mixing and matching of all the types is what makes combat addictive. In this way, Archvale can be meditative, as it isn’t frustrating in its difficulty (on hard mode) but demands enough attention to keep players focused and eager for the next room.
Rewards are sprinkled throughout Archvale with enough consistency to avoid becoming meaningless, but not so rare that Archvale becomes a tired affair of smashing one’s face into enemies over and over again. As suggested earlier, the rewards are pretty simple: improve damage, make potions more effective, etc. Towns have some shops that offer “meh” equipment, new badges, and sometimes even heart pieces to improve max health. Other than that, players can exchange words with a few inhabitants. Towns are at least pretty to look at, I guess.
Dungeons function similarly to the rest of the world, enclosed in a room with a few enemies and perhaps multiple waves after beating the initial foes. The only real difference here is sometimes the developers throw in platforming sections reliant on fast, precise dodging over a few platforms, which I suppose is nice because it breaks the routine of enemy-filled rooms. Still, I’m not sure anyone would be excited about these platforming sections. Each dungeon has an engaging boss fight and then a MacGuffin at the end. Get all seven MacGuffins, and something happens. You’ll never guess what.
During my adventures, I ran into a few bugs that outright crashed the game, including one that made me fight an end-game boss over again. One completely obstructed my progress as I played this game before its public release, and I had to stop until the game was patched after its official release. Aside from crashing my game, some left my brother or myself rooted in place during the platforming sections–players take turns if one fails the section–which required that we reload the game several times until someone could beat it in one go. No fun.
The music, graphics, and controls are fine, but I would not recommend playing this with a controller unless you are super comfortable playing bullet hells with a controller. I know that describes a lot of people out there, but for me, keyboard and mouse are king for precision. Archvale has chill, peaceful music, but a primarily forgettable score. Sound effects are the standard affair. Graphically, Archvale is inoffensive with visuals that serve their purpose. Nothing flashy here, and the bullets look like those you’d expect from, oh, Enter the Gungeon.
Archvale’s big claim to fame is the meshing of RPG (items/loot) and bullet hell mechanics. Aside from that, this is an average title at best. We had fun with this one, but probably only because it is cooperative. As a single-player experience, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much. With little substance in the writing, awkward design decisions (crafting is largely pointless aside from armor and weapon drops are rarely tempting), and a cache of bugs, I would only recommend this title to bullet hell enthusiasts or those hungry for a decent cooperative jaunt.