“Rogue-like”, procedurally generated, whatever you want to call it, is big business nowadays. Gone are the old traditions of memorising levels for the best possible route for faultless completion or speedrunning. Instead, the mentality is to keep you on your toes, mixing levels and routes up each time you play.
Neon Abyss, Veewo Games and Team17’s latest, doesn’t bring anything new in that regard. The concept is very much akin to Dead Cells, in that you have one life to get as far as you can before you kick the bucket.
In fact, it does quite a lot like Dead Cells (and to an extent, Borderlands) with the randomly generated weapons and boosts, but that’s not a detriment to it. Imitation and flattery, you know how it goes.
But does it do its own thing well enough to loft it alongside the above and The Binding of Isaac, or is it trying to be too cool for its own good? Grab your big pants, steel your resolve and we’ll dive into the abyss…
A Rogue’s Gallery
This would be the part of the review where I set the scene, give you some of a taster of the story to entice you into playing this. Much as I’d like to… I can’t. The blurb from Team17’s website reads:
“Neon Abyss is a frantic, roguelike action-platformer where you run ‘n’ gun your way into the Abyss as part of the Hades formed ‘Grim Squad’”
…which is a damn sight more than what the actual game gave me. Mine started with your initial player character sat in a bar with an enigmatic suited man. He offers you a drink, it all goes a bit Devolver (flashing lights, strobe effects, etc), then you awaken in the Abyss.
Now, I am being purely flippant. A game like this doesn’t necessarily need a massive backstory or twenty minute cutscene to lay the lore down. The emphasis is quick-fire level exploration, hopping between dungeons and taking on a colourful collection of end-level bosses as you go deeper into the Abyss. It’s just… it would be nice to have some indication, some drive to keep you invested.
As you start to get the hang of it, and your runs get incrementally better, you do start to uncover what’s going on. Naturally, I’m not going to spoil it. Even if I were inclined to do so, this time I wouldn’t. Took me bloody ages to get to the point of any investment, so you should work your arses off for it too.
Yet in this instance, story is an ancillary part of Neon Abyss. The primary goal here is to have fun in an absolute bullet-hell inspired, procedurally generated level platformer. So, how does that play out…?
All The Colours Of The Neon Rainbow
The premise is simple enough: each time you jump into the Abyss (and no, I don’t know why I keep capitalising it either), you’re at level one with the most basic of weapons. The objective of each level is to progress through a random number of rooms collecting items, weapons and eggs before your psych yourself up to take on a boss.
This continues for another four levels, in which the last one holds a bigger boss. These are the “management” of Neon Abyss, the bar you always wake up/resurrect into to. The sub-bosses, or interim bosses, whichever you prefer, are randomised from a selection each with different moves and attacks. Naturally, the more you keep dying and restarting the Abyss, the more familiar these will become. However…
The further in to your adventure, the bosses attack patterns evolve. So, say you fight the battered corpse of a claw-machine teddy in level one, the encounter will be pretty mild. But if you have a differently generated run of bosses before that and face him in level four, he’ll be a more beefed up version than you’d have fought in the early stages.
So it’s not necessarily that bosses are scaled and catered to you, it’s just expected that the deeper you go that enemies and bosses would be tougher. There’s no scaling, either. If you’ve failed to equip yourself with a decent hand cannon and some support items/buddies, that’s on you.
With A Little Help From My Friends…
The Borderlands analogy near the start was meant, as Neon Abyss holds a similar, if limited, gun mechanic. As you progress, you’ll come across a multitude of new weapons to aide your quest.
These can be simple affairs, like an quicker firing or wider spreading burst rifle. Or there’s your various flavours of shotgun, machine gun, drop-shot cannon, all standard variants of normal(ish) guns. Then we delve into the realm of silliness, with guitars that fire either a stream or a rotational “shield” of violent notes, or the not-Mega Buster from not-Mega Man.
Each of these can be upgraded as you progress, either by luck and randomised item drop, or when you defeat a boss and hop through to the next level. I can’t recommend any one particular gun to rely on, they all have varying strengths and weaknesses that need experimenting with. Don’t worry, you’ll have enough time to try new loadouts from all the dying you’ll be doing.
…and Some Help From My Little Friends
It’s not just guns you’ll be relying on to get the job done, mind. Along the way you’ll pick up little eggs that follow you much like they do in Yoshi’s Island. It’s worth seeking these out like the tooled up Easter Bunny you are, as over time these little anomalies hatch. Sometimes the hatching fails, but that’s just par for the course. Expecting an egg to hatch in such a stressful environment is never a guarantee, the poor things.
When they do hatch, you’re treated to a levitating… “thing” that follows behind you. Looking like a lucky dip from a bag of jumbled Beanie Babies and voodoo dolls, these little helpers offer a variety of gameplay bonuses. Ranging from defensive bullet-sponging and shielding to assault fire in various styles, these little buddies are a helping hand. They shouldn’t be relied on to help you cheat death, but having an ever-growing arsenal of the little tuckers is never a bad thing. The other good thing is that if you keep them alive, they will evolve over time. So their perks, defensive or offensive, will evolve with them. At my peak, I had a dozen following me. There’s an achievement/trophy for fifty at once, which tells you how far you can go with them.
Lastly, there are equippable items. Well, I say equippable, there’s no RPG-style menu to customise your equipment. What I mean is you see something that looks like a motorbike helmet/onion/shark and equip it, you will be granted one of many stackable perks. Not unlike your little egg buddies, but these directly affect you, again ranging from damage buffs to temporary shields as you enter a new room.
A Ragtag Bunch Of Clichéd Misfits
Whilst I would love to say that the cast of Neon Abyss had me laughing and smiling throughout my repeated attempts at trying to stay alive, that didn’t happen. Unlike Not a Hero, the bunch of characters you see above don’t utter anything. No snappy dialogue, no personalities, no repartee.
What they each do have, instead, are a set of particular skills. Some might start with more heart containers, others with a key or grenade. How you play will be your deciding factor in this: would you rather stay alive, or are you curious enough to open more chests or doors as you go…?
More characters are unlocked through progression and skill upgrades, which of course, are earned by repeated attempts through the Abyss. It evokes that old school gaming notion of having to earn new, shiny things through sweat and determination, instead of buying your way through it.
And again, much like Not a Hero, only you can decide which character is the best fit for you. Which, due to the ever-changing nature of the levels, you’re going to find out the hard way.
Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Dive Into Something Literally Called “The Abyss”
So now that I’ve covered your crew, your weapons and your little helpers, I suppose I should actually talk about the gameplay. Admittedly, I’ve given you a few clues with the Dead Cells, Binding of Isaac and Not a Hero references, but let’s still dissect Neon Abyss.
To call it just a rogue-lite would be easy (although mostly accurate), as it does incorporate other elements too. Namely, twin-stick and bullet hell shooters, like Geometry Wars and Ikaruga, respectively. Default controller mapping has the jump assigned to the L trigger (or respective on other consoles), so that you don’t need to stop aiming/shooting with the right thumbstick.
Enemies come in all varieties of flying, crawling, teleported and general homing-bastard to keep you on your toes, as do attacks. It can get tense, it can be skin-of-your-teeth at times… or it can be quiet. That’s the nature of procedurally generated levels and enemy patterns.
Levels themselves aren’t anything special to write home about. Teleport gems appear in some should you need to back track, others house shops that charge way too much for what money you’d have on your run, whilst some hold treasure rooms that require unlocking. There are chests that need opening, often behind doors or brickwork that needs a grenade to break down. There are occasional platforming sections with multiple choice exits, but eventually all avenues lead to a boss room.
Can You Call Time On An Ever-Repeating Loop…?
On the whole, then, Neon Abyss doesn’t really bring anything new to the randomised table. That I’ve made numerous references to other games would suggest that those are better, and I’m just making unfavourable comparisons.
However, I’m not. I actually quite like Neon Abyss because it’s not doing anything different, but instead just improving on an already solid formula for hectic fun. Like any of the above, or even a Dark Souls game, dying can be a pain in the tits for the first few dozen times. Yet like anything, the more you practice the better you’ll get, and the better you get the more rewarding the experience it’ll be.
Half of the fun is in playing around with an expanding arsenal of wacky guns, floating buddies and boosts. If you’re lucky, some weapons have an ability linked to them that can momentarily tip the scales to your advantage. Not all of them are immediately beneficial, but on your next run, that weapon might be randomised to have a slightly better output, depending on how far deep down you find it.
The other half of the fun is the cutesy visuals, the frenetic and colourful enemies and attacks, all backed by an upbeat techno-ish beat. The essence of “one more go gaming” is none more present than in a title like Neon Abyss. The button layout took me a while to get used to, what with being used to pressing A (or the equivalent) to jump, but you soon settle into the rhythm. Well, you have to when you’re getting shot at from everywhere.
Would I recommend this to fans of the aforementioned, thinking that they might be tired of the same old kind of flattery? Absolutely. Why change something too drastically when it plays just as competently as any of those, even if the characters lack personality.
Conversely, would I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t played any of those? Also yes, because it’s a bright and brutal assault on your senses and reflexes, offset with cute guns and even cuter egg buddies. Jumping about with the helmet from Knightmare on, an assault guitar and a panda, Pinhead, Ramses III and their adopted kids in tow is a pure delight. You feel invested, you don’t want to die and lose this bond.
You will, though. You’ll curse, you’ll swear you will avenge their deaths and go on to hatch another new batch to fight the good fight to eventually… do something, I still haven’t figured that out yet. One minor caveat that made me laugh: when you die, you’re given an old cartridge-style code to jump in where you left off with that exact loadout. However, it locks all progression and achievements/trophies. Best thing is to bite the bullet, finish your drink at the bar and dive back in.
It’s not easy, but then, nothing fun usually is right off the bat. Give it time, get used to the mechanics, and Neon Abyss will take place as that frustratingly fun game in your library.
Neon Abyss is available now on XBox One (reviewed on), PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Developer: Veewo Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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