Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tech: Spelunky review (XBLA version)

"Spelunky" is a free indie PC game which recently got a massive HD facelift and release on the Xbox Live Arcade. It's something of a cross between "Spelunker," "Rogue," and "Dig Dug"/"Bomberman" - you traverse randomly generated caves full of enemies, traps, and amazing treasure:

The game is notable for its high (but mostly fair) degree of difficulty. While your explorer is well-equipped (you start with a whip, bombs, and climbing ropes, and can acquire all sorts of helpful stuff as you progress), the entire environment is out to kill you. Try to steal from the normally-kindly shopkeeper, and the old man transforms into a shotgun-wielding maniac. Inadvertently bomb an altar of Kali, and spiders flood the screen...or worse.

The difficulty, balanced with the wide variety of items and environments, alternates you between power and helplessness. In some moments, I felt unstoppable, like when I was slashing snakes to bits with a machete or soaring through the air on a jetpack. In others, I felt like prey - hiding from man-eating plants, angry cavemen, and nigh-invulnerable giant killer bees. Each playthrough feels different as a result, encouraging you to see if you can get yourself out of the colossal pickle you're in this time.

Every time your hero dies, though, that's it, game over. There's no reloading, no respawning, none of the handholding that robs modern games of their tension. Like the games it's inspired by, "Spelunky" tasks you with getting it right in a single go-around.

Thanks to the randomization of the levels, restarting is never a chore. And, after awhile, you get noticeably better at the game, picking up little tips and tricks - you don't take fall damage if you land on an enemy, you can trigger the tiki spike traps intentionally to vault past them when they're resetting, you can throw unconscious enemies into other foes to cause massive chain reactions. On the macro level, you get better at navigation, learning when to plough through harsh areas and when to play it safe by bombing, climbing, and running away from treacherous rooms and enemies.

All in all, "Spelunky" is a great game, easily the best platformer I've played in years. It takes all the thrill of exploration in a Metroidvania game and alloys it with diamond-hard, addictive platforming.

Rating: 90/100


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