Chasm

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been friends with James Petruzzi (developer of Chasm) and Dan Adelman (producer of Chasm) for years. Not hangout friends or anything, but I’m quite fond of both. Also, I quite like Metroidvanias, as my Leaderboard rankings have established. The friendship stuff never factors into my reviews. The genre favoritism probably does. Because, you know, unavoidable human nature. For what it’s worth, I met James when we got into a digital screaming match on Twitter, and although the hatchet has long since been buried, I’ve always suspected he secretly doesn’t like me very much (and if that’s the case, just wait until he reads this, which is probably my most scathing positive review ever). That’s fine. Neither does my new dog. Like her, you’re stuck with me James.

But, there’s one other factor that my fans should probably consider when reading my review of Chasm: this is the final new release I’ll ever review that started life as an Xbox Live Indie Game. Now granted, by 2012 (yea, 2012! This bun has been in the oven for a while), it was no-longer slated for XBLIG, but still, if you’re a life-begins-at-conception type, Chasm is the “last XBLIG.” For most people, that wouldn’t mean anything. For me? To say XBLIGs were an important part of my life is an understatement. Without them, I wouldn’t be Indie Gamer Chick today. I probably wouldn’t be doing game reviews at all. I truly in my heart-of-hearts feel that if I had started a blog that covered games from any community but XBLIG, I’d never caught on, and I’d probably have quit after a month or two. That was my track record with me and hobbies up to that point in my life. The one-and-a-half model airplanes hanging from my bedroom ceiling, the incomplete collection of 1999-2000 NBA cards, or my unfinished K’Nex Roller Coaster that I just knew I had to have are a testament to that.

So, I fully admit that my play session with Chasm had an air of sentimentality that nobody else will experience. My eyes welled-up and tears began flowing down my cheeks as the end credits rolled, because this was the end of an era specific only to me. This didn’t happen to me when XBLIG shut down last year. Maybe that was because I was so focused on trying to get XBLIG devs to preserve our community’s legacy and port their games to other platforms. For me, this had more of a feel of finality to it. Chasm was essentially the epilogue to the most important chapter of my gaming life. I believe after seven years and 575 indie games reviewed that I can evaluate Chasm without that perspective, but it seems like something my readers should know happened. It’s be like if it turned out Roger Ebert had at one point forced Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken to play Russian Roulette at gunpoint, then sometime later saw the Deer Hunter. Sure, it got four stars because it was great, but deep down maybe he really liked it because it reminded him of the good old days.

The character design is insanely clever because it’s completely gender neutral. It could be a dude, or maybe it could be a chick. It’s whatever you want it to be. It’s like a gaming hero Rorschach test.

Chasm is a Metroidvania with an ambitious hook: the entire interconnected world is randomly generated all at once upon starting your quest. In fact, players are given a seed code so that they can share their maps with everyone else (mine was 61OEC765). Doing this allows Chasm to be one of those games that claims to “never being the same game twice.” A claim that is, and always has been, complete and total bullshit. Randomly generated games are always the same game. No matter how many times you play Chasm, you’ll be interacting with the same NPCs, getting the same weapons, and completing the same worlds in the same order. Rearranging the ordering of the rooms will never change that fact. Claiming otherwise is like claiming Solitaire is never the same game twice. That might be factually true (there’s more combinations in a deck of 52 playing cards than there are atoms on Earth), but it’s still just Solitaire. And Chasm is going to be Chasm no matter how many seeds you experience.

While it’s commendable that Chasm can assemble the rooms in a way that always makes a playable map with all the quirks you would expect in a Metroidvania, the problem is this required some overly-bland design for it to work. Rooms are mostly very basic, no-frills rectangular hallways that you walk in a straight line to traverse. Maybe they’ll occasionally get bold and throw a hill in for variety’s sake, but really, it’s mostly rectangular rooms that you walk across. If not hallways, they’re vertical shafts with platforms that have enemies crawling around them, straight out of 1986’s Metroid. A few times these sections don’t even have enemies at all. While a small handful of areas are more involved, around 2/3rds of the rooms amount to the basic rectangles with slight variations. Although the level design is rarely bad (though it does happen, especially sections that rely on edge-of-ledge platform jumping), it never rises above being just really bland until one section late in the game that features an electric platforming maze. It’s heartbreaking because Chasm, like so many games before it, sacrifices creativity and inspiration for what is, when you get down to it, a marketing gimmick. This is as tragic as Space Jam, which I swear started out as something profound and moving until it became an extended ad for Nike and Big Macs.

Notice most of the pictures feature flat or semi-flat hallways. That’s no coincidence. It’s just what most of the game looks like.

And frankly, building around “endless replayability” is so misguided, because the type of people who replay games that much will do so whether stages are random or not. I meet gamers all the time who brag about how they play stuff like Super Metroid or Chrono Trigger every month and have since they came out. Twenty-plus years and hundreds of replays later and they STILL do it today. As someone who almost never replays most games, this shit baffles me, but it’s fairly common. These type of gamers don’t need procedural generation (actually what they need is to be sectioned). For everyone else, nobody reasonably expects a $20 game to be a permanent investment that never gets old and never runs out of steam. Honestly, I think Nintendo got it right with the original Legend of Zelda: beat the game once, get a second quest where everything is rearranged. After finishing that, anyone should be ready to move on to the next new gaming experience.

So who benefits from those randomly generated levels? I’d argue nobody does. Yes, I did just fall in love with Dead Cells, which also features randomly generated stages. But, unlike Chasm, Dead Cells never has to build one continuous map that all interconnects. Since nothing has to make sense, they could allow for some wacky level design. Spelunky does this too, for better and for worse. Chasm, being a full-blown Metroidvania, couldn’t risk something so off-the-wall that it could make an experience more frustrating, so it had to make levels overly conservative. It does work, and after generating a few new worlds and exploring the starting levels, it’s remarkable how normal these maps are. Bland, but normal. It’s neck-and-neck with SteamWorld Heist in the race for most intelligent procedural level algorithm in gaming history. Probably the best thing I can say about Chasm is if I didn’t know the stages were randomly generated, I’d guessed they were hand designed and cutting edge.. at least for a game from 1993.

Do you know why that sucks most of all? Chasm is really good. For all the whining I just did, it turned out to be one of the most satisfying Metroidvanias of 2018. One of the rare times where I actively sought-out filling-out the entire world map, collecting all the items, finishing all the side-quests, and completing the catalog of monsters. I have a lot of games to cover before 2018 is up, and if Chasm wasn’t such a joy to play, I would have tried to have finished it faster. I have shit to do. Stop snickering. Okay, fine, I don’t. But I still would have tried to finish this as quickly as possible. Instead, I ended up putting extra time into it before finishing the final boss just because I was enjoying it that much. That to me is the mark of a good game: stalling for time before beginning the end-sequence.

I have to admit: I didn’t see fighting a sentient cube of lethal jello coming.

I was totally dazzled by the settings and the variety of enemies. More specifically, murdering those enemies. I almost never pay attention to the actual artistic design of basic baddies anymore. Chasm commands that you take notice. The models stand out more than any 2D game I can remember in recent times. However, take my word for it and play Chasm on normal difficulty. For easy mode, you’re essentially an unkillable tank. Hell, in normal mode, you’re still likely to end up with so many health refills that it’s conceivable you could retire from adventuring and set up a lucrative Whole Foods next to the mine that the entire game takes place in. Who cares if this helps evil win? Bad guys still got to get their groceries from somewhere, right?

Actually, the items are a problem in general, and it probably goes back to the random nature of the game. After around the three-hour mark, I never once got a weapon or piece of armor out of a treasure chest that a defeated bad guy or the stores in the town hadn’t provided a better version of already. Even late in the game, I pulled a Silver Helm from a chest, when I was really four or five levels above its stats with the shit I already had. Hardly a deal breaker, but I have to admit that the sense of discovery was severely compromised by how many items I got from chests that were obsolete. Hell, the game builds up acquiring this mythical Sword of Light or something along those lines. You have to do a series of fetch-quests to get the magic orbs needed to open the gate that has the chest for it. When I finally did, I was so jazzed.. and then my brain let out one final, deafening “WOMP WOMP” as I looked at its attributes and saw that it did a lot less damage than the Gilded Hammer I had already forged several hours earlier. There was a reliable pattern of feeling brief excitement upon seeing a new thing for the first time, followed by disappointment when I saw the new thing’s stats. Which is also the same dilemma gamers experience every time a new Nintendo console is announced.

Behold, the worst part in the game. At one point you have to wall jump in the dark with saw blades moving up and down the walls that you can’t see. Yeah. James, I know you’re reading this. You owe me fifty push-ups for that one. I don’t have the authority to order any such thing but.. well.. seriously, fuck it. Drop and give me 50, maggot.

And I’m guessing the algorithm isn’t perfect, because twice I found a room where the enemies paid off so much XP that I was able to screw-grind myself up three or more levels in under five minutes. I was never in danger in dying in these rooms (or at any point, really. I don’t think I ever dipped under 20 health), but I also suspected I wasn’t supposed to be that far along yet. Even worse was when those XP-bleeding monsters would also drop weapons far-and-away more powerful than anything I had access to. Item drops seem to go in binges, and at one point I went a three-minute stretch where every-other enemy dropped a pricey sword that I could hock at the shop. Leveling-up was just icing on the cake. Hell, that one three-minute period where the enemies were essentially piñatas left me with so much swag I could sell in the stores that I was able to clear out entire shop inventories (by this point, probably half the items they initially had) AND upgrade them in roughly the time it takes to cook a pizza. The strange thing is I never felt noticeably more powerful whenever I would gain a level. It makes the RPG elements feel so inconsequential that I can’t help but wonder if Chasm would have benefited from cutting them entirely and relying fully on items and weapons for the basis of gaining strength.

Thankfully, the combat is properly satisfactory. Most weapons feel weighty, and combined with the excellent sound design serve to make strikes feel authentic and cathartic. Chasm is never boring. Which is not to say it doesn’t have a bit of sloginess to it. Given how much backtracking factors into progress and completing side-quests, I wish enemies leveled-up alongside the character. The random design once again stymies the overall design, because you often have to venture back to out-of-the-way sections of levels just to grab a chest or a hidden area that you previously couldn’t access. In a hand-designed world, a developer could make sure to place these things along the backtracking paths, so as to make replaying them close to as exciting as it was the first time. Axiom Verge sets the high-marks for this. In that game, whenever you’re forced to go backwards, you’re almost certain to cross paths with an item you saw just out of reach before. For Chasm, the placement is in the hands of the game’s level-lottery, and the level-lottery doesn’t give a flying fuck if you’re having fun or not. But no matter where items are, you’re required to constantly go back to the earlier levels, where enemies no longer pose any risk. If the baddies got badder, perhaps Chasm’s pace wouldn’t feel so stop-and-go. Then again, if the stages didn’t feel so repetitive and samey, perhaps I wouldn’t have gotten lost as many times as I did trying to remember which corner of the map had which ledge I couldn’t get to before.

I looked all over trying to spot a cameo of myself or my mascot, as is tradition with former XBLIGers turned tentpole indie devs. It’s like paying tribute to the Gods by sacrificing a goat. Forget to do it and you end up struck by lightning or something. James presumably values his house and knows I’m nutty enough to burn it down, so there’s NO WAY he could forget. Well, he either forgot or this is supposed to be me. I mean.. it could be me. Not a very good likeness. My tail is green, among other things.

Really, everything wrong with Chasm will come back to the level design. Because in literally every other aspect, Chasm hits the mark. Above average or better in combat, graphic design (it could be the best looking 16bit-inspired game ever), enemy design, control design, weapon design, story design, (well, relative to the era of gaming it aims to invoke).. really, the thing that I’m most grateful for with Chasm is it’s now fated to be my go-to example of what a shitty idea procedural generation is. Chasm is a very good game that is never great, just because of one mechanic that was included with the best of intentions. They spent seven years making the perfect randomly generated Metroidvania and I feel they probably accomplished it. And it’s awesome, but not as much as it would have been if that time had been spent putting these same mechanics in a game with clever puzzles or innovative platforming. There’s nothing imaginative about Chasm’s gameplay. Really, it’s so conventional that I can’t blame those who feel it’s as forgettable as its level design. It is one of the best indies I’ve ever played. It’s in the top 98 percentile of all indies I’ve ever reviewed. And I’ll probably forget about most of it as soon as I finish this review. Levels are what stick with players more than any other part of a game. I know I’ll forget a lot of about Chasm because I couldn’t tell one room apart from another when I was actively playing the dang thing.

I really do hate to rag on Chasm, because it’s so much fun. It’s a blast to play. Really and truly. But, it feels like it doesn’t live up to its potential. It’s rare for me to play a game so mechanically right that it’s almost uninteresting to talk about. Hell, these mechanics deserved a better game. Maybe they should have tried more high-concept level designs and seen if they could make them work with the randomness. Sure, it could have failed, but with these gameplay mechanics, it’s still near-certain Chasm would have been just as fun. Think about it like this: in bowling, it’s way cooler to see someone pick up a split than throw a strike. Chasm scores strikes. One after another. It frustrates me so much because the people who made that have to be capable of making better levels than this.

This is the one spot I almost gave up on. The samey rooms and somewhat illogical map design had me running in circles while I searched all over looking for the solution to this puzzle. You can’t go to GameFAQs either because the solution is random too. It makes me wonder if the entire point of Chasm’s procedural generation is to prevent strategy guides from being useful. That would be the worst reason for doing anything in the history of humanity. Remember, as a species, we used to collectively agree that the best way to help sick people was to open up their veins and drain them of their blood. Even considering that, trolling guide users by having bland random stages is the worst idea ever. But presumably that’s not true and the levels are random for the “never the same game twice” bullcrap. God I hope that’s the reason.

Nah, actually they should have dropped the randomness altogether. The amazing thing is they spent so long trying to get the system for it working and stainless, when they’d been way better off critically if they’d made one single, hand-crafted map and went all out on cleverness. I’d love to get DLC for this that’s an entirely hand-designed area with the most outlandish adventure-platforming-puzzling they could come up with. That’s why Chasm is so strange. The thing that holds it back is the thing the entire game was developed around. A thing that raised nearly $200,000 on Kickstarter. And it sure seems like Chasm turned out as good as James could have dreamed of. I often joke about minimum indie badness. For Chasm, the germ of the idea was that badness. Everything that grew from that turned into a very good game. And yet I’m left frustrated and wanting the developer to aim higher. I suppose it’s a fitting conclusion to the legacy of Xbox Live Indie Games, where not all ambition was well-founded, but dreamers still managed to overachieve and leave me in awe. I’m just happy the final chapter of XBLIG had a happy ending. One that didn’t end with developers tarring-and-feathering me. At least not yet. Don’t even think about it James.

The name is every bit as bland and unmemorable as the levels are. I was going to accuse it of completely failing the Google Rule but then I punched in the word “Chasm” and the first several results were all tied to it. I’ll shut up now.

Chasm was developed by Bit Kid Games
Point of Sale: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Vita, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 tearfully turned out the lights on this chapter of her life in the making of this review.

Chasm is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Review copies of Chasm were provided to members of Indie Gamer Team. The copy played by Indie Gamer Chick was paid for by Cathy.

Advertisements

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

One Response to Chasm

  1. Pingback: Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition | Indie Gamer Chick

What do you think?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: