Metroidvania fans have no shortage of options. Dandara and Iconoclasts gave 2-D action-adventure fans unique spaces to explore at the beginning of the year. 2017’s PC gem, Hollow Knight, has experienced a commercial and critical resurgence following its release on Switch, and after a year-plus in Early Access, Dead Cells finally got a 1.0 release last week.
Into that oversaturated market, enter Chasm. An infinitely replayable Metroid-style game that comes at a time when genre fans have, arguably, never needed it less.
Now You’re Playing with ProcGen
Karthas, a quiet mining town is in need of aid from a nearby knightly order. Miners set off explosive charges flooding the tunnels under the town with monsters. Chasm follows a warrior-in-training as he attempts to attain knighthood by descending into the depths to face a bestiary’s worth of snarling creatures and root out the cause of the invasion.
As you travel from the order’s castle to Karthas, the game teases with sights you’ll rarely find throughout the rest of Chasm: gorgeous pixel-art vistas that sparkle and breathe, wisps of cloud that drift across the pastel-colored sky, trees filled with leaves that dance in bespoke wind currents. There are glances and peeks visible once you descend into the dungeon. But you’ll spend the majority of Chasm running by endlessly repeating stone walls. The open air beauty and the sense of authorship disappear as soon as you enter the mines. Below the surface, developer Bit Kid, Inc. trades in authored content for procedurally generated dungeons.
The use of procgen alone isn’t breaking new ground. Spelunky and the aforementioned Dead Cells both generate new worlds with each run. Chasm’s length however, lends the approach some novelty. I spent 21 hours under Karthas. The entire duration of my playthrough was locked to the map that the algorithm generated when I first began. If players don’t like the world they get they can eject and start a new one. But, given that Chasm is at least as long as Super Metroid, this prospect isn’t the breath of fresh air that a new start in Spelunky is.
Even noticing the feature that makes Chasm’s dungeon-crawling unique isn’t essential to the experience, and putting in the necessary time to appreciate the new locations its algorithm cooks up is actually kind of a big ask. Progress is hard-won and I was loath to forfeit it to sample different layouts. (For those who are interested in seeing other versions of the map, Chasm includes a feature that lets players share a code for their world with friends).
The pros of this approach, then, are hidden and the cons are readily apparent. Chasm’s world design relies heavily on long hallways studded with random assortments of enemies. With rare changes in background to differentiate these areas, I found myself relying on the compositions of monster gangs, rather than design landmarks, as I navigated the world. “Oh, this is the room with two Undead Swordsmen and a Gargoyle,” rather than, “Oh this is the room with the lava waterfall.”
The Process of Progress
And yet, despite the self-imposed limitations that come with procedural generation, Chasm’s world is still satisfying to explore. The hook of the Metroidvania genre —slowly unlocking tools that allow exploration of previously inaccessible areas—is still immensely satisfying. Even when an algorithm designs those areas.
The euphoria that I experienced last night upon finding — finally — the tool I needed to access new points on the map, and the adrenaline high I felt traveling to those locations and plundering the loot which had previously taunted me, just out of reach, were not lessened by the fact that the game’s occasionally forgettable level design was what made the search for the new tool drag on for so long in the first place.
Chasm supplements its typical Metroidvania exploration-based progression with RPG-style advancement. Hacking-and-slashing through the dungeons earns the player levels and loot; weapons that they can use to focus their build and coins to purchase armor, swords, potions and food in the village above.
Combat mostly feels good, if a little basic. Wielding a weapon with one hand and a magic item with the other— I favor the fiery Magic Molotov — feels intuitive. The same can’t be said for the backwards dash that hurt me more often than it helped me avoid injury. Fights are mostly about pattern recognition. Enemy types are visually distinct enough that, at a glance, I knew what kinds of dodges and feints each encounter would require. As I leveled I had fun sprinting through early levels without pausing, one-shotting enemies with ease; crafting an endless runner in the space of Chasm’s overlong hallways.
The town of Karthas, despite being explorable in its entirety from the moment you arrive, also serves as a visible and functional example of progress. At the open, nearly all of the village’s residents are trapped in cages scattered throughout the mine. As you rescue them, new products become available above.
I walked all over the last two bosses in the game because I had saved the villager responsible for making potions and stocked the f up. I was also significantly overleveled. This happens to me a lot in Metroidvanias with RPG elements; the genre necessitates a lot of wandering around and wandering in areas that are crawling with enemies is just grinding with a destination.
So, on a first playthrough at least, Chasm’s relative success has little to do with the new ideas it brings to the table, and plenty to do with its solid execution of the fundamentals. Fighting feels good, exploration feels good, making progress (in all its different forms) feels good.
The problem is that the reliance on procedural generation means that it situates all those consistently good mainstays amongst meh variables. If most players are anything like me, they will probably only play Chasm once. The staggering number of world builds feels less like infinite possibility and more like wasted potential.
Procedural generation makes for a fine author. But, the algorithm isn’t an editor and as a result, Chasm offers up endless rough drafts.
Should you buy it?
Given the current overabundance of similar (often, better) games, Chasm isn’t the best place to start. But, if you can get past some forgettable level design, it does manage to offer up a solid, satisfying version of the Metroidvania thing – slowly unlocking an interconnected space with tools that are fun to use.
Chasm is available from Steam.