Impressions: Catacomb Kids

My average life expectancy in Catacomb Kids [official site] is measured in minutes. I’ve died within seconds of starting a run through the procedurally generated Spelunky-like, clobbered by monsters or reduced to a blood puddle by swarming piranhas. The first couple of minutes are the hardest part, as I struggle to make sense of my situation and abilities, and if I survive for a couple of levels, I’m likely to die because I deserve to rather than because the game decides to kill me.

Maybe it’s not the game. Problem is, I’m a cat. Curiosity kills me.

It’s a superb game, in many ways, taking the farcical chain reactions of Spelunky – bombs, bats, bouncing boulders – and zooming in on the details. Pick up a rock and you can lob it through a hanging wire that triggers a gas trap, which fills the room with noxious fumes that burst into flame if they touch a spark.

Or perhaps you interrupted three monsters while they were settling down to eat their dinner (they genuinely gather around tables as if they’re in a canteen, reminding me of faintly remembered pages in Fighting Fantasy books). They leap up, brandishing weapons, and you flee, leading them through a corridor in which spikes burst out of the ceiling, killing one pursuer, and then across a precarious series of stepping stones. Another enemy falls here, splashing vigorously in a desperate attempt to escape as the piranhas close in. The final enemy hops across and follows you up a ladder, and that’s when you lob a potion at a torch, knocking it off the wall and causing the flammable liquid within the bottle to stick to your adversary like a napalm overcoat.

Magical.

The thing about those stories? They require a certain amount of boldness and experimentation. With one hand, Catacomb Kids leads you into a world of wonder, where the slightly wobbly laws of physics create comedy whenever you nudge them – with the other hand, it slaps you for even daring to consider testing the limits of its simulation.

I don’t mind that it’s a difficult game and my best playthroughs have been extremely satisfying BECAUSE of the odds I’m overcoming, but the playful nature of the physics does feel somewhat at odds with the (almost) insta-death that can result from even the tamest experiments. It’s like playing with a Rube Goldberg machine that spits knives whenever it loses its equilibrium.

In Catacomb Kids I feel like Wile E Coyote rather than the Road Runner. I am the distant plume of dust, the inevitable result of a well-laid plan.

That’s most of the negatives out of the way. Despite all of my frustrations, you see, I am thoroughly enjoying the game. It’s Early Access and I FEELS Early Access. Well, that’s not quite right – I hope that it feels like an Early Access version of what it might be.

The basics are fine. Movement is just loose enough to give a sense of weight, but tight enough to avoid too many frustrating accidental plummets. Spellcasting is simple, inventory management is a pinch and combat is messy but – I believe – intentionally so. Content is the problem.

At first, the catacombs feel like a treasure of unexpected combinations and bizarre emergent scenarios. However, after playing for an hour or two – and burning through a hundred or so “kids” – you’ll be seeing the same traps again and again, and prompting the same reactions from the same enemies. It’s not as if the game feels empty but the initial wide-eyed wonder when it seems that ANYTHING is possible fades quite quickly.

The good news is that the game doesn’t need a thousand objects to keep things fresh. The main pleasure is in pushing props together to see how they react rather than discovering things that are actually new, but while the fire and gas are fun to play with, liquids seem relatively undercooked. Maybe it’s possible, but I haven’t been able to cause torrents of lava to flow down tunnels, or to puncture a hole in the bottom of a pool in order to flood the chamber beneath.

I’m complaining again. I shouldn’t, because Catacomb Kids is lovely. There are only two character classes at the moment – Bullies and Poets – but there are several ‘Coming Soon’ slots. Both of the current crop are fun to play with. Bullies are warrior types and poets start the game with a single spellbook.

Each book allows the character to pick a single spell from its selection, and they range from fireballs and toxic clouds, to double-jumping and time reversal. You might think magic is where the game cuts loose a little and you’d be right. Flames are excellent, burning furniture and enemies alike. Melee combat is trickier, tending to degenerate into hopping and swinging until somebody is dead.

But on the whole, the systems are fun to play with. Corpses can be eaten, including blobs of slime, and food seems to pile up in the belly until the player is full, at which point it’s absorbed all at once, sometimes providing a bonus. It’s a combo system essentially (I think), but with food. I like that.

In fact, I like almost everything about Catacomb Kids, I just wish I had time to like it MORE before a spike killed me or a couple of monsters pummelled me to death.

I can sum up all of my feelings in a single anecdote. One time – and just one time – a monster hit me so hard that my leg fell off. Remarkably, I was still alive and I managed to lure the enemy into a trap, killing it. My character hopped around on one leg and I was happy.

Usually, I die before I have the chance to lose a limb. If my arms and legs fell off more often, I’d be much happier.

19 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Dorga says:

    This game is just brillo

  2. lowprices says:

    God damn it Adam, stop selling me games I didn’t know I wanted. I still haven’t made enough of a dent in Neo Scavenger and Tales of Maj’Eyal.

    • Mara Kalat says:

      I don’t think Tales of Maj’Eyal is supposed to BE dentable, that game is insanely big.
      There’s just too much to do! 1000+ Achievements!

  3. clive dunn says:

    It’s certainly a good ‘un. I like the brutal nature of it, kind of like if you actually sent a kid into a dangerous goblin filled catacomb. Sometimes my bully can charge into a room and swish swish he’s super fast dagger about and before you know it all the enemies lie dead (and then you munch on their bones). Sometimes lowly bats can peck you to death. Or fish jump out the water at your eyes. You might be badly bleeding and certainly about to die but your little kid will still seem over the moon to open a chest and find a shiny sheild. It reminds me of old games where IT’S ACTUALLY FUN.

  4. ersetzen says:

    This game awakes the sense of experimentation I rarely have at this point.

    Taking the time to experiment and open that mysteriously locked door at level 10 just to die to the GIANT FREAKING BOSS behind it. Figuring out that you can trap the explosive gas from the trap in empty bottles and use it to build a gas grenade, followed by a torch to ignite into a flaming explosion. Trying to evaporate a flame potion and mix that into the explosive gas to make the new potion self igniting. Maybe cool that down with an ice spell or dip it into a water pool now?

    It’s a blast. If I mixed the potion correctly.

    • ersetzen says:

      Oh, and to add to the review: After floor ten enemies and encounters become pretty samey. Really looking forward to more content and maybe something like daily runs.

      Why are edits still gone? :(

    • MOKKA says:

      Your comment pretty much sums up what I like about this game. I spent more then 10 hours with it so far and everytime I think that I exhausted all possibilies, I learn something new. I just started experimenting with bottles (cooked slime is great to trap enemies) but it seems that I only scratched the surface of what’s possible.

      • Tacroy says:

        Oh man I was wondering what you meant by “cooked slime is great to trap enemies” so I cooked up some goo (the distinction is actually important) and, as I remembered from the last time I ate cooked slime/goo, it was “very sweet” so I figured the scent would attract enemies so I tossed it in front of some of them. They just ignored it.

        So, since I was playing a bully, I hopped up and taunted the suckers, rolling to grab the bottle of cooked goo in the process. I tossed the bottle at the nearest enemy, and what do you know? Turns out that cooked goo / slime has the same effect as crusher’d goo / slime, so in this case the enemy was immediately bounced up into some spikes pointing down from a platform I hadn’t noticed up above.

        That bully then died after I tried to cook up some more slime and accidentally knocked over a torch, setting myself on fire. That wasn’t unrecoverable, but I tried to douse the flames by rolling only to realize that I had a shield equipped, so I didn’t cast Regeneration fast enough.

  5. Craig Stern says:

    This is one of those games that I am filled with admiration for, and simultaneously, terrified to actually try because I am certain it’s basically just going to end up being a real-time supercut of incredibly quick player deaths (minus the requisite Yakity Sax background music).

  6. reality3ites says:

    Soundtrack by Aesop Rock?

  7. Hex says:

    It sounds like this game is touching on something which I think may become significant — ambushes.

    Rare (but not unheard of) is the game that allows a player to set up a situation in which enemy units will unwittingly walk into its doom. In some strategy/tactics titles, you can do this kind of thing. (Frozen Synapse Dark Mode vs another player, for sure.)

    In playing Door Kickers — as fun as it is — I keep finding myself wishing I could take a more passive role. There’s just so much pressure in plotting out what to do on each map: it’s fun, yes, though it can be overwhelming. I feel like having the option to secure a location and try to hold out on an enemy onslaught would be just as fun.

    Catacomb Kids is doing something special, there. One of my favorite bits of Don’t Starve is when things start falling apart — dogs start attacking just when a giant spawns and oh look is that a spider queen, too? — and then it turns out that all the creatures hate each other just about as much as they hate me, and start to slaughter each other mercilessly.

    A roguelike designed around the concept of “you’re a very fragile person, but you’re more clever than everything around you — manipulate the denizens of this dungeon into distracting/attacking each other enough that you can slip away unseen” <– this is the game I'm currently waiting for.

    Pls make.

    Tks.

    • Darloth says:

      Okay, I’ll have a go at that. Been wanting to see how easy the te4 engine is, and it sounds like a good idea anyway. I have an Idea about time slicing amulets and suchlike that might make sense. I wouldn’t expect anything to come off this mind you, I’m very unreliable making stuff like this :)

  8. Niko says:

    It’s quite a fun game and I’m hilariously bad at it.

  9. yabonn says:

    Still carrying that Rick Dangerous trau(WAAAAAAA!!)ma.

    WAAAAAAAAA!!

    I don’t know if i’ll ever be able to pl(WAAAAAAA!!)ay these games.

    WAAAAAAAAA!!

  10. caff says:

    Glad I backed this thanks to RPS peering at it a lot.

    Looking forward to the final thang.