You ever play something that just seems destined to be a very big deal on the Internet? Like, a game tailor-made for the bat-shit insane meme-centric society that is this place that made Doge into the fourth largest religion on the planet ( Such great. Much power. Wow.)? The Lickening is one of those games. You duel people with saliva. It feels so fine-tuned to tap into the Internet’s cerebral cortex of insanity that you almost wonder if its too tuned in, if it’s trying to emulate that hysterical feel the first time you see the new biggest meme too much; you wonder if it’ll end up fleeting, like fairy dust on the wind. You enjoy it, but it doesn’t last, and soon you’re on to the next big thing.
Also, its pretty much just a multiplayer version of Snake. But that’s not really a bad thing, surprisingly. And it just might be one hell of a couples game for Valentine’s Day.
From OnlySlightly, The Lickening is one of the more bizarro outings of independent game development in recent memory; a dueling game that pits two players against each other in a battle of wits and speed where you race a stream of saliva across the screen in an attempt to make the other player do one of two things: either run their stream of saliva into yours, or have them run into their own stream by accident. So, its really like playing two different games at the same time; you’re playing Snake against yourself, and playing the light-cycle race from Tron against the other player.
In the build we played on PC, controls were simple enough to know but hard to actually get a handle on. Since the game can only be played in two-player local multiplayer, two players must operate on one keyboard, unless you have access to a gamepad, which is recommended. You have four controls; You can turn downwards, turn upwards, speed up and slow down. Holding down a turn will allow you to curl inwards, creating increasingly complicated shapes for your opponent to navigate. Driving your saliva stream off the edges of the screen will cause it to appear on the other side, creating increasingly more insane levels to navigate as the rounds go on.
See, this is the hell of it: there’s actually a deft level of strategy required to play The Lickening. This isn’t a mindless comedy game, despite the fact that one of the characters whose saliva you control is a bear named Clarence who dislikes murder mysteries; you have to apply a modicum of strategy in order to win. Your speed-up and slow-down are attached to meters. Expend them too quickly, you lose a very important tactical advantage and the ability to save yourself when you inevitably trap yourself in a loop of your own saliva. Adding onto these are character powers that grant special bonuses to speed or slow down or what have you.
The opening of every match, where yours and your opponents’ saliva are racing towards each other like sticky freight trains, or samurai on the plains of Japan, becomes hilariously tense and entertaining. This is one hell of a party game to play with an openly mocking crowd, and is begging to be set to “Duel of the Fates.” The Lickening brilliantly plays on the old trope of comedy as shortcut to drama. The ridiculousness of The Lickening is how it suckers you into a deftly enthralling dueling game. About saliva. That is no small feat.
Now, the build we played was described as an alpha build, and some of that does shine through with balancing issues. When playing with one player on the gamepad and one on the keyboard, the player with the gamepad has a distinct advantage when it comes to making precise maneuvers. Across the moderate number of backgrounds randomly selected for each game, one in particular grants an advantage to the green saliva stream; the pink stream blends in perfectly with the image of a falling cat inside a pink ball of yarn, making it easy to lose track of your stream, leading to many unintended acts of self destruction.
An apparent lack of variety is also a factor. The five characters you can choose from have humorous anecdotes, sure, but they lack any real personality to make them stand out, and they all deliver the same canned victory lines no matter who they’re playing against. Except the bear. Clarence sticks out because he’s a bear with mysterious, hidden powers.
Despite those alpha hiccups, however, The Lickening is a very fun dueler with the kind of insane spark that makes it one of the most bizarrely endearing indie games currently in development. What remains to be seen, however, is if The Lickening is fated to be like so many other Internet oddities and memes, with only fifteen minutes of fame to its name. I don’t know if The Lickening has enough to it, despite how fun it is, to remain fun beyond the hour in which you first play it and whenever you decide to introduce it to your friends as the little bit of strange that it is before moving on. Perhaps, though, that’s not such a bad thing; after all, 30 seconds of fun is still fun that you had. And fun is something The Lickening has in spades. And bears. Well, one bear, but he’s named Clarence, and that counts for, like, an extra half a bear. So some spades and one-and-a-half bears.
The Lickening will be available on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2014, for PC and Ouya for whatever price you want to pay.
[Special thanks to my friend Jake Watson, who is freakishly good at The Lickening. Hope you’re proud of yourself, man.]