Play video games long enough and the specter of predictability is destined to develop. Much of the issue stems from how games are created. Unsurprisingly, risk-adverse publishers would rather green-light reiterative works and sequels than gamble on an untested idea. And who’s to blame them? We’ve all seen once-prodigious studios fold after putting out a single failure.
If you’ve even felt that the sensation of discovery has grown increasingly rare, you might want to give Arc System Work’s Inferno Climber a go. While the Yokohama developers could easily pad their pensions with an endless procession of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue sequels, the team has followed the path less traveled, allowing a five-person team to code their own passion project. Presumably, it hasn’t been easy, with Climber forced to scale back its aspirations. Once planned for both PlayStation 4 and PC, the title has narrowed its focus, abandoning its console–based ambitions.
Given the title often evokes the feeling of exploration and experimentation from gaming’s 16 and 32-bit ages, the decision to focus on PC is only slightly ironic. In an era when games can converge on the banal, Inferno Climber feels fresh, with each new milieu offering its own set of mysteries to uncover. While the title is poised to elicit comparison with the Dark Souls series, Climber is no clone, offering a unique take of action-driven survival amidst a surge of antagonist.
Head into the Early Access title, and the game’s opening reveals a wellspring of promise, allowing players to close an adventurer from one of seven different classes. After selecting a vocational expertise, you’re quickly send to battle the Dragon Lord, a hulking opponent who will quickly install a lesson in humility. Following your demise, you meet Death, who unsurprisingly gives you a chance at retribution. But before retaking your role among the living, he forces a Faustian deal that tasks you with collecting a quintet of Purgatory Stones.
With a storyline that’s a bit insubstantial, Inferno’s has to rely on other attributes to compel gamers. One element that bound to draw attention is the game’s use of Unity 5. Although the engine’s drawbacks are known, (especially, it seems, on the PlayStation 4), here’s its visual constraints are used to create visuals that border on the impressionistic. While approaching the Dragon Lord, the game exhibits an unusually far-flung draw distance. But objects aren’t drawn with immaculate precision. Each on-screen element looks slight fuzzy, while when coupled with a fast framerate endows Climber with a hazy, dream-like aesthetic. Undoubtedly, there’s charm in some of the low-poly output, as spindly armed adventurers swing might weapons with valiant force.
Death is kind enough to extend a brief holiday before things get too challenging. Initially, this means guiding players to a treasure chest with an apprentice’s sword inside- which is enough to battle the title’s initial enemies, electrically-protected slimes and the occasional skeleton. As players make their way through stages comprised of clusters of smaller areas (each populated with respawning enemies and items when revisited), it’s clear that Climber values experimentation rather than a guided instruction. Soon, you’ll encounter an enemy firing arrows from the safety of an elevated tower, compelling gamers to think about how to lessen the advantage. You’ll also encounter a plethora of consumables, from pieces of wood to different types of mushrooms, that must be managed through a constricted inventory. Answers emanate from investigation and years of game tradition, as you gradually learn the frailty of Inferno’s mortal coil.
When defeat inevitably occurs, the game is benevolent enough to strike a second chance. Here, Death will extend a contract to a surviving character class, allowing you to venture to your final resting place in hopes of resurrecting the fallen friend. However, if you fail, that characters possessions are lost, making rescue runs both urgency and slightly redundant as you trek though familiar territory. But even in the game’s Early Access state, Climber proves tough but fair, rewarding players who approach the game with prudence.
While the game excels in a number of areas, especially in the exhilaration of learning how to service, there are a few flaws that should have already been fixed within in a month of release. Playing with mouse and keyboard remains a bit of mess, with fixed bindings that seem both arbitrary and awkward. Play the preferred way, by plugging in a controller and the game inexplicably exhibits two different button icons when interacting with objects. Other less serious blemishes are common, such as when carving through a stack of wooden crates creates a cacophony of clipped audio. But largely these lingering transgressions aren’t game-breaking, and the core campaign isn’t burdened by bugs that prohibit progress.
Inferno Climber is currently available on Steam for $19.99
and is expected to leave Early Access on September 9th.