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.
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.