I keep playing Caveblazers [official site], stopping between lives only to message people to complain about Caveblazers. The roguelike-platformer has so many systems I find frustrating or unsatisfactory, but one big thing that keeps drawing me back.
I often see Caveblazers described as being like a “Spelunky 2”, and I can see why. They’re both 2D, sidescrolling platformers with roguelike elements, in which you crawl through dungeons, progress into different worlds, and deal with shrines. Both have daily challenge modes and both are, in the early levels, very brown. But I feel like all of these things could be said of a great many games, and Spelunky is mostly useful to me as a way to talk about Caveblazers’ many differences.
For example, Spelunky is a true platformer, in that many of its challenges involve precision jumping – across lava pits, above spikes, to avoid enemies, or to bonk enemies on the head. Caveblazers by comparison has few environment hazards, its spikes aren’t insta-kill, enemies can’t be head-bonked, and the player character takes no fall damage. This is all stuff I like.
Caveblazers is instead a game much more about combat. By default, you have a sword for melee and a bow for ranged attacks. You’ll reach the exit on each procedural level mainly by correctly killing enemies with those two weapons. This is where we get into the things I dislike.
I don’t think the melee combat is actually any good, because the game resists attempts to be precise. You obviously need to get up close and personal with enemies in order to hit them with your sword or whip or whatever, but all the characters are small, move quickly, and overlap in small spaces. It’s great that you don’t take damage for simply touching an enemy, but the overlap means that it’s hard to see signs of a coming enemy attack, and hard to tell whether your next blow is going to hit the enemy or hit behind the enemy. Even if you do detect a coming enemy attack, there’s no shield, dodge-roll or equivalent. The surest way to avoid the attack is to jump, which removes you from combat and often from the area of combat.
The result is that melee combat consists of a lot of spamming the attack button and bouncing around and past your enemy, while they do the same. It’s unsatisfying when you eventually do strike a killing blow as a result – I feel relief, but never feel in control.
Another side effect is that it’s really difficult to avoid taking damage altogether. If I win a melee fight without getting hit, it feels like luck, and a certain percentage of the time, I’m going to lose some health. Most attacks in the early game take away around 10 hitpoints from your starting pool of 100, which is relatively generous. I like the generosity, but it leads to deaths that happen because you’ve been gradually worn down across 50 enemies, with one in five getting a single hit.
Again, the comparison to Spelunky is useful here. In Spelunky, my death is almost always a story to tell, and often a funny one. “Oh, I was floating across the ice caves with a parachute and didn’t see that rock on a bouncepad. It knocked me unconscious then hit me three more times before I could wake up.” In Caveblazers, you die normally because a guy you’ve already killed 20 of got one blow on you and took away your last seven health points. That’s a story, but it’s a boring one and the only one.
I could keep going with the knock on effects of this. Here’s one more: health is found via randomly distributed meat and hearts found in chests, or purchased with gold via shrines. Because combat whittles your health little by little, your success is often highly dependent on the RNG of these health packs. Compare that with Spelunky, which had an almost guaranteed source of health on each level (the damsel/mansel/pug), but required you to take an extra risk (and therefore create a better story) to get it.
Let’s stop though, because I’ve been playing Caveblazers more and more with each passing day for the past week. I’ve criticised melee combat, but not mentioned ranged.
I love ranged combat. That’s true in most games, but here your bow and arrows are mapped to the right stick, can be fired in eight directions, and are infinite. That’s great already, but it gets better.
Unlike Spelunky, Caveblazers has persistent progression in the form of unlocks. Some of those unlocks are perks, which modify the stats of your character. Pretty early on I got a perk that when equipped causes my character to fire arrows more quickly.
As you play, you can then stack more modifiers on top of this. You’ll find a new bow and it’ll do more damage, but also add +3 to the knockback effect on enemies. Then you’ll find a ring your character can wear for that life, which adds another two to knockback. Then you’ll find a blessing, chosen from a selection of three, which adds a random chance for any fired arrow to be a double arrow, or an extra powerful arrow. Then you’ll find another blessing that makes one in ten shots also fire a bolt of lightning. Then maybe you’ll find a bow which fires five arrows simultaneously.
And so on. The longer you survive in the game, the more your traits, perks, blessings, weapons, rings and magical items stack on top of one another, to make what feel like absurdly powerful character builds. These can completely change your playstyle for the duration of a life, make that life precious to you, and make death a reason to wail with frustration.
I’m still discovering new things with each Caveblazers life, and those things are so often thrilling that I’m itching to try again after each and every death.
In this way, it’s just like Spelunky.