Chasm is a game that immediately caught my eye when it was first announced more than five years ago. A procedurally generated side-scrolling dungeon crawl? With pixel art that brings to mind Wanderers from Ys? Be still, my heart! However, after years of repeated delays and slipped release windows, I stopped following its development. So imagine my pleasant surprise when a review copy showed up on our doorstep. With an insatiable appetite for both roguelikes and Metroidvanias, I sunk my teeth into it as quickly as I could. The meal wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it still managed to sate my hunger.
Karthas is a wintry little village on the edge of the wilderness. It’d be unremarkable if not for its mine, a vast chasm (ha ha) from which the town harvests and exports rare metals to sustain itself. Unfortunately, as these stories go, the miners dug a little too deep and unleashed a bevy of monsters into the central shaft. Worse still, word tells the townsfolk were kidnapped by said beasties, putting the kibosh on the whole mining operation. Enter our hero, a rookie soldier from a nearby outpost. Just on the cusp of making rank, his commanding officer decides his final test will be to resolve the troubles in Karthas. It should be simple enough, right? It’s never that simple.
You arrive in pixelated, picturesque Karthas with little more than a short sword and the chainmail on your back to find the entire town, save for the sleepy old mayor, has indeed been kidnapped. With both the inn and the blacksmith’s forge barren, there’s little for you to do aside from dive directly into the mines to see what awaits you. You’ll kill goblins and gain experience points, you’ll precariously platform over acid lakes, you’ll notice cliffs you can’t scale or low ceilings you can’t duck under and you’ll make mental notes to come back later. It’s very much akin to Koji Igarashi’s tenure on Castlevania. Very, very much so.
Let’s clear up any misconceptions right off the bat: Chasm is not a roguelike. I’d be hard pressed to even call it a roguelite. Starting a new game generates an instance — which can be shared via seed code — which is then locked down for your playthrough. While the bulk of the massive dungeon beneath Karthas is drawn from a stock of possible rooms, they’re also punctuated by static elements that persist across all playthroughs: you fight the same bosses and find the same traversal tools (e.g. grappling gear to scale walls or the ability to slide under low ceilings) in the same order, you rescue the same townsfolk, and so forth. In practice, this means a single playthrough is more akin to Symphony of the Night than it is to Rogue Legacy: you save your game in safe rooms, and death sends you back to the title screen to reload said save rather than starting you from zero.
Rescuing townsfolk unlocks services up on the surface, including a blacksmith, a cook, a merchant, and others, as well as regular everyday folk to give the town a little bit of flavor. Most of these characters have a short sidequest tied to them as well to increase their capabilities further. For example, if you find the blacksmith’s missing tools, he gains the ability to craft new weapons and armor from ingots, on top of the gear he already has for sale. Sadly, none of these characters have much personality outside of the services they offer, and even the flavor townsfolk fail to entice.
Your verbset itself, though limited, is tight and responsive. There are a few different weapon types; as well as swords, you can wield axes, whips, cestus, greatswords and more, each with their own range and strike speed. Rescuing the town mystic gives you access to her spells, which function as Castlevania’s subweapons: throw a projectile or activate a temporary shield at the cost of MP, which is replenished by smashing lamps. You have a backdash to quickly gain distance from your foes, which is especially handy, as many of them attack by charging into you. Both combat and traversal feel good, if not unremarkable. I really felt like I’d played Chasm before, and although I was enjoying myself, I found myself waiting for a new mechanic or gameplay twist to surprise me, which never came. Instead, I butted up against an endgame filled with foes and hazards that bordered on unfair, leaving me frustrated rather than challenged.
The fact that Chasm has managed to weave procedural dungeons around Metroidvania-style progression systems and still feel organic (and more importantly, never broken or unwinnable) is undoubtedly an impressive feat. However, I couldn’t help but feel this mechanic’s inclusion was a little underutilised. I was never curious about what other configurations the dungeon may take and diving back in with a separate save didn’t surprise me. It’s a fairly lengthy and robust game, rather than one to be played over discrete, unique sessions. Would I have been happy with a static, authored map? Probably, yes. I do appreciate the years of work Bit Kid, Inc. put into making Chasm work, but I guess I was expecting to see its procedural elements take more of a dynamic, front-facing role.
If Chasm had made its original release window of 2014, I’d probably be a little more enthusiastic towards it. However, being sandwiched between the outstanding genre-peer duo of Hollow Knight and Dead Cells only serves to highlight how safe Chasm plays its cards. Yet, I still found Chasm to be an attractive and enjoyable way to spend fifteen hours, and I’m sure most Metroidvania fans will, too. Although it may not break any new ground, Bit Kid, Inc. deserve to be commended on the remarkable heavy lifting involved in its procedural elements, hidden as they may seem. With a little more daring, Chasm’s inevitable follow-up has the potential to be a true classic.