With all the meshing of genres that goes on today, it can be refreshing to play a game unapologetically dedicated to a single kind of experience. In this case, Metroidvania - exploring a large static map where you get access to new areas as you acquire new abilities. Chasm does manage to do this. Unfortunately, it struggles to make that experience consistently fun. One of the most memorable other traditional Metroidvania games I've played is Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, on the Game Boy Advance.
I love Circle of the Moon, particularly its deep spell system, which lets you combine various effects as you see fit. Paired with your regular weapon, of which there are plenty, this resulted in a huge amount of interesting combinations. Going into Chasm, I hoped for another fun combat system fueled by a host of choices. Chasm tries to do this but falls just short. Of all the weapons I found, there were four types of attack animations, one of which I used for 95% of the game.
Like my memories of Circle of the Moon, Chasm's intro further raised my expectations. There were people to talk to, detailed and beautiful pixel art backdrops of open spaces, castles and villages, interiors and exteriors, and a clear mission to investigate a mining village's plea for help. Once I entered the mine, I felt like I was doing the first level of every RPG ever: the sewer level, where all you do is kill rats. The difference here was that those bloody rats utterly destroyed me. I died, over, and over, and over again.
It wasn't only rats, there were bats too. Rats, bats, slimes, and kobolds. The monster design wasn't mind-blowing, but I knew that later on there would be new zones, new enemies, weapons, spells, equipment, and story. I pushed on.
Going through the game, you'll rescue various villagers that will then act as vendors in the village hub. One of the first is a lady who will sell you spells. The first time I made it back to the village with a big sack of coins, I blew it all on different spells to find something interesting, but quickly discovered that the old lady had ripped me off. I'd had my eyes on a certain boomerang since I'd recently been killed by one wielded by a skeleton. It turned out that my boomerang's range was about one third compared to the skeleton's, and only just beyond that of my standard sword. Well played, old lady. There was also a Molotov, which you can fling about four steps ahead of yourself. I'm supposed to be a knight! Or at least a person with functioning arms.
Oddly enough, the magic knife spell (why is it magic?), where you throw a knife in a straight line, was the most useful. Although low in damage, it has range. I also discovered that some mini-bosses, if only partially on screen, remained still while I chucked all my knives at them.
The armor you equip affects your stats, and this actually gives you a choice beyond simply equipping what's better, such as choosing more intellect for more spellcasting potential over defense for damage reduction. Disappointingly, what you equip is not shown on your actual character.
I ended up relying mostly on my sword. But each time you swing your weapon, you can't move for a few frames. Different weapons have different lengths to this immobility. To me, that's just frustrating, which is admittedly a personal qualm, and I understand it means I have to approach combat a bit more tactfully. However, I discovered that if I attacked in the air, right before hitting the ground, I wouldn't be useless for a few frames. I could do two attacks in quick succession! And thus was born the bunny-hopping knight. Whether intentional or not, it was an awkward way to play.
Otherwise, the movement is fine, for the most part. The jumping is precise and holding the jump button longer determines how high you jump and whether you "float", ever so briefly. There's a back-dash too which I died multiple times trying to master, and gave up on, since it felt completely useless. You also unlock more abilities, like in any Metroidvania, that allow you to progress to new parts of the world. Early on, you get a hook that lets you hang on ledges and a little later, boots that let you wall jump. Individually, they work fine, but together, they tested and then broke my patience. The animation for when you're hanging on a ledge and when you're sliding down a wall (and ready to wall jump) are exactly the same, and the button for wall jumping and climbing a ledge you're hanging on is also the same. Of course, this results in constantly doing wall jumps away from the ledge you want to climb.
Chasm tells its story through several means. The main one is through Basden's dialogue, an archeologist who leads you deeper and deeper underground. There are also journals you discover along the way. These provide some extra backstory to put some flesh on the bones of the story. For me, the real meat was in the rooms with wall paintings (among other things) that you see sprinkled across the map. They were a slice of decent environmental storytelling, making the world feel a bit more real and lived in, and provided some fresh mystery. The story itself is fairly basic. An ancient civilization disappeared down there, and Basden wants to know how, and what this means for the present. While the story never gave me the urge to discover more, what drove me to explore was mostly new monsters and new equipment, which are both lacking in the first five or so hours of the game.
One of Chasm's big selling points is that the entire world is procedurally generated every time you start a new game, based on a seed which you can customize at the start (so you can play the same seed as someone else if you like). On my first playthrough, I believed it, because the world didn't seem handcrafted. Save and quick travel points that are too far apart led to frustration, and since monsters respawn every time you move to a new room, you can't safely backtrack. You end up losing a lot of progress every time you die. On my second and third playthrough of the first two zones, I learned that the randomness of the dungeons is very exaggerated.
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Not only are they almost identical (all the main points are in the same places), they feel the same. I felt like I was playing the exact same map because all the rooms were instantly recognizable from my other playthroughs, and were usually more or less in the same place. Perhaps it makes sense that the first zone (the mines) is always the same, but the second zone ended up being the same too, on all three attempts. I doubt that was a coincidence. Don't go into Chasm expecting great replayability.
You need to be committed to enjoy Chasm. It took me around five hours to start having fun (discounting the great initial intro), which is just too long. You need to get into the groove of its gameplay rhythm, get a few decent items, and get past the first two zones. Discovering a new zone, with new enemies, is (eventually) interesting, and the varied music does a good job of reflecting your surroundings: heavy marching guitar chunking in the catacombs, and echoing sinister drums in the gardens (which is kind of Mayan jungle themed). The vibrant backgrounds and stark difference between zones also help make reaching a new zone exciting. The bosses are enjoyable too - challenging, yet with predictable patterns that are satisfying to learn.
Although the odd ride that is Chasm may slump excessively in the first two zones and doesn't really stand out from the pack due to the underwhelming procedural generation, it manages to find a steadier footing after the first five or so hours. Still, it's hard to justify slogging through that many hours for what is by no means exceptional. Updates may improve the experience of the first two zones, perhaps by giving the player a few new toys to play with. For now, however, you need to do a fair bit of digging to find the fun in Chasm, because it's way down there.
Chasm was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer. Our review is based on a fourteen-hour playthrough that was cut short due to a save game issue.
With underwhelming procedural generation, Chasm fails to stand out from other Metroidvania games due to its simple mechanics and somewhat bland setting. It's still pretty and challenging enough to be occasionally fun.(Review Policy)
- Pretty Visuals
- Thematic Music
- New Zones Can Be Fun To Explore
- Bland Setting
- Poor Procedural Generation
- Erratic Difficulty Curve