Let the Rage Flow Through You
There’s a group of gamers out there that believe games have become too streamlined, too simple… too easy. Those that miss the days when games were out to hand your ass to you, beat you ’til you’re black and blue, and you enjoyed it, goddammit. Some developers have taken heed of this call for harder games and have happily obliged.
Here’s the thing, though. Creating a game that’s purposely difficult walks a very fine line. You want to create something that’s challenging, that pushes the player and satisfies that urge for difficulty… but if you go even a bit too far, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up frustrating all but the most dedicated.
Sure, you can go completely off the rails and make something like I Wanna Be The Guy, a game so blunt and harassing in its difficulty that it turns around and becomes entertaining again. Pulling this off, though, is like catching lightning in a bottle; it’s difficult to do well, and severely limits your audience.
On the other hand, games like Super Meat Boy, Dark Souls, and Celeste show how to strike the right balance. Giving the player a steep yet not insurmountable challenge, along with offering up a sweeping sense of satisfaction at overcoming an obstacle. Again, this balance can be hard to strike, but not impossible.
The game we’re looking at today aims to be one of these – a game designed to be purposefully difficult, but not impossible. However, after my time with it, it feels like it may have stepped over the line a bit.
Developed by Cat Nigiri and published by Unties, Necrosphere Deluxe is set for release on January 31st, 2019, for PS4, Vita, and Switch. The Switch version was played for this review.
A New Kind of Hell
Necrosphere follows Agent Terry Cooper, a cop recently killed in the line of action. He has awoken in the “afterlife,” a world known as the Necrosphere. His partners, somehow able to contact him through written notes, tell him that there’s a way back to the living world (the “Normalsphere”), a portal hidden somewhere in the world. Unfortunately, the Necrosphere is massive… and deadly.
Really, there isn’t much to say about the story. All of the above is set up through notes you find on the first few screens of the game. You find a few more notes scattered throughout the game containing quips from your partners and some flavor text, but Necrosphere is quite light on story overall.
While the plot is a bit bland, you’ll quickly forget about it once you begin holding yourself back from throwing your Switch at the wall while playing. As I mentioned, Necrosphere is purposely designed to be a difficult game, with the game’s advertising wearing this fact on its sleeve.
The game is a side-scrolling pseudo-Metroidvania, with a gimmick that the game is played using only two buttons (in the Switch’s case, the ‘A’ button and the D-pad left button). These move you right and left respectively, and you eventually gain the ability to leap in a direction by double-tapping a button and flying on a jetpack by holding both buttons.
With this setup, Necrosphere‘s challenge comes entirely from maneuverability puzzles. You’ll find yourself navigating your way through bouncing bubbles, fireballs, spikes, and switches as you solve puzzles and clear screens.
Unfortunately, it’s this two-button system that causes most of the frustration with the game. Initially, when the only thing you can do is move left and right, the controls are very tight. With some challenges requiring pixel-perfect movement, this is very appreciated, and I had no trouble clearing the first two-thirds of the game.
Once the jetpack is introduced, however, all of that goes out the window. The jetback only allows movement directly upwards, meaning that you have to stop using it if you want to move left or right. All of the endgame puzzles require this, forcing you to juggle between activating the jetpack and turning it off to leap left or right. Doing so requires releasing your movement buttons to stop the jetpack, and then double-tapping to leap to the side… often meaning you’ll lose a bit of height if you’re not quick enough.
I had immense trouble pulling off this juggling, often finding myself in one of two situations. Either I’d lose too much height and miss my jump (usually meaning death) or the game wouldn’t register my double-tap input to leap (also leading to death). With the final areas often requiring pinpoint precision, navigating a room often quickly became an exercise in frustration. I never really had a sense of satisfaction at finally clearing a difficult room, either, instead often shouting out a embittered “FINALLY” before being overwhelmed by dread at the next challenge ahead.
There’s one essential mechanic as well that the game does not inform you about, leaving you to figure it out on your own: you can combo jetpack bursts and side leaps together infinitely (or, at least, until your jetpack fuel runs out), allowing you to cross large gaps. This mechanic isn’t essential until the final area, which you access by crossing a huge pit of spikes. If you didn’t figure out you can combo these moves together, you’re not getting to the endgame.
Speaking of areas, Necrosphere is presented as a single interconnected world, with a hub area leading to three color-coded areas. The skills you learn in each area (leaps and jetpack) are used to access the other areas. Finding your way to each area is relatively straightforward… until you need to progress to the endgame. Unlike every other area, the final stage isn’t found in the hubworld; instead, you’ll find the spiked-lined hallway leading to the finale buried in one of the outer stages. This led to me spending 20 minutes essentially replaying each stage until I found the path to the ending.
Necrosphere, like so many other games of its ilk, goes for retro 8-bit design style, and while it works well, it’s also… well, a bit boring.
Every area (aside from the finale) is identified by a specific color scheme. The hub area is red, while the others are green, yellow, and purple. Really, aside from the obstacles (which are reused in every area), the color theme is all you will be seeing, leading many rooms in each area to blend together.
The soundtrack, though, is more interesting, and much more distinctive between areas. You get spooky synths in the hub, more wavy synths through the yellow world, some funky bass-heavy jams in the green area, and quiet minimalist composition with weird distorted voices in the purple zone. The latter was easily the one that stood out most to me, with the aforementioned voices lending a sense of unease.
A Hop and a Stumble
Overall, Necrosphere Deluxe is a mostly entertaining game that offers up a good challenge, but throws itself over the fine line of difficulty with its two-button control gimmick.
I can say I was having a lot of fun with the game until the final two areas. I really believe that if Necrosphere went with a more traditional control scheme, the entire game would’ve been much more enjoyable. The way it is now, the control scheme just adds unnecessary difficulty to an already challenging game.
At $7.99 at the time of writing on the Nintendo Store for around two hours of gameplay, it’s not too bad of a deal. If you’re in to purposefully difficult and frustrating games, Necrosphere may be worth a look. However, its faults hinder it from being held up with the likes of Super Meat Boy or Celeste.
~ Final Score: 6/10 ~
Review copy provided by Unties for Switch. Screenshots both taken by reviewer and provided by Unties.