Indie Review: Crystal Catacombs

I love two things; Rogue-lite’s and Pixel Art. They don’t have to be both in a game to make it perfect, and even if both are in a game it doesn’t instantly make it perfect, but including either generally piques my interest.

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And that’s exactly what Crystal Catacombs, by Levels or Lives, has done. It’s caught my eye, and I felt compelled to see what’s going on with such a interesting-looking game.

Crystal Catacombs is an action-platform rogue-lite that channels the spirit of old Metroidvania games by way of Spelunky and Rogue Legacy. You must guide your character through a series of procedurally generated levels, evading traps and a variety of dangerous enemies. You’ll find special items and upgrade your character’s abilities.There are several distinct areas, all sporting unique mechanics, enemies and aesthetic. As a whole, the game sports a vivid, psychedelic Pixel Art look and it’s platforming and combat is authentically retro.

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By “authentically retro”, feel free to read that as outrageously outdated, deliciously difficult or … erm … nicely nostalgic? Right from the off, your impression of this game will be decided by it’s control mechanics. Rogue-lite games have to be difficult by their very nature; enjoyment comes from dying, losing progress, and slowing getting further and further through mastery of the mechanics…however, this requires does tend to require good, solid controls and mechanics. Modern games often have controls and mechanics that’ve been refined over time

For example, Spelunky has pitch-perfect controls and game interactions, and as such is perhaps the best Rogue-like/lite game to date; movement is fluid and responsive which in turn makes combat and platforming is easy to control. The difficulty in this instance is brought about by having the player learn how to interact with the levels, rather than the controls.

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Crystal Catacombs by comparison feels archaic; jumping and attacking feels sluggish and floaty, just as it did in old Metroidvania games. While this gives the game an authentic, retro feel it also means that many will become frustrated as they are unable to successfully learn how to interact with the game. The controls act as an obstacle to interaction, rather than enabling it, and in that respect I think this game will struggle to compete with the current big rogue-lite titles.

However, I don’t think Crystal Catacombs sets out to dethrone Spelunky or other modern titles. Instead, it appears to be an artistic statement, invoking classic action-adventure gaming but using modern art techniques and more powerful computing to drive it’s procedurally generated content. It’s clearly been a labor of love for the developers, just as the act of playing it is for those who decide to stick with it.

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In the end, Crystal Catacombs is beautiful and as inventive as it is committed to it’s inspirations. It manages to transport me back to the glory days of SNES and Gameboy Metroidvania games, while looking stunning at all times. It is extremely difficult, both due to outdated, clumsy controls and the complex, procedural content. If you fancy experiencing a blast from the past and/or can adapt to the archaic controls, you’ll be in for a well made treat. A little niche perhaps, but still worth a look.

Crystal Catacombs is out now onr Desua and IndieGameStand £5.95 or your local equivalent. There is also a Steam Greenlight page, if you wish to help this gem get on Steam.

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