Digging for Gems
Spelunker Party! is a co-op side-scroller game in which Spelunkette and her friends must explore a series of caves, finding gold and treasures while investigating the effects of a mysterious comet that crashes on their world, which has haunted the caves with ghosts among other things.
When I was initially tasked with writing this review, I knew nothing about Spelunker; it was only after doing a little research that I found out that the franchise dates back to the days of the Atari 2600. It has recently undergone a modern revival with Spelunker World (PS4) and most recently, this title, released on October 19th, 2017 on PC ($29.99 on Steam) and Nintendo Switch ($29.99 on Nintendo eShop) – the latter of which was played for this review. I didn’t quite know what to expect as I began to delve into the unknown caves, but I’m not one to shy away from something outside of my usual comfort zone – sometimes when you delve deep into the unknown, you can dig up a gem.
This is a platforming game birthed from the very beginnings of the genre. You play as Spelunkette, or one of a number of other characters, with one simple goal: Get to the end of each level. Having said that, doing so is often anything but simple. Spelunkette, the Weakest Action Hero (as she is called), is quite limited in capabilities. In a vein similar to early platforming arcade games like Donkey Kong, she can not jump very high or fall very far, and one touch on just about anything will kill you.
You have to be careful and diligent to survive each level. The difficulty level is pretty hardcore, and this game does not hold your hand. Because of this, newcomers to the series may get frustrated very quickly. There is no tutorial, but the game introduces the most important controls and mechanics as you play the first few levels. Having said that, when I played, I died multiple times on the first level while learning what the game allows and doesn’t allow. For example, don’t try to walk off a ledges with nearby vines and expect to grab on to it – you will immediately fall and die. You have to jump to them. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Game Over on the first level of a game, but I pressed on (and ran out of oxygen a few times).
As you complete each stage, you will uncover treasure in the form of gold, powerups, and artifacts called Litho-stones. As you collect these Litho-stones, you’ll eventually complete sets of them, unlocking new gear and pets for your character that enhance your spelunking abilities. Some items may protect you from hazards, while others will enhance your weapon, reduce your air usage, or grant you new abilities. You will need all the help you can get, so naturally you will have to comb each of the game’s 100+ caverns carefully to collect them. The gold you collect can be spent to send your trusty Pooch to find additional equipment as well.
The game offers a simplistic but modern visual presentation that emphasizes function more than form, with important gameplay elements generally standing out from the environment. Caverns can be very dark but are illuminated by your headlamp- the lighting effects as the character looks around while standing still or looking up or crouching are very well done. Most of the time, the game sets a cheerful, campy tone with its musical score, which is fairly generic but well-made, with a 90s arcade vibe and a good amount of variety. There are dynamic music elements as well, such as a shift to a stereo-typically spooky bit when enemy ghosts are nearby. The graphics, music and sound all come together well and nothing feels terribly out of place. The only real negative here is that, when playing multiplayer, every time you hear that death riff, whether it’s you or another player, the music starts over, which can be annoying.
Strength in Numbers
As you might expect from the title, one of the main additions to this entry in the franchise is co-op multiplayer. While you can play by yourself, the game strongly encourages you to group up via local or online multiplayer modes. When playing alone, you’ll often come across seemingly unreachable Litho-stones and pickups, so while you can complete the levels alone, you won’t be able to find everything by yourself. This may frustrate some people, but the title of the game does make it pretty clear it’s intended for multiplayer.
The game gets a bit easier in a group, as each player has a limited number of lives for each level. As long as one player is standing, they can revive other players who have run out of lives. Only if the entire group wipes is it a Game Over and you need to restart the level. You’ll also be able to find more Litho-stones and other treasures, which often require one player to activate a switch or perform some task in one part of the level to open up a different part of the level for another player. Finally, more gear EXP and gold are awarded based on the number of players. One thing to be aware of is that certain pickups in each stage, such as keys, are specific to each player. If there are different-colored locked doors to pass, for example, only the player who picked up the key can open the door, sometimes leaving you waiting for them before you can continue on.
When you start a group game, you’ll first arrive at a lobby screen where you can see each player’s status and items, and you can switch between different item sets you’ve created so that you can maximize the capabilities of your party. Once everyone is ready, the level begins, and for me, the head-scratching as well. I found co-op play to be a bit overwhelming and awkward at first, because even when you are playing online, the game goes to a split-screen view, showing each player’s viewpoint. There’s no option or toggle to make your view fill the screen. As I played, however, I came to realize how important it was for you to be able to see the other player’s viewpoints, as players can often end up in separate parts of the cave. You’ll need to keep an eye on the other players and use your quick chat emotes to signal other players to open doors or press switches. Thus, while I found it odd to be looking at a split screen playing online, it proved to be helpful.
The one major downfall of online play is that you can not have friends on the same console online – If you want to play with friends locally, it must be done on one console. The game does not have an ad-hoc mode for those of you carrying your Switches around. A minor consideration for me with no one nearby to play with, but this may be important to some Switch players. It would have been nice to be able to play with one friend on your console and recruit 1-2 more players online.
When I initially started playing, I found this game quite frustrating. But after knowing more about the franchise and being persistent in the face of a challenge, the game started to really grow on me. This is one of those games that will frustrate you, but only just enough that you don’t want to give up. Once you get the hang of it, you will have a great time. The look of the game and the title may lead you to believe that this is going to be an easy game, but it turns out this is actually a very hardcore old-school style platformer.
If you’re a mid-30s gamer and you want a trip back to the old days of challenging platformers, you will likely be delighted by the challenge this game offers, while a parent who thinks this game might be ideal for their younger child based on the graphics will probably see controllers thrown across the room. In short, I think there’s a bit of a disconnect between the audience Square Enix wants to buy the game and the people who may be attracted to buy it based on the preview images and information in the eShop or Steam Store.
I did run into some minor issues that detracted from my assessment. There are a few occasions where the game seems a bit rough around the edges. In the story sequences, the short music bits used seem to loop prematurely, leaving the last notes slightly cut off as the music loops. The menu UIs could be a bit cleaner, but this is very minor. The biggest issue for me was the button to access the Online Manual seems to go to a page that doesn’t exist or is experiencing some other issue. It could be just me, but since I would have found a manual to be really helpful or this game, to see an error like this was not a great impression.
In conclusion: If you’re into hardcore platformers or cooperative titles, you’re going to have a great time with this. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more relaxing romp or prefer only single-player games, this isn’t for you. Despite the name, I wouldn’t quite call it a party game, in terms of something you’d turn on with friends over for a good time. It is definitely good fun with friends, it’s just not really the same sort of game as others with the word “Party” in the title (i.e. Mario Party).
~ Final Score: 7/10 ~
Review copy provided by Square Enix for Nintendo Switch, screenshots taken by reviewer.