While the title Paranautical Activity implies an underwater-themed survival horror adventure, the game is actually a fast-paced first-person shooter with a vague underwater theme. What sets this title apart from other FPS games is its integration of roguelike elements, including procedurally generated rooms and permanent death. These mechanics add tension for players, while also causing a great deal of frustration.
The goal of Paranautical Activity is to make it through seven enemy-infested floors without losing a life. In order to move up a floor, you must find the elevator, always protected by a boss whom you must first defeat. You begin by choosing one of four characters, each with a different loadout and weapons. The characters are balanced so that those with faster and stronger weapons have less health and vice versa. Upon choosing a character, you are immediately thrown into the action without any background or stated objectives. Even the fact that you must make it through 7 floors is only suggested by the elevator in which you start out. This lack of direction will lead to other frustrations regarding the roguelike nature of the game.
Gameplay is entirely in first-person, and you may use either ranged or melee weapons to attack enemies. Although there are only a few weapons, they are varied and include a shotgun, a crossbow, and a sickle that can be swung and thrown. Controls are responsive and utilize the dual sticks of the Nintendo Wii U’s GamePad effectively, delegating the left analog stick for movement and the right for aiming. There are options that allow inversion of the Y-axis and changing right stick sensitivity, fostering accessibility. The other primary buttons are ZL and ZR, which trigger jumping and shooting respectively. Since you cannot crouch or guard, you will spend most of your time circle strafing constantly while enemies fire projectiles at a rapid pace. The action is frenetic and at times overwhelming. Although this may sound like fun, simply moving around and shooting as your only strategy of attack becomes tedious after a while. This is most infuriating when facing bosses, as they will commonly try to corner you or surround you with enemy spawns.
As an FPS, Paranautical Activity is decent, but the roguelike features drag this title into the depths. Every floor is randomly generated and will be different each time you play. This includes everything from the floor layout to the enemies housed within. As such, there is some luck involved as you may have multiple enemy rooms blocking your route to the boss, or you may start out right next to the boss room. There are gift shops sprinkled on some floors that allow you to spend any obtained gold on power-ups and other helpful items. Unfortunately, there are so many expensive items that having enough money for an item you want is a rare occasion. Floors are procedurally generated, with stronger enemies appearing on higher floors. Despite this, the range of difficulty between possible bosses on a floor is extremely wide, making luck a big factor in your survival.
Randomly generated rooms are made more frustrating by the second roguelike element – permanent death. For your playthrough, you are only given 1 life to get through the entire game. As soon as you die, you lose your progress. Although this style of gameplay has been done effectively in other roguelikes such as the Mystery Dungeon series, it is not well-executed here. The game is very unforgiving, and death is a likelihood, even on lower floors. The maximum health of any starting character is nine hearts and health drops are rare. The randomness of each floor makes it hard to practice, thereby difficult to improve. What’s more is that any stat upgrades, power-ups, or obtained items are all lost upon your death, eliminating any sense of progression.
These features are common in roguelikes, so Paranautical Activity can’t be docked on these alone, annoying as they are. The bigger issue is that it isn’t fun to play. Even though floors are randomly generated, they somehow feel the same, with each room being a drab square with only a slight variation of enemies. Unless you are really skilled at FPS games, you will likely die often due to the ridiculously low health points and unclear hitboxes. The only time I felt any positivity during my play experience was the slight thrill of actually making it to a higher floor. Even then, it was stressful, and I eventually still lost it all. In my devastation, I just couldn’t play anymore for a while. There is little incentive to return, with the same hard bosses hindering your gameplay and a lack of any motivating feature such as high scores, compelling story, or permanent upgrades.
The graphics are pixel-based, resembling Minecraft’s blocky visuals. Due to this artstyle, the enemies look somewhat bland, with imps and devils shooting strange block projectiles at you. The lighting is also a little too dark, which makes some enemies blend in with the drab walls. The bosses are the only creatures that look detailed, occasionally resembling nautical giants like whales. The framerate is consistent, which contribute to the game’s speed. However, the loading times are quite long, especially after you restart the game, which is disappointing for a modern digital release. There is also noticeable slowdown each time you enter a room, as the game does its best to load all the enemies as you walk in.
The soundtrack consists of high energy dubstep tunes that fit the frenetic pace of Paranautical Activity perfectly. The music never misses a beat, playing long after you’ve died and well into your next playthrough. The music is rarely memorable or catchy, though. Sound effects are cartoonish, but fit with the game’s style.
Beating Classic mode is an ordeal in itself, but achieving this task unlocks some more difficult modes, including an Endless mode. Other than a few achievements that unlock some items and bosses, there is little reason to go back. There is no multiplayer mode, further lowering replay value.
Overall, Paranautical Activity is an average game, hindered by vexing roguelike mechanics. The mixture of random floors, permanent death, and unforgiving difficulty is a recipe for madness. A lacking sense of progression only adds to the frustration, and the frantic pace doesn’t make up for its bland design. As far as shooters and roguelikes go, there are better options out there. Only those with legendary skills in the FPS genre should dive in to Paranautical Activity’s briny depths.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!