I was hesitant to return to doomsaying. I have experienced harrowing dreams in the recent nights that rendered me sleepless. The dream was so lifelike; I, a vigilante, had just caught the dangerous maniac plaguing my city. With him firmly tied to a lamppost, pulled the mask off his face to reveal a man with “Difficult Roguelites” tattooed to his forehead. I stumbled backwards gasping to shout. The figured started to cackle through his twisted smile.
“I think you and I are destined to do this forever,” he laughed. “Destined to repeat level one over and over. Destined to run levels not crafted by a human. Destined to run into a cliff face difficulty curve. Finally, destined to be unable to reach the end of your games.”
At that point, I wake up to breathing heavily and laying in a pool of my own sweat. Returning as the Doomsayer meant the nonsense the villain was spewing, would come true. I have to dance with the devil known as roguelites. Surely, there must be roguelite that I can enjoy and hail it from the rooftops. Well, there was one at PAX East, I had a lot of fun with. It was even published by Devolver Digital, the court jesters of E3. I always admired Devolver Digital as one of the few publishers who seems to understand the definition of fun. The game is I Hate Running Backwards: an upside down Contra-like shooter where enemies run up from the bottom of the screen and you shoot at them from the top. With a Minecraft-like art style with characters from previous Devolver Digital titles such as Serious Sam, Shadow Warrior, Hotline Miami, Enter the Gungeon, Nuclear Throne, and Broforce, this seemed like a winning formula. Surely, this would be a good reintroduction to our beloved Doomsayer:
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!!! I HAVE RETURN TO RECALL MY ADVENTURE WITH I HATE RUNNING BACKWARDS. Eager to play a game of Devolver Digital quality, I loaded up I Hate Running Backwards, and was greeted with the option of choosing various characters, each with their own unique stats and abilities. Initially, my choices included the well rounded Serious Sam, the agile Dancing Denzell, and the slow minigun wielding Chux. Always preferring jacks of all trades characters, I chose Serious Sam as my champion and immediately jumped in. After a brief tutorial, I was firing my gun as I backpedaled through a landscape of Egyptian pyramids. I was finding the gameplay solid as I ripped pixelated spiders apart. While enemies are trying to chase you down, you can use a spin move to either kills close up, reflect projectiles, or break the environment. Breaking the environment around you not only removes obstacles, but also grants experience you can use to buy combat upgrades known as perks. I was able to achieve a good balance of combat and gaining experience by breaking the environment.
Then I reached him… The Scorpion King. A giant red scorpion robot with mini guns mounted on the side and a mountainous stinger that fires a poison wave. He fires the mini guns in rapid succession as he strafed from side to side, forcing you carefully maneuver in front of him or risk instantly losing a health point. Just when you think you got the movement down, he fires the poison wave requiring lightning reflexes to dodge. He made swift work of me. Not expecting to beat him on my first try, I ventured to keep at it. As I performed numerous flawless runs through the level, only to easily fall to the Scorpion King, I started to hear my nemesis from my dream laughing:
“You have encountered the difficulty curve resembling a cliff face. Your doomed to run the first level over and over again.”
Dreading I would never get this voice out of my head, I decided to use the game’s many difficulty settings to enable a mode that gave me an extra life: Baby Mode. Something I was not to thrilled to enable about since if you are going to mock me for not having the time to get ridiculously good at your game, I will probably not have the desire to put in that time. None the less, I pressed on and was able to survive the Scorpion King thanks to that extra health point. I was able to get past the second level with no difficulty, not even from the boss. The third level did give me trouble with a monsterous bull occasionally blazing across the screen that would one shot good old Serious Sam. While I was trying to get to the fourth level, I had the epiphany that despite the fast gameplay, all the roguelite elements slow the game down.
When you level up, the game pauses, mid combat, to allowing you to pick a perk from the random assortment of perks you have collected from your various runs. While I do appreciate being able to pick a perk that fits our play style, I almost rather get one at random. I find pausing mid combat to be a real pace killer. When you die, the game has to tally up all the points you have gain from minion kills, environment destroyed, and boss kills, and the game insists on calculating it slowly. Then when I try to start up a new run, I must start out at the difficulty setting screen, confirming I want the settings to stay the same as the last run. For a game desiring to be a “punishing roguelite,” all this kills the pace and my desire to improve. All these roguelite mechanics do nothing but create a start and stop motion, and much like riding with someone who drives like that, I just want to get out of the car. If you want to have a monstrous difficulty, take the Cuphead method and allow me to immediately jump back into the fight.
Maybe, much like Just Shapes and Beats, this game is meant for co-op. The booth at PAX East that was showing off I Hate Running Backwards was set up for two players. I recruited a local hobo in an attempt to see if a player two made the game more bearable. We were able to determine the only difference between solo and co-op, was your partner could respawn after thirty seconds if they died. We were never able to take advantage of this in the level and when we tried to use at the most difficult moments, King Scorpion ripped us apart too quickly. After five runs, the hobo turned to me and asked if we could play Fortnite.
Myself and the hobo were in agreeance, while the gameplay is solid and satisfying enough, the roguelite elements drag it down. The perks you get from leveling up don’t have much affect especially when you have to balance shooting and breaking environments. The game play promotes fast pace, but the game drags it down with calculating your score. The levels can be varied, but with bosses gatekeeping your progress, it is hard to be encouraged to reach them. Maybe, someone looking for a Contra-like game mixed with more arcade frustration will find enjoyment in this game. For me, the game doesn’t do enough to motivate me enough to press on. My hunt to silence the voice in my nightmare must continue on though, and I can only do it on my soapbox. Look out world. The Doomsayer is back.