There are a lot of games that look like they might give me that Spelunky feeling but most of them just leave me feeling a little empty. Not Caveblazers [official site] though. Rupeck Games' debut captures the craft and chaotic delights of Spelunky better than anything I've played since Spelunky itself though and it has quickly become one of my favourite roguelike platformers.
I'm twice the man I used to be, strictly in terms of hitpoints, and this funky sword I found sets almost everything I touch on fire. They bleed as well, which seems like an appropriate response to being hit in the face with a sword. A demonic eye hovers around my head like a furious jelly drone, zapping orcs, bats and slimes if they stray too close. Oh, and I'm a vampiric sort, taking life from every foe I slay, but fading slowly whenever I go some time without tasting the blood of the fallen.
And then a giant mutant spider burns me to bits with a laser beam and I'm back to square one, half the man I used to be and with a measly bow and rusty sword to my name. I've unlocked a new hat though, so that's something.
Caveblazers does not care how strong a character you've built; it'll find a way to kill you, either through emergent catastrophes and chain reactions involving explosions, arrows, spikes and tumbling, or through an ill-timed boss for which your painfully unsuited in your current form. It can be a cruel game but in twenty five hours of playing, I haven't once wanted to walk away.
I die and I start again, even though I'm barely able to get past the third area and sometimes struggle to see any uptick in my survival odds despite the lessons I'm learning, and the many items and abilities I'm unlocking as I go. The key to Caveblazers is that, like Spelunky, it's a wonderful challenge that I'm committed to overcoming, but it also tells some of its best stories at the moment when everything goes wrong.
The physics are spot on. Arrows, fired using the right stick of a controller (which both I and the game would recommend, though mouse and keyboard works well enough), start to drop when they travel around half a screen, and can be fired in eight directions. You might even replace your bow with a sling that lobs bombs, which have more weight, and there are sticky grenades and stun orbs and all sorts of other items to throw as well. They all have just enough bounce and heft to allow for ricochets and awkward bounces, and creatures move superbly as well.
You can climb by jumping against walls and the AI will do that, which leads to gangs of goblins clambering toward you, sometimes slipping and impaling themselves on spikes, or flooding across a platform like a green tide. When everything on a level is in motion at the same time, there can be so much to keep track of, from dive-bombing bats to cheeky archers and angry floating skulls. And everything is capable of interacting with everything else, which leads back into those glorious chain reactions, which were such a hallmark of Spelunky. At times, Caveblazers is a factory of pratfalls and close shaves.
But there's precision in there as well. My best runs have had me on the edge of my seat, clinging on to life with a handful of hitpoints and hoping a life-giving shrine will be just off-screen. I'm cautious in those situations, inching forward and defending high ground, battering enemies back with whatever weapon I've managed to loot. There are explosive blue bastards, essentially sentient detonations-in-waiting, that launch themselves into the air and then draw an arrow onto the screen toward the nearest hero. They then fly in that direction, exploding if they make contact with a person.
They are terrible things, especially for the cautious, wounded adventurer, not because they do MASSIVE DAMAGE, but because they create chaos. Scenery falls away, your character is launched through the air. There is a very brief but total loss of control.
The tug of war between control and chaos is the core of Caveblazers. Every item you find goes into your substantial backpack, and that gives you a sense of control over when to use those colourful but unidentified potions, or which weapons or magical items to use in any given situation. There are perks to pick from, unlocked as you play, and these will influence the kind of build you want, but you're always victim to chance.
The pool of items isn't enormous but there's enough variety that, as The Rolling Stones wailed, you can't always get what you want. The trick is to stay alive long enough that the random number generator favours you and you finally get what you need. And to stay alive, you'll need to master movement and combat.
Fighting is simple. Ranged weapons – from bows to handcannons – on the right stick and melee attacks on a single button. Up to three swings can connect together in a combo, culminating in a heavy swipe. This allows you to juggle enemies slightly, or knock them backwards into traps, and your two basic weapons can be combined with magical items that can repel creatures, fire missiles or make great whopping spectral fists or spinning swords among other things.
Essentially, the randomised loot means that sometimes you're going to be the vampire with the demonic eye fleet and the dragon sword, and sometimes you're going to be a chap in dungarees with a sharp stick.
I'm getting into the details and the details are important, but the most important thing is that Caveblazers is the best Spelunky-like game since Spelunky. I've seen it described as a hybrid of Spelunky and Risk of Rain, and there's some truth to that. At times it feels more like Spelunky RPG edition, or what I imagine a Spelunky sequel might have looked like.
The truth is that a game I installed on the off-chance it might give me a little bit of that Spelunky feeling has ended up being one of my favourites of the year so far, and an outstanding example of how to borrow and remould elements of a seminal indie title. There's so much to admire, from the graphical flourishes as crates splinter and corpses cartoonishly slop and slide down walls leaving trails of blood, to the other heroes (AI controlled) who will assist you, but also steal loot from under your nose. Not everything pleases me – I wish there were more variety in the areas and the enemies met, and that the bosses didn't just get more hitpoints from one stage to the next. They're brill designs, but the game cycles them randomly so as you progress, you just end up with stronger versions rather than new variants, and that just makes for longer, repetitive battles.
But these are small complaints. Caveblazers is superb and I'm looking forward to discovering all of its secrets, and to the local multiplayer add-on that's apparently coming soon. I can see myself playing for years to come.