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Preview: Arboria

7 May 2020

Jump in the hole. Kill things. Get killed. Respawn. Jump back in the hole.

The first footage I saw of Arboria at once piqued my interest and made me wary. On one level, it looked like something of a Dark Souls experience, which could be interesting… but that also highlights the fact that Dark Souls and most games of its same basic pedigree are titles I’m forever trying to love unsuccessfully. Then again, there was also the simple fact that its trailer told me very little. There was a vine-looking dude, weird tree stuff, lots of darkness, and monsters hopping around. If there was a story, it didn’t deign to share it.

Having actually played the game a bit at this point… well, that’s intentional, but it’s intentional in a positive way. Not because there isn’t story, but because… well, let’s dive into the root of this stuff. It’s a bit of a wild ride, but I think it all comes out well in the end.

Developed by Dreamplant and published by All In! Games, Arboria enters early access on Steam on May 7th.

Make Like a Tree and Leaf

I’m not kidding about that plot intro up there. There is a little more to it, yes, but at the core you’re just jumping in a hole and trying not to die too quickly. The tutorial kicks off with you taking control of a weird vine-y troll thing as an irritating fairy chirps at you about what to do. Your character eventually ignores him, puts on a weird mushroom hat, and then jumps further down into the caves without the fairy… which prompts the fairy to inform the shaman that he’s wearing the Weird Bad Hat and he has to be stopped.

So what’s the shaman’s plan? Make a new Yotun, a warrior, and kick him down the hole with the fairy helping him. And if he dies… well, the fairy can bring back bits of the currency he collected, at least.

This is all vague and intentionally pidgin. All of the trolls talk in unclear broken English with a clear limitation to their vocal abilities. Signs are misspelled and it’s obvious that the trolls are not particularly bright, and many of the more metaphysical aspects like the identity of the gods (spelled as “godz”) aren’t clear from the start. It gives the impression that you’re seeing a very small part of this particular world, and not one in which your little tribe is actually all that heroic in the first place…

And, frankly, I like that.

This approach is one that could easily backfire or fail, but the game sells it primarily by implying that you are the last hope for a not-terribly-bright tribe while also making it clear that their way of things works. It might not work well, but there aren’t sinister secrets lurking here or even stuff that is supposed to make sense but doesn’t. You are afforded a pinhole and you don’t need a bigger viewport; it’s enough to just hint at it with vague gestures.

It doesn’t hurt that the story has an impish and odd sense of humor to begin with. Like, arguably the main character is the fairy; the various warriors die, she rips off their heads to commemorate them, and she’s the one who always comes back for another round. She doesn’t feel any particular attachment and you’re not supposed to either. The little hologram of the “godz” will silently throw a tantrum if you don’t offer them enough bounty. You get the idea.

While never overtly silly, the whole thing keeps a sense of shrugging weirdness at the whole proceedings. So it works, more or less.

Bark With a Side of Bite

Any comparisons to Dark Souls you might get from the trailer like I did are ultimately inaccurate. This is, in many ways, a standard hack-and-slash game with perhaps less-lenient timing than many of its ilk. You have a dodge button, you hack at things with weapons, and you have limited healing items. You land on a level offered up via procedural generation. Get all of the things on that level, jump down to heal up and earn an upgrade. Rinse and repeat. When you die, you start over at the beginning.

Being as this is one of the many games in the general roguelite subgenre, of course, death is more of a waypoint than anything. The key here is how much “veri” you managed to collect along the way, the equivalent of currency. When you die, you keep 10% of what you had on you at the time of your death… but every time you jump down a level, you also get the chance to deposit your veri, which means 100% of that will be added to your total.

Once you die, the game determines how well you did compared to your previous runs, which produces a base modifier for the approval of the godz. You then offer them veri to improve their attitude toward you, and the result leads to either a good selection of new warriors to spawn or a bad one. The happier they are, the more positive their evaluation, and that means better options for your next starting warrior.

Players are also tasked with healing the roots of the great tree while exploring the caves, and the more roots you heal, the more vendors are unlocked on the top level. This leads to passive upgrades, which allows you to spend your excess veri on positive advantages as you walk into the dungeon. So you get an earlier boost instead of scrounging, even though you will still be scrounging.

You also have your powers to deal with; you have a main weapon in one hand (broadly split into the average axes, the slow-but-powerful swords, and the fast-but-weaker scythes) and a symbiont power in the other. Except they’re less in your hand and more become your hands, as your vines shift and twine with these tools.

It’s all on the simple side, but it’s also just simple enough to make a lot of the appeal into how things play out. Your primary stat supports using scythes, for example, but you have a random treasure option of grabbing a sword that has a life stealing effect on it. Do you take it? Do you take heavier armor that makes you a bit slower or accept weaker defenses? Can you live without the Shockwave’s offensive options if you swap in the Teleport for mobility and defense? You get the idea.

And, of course, as you play you both get better at playing the game (and thus at surviving bad luck) and have more upgrades to make early levels easier. It becomes much easier to gather enough veri that you’re sure to spawn with a full roster of good characters, and the fact that you can both rename your yotun and that you can see your last few deaths lets you mark your progress and recall the ludonarrative thus far.

It is, in other words, exactly tailored to keep you jumping back in that hole and trying to reach just a little deeper, grab a few more upgrades, and be just a bit better equipped the next time you hop in.

Lumbering Appeal

Arboria is, interestingly, the first game that I can describe as looking ugly… but looking great because it looks ugly.

Like… the overall aesthetic of Arboria seems to be a game that is trying with zeal to mirror ugly old CGI, wherein every character looked like a stiff-limb mannequin with distorted faces. And yet it reproduces that feel in high definition. This is not cost-cutting. The cast of characters is supposed to look weird and off-putting and unappealing in exactly the way they do, and the result is a game that has a very unique and fun feel to it even when it feels like it should just be hideous. It’s a distinct style, and it works well.

There’s even more subtle touches abound. As you collect veri, it’s stored by the fairy… and the fairy visibly engorges and distorts as she takes more into her, literally vomiting it up when she banks it between levels. Enemies don’t have visible health bars, but the glowing lines along their body change from green to yellow to red as their health decreases, offering you an easy glance at how healthy they are without ever being obtrusive.

What’s slightly less fortunate is how rather nondescript the caverns feel. Now, don’t get me wrong – the caverns are lovely. They’re dark and atmospheric and fungal and full of plant life and weird areas and decorations. That’s all good. What makes them feel monotonous is that, well… they all wind up looking pretty much the same as you progress downward. The game has excellent mapping and so it never has a problem wherein you can’t tell where you are, but the monotony of the environment is an issue.

Less of an issue is the music, which is at once atmospheric and driving. It’s subtle, but I felt like the tunes themselves universally helped set the mood, whether I was barely clinging to life after some bad fights, or hacking my way triumphantly to another cleansed root, or exploring an area and looking out for traps on my way to another potential treasure.

I recognize I might be complaining a bit needlessly about the environments; if anything, it’s because what is there is so atmospheric that you kind of note the same-ness of the maps. Fortunately, it’s a minor quibble that doesn’t detract on a whole.

Wood If You Could

At the heart of it, the roguelite formula is pretty simple. Find a game format that’s fun to do with incremental power-ups, with just enough split between the elements you can control for making a functional build and the ones you can’t control so that you’re still making choices from a limited set. When it doesn’t work (looking at you, Exit the Gungeon) you wind up with frustration.

Arboria thankfully hits exactly the right balance for this to work. It’s simple to play, and while some parts of it might feel clunky at first or a bit odd, you quickly get a sense of the simplicity and persistent nature. You’ll have some bad runs, then you’ll start getting a feel for it, and you’ll go in with better equipment and options.

It is, in short, a fun game for people who like playing these sorts of games. And since it’s entering early access, there’s time for the rough edges to get appropriately sanded off. If you want to jump down a hole and kill some stuff, this is worth the asking price.

Preview copy of provided by All In! Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of All In! Games.