Thursday, June 28

Review: Paranautical Activity [Nintendo Switch eShop]

The indie practice of going retro style can be a real tightrope walk, without question. Certainly pulling things back in terms of the overall visual complexity can simplify the development process, whether using pixel art or the blocky voxel style utilized in Paranautical Activity. The issue that arises is that when these simplifications are paired with excellent gameplay and mechanics such cost-saving measures can be forgiven, but when the gameplay struggles as well it can be a bit of a disaster.

The closest visual comparison I can think of for the title overall would possibly be Quake, except with voxels instead of polygons, and the gameplay isn’t nearly as compelling. What’s notable about the environments is how sparse they are and most levels have a pretty low number of enemies, and yet there is a delay loading the enemies as you enter every room. There’s no doubt that in place of numbers the developer opted to shoot for originality, and there’s no doubt that the menagerie of enemies is distinctive, but no matter how silly or odd they may be they’re still not often terribly interesting. Many fire projectiles of some sort, some simply come at you with all they have, and then there are the bosses who can exhibit a variety of aggressive styles generally… but as a whole it all tends to be extremely straightforward.

In order to do battle with these beasts you’ll get to choose between 4 different starter configurations, mapping to the characters you’ll see in the game art. To be honest I really only found the one build to be viable, mixing a shotgun with a cannon. The crossbow is novel but a bit of a pain, as is the grenade launcher. In general melee weapons are novel but not terribly useful, regardless of their theming or visual flair. You’ll sometimes get the opportunity to pick up a different weapon along the way in your run, it having a roguelike style makes things a bit unpredictable, but honestly very few weapons I ever picked up were terribly useful. On the whole the lack of insight into what weapons, or any item pick-ups for that matter, do until you select them can be frustrating, though I suppose it’s just part of the intended experience.

If the gameplay was tight and exciting it would be easier to overlook the above quibbles but unfortunately the action is pretty dull. For all of its flair for unusual monsters and generally non-traditional weapons success boils down to circle strafing in the vast majority of situations you’ll face, making victory more often an exercise than exciting. Once you’re empowered with this knowledge it then tends to boil down to moments where the game gets a bit cheap to defeat you. There really doesn’t seem to be a sense of balancing from room to room and suddenly facing a load of enemies that simply overwhelm you or a boss that has attacks you’re unable to move quickly enough to evade and must simply survive is the norm for death. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a sweet spot of defeating satisfyingly challenging foes, just chipping away at and outlasting big ones and picking off the simpler ones… and then you die.

As with all roguelikes I would imagine there will be a crowd that finds the mix of gameplay in Paranautical Activity entertaining and challenging in some way. Once you get into your groove you can certainly move through multiple levels and find success, with some random elements thrown in along the way so you’re never quite sure how things will shake out. That said in terms of FPS action this is a very shallow and generally dull experience reminiscent of unevolved gameplay from the same era that inspired the game’s visuals. Oddly-themed enemies and being different aren’t enough to save what’s ultimately uninteresting play.

Score: 5

  • Many enemies and weapons you’ve likely never seen in a FPS before
  • Roguelike elements keep things from being too predictable

  • FPS mechanics as dated as the retro visual style
  • Many weapons are more trouble than they’re worth to use
  • Challenge varies from mind-numbingly easy to outright cheap