Something I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of sooner is the combination of heavy-hitting, stamina-management combat, randomly generated dungeons and a long-term unlockable-based metagame.
These mechanics and structures have proven themselves to be pretty consistently popular at this point over the course of a variety of well-received games, so it makes sense that someone would finally take the plunge and try to mash them all together into one coherent lump.
The result looks something like CreAct’s Neverinth, an action RPG for PC that just entered its public Early Access period at the time of writing, and which a few people I know have been making excited noises about for a while. Let’s take a look!
Neverinth (short for Never-Ending Labyrinth) casts you in the role of an aspiring Valkyrie tasked with passing the trials of the World Tree Yggdrasil to prove your worth and suitability for one of those pretty helmets with the wings on it. Ragnarok went and happened, you see, so the world’s a bit of a mess, and good quality Valkyries are hard to find these days. As such, the interview process is somewhat rigorous — some might say unnecessarily brutal — and it is, sadly, unlikely that you will be reimbursed for your travel expenses, regardless of the outcome of the process.
Facetiousness aside, we’re firmly in Norse mythology territory here, though there’s a healthy dose of inspiration from anime here, too. Detailed, dark environments combine with colourful playable characters to create a very distinctive aesthetic where you are clearly the “outsider” in this terrifying realm — and it’s going to take everything you have to survive the challenges ahead of you.
You begin your adventure in a “hub” area of sorts. Initially there’s not a lot you can do here besides check the control schemes for both gamepad and mouse/keyboard, but as you progress through the game and unlock various achievements more things will become available to you. More on all that in a moment.
Once you step into the dungeon you’ll find yourself inside what looks like a long-abandoned mausoleum. Huge wooden coffins and grave markers line the rooms, and wooden barriers, barrels and pots are all just waiting to be smashed apart by a hefty swing of your weapon, sometimes revealing items of loot concealed within.
But you’re not alone. No, it won’t take you long to discover the denizens of the labyrinth, and they’re not a happy bunch. In the game’s current form, there are a few different types, each of whom behave differently. Some “grunt”-type enemies attack you with swords or axes, typically lunging at you without concern for their own safety. Shield-wielding, armoured enemies require more careful timing. Archers prefer to keep their distance. And knight-like enemies in elaborate armour will show you no mercy.
Combat in Neverinth unfolds with you using one of two weapon sets: a sword and shield, or a greatsword. The former favours getting up close and personal with enemies, and features an immensely satisfying block-and-riposte system if you time a block perfectly, while the latter favours hanging back until the perfect moment, then striking with great force when you see a suitable opening.
Each weapon has two basic attacks, a “weapon skill” and a “unique skill”. All of these — and a dodge manoeuvre — cost stamina to use, so you can’t just flail non-stop in the hope that you’ll hit something; run out of stamina and you’ll be mostly helpless until you recover a bit. Of the two standard attacks, one is a close-up combo, while the other is intended as a gap-closer, allowing you to lunge in for the kill when using the sword and shield or leap at the enemy to knock them down when using the greatsword.
The weapon skill varies according to the weapon type. The greatsword allows you to perform a brutal upwards slash to keep the enemy at bay, while the sword and shield allow for blocking. In the latter case, a clearly visible “light” on your shield shows the appropriate window for executing a block-and-riposte, making this manoeuvre accessible to even those who are less experienced in this kind of game. Simply make sure the light appears when the enemy’s strike connects with you and you’ll knock it away, responding with an attack of your own.
The unique skills also depend on the weapon and are generally the most powerful moves you can unleash. They are also one of several ways in which you will accumulate “Life Debt”, whereby you temporarily sacrifice some of your health in order to trigger more powerful moves — though it slowly regenerates over time. There are also “EX” versions of the two basic attacks and the dodge that incur Life Debt; these are functionally identical to their non-debt-incurring counterparts, but execute considerably quicker, affording you a speedy response to a particular situation when required.
The twist with Life Debt is that while you are in debt, a single hit will cause you to lose all of the incurred debt as well as take the standard damage from the attack, potentially putting you in a very dangerous situation indeed. As such, debt-incurring attacks are best used when you’re pretty damn sure they’re going to land — and that the enemy isn’t going to immediately respond.
These combat mechanics are pretty straightforward and easy to understand, but will take some adjusting to for those more accustomed to fast-paced hack-and-slash action RPGs. In Neverinth, you’ll need to observe your enemy’s behaviour and know when are the appropriate times to attack and defend. You can’t just run in flailing because you will die very, very quickly, even to the weakest of enemies. Thankfully, each of the enemies make use of clear audible and visual tells that you can learn, and once you get those patterns down you’ll be cleaving heads like no tomorrow.
The enemies are devious, though; they’re very fond of hiding around corners or behind debris, so upon entering a new room in the labyrinth, you’ll need to look around carefully and survey the situation rather than just charging in thinking you’re some sort of badass Valkyrie. Often it pays to hang back, peep around corners and pick off enemies one at a time; while your attacks do hit multiple enemies in their arc of effect, it’s easy to end up surrounded or leave your back undefended. Best to keep the fight on your own terms.
The loot you can find in the dungeon comes in several forms, with the variety increasing as you unlock achievements. In its most simple form, loot can provide usable items such as health-restoring mead and throwing knives. You’ll sometimes find equipment lying around, too — both of the playable characters are able to wield either sword and shield or greatsword, so if you fancy changing up your combat style mid-run, there’s nothing stopping you.
Unlike many other action RPGs, this isn’t about amassing large quantities of loot, mind. Pick up a new weapon and you leave your old one behind, so you’d better make sure it’s something you really want to take with you. Weapons tend to have both positive and negative effects, forcing you to make interesting decisions along the way; a heavier greatsword may well increase your damage output, but it will also cost you more stamina to use, for example.
Accessories such as necklaces and earrings tend to have a small permanent increase to one of your attributes, a temporary pool of “Shield” hit points that protects your actual health bar from being damaged, and some sort of passive ability. Again, these passive effects can be both positive and negative, making for some intriguing decisions during your explorations.
In some runs, you’ll come across a room where you are able to sacrifice varying amounts of your maximum health for various benefits. These are generally pretty powerful — one particularly good one I’ve encountered so far summons a shadowy servant that echoes your moves just a moment after yours, allowing for additional damage output — but taking such a big hit on maximum health can make things very challenging for you down the road if you haven’t quite got the hang of blocking and dodging yet.
Increasing your innate capabilities is done at a statue of a goddess, where you are able to spend the “Essence” you acquire by defeating enemies on various benefits. Increasing an attribute not only makes that particular part of your character more effective, it also confers a randomly selected rune from a pool related to that attribute, providing you with a permanent passive benefit for the rest of that run. Sometimes these can change up your play style significantly — a rune that increases damage output while you’re in Life Debt might encourage you to use your most powerful moves a little more, for example, while one that causes your health to slowly regenerate might leave you feeling like you can take a few more risks — healing is otherwise an extremely limited resource in this game!
As you accomplish various milestones ranging from defeating a particular number of a specific type of enemy to taking various total amounts of damage, you’ll unlock achievements. Each of these achievements adds elements to the game — early on you’ll unlock a second playable character, for example, who starts with the greatsword rather than the initial character’s sword and shield, and also has a dodge that functions quite differently — and the long-term metagame of the experience is clearly intended to revolve around these objectives.
One of the elements you’ll unlock through achievements is the “Totem” system. Here, between runs, you can equip a particular item on your character and then power it up by fitting Tetris-style crystal blocks occasionally dropped by enemies into an available space, with each block having a different passive effect. The more you can squeeze in, the more helpful passive bonuses you’ll start a new run with — and as you continue through the game you’ll have more and more choice and flexibility in this regard.
Alongside this, there are various costumes to unlock for the two playable characters and the opportunity to cause a wider variety of equippable and consumable items to spawn in the dungeon on each run. There’s already quite a lot here to explore, despite the game’s relatively early stage of development.
In terms of the game’s Early Access version, what we have here is a fully playable and enjoyable game with plenty to do, and more to come over the course of the next 12-18 months, according to the developers. At present we have two playable characters, two weapon types, two (very different) floors of the dungeon, two bosses, a variety of interesting equippable items and a substantial amount of content to unlock.
The randomly generated nature of the dungeons means that each playthrough feels quite different thanks to the varied layout, and the individual component rooms from which the dungeons are generated have plenty of variety and interest to them rather than simply being variations of corridors and square rooms.
On top of this, the relatively quick nature of each run means that you can feel like you’ve spent some meaningful time with the game, even if you only have ten or fifteen minutes to play; at the same time, the unlockable metagame elements provide long-term interest and a gradually evolving experience that keeps things interesting even in this early incarnation — and will doubtless get more and more intriguing as development continues.
The developers also promise performance optimisations over time; personally speaking, I didn’t have any issues running or playing the game, but some early players have reported frame rate drops and compatibility issues with certain hardware (particularly integrated graphics cards and non-Xbox-compatible gamepads) so bear this in mind before jumping on board if that sort of thing bothers you. (The in-game text could also do with a proofread; I counted the word “crystal” spelled three different ways in the same menu at one point!) Do also bear in mind that the developers are planning to gradually increase the price as more features and content are added to the game — so if this sounds like something you might be interested in, you might want to consider getting in early, even if you don’t play it right away.
For me, this game strikes a great balance between satisfying, challenging, technical gameplay and accessibility. I very much like the fact that you can feel yourself getting noticeably better at it as you spend some time with it — but it’s also great that you can sit down and enjoy a quick attempt in 15-20 minutes or so. This latter aspect in particular makes for a very addictive experience… don’t be surprised if those 15-20 minutes very quickly turn into a couple of hours, because they certainly did the first time I gave this a shot!
All in all, then, Neverinth is off to a great start. We have a promising concept from both mechanical and narrative perspectives, and the developers seem keen to do the best job they can. I’m very excited to see how this continues to develop over the course of the next year, and we’ll be checking back in on it every so often to see what’s new!
Hopefully by the time the next major update rolls around I might actually be able to defeat that first boss…!
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