Imagine, if you will, Dark Souls without bonfires.
Now, I do not mean just playing the game without using the existing bonfires. That is an emergent challenge, a bit like an achievement. Its something you do for yourself to increase challenge on your own end. You had to make that choice. No, what I mean is to have you imagine that Dark Souls had never been designed with bonfires. Just take the game, as it is, but rewind time to the moment in which some designer at From Software introduced the bonfires into the design document, and whack him upside the head. Bonfires never get added to the game. Checkpoints, a place to respawn, are never added.
Imagine Dark Souls if bonfires, if checkpoints, had just never been a thought. If you died at any point, and since it is Dark Souls, that is an inevitability, you simply went back to the beginning of the game. And this was how it was designed to be. Not how you made it, because you’re a masochistic bastard, but how the developers intended it to be played.
For all the irony it is, Dark Souls would not be half as fun if it did not give you some mercy for your pain. Angvik, on the other hand, shows you no mercy. It has no checkpoints. When you die, you restart the game. And by Souls’ Law as stated above, it greatly, greatly suffers for it.
Angvik is a 2-D indie platformer roguelike from one-man developer Alistair John Jack. And from there, I have no other words to describe it. Just imagine what a 2-D indie platformer roguelike looks like in your head, and you have successfully imagined Angvik. Artistically, the game lacks anything resembling the words “unique”, “original”, or “interesting”. Environments, enemies, items, and characters (meaning you and your bird friend) all blend into this effervescently cheerful malaise of bland charm, a generic bowl of things you should find interesting and look kind of like things that are interesting elsewhere, but just come off like the smiling cartoon characters on the boxes of off-brand cereal.
Musically, though, Angvik succeeds in creating a fascinating atmosphere. Upon booting the game, you are greeted with this hauntingly beautiful track that gave me hope this would be a different type of indie platforming roguelike. The music feels like it is a constant undercut of the traditional indie orchestral soundtrack, with darker, more malicious tones hovering just under the surface of the world. It hints at greater, bleaker things that could be under the surface.
And Angvik backs that up with an incredibly interesting narrative opportunity presented at the creation of your character. See, Angvik fashions itself an RPG-lite, and introduces a class choice system at the beginning of the game that allows you to pick from a selection of classes; King, Paladin, Lancer, Shepherd, you know the drill. But these classes come with a fascinating catch: they are accompanied by the question “Your father was a…”, left for you to answer. This is a fascinating hook, a class-based adventure game where you are entirely defined by who your father was. Couple with the fantastic score and the designs of the characters representing your father recalling Braid in their style, my hopes were raised for an indie platformer with a little bit more narrative heft being placed into the game mechanics.
However, Angvik has no aspirations of that sort. The father hook is window dressing to an empty, bland landscape, frustrating and endlessly boring. The only pay-off the father mechanic has is your character slowly grows to resemble the father seen on the main menu, a cool idea in concept if it hadn’t been wasted on a game made of so much nothingness. Fans of the roguelike genre probably scoffed at my remarks about a zero-checkpoint system on the count of it being a roguelike, in which permadeath is one of the main tenets of design. The problem lies in feeling any sort of accomplishment or relief. Take, for example, my favorite roguelike, FTL: Faster Than Light. In FTL, you have the same sort of no-takebacks approach to gameplay, but even when you die, you feel as though you have gained some experience, some insight, some sense of accomplishment at the distance you traveled. “Okay, I ate shit against that starship, but I managed to fend off those intruders and I know how to better prepare myself next time.”
Angvik has none of that. There is no sense of how you can better yourself, other than getting the hang of one of the most unwieldy control schemes I’ve ever seen on an action platformer. Doing that requires you to balance sluggish platforming with wielding a weapon in both hands and a real time inventory (which has a surprising amount of depth, though it’s for nothing since every item in this game breaks in three seconds) and is just a right fucking piece of work to play. Angvik displays next to no interest in evolving its gameplay beyond bland masochism, other than occasionally giving you a bit of protection with your bird ally that is able to hatch birds to attack and defend your enemies, which is basically its one interesting gameplay mechanic.
The rest of the time, it is a gauntlet of incredibly difficult to navigate environments with clumsy controls and en-ragingly difficult combat that lacks the sense of progression or accomplishment of Dark Souls and FTL. Angvik is masochistic for the sake of being masochistic, ignorant of the fun that can come with insane difficulty because it has no idea how to give you a breather. Even FTL, notoriously and gloriously unforgiving, has a save & quit option; Angvik has none. If you want to beat the game, you must do it in one go. Though perhaps that works in its favor; Angvik is so comically short, clocking in with so few levels, that it could be feasibly done in one go if any of the adventure was worth actually completing.
I will not give Angvik a one out of five. That is a fate reserved for the absolute worst of the worst, and Angvik is not the worst of the worst. It has interesting things to it, the birds and the emphasis on the father and the score, but they are in service of nothing; a hollow, fruitlessly difficult experience that I would compare to a collapsing house of cards, except it is more apt to call it a house of cards that has already collapsed, and what remains simply combusts into flames and burns until nothing remains but the ash you scrape into the trash bin.
[+Haunting, frequently beautiful score] [+Bird sidekick mechanic is interesting and actually helpful] [+Emphasis on the traits of your father is a fascinating take on class building] [-Father emphasis leads to nothing] [Gameplay is hopelessly bland and unfathomably hard] [-Has no relief for the player, not even a save and quit] [-Controls are awkward and frustrating no matter how you change them] [-Art direction and character design are as generic as can be] [-Absolutely no sense of progression or accomplishment]