It takes a lot for me to like a Metroidvania. Whilst I love the concept in general, with the franchises in the namesake being particularly fantastic, I find them too stressful to play frequently. Something about having a huge explorative map and having to remember where that one thing was that you need to use your new item on – it forces me to marathon the game, lest I forget what I needed to do.
Whilst I tend to like most of the games in the genre that I play, I also tend to avoid playing the vast majority unless there’s something about it that pulls me in. Heck, I’ve not even played Hollow Knight yet. Something about 8Doors attracted me though – it’s old school cartoon visuals and the Korean folklore seemed too unique to pass up.
Many thanks to Rootless Studio for the review code.
A SMALL GIRL AND A BIG FROG
Following the death of her father under mysterious circumstances, Arum sets off to purgatory to find both his spirit and to find out what happened. This brave young girl must journey through the 8 doors of purgatory, accompanied by a frog called Ducroak that she means upon her arrival, and face the terrible creatures that stand in her way as she searches for her father.
Things aren’t quite as they seem in Purgatory either, as many of the guardians have been corrupted and certain death records have been destroyed. Could the mysterious masked that seems to be following you have something to do with it?
Along her way, she’ll encounter the mysterious inhabitants within and find out what is causing the issues. It’s a genuinely compelling tale rooted in Korean folklore, and there’s a real sense of intrigue about the characters you’ll meet. This is helped along by some relatively decent dialogue, which is unfortunately marred by various translation issues every now and then. It’s certainly not enough to affect understanding, but there will be times when responses don’t seem quite appropriate.
A RUM DO
As an explorative platformer, expect most of your time to be spent wandering around a huge map platforming around a variety of obstacles and beating enemies around the head with your various weaponry. As is usually the case, things start off relatively linear until you learn the ropes and then quickly open up. After the starting area you will quickly stumble upon the Death Tavern, a bar where all the fugitive soul bounty hunters hang out. These are souls that try to escape their fate, and these hunters will help bring them back into the fold. Despite not being dead, you are quickly assigned into their ranks and given a nameplate that can grant you additional abilities to help you get about the world and wrangle more fugitive souls. In the tavern, you can also buy upgrades for your health and sin (weapon energy) meters, as well as cash in rewards for any fugitive souls that you capture throughout the world.
As you leave the tavern, you’ll start to realise how big the world is. With areas being inaccessible as you currently are, you are left to remember these places so you can come back later on. It’s quite typical of the genre, and the map does thankfully mark where the next story location you need to go is. It works pretty well and there was only one time in the underground water station where the marker seemed misleading, but after some wandering around I soon realised where to go. Maps start out very basic and unhelpful until you find the map salesman, who will help fill out the specific routes and make it easier to follow. It works a bit differently to normal, as I expected I would be able to fill it out manually, but that’s not the case. It’s still an interesting twist on the formula, although it’s a shame that you can’t add your own markers for points of interest to make getting 100% a little bit less frustrating. As an elderly gamer (I’m over 30!), remembering where a specific place was that needed a double jump really isn’t something I’ll be able to do!
It’s a good thing then that exploring this game is a lot of fun. Not only are the environments stunning to look at, but they have some unique themes too. There are barren landscapes, warzones, snow-top peaks, and even a mine for you to explore. It’s always a delight seeing what the game has next in store. Arum controls really well too, with everything feeling really tight. Her dodge roll and dash are both easy to do and work relatively well for the most part. I found some enemies attacks could be tricky to avoid, but that seemed more down to the nature of the attack rather than the controls themselves. Whilst there’s not a great deal to combat, with you mainly just hammering the attack button and dodging attacks, enemy attack patterns are so varied and fun that it rarely matters.
Weapons can be found as you go along your journey, but they’re used more for their utility than for combat. The second weapon you acquire, the sword, can be used to deflect projectiles back at enemies, but there doesn’t seem to be any real difference in damage. I found that most of the time I would stick to the regular scythe and only switched for any circumstance that required its secondary use. One of the later weapons proves pretty useful in combat, but it’s mainly due to its secondary function granting you a shield more than anything. It is a little disappointing that there wasn’t more emphasis on these weapons for use within combat, but it rarely detracts from the experience. It only really adds to the upgrade system feeling a little muddled at times.
The main issue is that in addition to weapons acting as explorative upgrades, there are other upgrades for your name plate provided to you by NPCs to, and then some additional ones that are available as perks within the perk menu. Perks are often just bonuses that make things easier, suck as an attack boost or an improved dash, but there are also some that are used for progression (about half of Dacrock’s abilities are acquired in this way!), so the whole system can be a little confusing. To add to the confusion, there are even three (yes, only three) sidequests that grant you additional perks should you complete them – or at least add them to the perk menu, since you still have to unlock them! Unlocking perks is done by using dawn tokens, which you can find hidden throughout the world – or as rewards for turning in fugitive souls to the guy in the basement of the Death Tavern.
It may seem overwhelming at first having so many ways to do the same thing, but don’t let that put you off. The messy upgrade system feels second nature once it clicks with you, and the game does have nice sense of progression with secrets everywhere. It may not be streamlined, but at least it gives you the impression that there’s a lot of different stuff to discover around every corner. It’s pretty rewarding and encourages you to keep going until that next checkpoint.
With it’s animated cartoon visuals, the art style is the real star of the show however. Right from the offset, everything looks absolutely stunning. The cutscenes look nice at the beginning, but they’re nothing compared to how everything looks in-game. The smooth cartoony animations are almost reminiscent of something like Cuphead, but with a mostly monochromatic Korean twist. Like with P.3, which we also covered recently, it features frequent splashes of red to emphasise certain things and it’s extremely well done. It may be used frequently, but it’s also done with care to highlight certain things – whether it be the blood soaking the tips of dangerous spikes, fire flashing across the screen, or even a huge structure in the background, it’s used in a very effective manner. The audio is no slouch either, as it also adds atmospheric Korean tunes to the background that make it seem like an Asian epic. A lot of work has been done to sell you on 8door’s world, and they really have succeeded.
A MATTER OF AFTERLIFE AND DEATH
One important thing to note about the game for anyone diving in is that it is hard – punishingly so. Arum can only take four hits with her default health bar, but that can and should be increased to help give you an edge. Whilst enemies themselves never pose too much of a threat, its usually a combination of foes that will result in you getting hit. The spitting enemies near the start tend to be particularly troublesome for those starting the game. You do have access to potions, and these should be used frequently as checkpoints will completely replenish them. Checkpoint placement can be a tad unusual though, as sometimes you can go a few rooms before getting to the next one and other times you have to go through a huge gauntlet to find your next safe spot. Their locations seem like they were just randomly dropped at times, with little thought as to where would be best.
The main issue with difficulty comes with the bosses. They’re not unfair, but they are where you’ll realise just how fragile Arum is. Boss HP is usually quite high, with most bosses having two phases to get through – with the latter being more frantic and more difficult than before. They usually have fair attack patterns, so it’s normally just a case of learning and mastering their attacks, but one misstep could cost you the fight – especially when you’re still at default health. There are save points before the boss fights, although sometimes they’re placed in annoying places where its hard not to take damage before entering the boss room.
Even though the game is tough, there is an easier difficulty that you can select when starting up. Not knowing what to expect, I went with normal mode and found out quickly that there’s no way to change once you start. It’s unfortunate that you can’t change partway, as you won’t realise the difficulty until going for at least an hour or so – at which point, you’ll be reluctant to start over again. If you’re looking for something tough, normal mode will be perfect for you. If you’re mainly here for a cute Metroidvania, I would definitely recommend the easier difficulty instead.
8doors: Arum’s Afterlife Adventure is one of those games that releases and seems to fly under everyone’s radar, but really should have been one of those games that people latch onto. It’s got a beautiful aesthetic, great music, tight gameplay, and fun exploration. It may be a little bit too punishing, and save checkpoints may not be as frequent as I would have liked at times; however, despite all that it was a game I couldn’t put down once it sucked me in. Do yourself a favour and join Arum on her journey.