Early Access reviews check out a title but never have a final score, just the writers thoughts and recommendation.
At its best moments, Catacomb Kids feels like the roguelike game that I have always dreamed up on paper. I’ve played a lot of roguelikes/lites in the past couple of years, and nothing has come close to the flexibility that Catacombs Kids shows with its gameplay. Though it took me some time to realize how I could manipulate the levels to the fullest extent, when things clicked in Catacomb Kids, I watched in awe as the environment around me became both my weapon and demise.
Even in Early Access form, Catacomb Kids already has a concrete stance on what it wants to be: a dangerous, unforgiving adventure that tells only the bare minimum to its players so they can discover the game themselves. Its mechanics remind me a lot of Spelunky, with each death teaching players how to avoid lethal traps and react to certain enemy types. It distinguishes itself by encouraging players to explore the environment around them, not try to exit each level in the quickest fashion possible. Still, every time I encountered a challenge in Catacomb Kids I had to think fast; sometimes not even having enough time to process what had happened as the screen faded to black, and told me that my kid had died. But, it’s this breakneck pacing of Catacomb Kids that actually brought me back to click the new game button over and over again. I just wanted to see what would happen if I played the cards right the next playthrough.
From the couple hours I’ve played of the current build, the furthest I’ve managed to get past was three levels before my character met death. Most of the time I could only survive up to 5-10 minutes before I clumsily rolled into a pit of spikes, accidentally got crushed by a hammer trap, or alerted the attention of irate orcs who were just trying to enjoy their time in the catacombs sitting down at a dinner table. There was a certain sense of humor throughout all these confrontations; the abruptness of them all had me chuckling time to time.
However, each time I died I could only blame myself for not realizing what was happening around me, and for failing to take control of the situation. Which brings me to one of my favorite aspects of the game - its movement system. Traversing the dark dungeons flowed extremely well in Catacomb Kids. There is an almost parkour-esque feel to how your character moves, from crouching to jump higher, grabbing on to ledges automatically, and rolling through tight spaces; the levels became a playground to see how you can get from point A to point B. There are even some magic spells that you can equip to help you dash faster, and climb walls, which just makes characters even more agile.
The roguelike nature of the Catacomb Kids appears most prominently through its classes, levels, and interactivity. Right now, the current build of Catacomb Kids only has only one playable environment, two mini bosses, two classes and a local versus mode. On the surface this may seem like there is a lack of things to do in Catacomb Kids, but the game’s procedurally generated content packs enough of a punch for endless replayability.
When you start a new game you are immediately confronted with choosing between either a bully (the game’s way of showing a fighter/warrior class) or a poet (a mage/sorceror in this case). From that point on, you can select one of six kids who have both positive and negative stats that are randomized. These range from not being able to swim that well, to having the talent to be more stealthy around enemies. Seeing certain traits, and weaknesses of each playable character really reminded me of Rogue Legacy’s way of letting players choose from a number of preconceived characters.
However, unlike most games that have RPG elements to them, Catacomb Kids has an interesting way of leveling up characters. Instead of accumulating XP from killing mobs or finishing quests, there are orbs hidden in each dungeon floor that you have to activate to level up your skills. This gives players true freedom to do whatever they want inside the game, since there is no loss for not killing enough enemies nor finishing certain tasks.
Though only one environment is currently available, every playthrough of Catacomb Kids was different enough to not bore me. Enemy placement was always interesting, as the game’s AI went aggro against each other, or fell into traps creating situations in which I could weaken a stronger creature before I fought it head on. These natural interactions also helped me realize how I could utilize the environment as my weapon to aid in clearing multiple foes at once. There are some problems with the random level generation, where some chests and traps are placed in such ways that it was impossible to loot or move on respectively, but these events were few and far between.
The interactivity of the levels though, is what really saves Catacomb Kids from getting redundant. The level of control you have of your surroundings would even make Duke Nukem jealous in terms of what you can mess around with in the game.
In the case of the first dungeon environment, rocks litter the level giving players the ability to experiment with them. Scenario A: I could simply just throw a rock at enemies to damage them, or Scenario B: I could be smarter, throwing it to distract them, triggering a nearby gas trap so I could then throw a torch into the gas causing them to all burn to death. If you were low on health you could heat up a nearby boulder with a fire spell, push it into a pool of water to make it boil, then use said water to cook and eat some mushrooms to recover health. Dead enemies can also be used as bait, or as weapons themselves. In the case of the goo enemy types, you could pick up the sticky residue they leave behind after they are killed, and throw it to blind enemies. If players just think outside of the box, the possibilities seem endless in Catacomb Kids.
However, throughout my catacomb trials I sometimes found it difficult to creatively use the environment. There were a lot of combat situations where it was hard to sneak by enemies to try something mischievous. Enemies noticed me even if I was sneaking beneath or above them, leading to confrontations in which I had to jump or drop down to attack them with my weapons. Once I was located, it was hard for me to try to throw them off my track. Due to the fast paced reflex-based nature of the game, when these encounters happened it was a struggle to realize I could try using spells or to set up elaborate traps.
You could say that I should expect these kinds of things from roguelike games, but I wish I could have more opportunities to truly play mind games with the mechanics the game packages. While there are lots of item synergies that happened organically (the AI reacting to traps, and to each other), when I checked out the developer's diary videos, I found that I had not recognized half the things I could do in this game. Instead, I found myself realizing that dodging and hacking away at enemies was sometimes more effective than playing with the tools around me.
- Fluid movement that truly lets the players freely explore levels.
- Fantastic atmosphere and music.
- The leveling up system truly lets players do whatever they want, rather than being tied down by traditional RPG mechanics.
- Fast paced action that rewards players who plan out their each and every move. Recklessness is punished swiftly.
- Players can manipulate the traps, enemies, and environment around them to beat levels in unprecedented amounts of ways.
- The game does a natural job of showing you how the environment doesn’t only affect the player, but also the enemies in the level.
- Some encounters happened so fast that I had a hard time reading what happened.
- Enemies are sometimes too aggressive to the point where it was hard to use the environment around me, or to even simply hide.
My time with Catacomb Kids was always intense and thrilling. Some players might be turned off since the game is so brutal, but for those of us who are familiar with roguelikes/lites you’ll feel right at home. The game’s method of using the environment to achieve tasks is a unique way of creating one less barrier between the player and the game to interact with (such as a crafting menu). The perfect mix of Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, and hack n slashing, Catacomb Kids is definitely worth the $15.99 price tag right now.
The developer, FourbitFriday, is just one hard working man. Like Vlambeer’s approach to Early Access, there is a stream that happens every week showing off the development of the game. FourbitFriday’s Q and A blog page is frequently updated, and is very active on Twitter. The transparency of the development of Catacomb Kids is phenomenal, and it seems as if the game is only going to get better over time.