One of the things I enjoy most about entertainment in general, is how “genre pieces” can be so different from each other even by working/adhering to the same conventions as each other; take run-based games for instance. There are the obvious rogue-lites and rogue-likes, but beyond those there are score-based games, MetroidVania inspired games – even battle royale games can be considered to be run-based. After spending a few hours with each of the most recent run-based games, I wanted to take a look at what they attempted to bring to the genre and if they succeeded.
I want to start with Bloodroots, because that is the one that has the most “inspired” concept out of most recent, run-based games. You play as Mr. Wolf and at the beginning of the game, you are killed by an unsavory bunch of characters; somehow though, you won’t die and you will seek revenge on those characters and to learn the whereabouts of Mr. Black Wolf. Story-wise, as with most run-based games, there’s nothing of note here – although, I do enjoy the fact that story does not get into the way of your enjoyment and it can also be seen as a commentary for the never-ending cycle of violence revenge creates, if you want to be that guy (which I do). Regardless, the pitch for this game is about its gameplay; everything is a weapon, everyone (including yourself) is a “one hit one kill”, you get a score at the end and a leaderboard to claim bragging rights over your friends. Speed, combos, and variety of weapons used are prioritized, so you get very quickly in this rhythm of sprinting head first into combat and then improvising the rest; you see a carrot and use that, then you see a ladder and use that, until you die or clear out the area and move on. This works surprisingly well; the game isn’t particularly hard (in terms of finishing the levels) which is great, but you don’t get good enough scores if you play safe, so you go back and try going faster, or not holding on to the same weapon for too long, to get better and better scores. The game is really informative about why your score is the way it is, and it also doesn’t really punish you for playing the game the way you want to play it. It’s also a great-looking game, with a very distinct and striking art-style. My issue with it are the controls for mouse and keyboard; they never felt great and I would usually feel cheated by them, so I quickly switched to a controller and it worked great. That made me realize though that the game doesn’t really offer anything else beyond chasing scores and seeing the levels through; that’s fine, not all games need progression systems or a meta-game component, but I like those things and chasing scores was never really my thing. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the game for what it is, but I am finding it more difficult to keep my investment levels high; for example, I like the idea that you unlock different hats that have different properties on them, in order to go back to levels and beat them again with them, but I never did that because I don’t really care about my score. If it had something more than scores to invest in, I would be more into it, but I realize that is asking for a different game, so I’m still really enjoying it the way it is and have no qualms about recommending it.
Things are not as straight-forward with the second game of this article, West of Dead, which is a rogue-lite, cover-based, twin stick shooter. As you can tell just from that description, there are a lot of things going on with this game, and it is why it was so appealing to me to begin with. You play as the undead William Mason (voiced by Ron Perlman) who wakes up in Purgatory and has to travel west, making his way through other undead creatures that stand in his way. Again, as usual with these types of games, story is not the main focus of the game, but I haven’t managed to get very far to tell you that much about it either; West of Dead is not a bad game, but it’s not a good one either. It sits in the Purgatory between those two realms, much like its premise; on the one hand, its systems and concept are compelling and interesting, its art-style unique, but on the other it is plagued by technical issues and an over-reliance on randomness that does not serve it at all. It will give you two slots for weapons, two for abilities, and a slot for a passive perk, but the balance to me feels way off; if those weapons aren’t shotguns or rifles, then I’m screwed, and if those abilities do not contain a dynamite stick, then they are worthless. Even when I got the weapons I wanted, the generating of levels will sometimes screw you over with elevated segments that make it hard to react to. Beyond even those variables, the combat does not provide enough depth or satisfaction to engage with on repeat from the beginning of the game every time you die; pistols and revolvers just lack the punch needed to sell their power, while enemies of the first level don’t really offer enough of a challenge.
But, when things click, West of Dead is pretty fun; getting into cover, shooting and avoiding damage, dodging projectiles until you reload, and then finishing off the hostiles, is great fun when everything works. Central to that working is the light mechanic; all areas have darkness and you can light lanterns to see the enemies and temporarily stun them, so when randomization works, you’ll enter a room, find a lantern and light it, before being given the essential information you need to form a plan to deal with that room. A lot of the times though, that simply won’t work; you’ll be aiming at hanging crates instead of enemies; you’ll shoot enemies but the hits won’t register. Admittedly, it’s not huge technical issues, but in a game like this, it could mean the difference between ending a run or dooming one. Beyond that, you have a meta-game component which allows you to invest currency between levels that will permanently unlock new gear, and bosses that will drop permanent abilities like fast travel if defeated, which are features I deeply appreciate in these games.
However, even luck on my side, I just never found the game to be drawing me in; I had fun while playing it, and plan to continue to play it, but because of the oversaturation of these games there needs to be something that will keep you hooked for it to be a success. That’s why I loved Dead Cells and Slay the Spire, they both made me want to keep playing and loose track of time, because I just wanted one more run. Unfortunately, neither of these games made me do that; Bloodroots is something I’ve come back to occasionally and didn’t ever plan to play through it in 2 days, while West of Dead is still something I come back to once in a while