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Deflector review (early access): a chaotic roguelike with boomerangs and bugs

What you give, you get back

Boomerangs are cool as hell. The sleek wooden objects careen through the air in a perfect circle - in theory, at least - before returning right back to where they began in the palm of your hand. They’re something that fascinated me as a child, and 20-something years later I still don’t really know how or why they work.

Deflector is like someone taped two swords to a boomerang, Mad Max-style. How does the boomerang still operate with twin blades slashing back and forth on either end? Don’t know. How does it always circle its way back to where you’re standing after dashing around an arena filled with enemies? Not a clue.

That’s Deflector’s very simple premise: carve your way through rooms of monsters, all of which are trying to kill you with outstretched appendages, gnashing teeth, and deadly orbs zig-zagging in your direction. This is the chaotic carnage of a bullet-hell shooter, blended with the ever-changing stages and rooms that are synonymous with roguelikes, and the result is a pretty hectic action game.

This early access game gives you few tools to work with, and even fewer health points to spare. You’ve got just one boomerang to whack enemies with from afar, but the item doubles as a makeshift deflective shield for incoming ranged attack when it’s back in your hands - hence the name of Arrowfist Games’ project. One stray projectile can wipe away as much as a fifth of your health, so your eyes really have to pick up every oncoming assault as you rapidly scan your surroundings.

Deflector is really tough. Alien-like minions will just spew a slow orb or two at you, but tougher foes can vomit lines of the bloody things, to the point where just standing your ground feels like beckoning death. Staying on the move is key to survival, but levels will bring acidic pools and towering spikes rising from the ground to bear at you, variables that’ll easily throw you off your game and send you packing to an early grave. This is all done against the backdrop of a sort-of story where a giant tardigrade-esque creature ferries you between levels. Every Deflector run starts the same: heal up, interact with the big beastie, and select which room you’d like to be transported to. You’re presented with a big overview board of subsequent rooms, with pathways snaking between them, including which arenas house powerful enemies and exclusive rewards.

The aim of the game becomes more about reducing risk so you can make it to the boss encounter with as much health as possible.

This ultimately means that, in practise, Deflector has a lot less randomisation than you might think. The overview board changes between runs, sure, but because the rewards of a room are split between a handful of choices, and there’s a finite variation of enemies, the aim of the game becomes more about reducing risk so you can make it to the boss encounter with as much health as possible. The reduced randomisation between levels is admittedly fine when there’s a distinct number of biomes with different lethal habitats to contend with, like poisonous swamps, but it grates the rest of the time.

Deflector’s difficulty curve is uprooted with massive spikes thanks to those bosses, too. Each one is a brick shithouse of a bullet sponge, soaking up repeated boomerang throws and rebounded orbs like they’re nothing. Pitted against your very limited health bar, bosses like the tentacled monster in the swamp biome, or the giant hulking brute in the starter area, can wipe the floor with you in just a few hits. Deflector allows precious little room for error, and while regular enemies can certainly chip away at your life, bosses can easily smack you right back to the beginning in fights that unfortunately feel pretty one-sided a lot of the time.

A screenshot showing the level selection web in Deflector

Risk/reward balances are everything in roguelike games, and Deflector hasn’t quite nailed the feel of tempting the player with powerful upgrades with the caveat of fatal encounters. The amount of upgrades offered - like chain attacks with your boomerang, and exploding enemies - don’t really compare to just getting through to the boss fight with all your health intact, which you’re really going to need given how brutal they are. There’s very little to really tempt you off the quickest and safest path straight to the finish line, and even less that’s worth risking for a stray enemy attack that’ll eat away at a nice chunk of your health.

And Deflector might’ve launched into early access, but it sure has a lot of bugs to iron out in its early access lifecycle. I sadly encountered a litany of game-ending bugs throughout Deflector, where reward objects required to proceed wouldn’t spawn, or overcoming a room would see every reward spawn at once and follow me through the rest of the run. It’s unfortunate that Arrowfist Games’ venture has launched in this state - but on the other hand making improvements is what early access is for, and it’s clearly an iterative game that’ll see more updates and patches further down the road. Hopefully some of them will rebalance the core of the game a bit, too.

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