Developers: Avidly Wild Games
Publishers: Avidly Wild Games
It's been nearly three and a half decades since the release of Rogue - a text-based Dungeons & Dragons style game. Its launch seemed innocuous at the time, but its focus on traversing dungeons, equipment, fighting enemies, and the fact that if you died you had to start the whole adventure again (now coined 'perma-death') garnered legions of fans, and as such this style of game became a sub-genre for 2D RPGs - the roguelike.
Our Darker Purpose is Avidly Wild Games' first stab into this sub-genre, available now on Steam after a successful Kickstarter campaign. Set in the Edgewood Home for Lost Children, you play the role of Cordy, a lonely student, who after the disappearance of all the teachers, must battle through the hordes of warring factions of children to make her way to the top of the building to seek The Administrators to find out what has happened to everyone.
It plays as a 2D adventure game from a top-down perspective, with you having to move around and fire at enemies. When you come into contact with an enemy, obstacle or projectile, you take damage, and when your health reaches zero it's game over. In your arsenal as well as an infinite ranged attack, you also have a fixed number of juice boxes to refill health, and chalk which works as a one-time use area attack against enemies in close proximity.
Throughout your travels you may pick up extra juice boxes, chalk and tokens. Tokens are used in vending machines found in most levels where you can purchase special items that either offer you character a buff (e.g. increased damage resistance or critical hit %) or a useable item with a fixed cooldown period (e.g removing all projectiles off the screen, or slowing enemies down for a fixed time). These items can also be found in the halls of Edgewood in chests or as rewards for beating minibosses - stronger versions of regular enemies normally with additional attacks and more health. Defeating enemies also nets you experience to level up, but rather than give you additional stats when you level up, the game offers you a choice of two rewards, which can range from broad improvements like increased speed to more specific benefits, like additional damage against bosses. And at the end of each level will be said boss for you to defeat - many requiring very different strategies and providing an appropriate hike in difficulty.
To be completely accurate, this game is what is known as a rogue-lite, a game that embraces the sub-genre without sticking to the 1980s game rigidly. As such, certain key defining features are present, whilst others are missing.One of the big inclusions is that of randomly-generated levels, meaning that each trudge around the 2D rooms of Edgewood will never be the same. Like other roguelikes and games like Spelunky, this means that you are forced to learns skills and tactics rather than memorise layouts and cheap tricks. The only inclination of how a level might differ is given at the start in the form of a brief description, but these will be brief, such as implying the level may be smaller than your average or that it may contain more minibosses than normal for instance.
The other major feature of Our Darker Purpose is that it embraces the perma-death of its genre to the letter. There are no continues, no save states, no nothing. The game is split into 4 chapters, but you can only ever start from Chapter 1 no matter how far in the game you have progressed - no shortcuts here (in your face Spelunky!) - and when you do complete a Chapter, the game makes you start from the beginning again rather than carry on, mainly for story purposes. So in that sense it plays very much like the popular roguelike The Binding of Isaac, the developers themselves citing it as a strong influence. Other games such as Link to the Past and Diablo were also cited, and you can see their influences too, as well as a huge dose of Tim Burton-style art direction to boot.
The final defining characteristic of a roguelike is that of difficulty. After all if a game like this was a walk in the park, the perma-death and other features would be pretty redundant. Our Darker Purpose is most definitely difficult. You will die, plenty of times. But with roguelikes, that's kind of the point. The game is built around the premise of the odds never being stacked in your favour. With swarms of enemies lurching towards you as you enter a room, huge bosses which pilfer your health at an alarming rate, this game isn't afraid to dish out the pain. But the great thing is they've managed to hit that joyful sweet spot of something being fiendishly difficult, but being compelling at the same time.
How? Well firstly is the game is built to support the notion of constant replay value. Through completion of each level you are awarded credits - the harder the level, the more credits you earn - and these used to learn new skills or obtain rewards, that once assigned are permanently added for future playthroughs. An early example is a bonus which gives you an extra juice box to start the game with - providing an extra source of life right from the off. It means, the more you play, the more you can redeem for bonuses, which in turn makes you more likely to progress and earn more credits to redeem. This circuitous relationship means not only will you get better at the game as you play, but your chances of progressing further, and getting to that next chapter or level are much greater. It's a great way to support perseverance without the need for cheap checkpoints.
Another ability at your disposal which assists with the difficulty curve is that of the roll. With a quick press of the Space Bar (or any button as the controls can be mapped to your preferences) Cordy rolls quickly in the direction she is moving. It seem innocuous to begin with, but when you realise it's potential to dodge an enemy attack or position yourself in an advantageous position, it suddenly becomes an essential move to master. Think of it like the riposte or backstab from Dark Souls - moves that seemed like simple additions at first that were in no way necessary to progress. But it is only later once you've invested time in (dying in) the game that you realise these moves once mastered can give you more options in a tight spot, and the same is true of the roll move in Our Darker Purpose. Then you realise it's not an unnecessarily hard game, but a game that gives you everything that you need to beat it, all it requires from you as a player is some willingness to utilise these skills in the right way.
Thankfully, to go with all the dying and the Tim Burton-style animation, there a hefty load of dry comedy and sharp wit that fits beautifully. Whether it be in cleverly-worded level or boss descriptions right down to conversations that you can listen to between inanimate objects in certain rooms once it has been cleared of enemies - it not only works to add bags of character and mystery to Edgewood, but does it in a way that will leave you with a bit of a grin on your face as well - a nice tonic for all the cursing and grimacing you'll be doing each time you die.
If I had to criticise the game - and obviously I do - then I would point to the top-down perspective it adopts. In other gaming examples we have mentioned such as Link to the Past or The Binding of Isaac this top-down perspective has been executed well, with everything flowing nicely. Our Darker Purpose however does seem to suffer from a few hit box discrepancies, mainly in the decision to have Cordy's hit box be only from her shoulders to her feet, the insinuation being that something at head height from a top down perspective wouldn't hit Cordy, but the are behind her. It certainly takes some getting used to, but even with that niggle aside, some of the enemy hit boxes are even more bizarre, with you seemingly having to hit some enemies below the waist for a hit to register, and when you're in the middle of a frantic firefight, such unnecessary confusion is the last thing you need.
Also the nature of the setting - the Edgewood Orphanage - gives rise to plenty of interesting furniture in each of the rooms. A great way to build up atmosphere and hammer home the environment the developers were creating. However the various desks, wardrobes, electricity cables etc are sometimes of shapes that don't agree with Cordy, and she can find herself getting stuck in the top of a desk or not being able to walk behind a wardrobe she really should be able to walk behind. And like the hit boxes issue, when time is at a premium, and you're rolling to buy yourself some time, the last thing you need is to be stuck on some furniture that looks smooth but isn't.
But all things considered, this is still a very good game. If you're a fan of the genre, or are up for some challenging gameplay then Our Darker Purpose comes highly recommended. £11.99 may seem pricey for an indie game, but it's a game that will pay you back in hours of entertainment that you won't want back. It seems simple - clear some rooms, beat a boss, repeat. Repeat for 3 more chapters, and then the job's done. But this game is so much more than that. With a difficulty curve that is steep, but very surmountable with time, great mechanics, art style and a cheeky bit of humour, this is a game you won't mind dying for.
- Great balance of high challenge and support
- Simple yet deep roll function
- Atmospheric visuals and music
- You will literally play for hours without realising it
- Some misleading hit boxes and obstacles
- Steep difficulty won't be for everybody
The Short Version: Our Darker Purpose is a great little roguelike game. It punishes and rewards perserverance in equal measure, and gives you just the right amount of help you will need to get through. Eventually. It's hampered by a couple of spatial issues that can deceive, normally when you least want them to, but all in all it's a great example of the sub-genre. An experience that should feel like a test, but instead feels like a rewarding journey.