I sometimes wonder what frontiers gaming has left to overcome. The pursuit of graphical realism is drawing ever-closer to its goal. What then? Perhaps, like Alexander the Great, Tim Sweeney will weep, for there are no more worlds to conquer. Luckily, Struggling gives something of an answer to that question. When realism loses its luster, surrealism will reign supreme. It's not perfect but, at its best, it brings bucketloads of madcap entertainment.
Struggling is the debut game for Montreal-based studio Chasing Rats, who are hoping to make their mark on the crowded indie gaming market. If this game is anything to go by, they're definitely ones to watch. Struggling is a masterclass in how to make a great game without flashy graphics or complex mechanics. It shows that simplicity is often the ultimate sophistication: the graphics are still striking and evocative and the gameplay has surprising depth.
After we'd been playing the co-op mode for about half an hour, my girlfriend looked at me with a huge grin on her face and said, "this is awful! I'm having the worst time in the world". That pretty much sums it up. Struggling can be frustrating, confusing and, at times, downright disgusting but it's undoubtedly a lot of fun. There's nearly always a substantial payoff for any moments where your controller is in danger from the periodical rage-inducing platforming the game throws at you. Sometimes, I think Struggling actually wants you to hate it. Still, despite its best efforts, I didn't, as it delivers many moments of genuine humor, tension, and unbridled entertainment.
Army of Two
Struggling has you take control of Troy, a mutant formed of two separate personalities fused together: Achilles and Hector. The grandiose opening cinematic sets the scene with a tale of an ancient civilization of mutants fallen from glory: your job is to go on a quest to restore that glory on behalf of mutants everywhere. I know what you're thinking: Achilles? Troy? Ancient civilizations? Is it based on The Iliad? Not quite. The classical nomenclature and themes run through the narrative, with various mythological character names cropping up along the way. However, I couldn't piece together more than a superficial significance to this. It adds a bit of extra color to the game, I suppose.
Achilles and Hector each control a single arm/leg/appendage independently and getting them to work together is the titular struggle of the game. The physics-based puzzles require surprising dexterity to traverse. At first, I could only manage a labored shuffle. By the end, though, I was leaping from platform to platform with satisfying deftness. Achilles and Hector have to function as one to guide Troy through a remarkable series of platforms, puzzles, and gigantic set pieces. All puzzles were surmountable through creative and dextrous use of Troy's appendages and weird and wonderful abilities.
It's important to mention that the similarities to Le Cartel Studio's excellent Heave Ho are glaring at first. The pendulous, momentum-based physics are almost identical, in fact. This colored my early game experience quite a lot but it's testament to Struggling that it completely won me over. By the end of the game, I was satisfied that it justifies itself as a thoroughly unique gameplay and narrative experience.
Variety is the Spice of Strife
Much like Troy itself, the score lurches around unpredictably. Struggling features one of my favorite game soundtracks of all time. Really. The sense of creativity and abandon matches the gameplay perfectly. For example, pressing a big red button is the cue for a heavy dubstep drop that wouldn't have been out of place at a rave in 2008. All the while, spiky lumps of indeterminate flesh rain down around you. The dubstep quickly transitions to a dreamlike circus theme as you swing yourself across a yawning vat of acid. That might sound a bit hard to swallow but, like Struggling as a whole, it weirdly works.
The dedication and attention to detail is staggering. The last game I played that had such an impressive degree of synchronicity between soundtrack and action was Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Though it doesn't quite hit the dizzying heights of the Nintendo Switch's flagship title, this gives Struggling a certain pedigree for an indie game. The variety of genres is also impressive. The game is roughly divided into four distinct biomes, with the soundtrack taking the player on a genre-bending journey of music within each area. Take the Canyon section. A less ambitious game might have been content with a simple country and western tune for this area. Not so for Struggling. One minute you're scaling a mountain to a cinematic harmonica theme reminiscent of the late, great Ennio Morricone. The next you're blundering through a saloon, accompanied by the sound of smashing glasses, guns firing, and a rollicking bluegrass melody. You also get opera, blues, industrial techno, and a splendid Russian polka along the way. The songs were memorable and I found myself humming some of the tunes to myself long after the credits had rolled.
The level design was also a highlight. The four biomes were all rendered with Struggling's simple but striking cartoonish style but all felt distinct. The hazy sunset pallet of the early Canyon area was particularly pretty.
Many of the set pieces were awe-inspiring in their wacky imagination and creative use of the core game mechanics. I also frequently found myself laughing out loud at the things that happened to Troy throughout its adventure. The opening few levels are fairly routine, enough for you to get into the swing - pun very much intended - of things, but Struggling manages to mix it up enough with madcap encounters for the gameplay to never feel stale. New abilities and puzzles are thrown into the mix as you go along, keeping you on your toes throughout Troy's pilgrimage. Without wanting to spoil anything, the weird and wonderful stylistic and narrative interludes are a welcome addition as well. You can't take anything for granted during your adventure, and that's a good thing.
Having said all that, the game is way too hard at points.
Now, I'm no stranger to hard games. Dark Souls and the rest of the Soulsborne series, often a benchmark and cultural touchstone for difficulty in gaming, are some of my favorite titles ever. Despite that, there were times when I was close to smashing my controller to pieces while playing Struggling. Some exacting platforming sections gave me a sense of elation when I'd finally conquered them. However, there were some bits where, after overcoming a stretch that'd had me banging my head against a wall for ages, I only felt frustration and annoyance. Making a hard game is an incredibly precise balancing act which Struggling doesn't always get right.
The game lends itself to co-op, with one player taking control of Hector and the other Achilles. That's how I started the game, with my girlfriend taking control of one arm. However, we soon gave that up for the sake of the relationship. Some bits are so difficult I don't know how they'd be possible for two players.
It all comes down to fairness. A difficulty spike that's centered around mastering a certain mechanic can be rewarding. You're using the skills you've developed through playing the game to overcome its obstacles. That's something Dark Souls does incredibly well and Struggling manages this at times too. I definitely found my adeptness in maneuvering through its weird and wonderful levels improved as I went along and that felt great. However, certain sections were just unfair. I felt like my success was sometimes much more dependent on luck than skill as the physics of the game work against you at times. It often seemed like I was only one unlucky bounce away from being catapulted into a pit of spikes or plunged into a vat of acid. Certain sections made me wonder who'd playtested them. It'd take an ardent masochist to enjoy some of Struggling's more difficult platforming sections. Ninja Gaiden II would have seemed like a bit of light relief in comparison.
I had a few more gripes, including bugs that meant I had to close and relaunch the game several times. Also, the level design, while usually fantastic, occasionally felt a bit lazy. Excursions off the beaten track early on in the game were rewarded by the discovery of items or shortcuts. However, there were times later on when I'd slog up the side of a mountain for several minutes just to find an impenetrable wall of spikes at the top. I don't know if this was intentional or not but it certainly didn't add anything to my experience.
Despite the ordeal it deliberately inflicts on you, Struggling is a great game. The developers clearly had a lot of fun while making it, something that shines through while you swing, squelch, and, dare I say it, struggle through its weird and wonderful world. The simplicity of the game's early levels belies its status as a work of immense creativity and imagination. I laughed, I groaned, I had a lot of fun. Struggling sometimes comes down on the wrong side of hard and the bugs are annoying at times. However, this isn't enough to stop it from being a fantastic debut for a studio I'll definitely be keeping an eye on in the future.
TechRaptor reviewed Struggling on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the developer. The game is also available on Steam.
- Excellent Soundtrack
- Great Imagination and Creativity
- Surprising Depth to the Gameplay
- Satisfying Level Design
- Unreasonably Difficult at Times
- Bugs Sometimes Interrupt the Flow of the Game