“Tough-as-nails procedurally generated Metroidvania meets RPG” is probably the best way to sum up indie developer Discord Games’ newest title, Chasm. The sense of exploration in a Metroidvania comes from exploring detailed handcrafted worlds, yet Chasm is attempting to combine handcraft with the digital witchcraft of randomly-generated areas.
But combining old design sensibilities with modern ideas isn’t new to the Discord Games; in Take Arms, released as an Xbox Live Indie Game, 2D-platforming was thrown into the mix with Team Fortress-style class-based shooting gameplay. So maybe combining Metroidvania with randomization is crazy enough to work; after all, Discord Games aren’t the only ones toying with that idea.
Sadly, our time with Chasm didn’t give us the chance to see any procedurally generated spelunking in action – the demo covered one of the handcrafted tutorial stages that will be peppered throughout the full game.
The demo places you in the shoes of Dalton, a soldier who abandons his military post after receiving an anonymous tip informing him that his “hometown and everyone in it is in danger”. 3 days in to his trek homeward, Dalton comes upon the snowy mining town of Karthas.
We took up control after the opening cutscene, pushing on rightwards. Deer flee on sight, there’s almost no one around, while crows caw ominously against a disconcertingly quiet soundscape; something seems wrong here.
Of the two people around, one is a woman selling a limited (exhaustible) quantity of potions, and another is an old man dozing off behind a shop-counter. Unable to talk to the man, we resorted to jolting him awake with the counter bell. As it turns out, the towns’ men went down into the mines some time ago but never resurfaced.
The man rambles about how he ended up walking in circles when he went outside to find help; old age appears to have set in. But after walking the length of the town for ourselves we realize he isn’t just being senile; the town loops infinitely; something is definitely wrong here. We headed into the mines to see what had become of the missing men.
The path to the right is blocked off, so we make leftwards and happen upon a rat, skeleton and lever. Dispatching the rat is as simple as wailing on it with the attack buttons (X and B), each button corresponds to a different arm, and each arm can be equipped with a weapon. The rat hit us once during the skirmish, knocking out almost a sixth of our HP; even a rat can reduce you to skeleton if you aren’t careful; everything in this game hits hard.
We pulled the lever, opening up the previously blocked path. But our efforts to progress deeper into the mine didn’t go far; thwarted by a faulty elevator. A key piece of the elevator mechanism was missing.
Plodding through the caves we came across bats, rats, platform-hugging crawlers that would look at home on Metroid’s planet Zebes. We also came across exploding stalactite-like tentacles – killing any of them fills the XP gauge, and eventually we leveled-up, slightly raising our HP ceiling. Leveling up also fully heals you: this is significant, as the only other ways to heal are by depleting your limited health potion stocks (we only found one in the demo) or resting at camp sites – enemies don’t conveniently drop health pickups.
We found a frightened survivor standing around one such fireplace. The flames keep the monsters away he tells us, adamant about not moving from the campfire for his life. We wandered ahead alone.
Whilst exploring the caves we found some enemies guarding a set of armor, reminding us of Chasm’s RPG elements. In addition to equipping weapons to each arm, you can equip Head and Body armors, and two accessories. We aren’t sure yet how big an effect statistics are going to play in the final game, but we did notice the “Critical” legend appear occasionally when hacking at enemies – the rate of critical hits may well be governed by the Luck statistic.
The rest of the demo was fairly straightforward and seemingly designed to get the player used to Chasm’s weighty jumping. One failed jump plummeted us into a pool of water where Dalton can freely swim in any direction – an unusually flexible, modern approach to water hazards for such a retro-inspired game.
That retro-modern blend is evident in the presentation as well. Going beyond simply being a pixelated-style retro-homage, Chasm actually runs natively at 320×180, around the same resolution as most games on the original PlayStation – albeit with a modern 16:9 aspect ratio. Platforms creak slightly under your weight as you land on them, and hair flutters in the wind. Frames of fine animation make the game feel like a progressive evolution of its retro inspiration.
Sadly, we didn’t get to see much more of Chasm. The demo ended just as we got the elevator running again. But based on our time with it, we feel confident that Chasm handles retro design maturely; it’s hard but not sadistic, pixelated but not panderingly retro. We’ve yet to see how the eyebrow-raising procedural level generation will work in practice, but there’s plenty of quality on display already to inspire confidence.
At the moment Chasm is set for release on PC, Mac and Linux via Steam and DRM-free avenues; the developer is accepting preorders via The Humble Store. Currently there is no firm release date, but check back with us for updates – we’ll be keeping a close eye on this one.