Literal Bullet Hell
Since its inception, gaming has looked to other media for inspiration. Some of the medium's most prominent successes (and failures) have been movie or book adaptations, but there's room for gaming to be more ambitious. Why not imagine Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as a brittle visual novel dating sim? How about H. Rider Haggard's She as an Uncharted-style adventure game? Looking to more modern influences, could Neil Gaiman's American Gods as a neon-drenched run'n'gun roguelite work? Thanks to developer Veewo Games, we don't need to imagine the last item, for that's exactly what the studio's latest project Neon Abyss purports to offer.
The setup is simple: Hades wants the New Gods gone, and it's up to you to help him. You are part of the Grim Squad, a task force set up by Hades to infiltrate the Abyss and dispatch the Gods of things like video-sharing social media, idol culture, and pharmaceuticals. Neon Abyss combines a futuristic spin on Greek mythology with an action-packed bullet-hell roguelite shooter. It's American Gods meets Metal Slug, Marie Phillips' Gods Behaving Badly married to Contra. Very often, Neon Abyss is just as much fun as those combinations suggest. At other times, it's a frustratingly obtuse mess.
Attack And Dethrone Gods
If you've played roguelite shooters like Enter the Gungeon or Nuclear Throne, you'll be familiar with Neon Abyss' central gameplay conceit. Each run takes you through a series of procedurally-generated 2D dungeons complete with secret rooms to find and items to gather. Every stage has a boss to kill, and every boss drops currency to help you upgrade your dungeon (crucially, it's not the character you're upgrading) and make future runs a little easier. In this way, Neon Abyss keeps things interesting and makes sure every single run feels useful. There isn't the oft-encountered roguelite problem of banging your head against a brick wall; each bang dislodges a brick, so to speak.
The most important thing about roguelite shooters is rarely their overarching structure. It's all about game feel, and Neon Abyss nails this aspect of its design. Aesthetically, it's fine, all run-down cyberpunk neon and crumbling pixel-art brickwork. The visuals do get a little repetitive, but the gameplay more than makes up for this deficit. Gunplay feels smooth and intuitive. There's a variety of weapons to collect, each of which brings a new twist to your arsenal. This isn't quite Enter the Gungeon - the weapon variety doesn't feel as mad or inventive as in that game - but collecting and using new guns certainly feels cathartic and satisfying.
Sadly, a lot of Neon Abyss' ancillary systems get in the way of that shooting. Structurally, it's a fairly standard roguelite, complete with shops, combat challenges, and extra rooms to discover. The lifeblood of roguelites is randomness; games like The Binding of Isaac and Children of Morta offer countless unique rooms and experiences to spice up runs. Otherwise, each run could threaten to feel too much like the last over time. That's the pitfall Neon Abyss falls into. There just isn't enough variation here for runs not to feel repetitive and samey after a while.
Part of the problem is the level design. Neon Abyss is nominally a platformer, but there isn't much clever platforming to be had here. Instead, movement feels like it's getting in the way rather than offering interesting and challenging gameplay variation. Room after room of simple platforming challenges start to feel like irritating barriers to more shooting. Combine this with a small overall number of rooms and you're left with a game that never feels as varied or interesting as roguelites must feel if they're to overcome the repetition problem.
The Abyss Gazes Back Into You
Thankfully, that's something the upgrade system looks to fix, and it mostly succeeds. Each boss you defeat in Neon Abyss rewards you with a single crystal. Amass enough of them and you can start unlocking new items, new characters, and new rooms for each dungeon. When you unlock an item, you'll be given that item for free as a "free trial" for your next run, but after that you'll need to find it in the dungeon's depths. These unlockable extras aren't quite enough to cover up Neon Abyss' somewhat bland flavor, but they do add some much-needed spice to proceedings.
The bosses themselves are creative and cleverly-implemented. They're all takes on American Gods-esque "New Gods", and each has a number of variations with slightly different moves. There are Tik and Tok, for example, who are the gods of video-sharing social media. You might encounter Charlie, the god of pills, or Kimmy, the goddess of idols. Neon Abyss brings these bosses to life through vibrant pixel art, but there aren't enough of them to stop them feeling stale after a while. The different variations don't feel distinct enough, with only minor move differences to set them apart.
A major part of roguelites is difficulty. It's important to get this aspect right, because if a roguelite is too hard then players won't want to spend time with it. If it's too easy, however, they'll breeze through it and feel unsatisfied. Neon Abyss has a problem with difficulty. The gulf between Normal and Easy modes is massive. You'll breeze through Easy with no issues, but Normal can sometimes feel unfairly punishing. Moment-to-moment enemy encounters aren't too tricky, but there are some enemies that are frustrating and not enjoyable to fight. When those enemies start piling up, Neon Abyss becomes an exercise in annoyance.
Bosses, too, exhibit this difficulty problem. Early encounters are a complete walk in the park, but later, bosses become irritating bullet sponges. Some bosses feel poorly-tested; one, in particular, tries to telegraph an attack, but the attack never seems to land where Neon Abyss says it will. Spending minutes upon minutes fighting a boss only to die against several attacks that were impossible to predict feels jarring. Overall, though, Neon Abyss has that all-important "just one more try" factor. Every time I died, I wanted to head straight back into the Abyss and show my enemies what-for. It's just a shame the difficulty feels so terribly uneven.
Hitting Rock Bottom
Neon Abyss isn't heavy on narrative, but it still doesn't quite make the most of its setting and theme. The gods you fight simply use their motifs as veneers for different kinds of attacks. There's no pathos involved in killing them, no attempt to explain who they are or where they come from. That's fine if you're not in this for narrative, but roguelites and storytelling don't need to be mutually exclusive. I wanted to know much more about who the New Gods of Neon Abyss were and why I was killing them, but it doesn't seem very interested in that aspect of its world.
Given the way Neon Abyss relies on tired, stale meme humor, though, I'm not sure I want the writers to tell me more about their world. Meme humor is the altar before which Guacamelee and Punch Club were sacrificed. Neon Abyss doesn't quite plumb those depths, but it's certainly on its way down. One particularly egregious example is the "Grabber" pet. Neon Abyss includes pets you can hatch to help you in combat, and one of them, the Grabber, has an...unfortunate sprite. I don't know if this is misguided political point-scoring or misjudged commentary, but it's unwelcome. When it's not spurious memes, it's simply on-the-nose references to other video games. Great games create memes, mediocre ones regurgitate them. Neon Abyss struggles to carve out an identity of its own because it's too busy referencing other, often better, properties.
There's also the issue of Neon Abyss' bugs, which verge on the game-breaking. There's a particularly nasty one that prevents upgrading; opening the upgrade menu simply doesn't show you what upgrades will do or allow you to purchase them. That same bug seems linked to one that won't allow you to teleport between rooms once you're actually in the dungeon. This bug isn't quite as lethal as the upgrade glitch, but it's immensely frustrating and seems to happen disconcertingly often. Given how often I was able to replicate this glitch, it's not a rare occurrence and it's a major roadblock to progress.
Neon Abyss | Final Thoughts
When Neon Abyss isn't being glitchy or making a butterfingered play for "memes the kids like these days", it's fine. It never elevates itself above that level, but it's more than playable and at times highly enjoyable. Dungeons are moreish despite their repetition, although RNG makes some runs feel disproportionately stacked against you. The core shooting mechanics are great, but there isn't quite enough variation in level design, weapon choice, or boss design for Neon Abyss to feel consistently fresh. It'll serve you if you're a roguelite fan who's exhausted all other options, but there are better dungeon-delving shooters out there.
TechRaptor reviewed Neon Abyss on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher. It's also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
- Satisfying Core Shooting Mechanics
- Solid Boss Design
- Compelling Gameplay Loop
- Gets Repetitive Fast
- Uneven Difficulty
- Buggy And Unfinished
- Stale, Cringeworthy "Humor"