REVIEW: Pascal’s Wager: Definitive Edition

Mar
19

REVIEW: Pascal’s Wager: Definitive Edition

Pascal’s Wager is an enjoyable and challenging souls-like with solid combat and a dark atmosphere, though a lacklustre story and some notable game design issues do mar the experience.

Released: Steam
Type: Single-player
Genre: Action, Adventure,
Dark Fantasy
Developer: TipsWorks
Publisher: Giant Global
Release date: 12 March, 2021

Intro

Originally released on iOS and Android in early 2020, Pascal’s Wager is a true souls-like, with punishing enemies, a foreboding atmosphere and solid gameplay. Players follow Terrence and his companions on a journey through the unforgiving world of Solas, in search of a mysterious witch called Teresa. Along the way, Solas throws everything it can at our protagonist, and things only get worse for him as time goes on.

Gameplay

An accommodating souls-like.
Pascal’s Wager uses the standard souls-like recipe: players battle numerous dangerous enemies and powerful bosses in order to progress in a dark and unforgiving world. Trial and error is often required when encountering new dangers, and death is an expected part of progress. This is understandably frustrating to some, but persistence does pay off, and unlike many souls-like titles, Pascal’s Wager has a “casual” difficulty setting for those who want a less stressful experience.

The formula is good, but there’s something missing.
As players explore, they will locate Altars; checkpoints placed around the game’s world that allow players to respawn, rest and level up. Unfortunately, a very important feature is missing from these: fast-travel. When gathering collectables and progressing side quests, it’s necessary to backtrack frequently, and without fast travel, getting around the rather convoluted levels is a tedious and time consuming experience that contributed hours to my total playtime. I cannot fathom why such a feature was omitted from this game.

Character progression is good, but loot is underwhelming.
Upon defeat, enemies drop bones that are both a currency and the game’s experience points. These can be used at an altar to grant levels, increasing each character’s stats. Thankfully, all characters level together, so those that go mostly unused are not left behind. Gear, meanwhile, is confined to artifacts that grant stat increases and passive effects. While these are undoubtedly useful, the lack of more tangible equipment items makes the game’s loot rather bland. Finding a hidden chest and defeating those guarding it only to receive crafting materials is a bit underwhelming.

Combat is the strongest part of the game, but it too has some issues.
Pascal’s Wager shines most when the player is deep in its sprawling levels, carving their way through enemies. Combat is challenging and rewarding, though it does have some less than ideal features. Oversized hitboxes on some enemy attacks and the fact that both players and enemies can attack through solid walls, to name a couple. Players are forced to use Terrence at almost all times, and can choose one of four companions to accompany him. Said companions do not fight alongside him, but can be switched to, or will take over if Terrance dies. Unfortunately, while these characters are very distinct in their abilities and equipment, some just aren’t as good as others, and I ended up using the same one for the majority of the game.

Bosses are insane – literally.
An interesting addition is the “Sanity” mechanic; a statistic that decreases as characters fight, eventually degrading to “abnormal” and “lunatic” levels. This has a noticeable effect on gameplay, as enemies and bosses change or grow stronger, and players can see benefits too. Sanity can be restored with the use of consumables, which offers an interesting choice when it comes to boss fights: do you risk leaving yourself open to attack by using consumables during a fight, or allow insanity to take you and fight a potentially more powerful boss? Regardless, I am pleased to report that many of these fights are challenging, tense and, upon completion, provide the characteristic sense of relief and accomplishment that should be present in a souls-like. The final boss, however, is not well designed, and frustrates with spammy attacks and indistinct telegraphs. It’s a disappointing end to an otherwise rather good experience.

The level design is both clever and convoluted.
Pascal’s Wager’s world is where it’s most obvious that the game was built with the limited hardware of mobile devices in mind. Levels are quite small in size, and the skybox is very basic. I suspect the abundant fog in the game is also there for this reason. To make the most of the limited space, the developers made clever use of ladders, shortcuts and multi-story buildings as much as possible. The downside of this is that areas can become overly convoluted and difficult to navigate by memory – something that’s only made worse by the lack of fast travel or a map.

Story

Not great, but not awful.
The game tries to tell a tale of good people trying to find answers in a truly savage world overtaken by the corrupted and the desperate, but falls flat due to shallow, poorly acted characters and vague plot points. A genuine attempt was made to give Terrence and his companions character development throughout the game, but their total silence during the vast majority of gameplay restricts the building of their relationships to the occasional cutscene or chat back at base, and it’s just not enough. The visual storytelling, however, is decent. The state of Solas and its denizens speaks for itself, and the game has a dark, brooding atmosphere.

Quests leave something to be desired.
Pascal’s Wager provides players a journal cataloguing their active quests, though this does little more than remind players which ones they’ve yet to complete – and even that is seemingly unreliable. Side quests are relatively few in number, and usually involve simply going back and forth to find and bring something to an NPC, though even this can be a confusing and convoluted affair due to the level design and lack of direction.

Technical

PC Specs
AMD Ryzen 5 3600
16GB RAM
GeForce GTX 1650 SUPER 4GB
1680×1050 resolution
Windows 10
Game installed on HDD

Visuals:
Being designed for mobile devices, the graphics of Pascal’s Wager are rather dated, though the main problem with its visuals is a lack of variety; the same dull palette is present in almost all of the game’s areas, while the exceptions prove that variety is quite possible. These feature bright, warm colours that are a welcome reprieve from the dull greens and blues. Aside from this, the visual design is quite good, with some cool looking bosses and a nice variety of enemy designs.

Audio:
The game’s soundtrack and effects are quite good, though as mentioned above, its voice acting is mediocre at best for all characters. It’s a shame, as only takes away from the already rather weak story and character moments.

Performance & Bugs:
Running at the highest graphics settings, the game ran at a constant 60fps with the exception of when I was exploring the DLC area, which dropped the framerate as low as 45fps at times. Given the game’s less than stellar graphics, this is clearly an optimisation issue.

I experienced one crash in my 25+ hours of playing, and a bug that seemingly prevents side quests from being marked as completed, though this is hard to verify given the aforementioned lack of clarity surrounding them. Patches are being released frequently, and other bugs I have experienced have already been fixed at the time of writing.

Design Issues

Presentation.
The English translation of the game features a number of typos, and some rather unclear descriptions. In addition, many subtitles don’t match the spoken dialogue.

Clarity.
Some elements of the game require better explanation. A prime example of this is the “Egg of the Bearer”; an item players encounter very early in the game that grants a massive defensive buff, effectively halving the damage players receive. The only information players are given is a message stating that “The world feels heavier/lighter” when taking/returning the egg. Given the nature of the game, an item that’s effectively an “easy mode” should have a much clearer description – especially as there’s an an achievement tied to it.

Verdict

Pascal’s Wager is, all things considered, a decent souls-like that’s worthy of notice by fans of the sub-genre. I can honestly say that I never felt like I was playing a mobile game, which is praise in and of itself.

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