You know how some games, like, throb? I mean your Thumpers, your Devil Daggers, your Dooms. Games you disappear into, but not in that namby pamby, prancing around fulfilling all your desires sense. I mean games that will eat you alive unless you stop them. Games set in pulsating, hostile dimensions in which you don’t belong; games that fling their menageries at the battered windows of your soul, where survival teeters on a combo of hair-trigger reflexes and total concentration.
Into The Pit is one of those, until it isn’t. You know you’re in trouble when the demonic eldritch hell portal starts feeling too comfortable.
To be clear, that’s far from the case at first. The horror starts off with you finding yourself in the deserted streets of a vaguely Victorian town, where the few remaining locals cower behind their doors. It turns out everybody’s been lured in t’ pit by a mysterious acolyte known as the Alderman, and you’re the only one wizard enough to stop him. Every jolly into the Pit begins with you selecting a spell for each hand, all of which shoot iridescent shards, with a spread of ranges and a range of spreads on offer. The range of actually good choices is much smaller, but let’s worry about that later.
My first half a dozen forays into the Pit were horrible. Gleefully so. There’s a specific dread that accompanies the unknown in any intense roguelike shooter, where being caught off guard by fire-spewing tentacles erupting from the ground can wipe away your hard-earned progress in a heartbeat. The Pit teems with such tentacles, but at least they don’t scuttle.
Now. Look. The other night, as I was reading in bed and just about to go to sleep, I heard something doing something very very very close to my ear. I instantly sat up, then rather slowly turned, to see a fuckin’ fuck the fuck off-sized spider, thank you very fuckly. It did then fuck off under a bookcase, where for all I know it remains. Relaying this experience is the best way I can think of to communicate the intensity of the scuttling involved should you venture into the Pit.
"Plenty of the Pit’s denizens scuttle, but some of them scuttle worse."
Plenty of the Pit’s denizens scuttle, but some of them scuttle worse. Scorpions: oddly wet, yet reassuringly consistent. Demonic hermit crabs: very sudden, very loud. Pulsing blood spiders: subtle, with notes of death. Then you’ve got the emaciated devil lads from a later level who hardly make any sound at all, which is obviously even worse because then you don’t get any warning before you spin around to find they’ve already chewed a chunk out of your jawbone.
Mercifully, you don’t have to fight the jawbone chewers if you don’t want to. The monsters you’ll run into and the terrain you’ll run around on are determined by which runes you plug into the ritual that summons the Pit, and every rune except the final one can be combined with another. So, combining the Corroded Docks with the Fungal Hollows will treat you to the Corroded Hollows, which you might even cunningly and deliberately do so as to take advantage of the way the Docks’ tiered platforms let you rain fire down on the mushroom men who like to explode in your face. Every environment is beautifully ugly, embracing splashes of lurid colour against grimy backdrops, then bathing it all in this unearthly psychedelic glow. I’d call it sumptuous if not for all the teeth and gore.
The level mix-ups are an interesting idea, and I did get a few kicks out of seeing familiar landscapes twisted together, but the novelty wore off before I’d seen even a handful of the potential combinations. You’re still up against the same monsters - they don’t mutate together into terrifying hybrids, they’re just drawn from the spawning pools of both dungeons. Progress is structured around fetching up to three townfolk from each jaunt into the Pit, with 30 needed to unlock the last rune, which meant there came a point where I knew what I’d be facing for the next couple of hours... and my heart sank.
The structure doesn’t help. Every run at the Pit is divided into encounters that you’ll typically clear in 60 seconds or less, closing each micro-dimension by running around and holding E at between one and four magic key stones. The encounters feel great, at first, each a spicy little nugget of adrenaline. But then you start to learn their tricks. Soon enough you know exactly where the fire-spewing tentacles are going to emerge, or the acid bugs, or the teleporting lightning jellyfish. The enemies are visually (and audibly) distinct, but they still feel over-similar because there’s no need to weapon switch or aim for weak spots, and they rarely come at you in enough numbers to make you go "Oh shit".
That’s partly thanks to the way upgrades work, where many of the buffs you can pick both within and outside the Pit feel too much like nakedly correct choices. There are a couple of indispensable healing boosts you can load up on pre-Pit, along with various meta-upgrades that increase the chance of certain upgrade types appearing amongst the choice of three you get between each encounter. Sady, hardly any of those mid-Pit upgrades actually change the way you play. You might inflict poison, bleeding, weakness or curses on your enemies, but I doubt you’ll notice the difference.
More sadly still, the upgrades that just straight up increase your damage or rate of fire seem by far the strongest. With the meta-upgrade that made those appear more often, I found I could blast down some end of Pit bosses before they’d had time to do more than a couple of attacks. With both those upgrades and the rewards you get from another system it’s not worth me explaining, I was grabbing the best available option from a checklist of priorities rather than making a meaningful decision. The same goes for those starting weapon choices, where the long range options feel irrelevant when most scraps inevitably take place a few inches from your face, and the distinctiveness of every other weapon dissolves into simply spraying everything in front of you. There’s a jarring disconnect between the idea of descending into an awful eldritch Pit to battle the unspeakable, and the reality of playing a game you’ve ‘solved’.
Every throbbing game needs to keep you in a very specific and delicate state of mind. There’s a sweet spot where you feel just but only just in control, dancing amidst a tide of enemies that could overwhelm you at any second. There’s this flow state where you find yourself building a mental image of everything around you without fully realising you’re doing it, strafing in a desperate yet calculated way to avoid the claws you know must be immediately behind you. It’s intoxicating, when the challenge feels just right. For too much of my journey into the Pit, it didn’t.
It’s a shame to end on such a sour note, because those earlier moments where the Pit shines are positively radiant. Battles in Into The Pit never get as intricate as a meaty fight in Doom Eternal, nor as suspenseful as the single, exquisitely choreographed encounter you’ll find in Devil Daggers, but I’d say they came close enough to make me giddy if only they came more consistently. Instead, Into The Pit descends into comfortable familiarity, and all the scuttling in the world can’t save the back half from feeling like a slog.
Add an endless survival mode, mind, and I’d be back in a heartbeat.