Over the past year my partner and I have been experimenting with alternative board games. We tried our hand at Magic The Gathering (which I wrote about here), Gloom the Card Game (which Harriet reviewed here)and the amazing game Zombies!!!! (the exclamation marks are part of the title, not me writing in the style of a 13-year-old girl on an instant messenger.). Throughout all of these and the other games we played we often discussed how well these games would translate into a computer game. There have been attempts at this before with varying degrees of success; Blood Bowl, a fantasy take on the NFL featuring goblins and elves did well on the table top as part of Warhammer’s slightly tongue in cheek side project, but it just never got traction on PC and consoles when it was released a couple of years back. On the flip side the early 90’s saw the Space Hulk board game and Amiga game both do well and still holds a place in the heart of gamers from that era of gaming. Kerberos has managed to produce what feels and plays like a board game without any dice based source to work off and what they have produced is simply a great series of experiences in Sword of the Stars: The Pit.
The reason I say series of experiences is because this game, to me, seems like it is of the same ilk as FTL, Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac and Hotline: Miami; games that are so brutally hard you are actively encouraged to replay them over and over. The Pit has random spawning levels/dungeons or stories like RPG’s of old, every time you played the over arching aim was the same but the minutia of the world was unrecognisable. This means each time you played the game you had new experiences but were in relatively safe and familiar territory.
The Pit is a joy to play but at the same time something so brutally difficult it just bends you over and paddles your arse like you’re a freshman in Dazed and Confused. There needs to be a line, a line that games won’t cross, this is the line between difficult but fun and cruel and cheating. Sometimes when games are hard it doesn’t feel fair, you slam your controller down and scream to high heaven about a cheap shot from an enemy, but when an enemy has to follow the same rules you do then it’s OK. This is where The Pit saves itself from being deemed too hard to making the player realise early on “look, we know this game is hard, but just think, around that next corner may be the weapon that will help you get to the end of the game.” At this point I should point out despite putting many many hours into this game my best attempt got to me level 27 out of 30, but that’s OK, actually that’s pretty awesome.
Set on a human colony in the stars, there’s been a bit of trouble. There the population have been infected with a Z-virus like affair, the shambling hordes aren’t good for tourism so after reading up on some ancient lore you find out that 30 floors below the surface, in a cave, is the cure to all of the ills of the world. As I mentioned above, I haven’t reached level 30 yet so I can safely say this review is spoiler free. To be perfectly honest the story washed over me, it’s rarely mentioned again after the initial pixel cut-scene, there are message logs throughout the game but you need to decrypt them, something I didn’t allow my character to learn, as long as he can hold a gun that’s all the learning he needed.
Sword of the Stars: The Pit is a top down action strategy RPG game. The RPG elements aren’t too heavy, people new to the genre or people who have been burnt by 200 hour games will be OK with The Pit. You pick your character, you start on sub level 1, you need to find a ladder that leads to the floor below and make it to sub level 30, oh and everything is out to kill you. When you start you realise this game is going for a retro feel, I referenced Space Hulk near the start of this review and while the comparisons may be slightly light it’s one I am compelled to make. There are squares on the floor and you are shown a pixel art style, something that is becoming the go to for indie developers these days, something I am fine with. You move one square at a time and have visibility areas, obviously you can’t see behind you or around corners, you find lockers, med bays, weapon racks and other boxes where you need to pick the lock to access.
You have three classes of characters on this journey into the bowels of hell; a marine, a scout or an engineer. All have their starting kit and their points spent in appropriate areas for you. I first tried playing as a scout and ran out of ammo 5 floors in and then things went messy. Since that initial endeavour I have chosen the marine, mainly because it’s a guy who is permanently smoking, a trait that I will be undertaking in any alien or zombie situation I may have the misfortune to be involved in. With the marine things were different, I was sprinting through the underworld taking out every alien I saw before I finally came to my end just a few levels from the end of the game. Yet again running out of ammo and resorting to a broken machete, led to me getting torn apart.
The gameplay is beautifully simple and is like any number of action board games that sit on the walls of comic and game shops. With the aforementioned squares you tap a direction and you move to that square, when an enemy appears you can either select a specific square to shoot by moving a cursor or you can just tap F and the nearest target to you will feel the unmistakable touch of a bullet. Whilst you are lining up your shot everything pauses, the game runs on “turns”, allowing the player time to assess the situation alternatively you can just reload or shoot; each of these cause enemies or other AI actions to move however, so although you are given some respite, don’t take the piss. Grenades and other secondary weapons round out your arsenal, when selected they have a set number of squares of damage, often for me personally this lead to me pulling a pin and dropping it at my feet whilst things were going bad.
The game relies on loot to be a major draw and unfortunately this area just left me confused, although there is a tutorial and help texts I just found myself carrying lots of junk in my inventory, relatively sure I would be able to use it to cook or mod a weapon, however when you have alien demons nipping your toes the best tactic is often to run, shoot, kill and then run some more. And perhaps it’s me playing the game wrong, but despite searching all bodies of the fallen and lockers etc ammo was just non-existent and in terms of weapons I generally only had my basic load out.
Overall this game is great fun and anyone who gamed back in the day on the Amiga or Commodore would love this even more. The game is made for the kind of people who have tried out the nerdier side of table top gaming, but even without that prior knowledge anyone who is willing to try out an indie game just by word of mouth should really give this some time.
+Replay Value A-Plenty
+Clever Use of Movement and Combat
-Brutally Hard, Even on Lower Difficulties
+Pixel Art is Always Awesome
+Soundtrack is as You’d Expect, CHIPTUNE!
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