A mess of ideas masquerading as a Roguelike – Paranautical Activity
“You know what’s really cool?” asked Game Designer A, “Minecraft.” “Ooooh yes,” said Game Designer B, “We should make a game like that!” But after some thought they realised that that might be a lot of work, because Minecraft is actually a fairly complex, well balanced game with some pretty rich mechanics. “Well then, maybe we could just make a game that looks like Minecraft – you know, just use cubes for everything and call it done. That’s hip right? Oh! And you know what else? Since we can’t really bothered with something as dull as level design, lets just throw a bunch of rooms together and have some code shove them at random into the world and call that a level. We’ll call it a Roguelike – that’s the cool word everyone is using.”
At which point I hope some measure of sanity came into the conversation. “But what is the player actually going to do in this random thrown together hodge-podge of shit game world?” I would like to think one of them asked. All our hopes and dreams for the title were dashed when the phrase “Well, everyone likes old FPS games – let’s make it like Doom!” was uttered.
If this isn’t how the design document for Paranautical Activity was created, then I’d bet a reasonable sum of money it’s close. This is a game that is far more interested in being trendy and ticking buzzword boxes than it is in things like design or gameplay. The soundtrack is dubstep, the walls of the rooms you play in don’t quite join in the corners, which should tell you everything you need to know about this hot mess. It can’t even decide if it’s a game based around a nautical theme (which would fit with the name, the game icon and the logo shown during the startup dialog), or a game set in Hell (which would fit with… well none of these, but would explain the Diablo enemies).
Just for fun though, let’s dig a bit deeper. When you start the game, you’re confronted with a low-production value menu, and clicking play will (at least on my fairly powerful machine including an SSD that can load AAA games pretty smoothly) cause the whole thing to hang for long enough that at first you start to wonder if maybe your machine crashed. You start out in a cage apparently made of lego, holding a gun also apparently made of lego. Depending on the layout of the map that has been generated there will be between 1 and 4 rooms linked from the one the cage is placed in. Walking into a room causes the doors to close and enemies to spawn, and you’re trapped with them until you kill them all. You have 6 health units and each time you’re hit you will lose one. Killed enemies drop lego-hearts, lego-shields and lego-coins. If you can find the gift shop in the level, then you can buy things like health packs and power ups. There’s a boss room and then you progress to the next level, rinse and repeat.
The production value put into this game is by far the biggest problem. There has been no apparent effort made to polish or tune it. The gift shop is a big room the same size and shape as all the others with 3 pedestals in the middle of it, which may or may not be facing the door because nobody bothered to rotate them. The items they have on them are picked seemingly at random, so in level one, you are frequently offered items you couldn’t possibly afford given NPCs available to kill. Like I already mentioned, some of the walls in the level don’t quite meet in the corners, which is a pretty fundamental issue. The rooms that are used for the set-pieces often have unreachable areas, and enemies get stuck on level geometry or fall into sunken areas and can’t get up.
So now I’m going to get a bit technical, because as a game developer and an AI specialist, one of the things I’ve worked on extensively is the kind of procedural level generation system that you might use to generate a dungeon for a Roguelike game and it pains me, deep down in my soul, to see it done so appallingly badly. This is something that we’re seeing more and more, because it makes life a lot easier for developers by cutting down the amount of content needed. Instead of having to make each level by hand, you make some basic building blocks that can fit together in a mix-and-match style. The trick is then to combine them in interesting ways, that engage and entertain the player and also manage things like pacing and difficulty. That doesn’t mean slapping them down any old way as it seems the Code Avarice team thinks, and it also doesn’t mean making spaces that are identical generic grey boxes filled with stuff. If it did, then the whole area wouldn’t be of interest to us in the AI field, and there wouldn’t be so much interest in the games that are doing it right. Spelunky is a great example, and one the developers themselves invoke. This is about as far from Spelunky as you can get.
Overall, this looks and feels like a game created during a 48 hour game jam. The visual style, rather than tapping into the voxel zeitgeist, serves primarily to showcase the lack of originality at work throughout the rest of the product. It’s drab, it’s humdrum, it’s an attempt to claim the lowest hanging fruit of multiple different buzzwords by throwing nostalgia and “me too” at them, without any attention to the details or the experience. It’s lazy and sloppy and at $5.99 it isn’t remotely worth the asking price.
Bottom line? It’s a game and you can play it. Why you’d want to is completely beyond me.
Paranautical Activity is currently still in Beta. This does not, however, mitigate the many issues the game currently has. Upon completion of Paranautical Activity’s development cycle we will revisit it to see how things have changed.