The Waste Land

The world can never have enough metroidvania titles -- this has been something I've felt since the multitude of indie games in that style began to flood the market. But what makes this particular subdivision of adventure games good or bad? I think the design is important, in terms of the logic that drives the world. What will reward the player for being smart? What will punish them for being reckless? It’s not always as easy as “go to A and do B to win C or fail and die,” I admit, but there are some key features implemented by The Waste Land that have left me scratching my head, at a loss for how to talk about it.

Let me concede one thing first: The Waste Land has mostly tight controls. I rarely found myself in a situation where I could not blame myself for a dumb mistake like missing a jump or not attacking properly. What I will zero-in on, though, is the game’s flawed area design. Side-scrolling movement and basic platforming are your main tools for exploring, but exploration is limited to very few key discoveries of a limited amount of important items. We have a gigantic world map to explore, but not every location is worth traversing. Find a new town? Comb it for secrets? You’ll be lucky if you find just one. New area? Fought all enemies, avoided all traps? Nothing left but to choose a fork in the road for the next area. It’s a big disappointment for a game sold on exploration.

This wouldn't be as much of a problem if each area wasn't so damn big and full of pointless enemies. Fighting mobs in The Waste Land does not improve the game in any way. Enemies are there to take nicks at your life until you drop dead, like any good AI should. But without a score, without battle experience or levels, without gold, or heck, even without achievements to tell me I did a good thing, I just could not find a reason to fight. At best I'd get a dropped piece of food to heal me, though I probably lost that health on that enemy anyways. At worst, it was a piece of putrid food. Every area is gigantic with little else to do but run to the opposite side or reach a door and repeat with the next area unless, for flavor, they decided to tuck a little health upgrade somewhere along the multitude of pits.

Combat in The Waste Land can be summarized into two words: Stabbies and shooties. Your stabbies are executed by whichever of the five swords you’re currently wielding, with each subsequent one being a stronger version. Your stabby moves, as implied by the word, force you to run up to the enemy while brandishing your bravado and poking your likely superior, more agile enemy to death. In the tutorial you’re supplied with a plunging attack technique, which is supposed to add to your arsenal and make you versatile; except i hard a difficult time making it work consistently, and when it does, your character takes damage from the enemy even on a successful strike anyway.

Next up are the shooties, using a bow and arrow in order to use ranged combat and give yourself an edge against the more dangerous foes. That would be great and everything, but arrows must be pulled back anywhere between 1.5 and 2 seconds before you can utilize their full range, let alone their special effects for extra damage (like fire, lightning, or curse tips), and you become a stationary target while drawing, making shooties not viable against smaller, faster enemies (especially flying enemies that makes for 50% of the fauna in every area). This turns ranged combat into a risky option even vs. larger stationary enemies with projectiles because they’re faster than you. It’s like being the only one following proper form during an old-fashioned western standoff where everyone else has already put a hole in your body while you’re still putting bullets in your revolver.

These mechanics make fighting boss enemies both challenging and infuriating at the same time. The reason for the former is easy enough to understand; you wouldn’t want your boss to die in two hits, or it would be a waste of an entire area dedicated to them. It can be infuriating due to the fact they have their weak spots high up, forcing you to jump and poke them while they’re moving and shooting at you. Hell, the first boss felt like it had come out of Ikaruga, plunging me into a bullet hell while I tirelessly went at it with my silly little dagger, trading damage and failing over and over until finally I found a good rhythm. At least they put save points close to bosses!

The save points scattered around the game are a moment of respite and happiness since they also come with the added benefit of restoring you to full health. Every town has one, but there are only so many of these, which means taking a break in the middle of exploration means leaving the game paused. However, since check points don't exist, backtracking to a save point to heal up can be frustrating, resulting in many deaths and hours of lost progress. Enemy placement doesn’t change, traps and pits don’t change, music doesn’t change, so exploration can quickly become detrimental to your sanity as all your moves become calculated and precise simply to reach one save point that you’ve probably already been to many times.

Another aggravating feature linked to this kind of insanity is how you can ruin up to 30 minutes of progress with the simple press of a button. Pausing the game allows you to access the weapon change menu, which is directly below the “return to Main Menu” option; just one silly mistake such as pressing Enter where you did not mean to can erase all your progress, making you restart at the last save point. There is no confirmation box. Just mess up and press Enter and the game will quit to the start screen. It happened to me only once, but that one time should not have happened at all; that’s why the “Unsaved progress will be lost” warning exists, folks.

Further into exploration: navigation is needlessly cumbersome. You’re provided with a map that lets you check your current position in relation to the section of the Waste Land that you’re currently in, but it does not let you check the other interconnected sections for some reason. It’s like you’re telling yourself you can’t check the map of the next state until you step into it. Why? Every section of the continent is interconnected, what’s the point of making me rely on memory to know where to go? Furthermore, why not at least put a glitter where the bosses are? Just a little hint on where to go would save me hours of pointless exploration and listening to my gamer-sense telling me to hit every wall and the floor with my sword to see if there’s a secret I missed.

The first upgrade I found was the Double Jump, a little over half hour into the game. It was a sweet moment to see I could protect myself against fall damage, but then something odd happened when I leaped off a particularly tall cliff. My character died in mid-air. Thinking I might have glitched out, I tried it again, and again, and again. Every time, my character fell through the air for about 2 seconds before the life bar fully depleted all of a sudden. I then realized that the game is rigged so you can’t do what Terraria or Team Fortress 2 taught you about preventing fall damage with double jumps. The reason why isn’t good either. If you fall for a predetermined amount of distance, damage will instantly be applied to your character, independent of you touching a surface. It’s like your character has this weird version of vertigo where he decides to gouge his own eyes out before gravity can do its proper job. I don’t know why it was done this way, but it’s ridiculous.

There is a before and after in The Waste Land when it comes to upgrades. As soon as you get bomb-tipped arrows, you’re able to shoot some fragile walls off, enabling you to uncover secrets as well as make the bow a viable weapon, since the attack rate doesn’t rely on draw time. Still, you’re not going to make the game easier in any way, because enemies have (invisible) invincibility frames preventing you from spamming attacks to kill them quickly. As a result, you’re often left wondering when you should attack during an engagement, making calls more difficult than they should be when multiple foes are present. To further complicate matters, you do not share the benefit your enemies do, as your invincibility frames last less than a tray of lasagna in front of Garfield. This makes combat against projectile spewing enemies (bosses, anyone?) especially hellish, since the knockback animation when you’re hit will likely send you into another projectile and then you’ll be left to watch your character bounce between projectiles and enemies like an abused ping pong ball. Combat is unfairly lopsided in favor of the enemy AI, and that is why I found it preferable to just skip it altogether and save it for the bosses. There is no reward for fighting after all, and if it’s going to be so ridiculous to begin with, why should I even bother?

Aesthetics aren’t bad. I like the art direction. The developers went for a Castlevania feel and they definitely got it right. There are fliers that will knock you into pits, there is a multitude (sometimes too many) of useless NPCs that will loop through filler dialogue in every town, and there is of course the challenge of staying alive long enough to reach the next save point while trying to make progress. The soundtrack could’ve used more work, though. Unless you enter a brothel or very specific building, you’ll hear the same track loop every minute for the rest of your stay within every area of a particular section of the map, and it will only change to a slightly different, but all the same monotonous tune when you go to a new section. Needless to say, within 5 minutes of staying in the same section, you’ll start considering sticking ice-picks in your ear canals while playing.

I have to be honest. I really wanted to like The Waste Land because of what it stands for. You’re a king in a cursed land full of beasts that want to bathe in your blood. It’s a story about the consequences of vice, the forsaking of values and a quest for redemption, with a colorful level design and likable features borrowed from games like Zelda, but there are several interface design choices that make both exploration and combat bad, ruining the concept of a game that, I’m not kidding, could have been revered as 16-bit Dark Souls. On the plus side, I do believe that most of these deficiencies can be fixed in a patch, or at the very least contemplated if the developers want to make a sequel or different game. My final opinion is that it could have used a lot more quality testing.