When you enjoy something very much and consider it your hobby, you usually start considering why you enjoy it, so that you can make more informed decision about how to spend your time in a more satisfying and entertaining way; I love most forms of entertainment and my time is very limited, which means I cannot give everything a chance and I have to decide – based on the information I have – which of the options available to me will be worth my time and money. Sometimes this is pretty straightforward; I don’t enjoy EDM or any particular artist that fall into that genre, so I don’t pay attention to it and the rare track I enjoy from that style is merely an exception (thus far). However, very rarely these exceptions are coming consistently from one particular source in that genre/sub-genre and that style (despite how much I dislike it in general) from that particular, creative force becomes something I love for the exact reasons I hate most other examples. The example I’m referring to is Michael Bay and how his style of action is, in many regards, completely contrary to what I like about action movies. I like practical and on-screen action, where the actors/stuntmen learn the choreography, meticulously design the sets, the movements, and use wide, continuous shots to capture the adrenaline rush of watching these feats play out in “real time”; CGI-heavy movies tend to go over-the-top in a way that makes me loose interest and not be invested in what is happening, because I feel like what I’m watching is frivolous or superficial, which is the most important aspect of any action movie. Yet, Michael Bay’s sensory overload, rapid-editing, over-the-top plots and set-pieces, laughable characters, and questionable attempts at humor and investing the viewer in what happens, has become one of my favorite action directors; his unique style, ability to capture on-set chaos and blend it seamlessly with CGI, as well as his absolute views on what is “cool” and what makes an action movie good, always force me to shut off my brain and be swept up by a wave of adrenaline and excitement. Even more impressive is that under close examination of his decisions and style, I have gained so much more respect for the artist that I no longer consider his movies “guilty pleasures” but as genuinely good movies.
So, what does any of this have to do with Neon Abyss, an indie, rogue-like game? Like I said in the title, Neon Abyss holds the same spot in my heart as Michael Bay, as it does something I KNOW I don’t like in other rogue-like games, but does it with such style, confidence, and quality, that I can’t help but enjoy myself – so much so that it is definitely one of my favorite games of the year so far and one of my favorite rogue-like games. Before I get into why, let me first explain what I like so much about rogue-like games. Firstly, they are an experience that can only be experienced through the medium of games, because the primary focus of these games is literal player progression, rather than mechanical or systemic. That means, regardless of what weapons you have, how much upgrades you unlocked or gained, what drives progression forward is your ability; your ability to deal with enemies and levels, your ability to progress without needlessly using valuable resources, your ability to adapt to “bad luck” or inversely to maximize efficiency on “good luck”. Then, we have the randomness that keeps everything fresh and allows for infinite replayability, the ‘tangible’ progression systems that allow the player to unlock new layouts and tougher bosses/enemies, as well as the opportunity to get better gear and items, and the need for these types of games that ask you to engage with a consistent skill set in a randomized world, to have fundamentally engaging and satisfying gameplay; movement needs to be precise and fluid, combat needs to be satisfying and deep, enemies need to be tough but fair – if any of these core elements are off, regardless of what the game has to offer, you will not be engaged or interested enough to see it.
Having taken this obscene amount of time to properly set up the discussion for Neon Abyss, let’s actually talk about it. First off, the fundamentals are all in place: Movement is precise and fluid, combat is satisfying and deep, enemies are tough but fair. This is the toughest part to get right and Neon Abyss delivers; I never ended a run feeling like the game directly screwed me over, it was all my fault and could have been prevented. Secondly, Neon Abyss actually makes one thing possible that rarely, if ever, is allowed in rogue-likes: You can get OP in this game. It doesn’t happen often and requires an extremely lucky roll of the RNG dice, but I had a run where the final boss was won by me standing in a corner and destroying it, without moving. I love this; so many rogue-likes like Dead Cells like to limit you by allowing a few slots for equipment, or giving you extremely useful abilities that come with very obvious setbacks. Neon Abyss simply allows for the possibility that everything will fall into place and you will be virtually unkillable and it does not ruin the progression, because the game is separated in 5 “levels” where a sequence of random levels consisting of bosses at the end need to be completed. So, even if you are OP, by the 3rd level you will have to face 8, increasingly difficult bosses, where health persists in-between, so it is still a literal player progression, but it allows for moments of feeling unstoppable. Even if you keep getting good rolls of luck, the final boss is always a new “manager” (think of each map’s boss as a mid-boss and the last boss as a regular one) with new moves and phases, but even if you do manage to brute force your way through them, you’ll still start fresh next time and the likelihood of you being OP again is very small; that’s the true brilliance of this system, it is very unlikely to happen, but when it does it is awesome.
To me, what sets Neon Abyss apart from other rogue-likes is the inherent randomness it has and how that affects a lot of aspects of the game, not just a set few. Yes, the layout, loot drops, bosses, and number & location of enemies spawned are random like other similar games, but Neon Abyss does not stop there; entire mechanics are random, like fishing that is specific to one weapon that appears randomly, special rooms that require keys or grenades to access that you simply may not have, or character specific rooms that require the special ability of a character to access. Even movement is tied to randomness, as only specific hats will give you the ability to jump more than once or literally fly to reach new places and create new combat tactics. When these various random RNG elements come together, they create a game that is not about having a playstyle and becoming efficient with it, but adapting to the style the randomness gives you; sometimes it is about earning coin and not spending it – because you have a hat that gives you more damage the more coins you have – and sometimes it is about spending those coins to get better gear.
This is why I used Michael Bay as an example and not any other of the dozens of examples I could come up with; what defines Neon Abyss, what makes it amazing is the chaos it creates. What is particularly interesting about Neon Abyss is that the chaos is something you can see coming and deal with, but that is where a lot of risk is involved; for example, if you get the drops that allow you to shoot faster and deal more damage the more coins you have, then having the grabber pet – which collects coins and has a chance to randomly drop pickups – is both a curse and a blessing, depending on the risk you want to take. Obviously, if the pet grabs the coins then you don’t have enough coins to buy stuff or build up those perks and getting rid of it (by leading it into enemy fire) early on might seem like the best thing, but hold on to it and deal with lower damage and you could get its random pickups and kill it when you really need to get all the coins it collected in one go. This high risk, high reward ethos is present in most games of this genre, but here it is taken to another level in terms of both strategy and spectacle; pets that simply shoot at other enemies may level up and start randomly throwing bombs that make it very hard to keep track of where you are and what is happening, or pets that collect hearts to maybe drop shields could save you later on if they die at the right time and drop all the hearts they collected. Due to this chaos that can ensue with you having multiple tasks within any given room, the game can get divisive; unlike beloved games in this genre like Dead Cells, half of the times I died I wasn’t directly responsible, but I was always indirectly, meaning I didn’t purposefully throw myself on spikes, but I did keep the pet that throws random bombs and pick up the hat that either doubles the damage received or ignores it. Some people will not like that, but I always found it entertaining and never felt like the game screwed me over.
While the randomized elements make the game unique, there are consistent elements that ground the game and make it interesting each run, like the belief system; scattered throughout the levels are various doors and objects that need crystals to open (basically a resource that allows you to interact with those objects or use an active ability of a weapon) and the belief system will help you define your run in an interesting way. If you spent those crystals to open the doors and objects you find, then you have a wisdom meter, but if you shoot them and sacrifice some health you have a violence meter, which changes the way you proceed in your run; wisdom needs for you to be precise, not shoot wildly, get out of situations unscathed, and rewards you with more hats, but violence allows you to keep your crystals and make mistakes, but needs you to sacrifice some health to reap the rewards. Once the meter fills up, you can travel to a newly opened location and choose a reward; wisdom may only have one (no more than two) to choose from but does not require anything else, but violence will have three to choose from, but require the sacrifice of a heart permanently. Beyond that, there are several progression systems that are more traditional for the genre; each time you clear a boss, they drop a currency that can be spent on after a run ends to unlock new rules (like a light showing secret rooms on certain floors), new rooms (like a piano mini-game that rewards hats if beaten), new hats, and new characters that each have unique characteristics. What’s impressive here is that each character unlocked, unlocks a new skill tree with another character as part of it, so there are so many things to unlock and each add a new flavor and possibilities to each run, it makes the replayability and completionism value undeniably worth the price of the game. Furthermore, there are difficulty levels (not something I often see in these games) for people to finely tune their experience.
While all of these mechanics and systems are wonderfully deep and engaging, Neon Abyss does not forget to get the basic elements right; I’ve already spoken about movement and combat, but Neon Abyss is also presented in a colorful and clean way. I’m mostly able to keep track of my character, the enemies, and the objects in the room, regardless of how chaotic it becomes – key word there being mostly. Later on in the run, rooms (especially boss ones) become way too chaotic and this is where that high risk, high reward comes into play; yes your gun may be able to shoot a billion shoots, but in a room with a billion things moving, adding to that makes what is going on borderline incomprehensible. I’ve touched on this previously, but I do feel this is intentional and when things are quieter, the action is readable and clean.
Just like with any games, you can find something to criticize and Neon Abyss is no different. From small things like music not being as distinct as it could have been and rooms not looking different as you progress through the game, but those are not something that really bothered me. The one that actually did affect my enjoyment of the game is really a byproduct of the freedom the game wishes to allow; the first two “managers” were pretty easy for me and it never really introduced all the things I talked about in an organic way. That means that for a big period of time, I was simply stuck on the 3rd “manager” thinking that I kept getting bad dice rolls, when in fact the game was literally forcing me to get better and interact with its mechanics in a more thoughtful way.
Just like Michael Bay, Neon Abyss will either be loved or hated for the exact same reasons either side will point to as a good thing or a bad thing; I can see a critique of the game listing everything I talked about here but in a negative context with valid reasoning as well. Thankfully, this game is on Gamepass for both console and PC, so you can make up your mind for yourself (if the free demo is not enough for you), however I fall on the loved side; this game has quickly become an addiction, wanting to screw around for half an hour and ending up spending half a day on it, has become a frequent occurrence for me. I hope I’ve convinced you to give it a shot, because it is worth that much at the very least, and it will certainly remain in my library and my playing list for quite a while yet.