The Metroidvania genre is as popular today as it has ever been. Whether it be exploring mysterious worlds, fighting challenging bosses, or just searching for that next powerful upgrade hidden behind a wall, Metroidvanias have been providing moments of awe and wonder for gamers since the days of the NES. Moreover, with games like Axiom Verge, Yoku's Island Express, and Hollow Knight popping up on digital storefronts every other week it would seem there's never been a better time to be a fan of the genre.
Yet, despite the prevalence of excellent genre entries in 2018, what if one game offered to be the end-all, be-all Metroidvania in terms of both level variety and replayability? Chasm, developed and published by Bit Kid, Inc., seeks to be just that for players. Inspired by procedural roguelikes like Rogue Legacy and The Binding of Isaac, Chasm provides players with a seemingly infinite array of generated map layouts across endless "world seeds," ensuring that each playthrough is unique and that no two players have the exact same gameplay experience. Better yet, since instances of specific world seeds are persistent, players can compare worlds with their friends, compete in speed-runs, and search for particularly interesting worlds to complete.
After five years of development, Chasm delivers on its lofty promise to offer limitless Metroidvania replayability. Unfortunately, however, the rest of the game just isn't compelling enough to make embarking on those infinite playthroughs worthwhile. Though Chasm has plenty of unique ideas, it's brought down by an unimaginative story, uneven combat, and frustrating difficulty spikes.
Chasm takes place in an ancient medieval setting. As a young recruit looking to become a Guildean Knight, your character is sent by the ranking commander to the mining town of Karthas to investigate a monster attack deep within the town's mines. Several townspeople have gone missing, and the town's major is seeking help finding the missing and helping the town get back on its feet. In return for aiding the town in its plight, your character has been assured a place as a knight.
While the setup for Chasm's story is interesting enough, the narrative isn't developed enough to be truly captivating. Unlike games like Metroid or Hollow Knight that pull players in with its unique atmosphere and slowly revealed lore, Chasm tells very little of its story through the game world. Instead, it relegates most story moments to bits of expository writing scattered around the game on collectible pieces of parchment. Expect loads of dates and names chronicling the events of storied humans and mystical creatures, except without any real visuals to keep players entertained. With such a disconnect between the events of the story and what's happening on screen, it's hard not to feel like Chasm's story is a missed opportunity, especially given the strength of storytelling in other modern Metroidvanias.
In terms of gameplay, much of Chasm's gameplay is what players would expect from a Metroidvania. Your character navigates a 2D plane, running and jumping from room to room in search of enemies to fight, items to find, and bosses to defeat. Your map, initially completely blank, fills itself out the more you explore; any save rooms, warp points, or treasure chests you find are marked automatically, and oftentimes you won't be able to access certain areas of the map with your current tools. After a while, you come across the level's main boss, which you need to defeat in order to access a new area or retrieve a fancy new navigation item, like a lantern that illuminates a dark room or gloves that allow you to grip onto previously out-of-reach ledges. Once you stumble upon a new area, you are greeted with a change of scenery, from abandoned mines and ancient crypts to lust forests and haunted castles, and the cycle repeats.
Chasm's motto seems to be "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and that's fine by me. The long, windy map layouts and constant drip-feed of new upgrades are a big part of why I enjoy these types of games in the first place, and Chasm is no different. Navigating through these levels is generally a good time, in large part thanks to the heavy inspiration Bit Kid has taken from games of old. The map system harks back to games like Super Metroid, with treasures marked with a dot in rooms you've explored. Item upgrades, meanwhile, will feel like second nature to anyone who has ever done a wall jump or slid through narrow passageways using a morph ball.
In reality, however, it’s the Castlevania side of the Metroidvania formula that Chasm gets most of its ideas from. Players earn experience and level up by slaying enemies, just like the Belmont clan. Enemies drop stat-boosting equipment and weapons that the player can equip to further strengthen their character. Even the game's character animations and mimic the blue and white light that would trail Alucard as he navigated Dracula's mansion in Symphony of the Night.
Regardless of the influence, Chasm does a nice job taking from what made past Metroidvanias great while providing a unique hook in the form of its procedurally generated worlds. While it may be difficult to see the effects of this during an initial playthrough (a typical run takes about eight hours), future runs through Chasm are almost guaranteed to be filled with new layouts, different types of weaponry, and different orders in which the game's major beats take place.
While this often means that you're at the whim of RNG – I couldn't get a monster's club to drop at all in my initial playthrough, only to have one drop ten minutes into my second – there's more than enough weapon variety to ensure that players are able to satisfy their own unique play style. It didn't take me long to settle on a longsword and boomerang combo, along with a hat that summons a bird companion to aid me in combat (I also made sure to switch in a bone whip every now and again, for good measure). The variety of ways in which the action can unfold in Chasm is undoubtedly one of its greatest strengths.
Unfortunately, a lot of the good will that Chasm earns is lost with its uneven combat. At points, Chasm's combat can be exhilarating; many enemies have well-telegraphed move-sets that make them as challenging as they are fun to fight. At other times, though, enemies feel cheap, with unfair reaches and unpredictable attacks that put a damper on much of my enjoyment of the game.
The game also has a disappointing evade mechanic that made battles particularly frustrating. Modeled after Alucard's back dash from Symphony of the Night, the back dash in Chasm feels far too slow to be of any use during fights. Too often, I would try to time my dodge after swinging my sword, only to get hit by a ridiculously fast attack by my enemy. The game also doesn't incorporate any sort of dodge cancelling mechanic, making the opportunities to successfully evade an attack few and far between. Eventually, I just ignored the dodge button completely and relied on well-timed jumps in order to proceed.
These combat problems are exacerbated by the frugality with which Chasm gives players the ability to heal. Food items that heal HP have extremely low drop rates, and the only other ways to heal are to purchase pricey potions in town or to find one of the map's few save areas. While limited saving is to be expected in a Metroidvania game, the lack of healing feels at odds with the game's focus on exploration. Too often, I felt like I was being punished for going off the beaten path. It may not have traditional punishments for dying like games such as Darkest Dungeon or FTL, but Chasm still wears its roguelike difficulty on its sleeve, often to its detriment.
Thankfully, it seems as if Bit Kid is still tweaking numbers behind the scenes. I recently noticed an increase in the drop rate of money, though the effect was somewhat offset by a 50% price hike in potions. It certainly seems as if there will be significant support for Chasm post-launch; still, I find it disconcerting, if not disappointing, that the developers have chosen to make major balancing changes during the week the game is launching. Despite being in development for five years, there's still quite a bit of work to be had until Chasm is the polished experience fans have been waiting for.
Chasm is an ambitious title that is weighed down by a lack of focus and some unfortunate gameplay issues. The procedural generation of its worlds is a marvel to behold, and it's clear to me that the developers put a lot of thought into making Chasm a game that can be played for years to come. However, the game simply isn't fun enough to warrant playing through more than a single time. From frustrating enemy encounters, to a broken dodge mechanic, to needless backtracking and pushover bosses, Chasm's small issues compound to make for a game that, while enjoyable in small bursts, can't measure up to the greats that came before it.
There's certainly fun to be had, and there's no doubt in my mind that there's an excellent foundation here for future updates, but Chasm lacks the qualities needed to make it an essential player in an already competitive genre.