I enjoy Metroidvania titles, but there’s a certain loneliness that’s been missing from many of the ones I’ve played over the years. There was always this crushing sense of solitude in many of the Metroid games, a melancholy in the music and surroundings that carried a creeping menace. You were in a very dangerous place, and you were all alone. No one could help pull you out of the acid if you fell in, digitally beeping out your screams as you drowned. It was an odd experience that made things feel more dangerous even as my payload of missiles and bombs increased. Chasm tries to get back to that fear of being in trouble with no one to turn to in a variety of ways. Even in the early build that Discord Games supplied, you can’t help but see that.
The danger levels are pretty high, right form the start. Once you enter the mines, the enemies seem pretty softball, a handful of bats and worms acting more like tripping hazards than actual dangers. Still, running into them hurts quite a bit, and they can easily knock you into the hundreds of spikes that jut up from almost every floor. The platforms hanging or moving over them are often small, and much of the game is lined with long drops where you can’t see the bottom. Are there spikes down there? Oh God, yes. Are they right under you? That’s what’s hard to guess. While they don’t kill you instantly, they hurt you a lot, making them a constant, pressing concern.
Given the high damage of enemies and spikes, it is very, very easy to go from full health to death in Chasm. One slip – one screw-up – is often enough to put you in a dangerous state. It tells players to move very carefully while they’re exploring the mines, or else they might find themselves adding to the rooms lined with skulls in the catacombs.
So what? You can get hurt and die in any game. What makes this one seem so lonely and oppressive? The trick is that there are a whole lot of things you can do to make yourself stronger and tougher, but they just don’t show up that often. When you kill creatures in the game, they drop essence, which has multiple purposes. You can use it at fires (the game’s checkpoints) to level yourself up, but that gets expensive quite quickly. Your essence may be better spent on items that you can buy from the shopkeepers, but that starts off absurdly expensive right from the beginning as well. Do you choose to take a few level ups or buy a piece of gear that gives you a bonus? Both will make you stronger, so there’s really no downfall, but affording them quickly becomes a problem. I only just had a piece of equipment on each of my slots by the preview’s end, and had only gained a few levels. Rewards come slowly in Chasm.
Finding loot in the mines seems like a good way to counter how expensive it is to buy things, but there’s not a lot of that either. Most of what you find are items that you can sell in town for more essence, but very little that does much actual good in the mines. The few items I did find would raise one attribute at the cost of another, so it was always hard to decide what to bother equipping when I found it. Did I want to lose defense for more damage? The best items were often what the shops had for sale, so that meant saving up for a long time. Most of the time, though, I had to make do with whatever crummy gear I could manage to scrounge up, meaning I was always in danger. Even the smallest boosting item was cause for excitement. Chasm makes you really appreciate what little good loot you can find.
Being unable to equip or find much decent equipment made me always feel like I was under-prepared for what I was heading into. Always in danger. I never reached a point where I felt that my equipment was so good that I could take hits and not care. I was always in trouble; always a few hits from death. I never felt confident while working through the tunnels and pits, so it kept my platforming and gameplay sharp. Games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night couldn’t manage this feeling, as I always felt like I could overpower anything with a few minutes of grinding or the right item. In Chasm, anything that tips the scales in your favor will take a lot of work to get.
The game’s not without mercy, though. If you manage to find an item, the game saves. So, if you die after finding something, you’ll still respawn with the item in your inventory. It’s a nice touch considering some of the spiky death traps you have to go through twice (once on the way, then once back) to get many of them. However, you will drop all the essence you’re carrying when you die, right in the spot you left it. You might have your item, but all of that money you’ve been saving to level up or buy something is still sitting in some blood-soaked corridor. Given how expensive everything is, you really need to get that back. Getting it is a huge risk, though.
All of these mechanics result in a game where the player is often underpowered. Skillful jumping and attacking will make a huge difference in how far you make it, as the game demands you play it well. You can buy small bonuses to help yourself, but for the most part, just jumping through the game’s traps and carefully attacking its monsters are the way to get through. I felt like I was being constantly tested by each new room, with the developers laughing somewhere as they pushed the jumps father apart and littered more sharp objects around.
Many of the earliest games demanded this kind of skill as well, but could be overcome by memorization. If you know the dungeon and the monster placements, eventually you’ll breeze through it. Chasm stops that by generating the dungeon when you start up a new game. If you continue from a save your dungeon layout won’t change, but every new game you start up will change the way the mine is set up. Not only does this keep the player from getting a leg up through memorization, it keeps familiarity from setting in and making the player feel comfortable. Players will eventually get to feel that they know their layout on a single playthrough, but don’t expect to check a walkthrough for help. No one will know the particular trouble you’re in. This also means that you have a brand new dungeon every time you play, making future runs at the game more fun. Exploration is a huge draw to Metroidvania titles, so procedural generation really adds to Chasm‘s appeal, while enhancing its uncomfortable, lonely mood.
Other things enhance the feelings of solitude as well. There are almost no other people anywhere in the game, save for the starting village. I ran into a single person in the mines who quickly fled, the rest of the dungeon filled with bones and notes from people who’d come here before me, but never left. By contrast, the town steadily fills with life, as a few survivors from the mines trickle in and set up shop. It’s like stepping into another world, and it’s soothing to see those other faces again, even if they’re just digital characters. This also means that running into someone in the mines is cause for excitement, mainly because they might add something new to your town, but also because there’s not a whole lot of anyone down there who’s still alive. It made the single moment where I talked to someone in the mine feel special and important.
The rest of my time was spent exploring the pretty pixelated spiked halls. The mine has several different areas, branching out into something that’s more than just underground caves. The preview build let me see a bit of a lush garden that was down there, but for the most part I was wandering through spike-lined halls and the skull-filled pits of the catacombs. They’re stuffy, oppressive places filled with broken machinery and the dust-covered bones of unknown people. Various treasures and notes give hints as to what happened to all of these people, and it doesn’t make the area feel any more welcoming.
The music takes the already stifling atmosphere and makes it crushing. Items and the look of the game make it feel lonely, but the sombre music never seems to cheer up outside of town. Even there, it only seems upbeat compared to the rest of the game, showing a little hope in its cheerful but dark mood. The rest of the music is quiet and calming, but seems to echo off of the rock walls and scattered bones. The soundtrack for the preview just has this depressing quality to it that ties up the game’s feelings of being alone. It’s mysterious and sad, reminding me of days spent crawling through Norfair.
If this somehow isn’t enough for you, the game contains a Hardcore mode where death is permanent. Ha…hahaha. No. This game is hard enough already. Still, if you really want to test yourself, having to go blindly into a procedurally-generated dungeon and never die will do the trick.
Chasm is a sharp 2D dungeon-exploring experience, one that really nails an oppressive atmosphere that makes the game feel dangerous and lonely at the same time. The two areas from the preview build show that the developers at Discord Games have an excellent grasp of how to give the game a strong mood through gameplay, music, and visuals. It’s a solid action game that will challenge platforming and action fans, and this is just the Alpha build. With the tease of the beautiful garden stage, it’s exciting to wonder at what will be coming next for this already-great game.
The Alpha build of Chasm is available to those who preorder the deluxe edition for $29.99. The regular game is $14.99.