An incredible take on the Spelunky formula of roguelike + platformer, Caveblazers excels in almost every way, with only a couple of sizable flaws holding it back from reaching it’s full potential.
Genre: Roguelike Platformer
Developer: Rupeck Games
Publisher: The Yogscast
Release date: 24 May, 2017
While I’ve always liked the ideas behind Spelunky, one of the most popular and well-known games in this genre, there have always been certain things about it that have kept me from really getting into it. I just couldn’t stay interested, and tired of it quickly. It left me wanting more, some other take on the formula that would add complexity while getting rid of the things I didn’t like about it. Finally, after so very long, a game that does just that has been released, and that game is Caveblazers. It uses the basic formula of Spelunky as a base: A platformer where you traverse each level starting from the top, head down to the exit at the bottom, avoid or defeat enemies along the way, and seek out treasure or items to help boost your score. However, where Spelunky went for simplicity with every single aspect of its gameplay, Caveblazers instead goes for complexity. The combat system, the items, enemy attack patterns, bosses – everything in the game takes the theme of complexity and runs with it. And it does it well. Very well, actually. The complexity of the game might not be for everyone. Some may still prefer the relative simplicity of something like Spelunky, but for players like me, well, I can say this is pretty much exactly what I’d wanted this whole time. Granted, it has a couple of nasty issues that can get in the way a bit, but we’ll get to that later.
It’s not Spelunky
Let’s start with the basics here. As I said above, Caveblazers has you running through each level, from the top to the exit at the bottom. A simple formula that will keep up throughout the entire game. However, where Spelunky often seemed to favor a sort of speedrun meta, outright punishing you with the appearance of a ghost if you spent more than a couple of minutes wandering around, Caveblazers puts an extreme emphasis on fully exploring each level. Levels are huge, filled with all sorts of branching paths littered with things to find. Pots to smash, crates to bash, and various types of treasure chests full of money and other things. Unlike Spelunky, you’re not only after the gold here. Caveblazers uses a full equipment and inventory system, complete with an array of important character stats for you to keep track of. You can equip a melee weapon, ranged weapon, one magic item, and two rings by default. Each of these things is very important, so one of your major goals is to seek out items that you can use to power up your character as you go. Items actually appear pretty frequently, which is great. It means that there is a constant feeling of being rewarded for exploration, as opposed to only finding something interesting on rare occasions like in many games in this genre. You’ll also find Blessings, powerful passive effects that are a bit like major items in The Binding of Isaac. They tend to have effects that can really define your build, and there is no limit to the number of them that you can have… it’s always worth seeking out as many as you can get. And of course, the other thing you’ll find in your travels are monsters. Monsters EVERYWHERE. This is one of those games that’s absolutely willing to smash your face in immediately, as the endless hordes of bad guys constantly try to murder you. With so many enemies around though… it’s a good thing that the game’s combat system is absolutely fantastic.
When it comes to combat, you have two main methods of fighting. You have various melee attacks, and then you have your ranged weapon, usually a bow of some sort. Melee attacks are usually very short-ranged moves, requiring you to get extremely close to your enemies. Repeated button presses will allow you to use a three hit combo as long as you’re on the ground, with the final hit being a heavy blow that can sometimes have special effects based on your equipment. You can also slash in midair, or use a falling downward stab attack to surprise your foes. Ranged attacks are obviously a bit different, using a twin-stick control scheme for aiming. What might seem odd about them at first though is that you do not have full 360-degree aiming here… you can only aim in 8 directions. This may seem restrictive, but I found that I got used to it very quickly, and in some ways actually preferred it over normal aiming found in other games, as it does away with the often wobbly aim that can come from using analog sticks in this type of game. Whenever I fire, I know EXACTLY where my arrow is going, and this allows me to be very accurate. You can fire while standing on the ground, or while jumping, and your arrows fly extremely fast. You don’t really have to worry about leading targets here, and you never run out of ammo. With melee attacks requiring you to get super close, and ranged being ultra-fast and being able to extend the length or height of the screen, it may sound like ranged combat is the focus here. In reality, Caveblazers does a superb job of making them equally important. You cannot focus entirely on one of them if you expect to get anywhere in this game. You also have the ability to equip a magic item. Magic items are usually active things, powerful artifacts that charge up as you deal damage. When fully charged, they can be activated to produce some sort of powerful effect. There is a very wide array of effects here. You’ve got direct attacks such as a giant fist that plows through your foes, or things like the Fire Totem, which you set on the ground and acts as a turret, firing at any nearby enemies until it runs out of ammo. There are support effects as well, such as a crystal skull that can generate a shield to prevent enemy arrows or bullets from hitting you, or demonic prayer beads that feed on nearby corpses to power you up with a strong buff depending on just how many it finds within its radius. There is a huge number of these items in the game, and for the most part, they are all fun to use and add lots of depth.
Watch your enemy movements
The other half of combat is facing different types of opponents, whether they be normal enemies found in each level, or monstrous bosses ready to tear you to shreds. The most common type of enemy you will face is collectively referred to an Orc. There are a great many types of Orcs, each with their own unique weapons, behaviors, and traits. Most Orcs have both a melee weapon and a ranged weapon, which tend to work almost exactly like yours does. Orcs of any sort are very dangerous, with quick movement and very accurate attacks. But what makes them particularly interesting is their ability to traverse the level. Both you and the Orcs have the ability to wall-jump… think Megaman X here. This allows both you and them to get around the level with ease… unlike Spelunky, you do not need special tools in order to go upwards, because you can climb your way there. The problem for you though, is that Orcs can do that as well. Using an advanced pathfinding AI, these nasty foes generally have no trouble getting at you, no matter where you may be in a level. Not that the AI is perfect of course. Orcs will, on occasion, get a bit confused about certain bits of terrain, bouncing around like idiots and not managing to properly chase you. However, you will likely find that these moments are rare…. the majority of the time, if you can reach a certain position, so can they, and their aggressive and speedy movements and attacks will cause you no end of trouble. Simply poking at these guys from a distance is not enough, as they have their own ultra-fast arrows to fling at you, which can whittle your health down quickly if you are not careful. Fortunately, the game does a fantastic job of telegraphing enemy attacks, and that includes the Orc’s ranged shots. Just before a ranged enemy fire, an arrow will appear in front of it, clearly showing where the enemy is aiming, and giving you a moment to react to it. Not that these jerks will only fire arrows at you… once they get close, they’re all too happy to wail on you with their own blades. Simply button mashing enemies when you get close isn’t going to do the trick for you, either. You have to time your attacks properly, watch your enemy’s movements, and use the terrain around you to your advantage as much as possible. The game’s combat is full of depth, and there are all sorts of tactics you can come up with, and all sorts of situations that the game can put you in. Not that it’s all Orcs though… there are a great many types of deadly monsters inhabiting these caves. Everything from rampaging trolls to horrible poisonous slimes that can float in the air and fling nasty poison blobs at you. There is no end to the baddies you’ll find here, and you’ll never have a moment’s rest. Learning enemy patterns is crucial. The game is extremely skill-based, with every attack being fully dodgeable, and the game never truly putting you in a genuinely unfair situation, even when there are ten monsters around at once. It works out wonderfully, and while the challenge is very high, so is the sheer fun of it. It’s visceral, tactical, fast, and fluid, and some of the best combat I’ve seen in a game of this type, pretty much ever.
All sorts of goodies
Of course, combat isn’t all there is, when it comes to getting through the labyrinth. You also have your character build to worry about, and this is where blessings, items, and equipment come into play. You have a rather large inventory available to you, which is good because there are an incredible number of different items and pieces of equipment for you to find. You do not gain experience and level up during this game, so making choices on things like equipment and blessings is crucial to building up your character properly. Equipment as a whole is very well balanced. An item that is a good idea on one run may not be such a good idea on the next. Instead of having tiers of equipment escalating over the course of a run, any item can appear anywhere. Examining your current build and stats and selecting the right equipment for the job at hand is crucial. It really keeps things interesting, as it’s rare that the choices are easy. Equipment can have all sorts of effects, and they aren’t weak little things… these effects are very noticeable, which makes equipment both satisfying to find as well as use. With so very many different ones available, you never know just what you’ll find during a run.
In addition to equipment, you also have consumables. There are things like food, used to heal up, and special items like transmogrification scrolls, which can allow you to “sell” five items at once by turning them into money. There are also throwables, single-use items that you can fling using your ranged controls with a wide array of effects, and which usually have a large radius in which the effect takes place. Throwables, however, can be hard to use, as there is no truly quick way to switch to them during combat. The game doesn’t pause while your inventory screen is open, and while there is a quick-select radial menu, it’s bizarrely slow to use and mostly useless in situations where you need to react immediately. For many players, this can mean that throwables end up just not being very useful to them, and you may find yourself only rarely using these. Lastly, there are potions. Potions, to me, are the most problematic type of item in the game. Like in many traditional roguelikes, potions are always unidentified. You don’t know what a given potion does until you try it, and there are just as many negative ones as there are positive. Some may give you a permanent bonus to your ranged or magic damage. Others may set you on fire or permanently lower damage resistance. It’s pretty typical stuff, but the main problem is that there is absolutely zero strategy when it comes to identifying these. None whatsoever. There are no items, for instance, that can help you with the process of identification. You do have the option of dropping a potion on the ground to allow Orcs to grab it, however, they will not always grab them. Even if they do, they won’t always actually drink them. And of course, you run the risk of doing something like creating an invincible orc. Most of the time, the only truly viable option is to directly drink them. There is no thinking or skill involved here, and they feel very out of place in what is otherwise a skill-focused game. I often found that they weren’t really worth using much of the time. Your mileage may differ with these, of course. But one way or another, they are extremely RNG-based, more so than any other item in the game.
All the extras and then some
Along with items, there are a couple of other things to assist you in your journey. As mentioned earlier, Blessings are another thing you will find in the caverns, powerful passive effects that are permanently applied to your character once you find them. Like items, there are a great many of these, with widely varied effects. Some may boost stats, some may give you special abilities like double jumps or sword shockwaves, or, well, all sorts of different things. There is a bit less strategy to these than there is with items. There is no limit to the number of blessings you can equip, and all of them are positive… I’ve never run into an occasion where I found a blessing and decided to not take it for whatever reason. When you find one, you just grab it. However, sometimes you will find a platform with three ghostly images of blessings to grab. Here, you have a choice. You can stand under each and see which it is, and then you can choose exactly one of them to take with you. As these are very powerful, this choice is always a very important one and just adds to the many options that the game constantly provides you with. The other thing that can help you is shrines, and altars. Shrines are statues that can provide you with a variety of effects, however, you must pay to get these effects, which is where your money comes into play. There are shrines that provide massive healing, others that may give you random items, and even sacrifice shrines that take health instead of money, yet provide you with unusually strong blessings that can only be gotten there. While these are nice, they are really the only use for the money the game gives you. You aren’t going to find any shops full of equipment here, which is a shame. Money ends up just not being as interesting as it could be, and many players will find themselves spending almost exclusively on the health shrines, as healing is not easy to come by in this game. Altars, on the other hand, allow you to smash two of the same item together to create a “super” version, much stronger and more effective than the base version. There are also very special things called Relics. These are game-changing effects that, once found, are permanently unlocked and can be turned on or off in the main hub, however they are very well hidden, each one requiring a different special process to uncover. Finding these is very difficult. I had to rely on a guide in order to find these at all, as the methods of getting them are very obscure. They are worth it though, as they have huge effects on the game, being almost different modes than anything else. Oh, and there’s one other thing you can do in the hub area as well: you can choose a Perk, which is almost like a character class. There are a very wide selection of perks. You can only pick one at a time, and each one has a different effect that can define the base of your build. For example, the Twofold perk causes you to always fire two arrows at a time but lowers your firing rate and attack damage at the same time. The trader perk has some lower stats, but has the ability to sacrifice items to any type of shrine to reduce the price, and the first time you use an altar in a run you only need one of the item you want to make a super version of, not two. Some have even more wild effects, such as the Vampire, where your health slowly drains over time, and only constant killing will heal you. While there are a couple of duds in there, the perk system works out very well overall and adds even more depth to an already very deep game.
Sound and visuals
I would also like to bring up the game’s graphics here. In short, the game is gorgeous. Wonderfully detailed pixel art, with precise, fluid animations for characters and monsters. Everything just looks GOOD. The environments, the bad guys, the giant bosses, the explosions and particle effects, everything. The look of the game even adds to the combat, as it can create a visceral and satisfying feel to it. Enemies get more bloody as they take more damage (as do you), and when one is killed, it tends to go flying with the impact. It could land in a heap, or even hit a wall, sliding down and leaving a smear of blood as it goes, only to hit the ground with a satisfying splat sound. What’s more, blood (or green goo from slimes) stains the cavern walls permanently, leaving lasting reminders of violent battles that you fought in any given spot. It adds that much more to the immersion, and to the sheer satisfaction of the game’s combat overall. Ending combat surrounded by a heap of dead orcs, smashed up flying skulls, and loads of blood and slime goo splattered all over the surrounding area just makes your triumph over a tough group of enemies that much more awesome and satisfying. It really drives home that idea of having survived a major battle. Sound effects are similarly good, whether you are smacking something with your sword, firing your bow, or blowing up a wall (that’s right, there’s destructible terrain here) with a bomb. The music is a bit less memorable than the graphics and sound effects, but it still does its job well enough.
While I could ramble on for pages about all of the things the game does right, it does have a few issues that hold it back a bit. For many players so far, the worst of these is actually the Orcs themselves. Orcs appear basically everywhere, usually in groups, and stronger versions with more dangerous weapons appear as you go further in the game. Almost all of these have ranged attacks, which many players find very hard to dodge and which can make it hard to fire back at them. As I said, they have no trouble whatsoever in traversing the landscape so that they can reach and murder you. What’s more, they never stop coming. You can never completely clear a level of these guys. Groups of Orcs will, every now and then, spawn at the top of the level and work their way down towards you, often coming at the worst moments. These roaming groups aren’t rare at all, and you’ll be encountering them very frequently throughout the game. Too frequently, perhaps. While they are never genuinely unfair, they can be extremely frustrating for some players, often being the cause of defeat due to their speed, aggression, and accuracy. The game as a whole is very difficult and with a mean learning curve… this may put some people off of it as it really can be frustrating overall. Yes, it can be all overcome with sheer skill, as well as planning and strategy, but still, it’s important to be aware of these things. Another special mention must go to the game’s story, and more specifically, it’s ending. The story starts off simple enough, where all you know is that you’ve entered this mysterious cave for whatever reason, searching for something important that can be found at the absolute bottom. But then, if you are good enough to reach and defeat the final boss, well… you might find that the game’s ending is a bit of a problem. I don’t mean bad writing or cringy dialogue here. There have been many players finding themselves very offended at the ending and the themes that it shows, and having gotten there myself, I can see why they feel that way. I’m not going to spoil it at all, but I will say that I definitely wondered why in the world the developers didn’t realize that the ending and everything that goes with it might be a major issue. I’ve seen a few players remark on the forum that they were so offended by it that after reaching it, they just didn’t want to play it anymore. That’s a pretty big reaction when you think about it. Now granted, I never go into a roguelike or anything similar expecting much of a story. Heck, for traditional roguelikes, the entire story can fit in one sentence, which is usually “You’re after the Amulet of Yendor!”. While there is a good deal of lore in this game (which you can read in the Journal), it’s not really important at all to the gameplay. Regardless though, that issue with the problematic ending is still there. Lastly, there’s one more issue, which is the biggest one in my case: There is no save & exit feature, like in most games of this type. A full run of the game is quite long, often going as much as 90 minutes if you go through the whole thing and beat the final boss. That’s pretty darned long for one of these, and it needs to be completed entirely in one sitting. That can be a huge problem for some players, as it may not always be viable for you to find that much time at once to sit down and play this. I’m hoping to see such a feature get added later on, but there’s been no word on this from the developer.
While those are certainly problems, to be honest, I’ve found very little to complain about overall in this game. There are some balance issues here and there, things that could definitely do with a tweaking, but the developer seems quite focused on not only balancing the game better but even adding new content as time goes on. There are also other things I haven’t talked about here, such as daily runs complete with special conditions to challenge you, or the game’s well thought out unlocks, which are both done over time and by completing assorted challenges. This is a huge game, with an incredible amount of content, great balance, high challenge, endless replayability, and some of the best combat I’ve yet seen in the genre, period. I’ve been completely addicted to this since it came out, and I can’t see that fading anytime soon. I waited quite a long time for this game to come out, and to me, it’s been absolutely worth the wait. This is just the sort of game I’d been hoping for and is one I will continue to come back to over and over, much like I do with Isaac. I’ve played so many of these, and this one easily is in my top 5. I’d really like to give this our highest rating… as I personally think it really is that good. However, in a review, I cannot just ignore the problems that it does have that players may find issue with. The game will continue to improve over time though, so that’s worth keeping in mind. Regardless, I personally think this is one of the best games in the entire genre, and I cannot recommend this enough. Don’t miss out on this one.