Vlambeer is making yet another videogame like it's their job or something. They have probably lost their minds, but we may as well reap the rewards. Originally a quick and dirty Mojam prototype dystopia-'em-up, Wasteland Kings is now evolving into a full-on action-roguelike (or "roguelike-like," as designer JW Nijman describes it) with heaps of characters, procedurally generated locations, and of course, guns. In practice, that means you run from area to area, dodging and blasting circles around enemies in a desperate bid for survival. All the while, you mutate new, largely randomized powers and pick up better, stranger weapons. Sounds a bit like fellow action-roguelike The Binding of Isaac, doesn't it? And while the inspiration is certainly there, Nijman insists that Wasteland Kings is millions of cracking, sun-parched miles away from a carbon copy.
It was the feel that I first noticed.
It was so characteristically Vlambeer - crunchy, loud, responsive, intoxicating - that there was no mistaking Wasteland Kings' origins. It's become the diabolically eclectic duo's sole calling card no matter how many genres, platforms, and worlds they jump between. Other developers have signature mechanics, characters, or beards, but Vlambeer games speak to the senses. Touch. Sound. Sight. I'm sure they taste pretty distinct, too.
I put a single singing slug into a wriggling maggot baddie, and everything clicked. It just felt right. Before long, I was dodging between streams of bandit bullets, rolling, and mowing down hundreds of assorted jerk conglomerates with the best of them. And that's when I knew I wasn't playing that other action-roguelike that - despite its flaws - I still rogue-love so much.
“The shooting has to feel really good," explained Nijman. "Compared to other Vlambeer games, it still has that stuff where it's a simple game and it's all about action, but this is also a bigger world. The combat needs to have a lot of impact. When you shoot even the normal pistol, it's like, 'BANG BANG BANG,' and the screen shakes. Binding of Isaac is just shooting tear drops."
Isaac's ability to pack a similar punch was, in part, tremendously held back by its finicky Flash-based engine - something creator Edmund McMillen and co thought to be such a pressing issue that it necessitated a remake in an entirely new engine. So Vlambeer is off to a very smart start, but that's not the only place where the duo feels like action roguelike kingpin faltered. Randomization is key in great roguelikes, but Nijman is of the opinion that Isaac went a little overboard.
"I really liked Binding of Isaac, but it was really random," admitted Nijman. "If you were lucky, you were going to beat the game. If you were unlucky, you were dead."
"We want to be more skill-based. It'll be like, 'You either deal with this or this. Pick one.' But you can never count on anything to happen. The spawning is totally random. There are going to be games where one-in-ten times you'll see a golden scorpion or something.”
And sure enough, I did feel like my twitch skills factored in a little bit more as I shotgunned my way through bugs and bandits alike, but blind luck definitely got me out of a few tight spots and into a few others. Certain pickups saved the day. Certain weapons felt markedly more powerful than others. Each level up brought me a writhing buffet of new bodily evolutions to pick from, and - at least on paper - many combos seemed rather devastating. Thing is, Nijman wants that to be part of Wasteland Kings' appeal. Just not all of it, and when it is, you have to work for it.
“Like one mutant, he only has two HP, but you can pick a mutation that gives you four more HP so you don't die in one hit," Nijman explained. "But the challenge you're going through to get that skill is random because you get a random bunch of perks each time you level up. So it's like, 'OK, I'm going with melting, and I'm going with this strategy. I'll probably go with grenade launcher and a sledgehammer.' But then at the start of the game you're not offered that skill and you don't find the grenade launcher or sledgehammer, so you have to completely change your plans. But it's all still got to be more or less balanced. Otherwise it's a shitty game.”
I was only able to make a couple runs with a very limited roster of characters (one was a mountain of steroids and could dual-wield; another was a part-policeman, part, er, cactus who could roll-dodge; the final roster will apparently be orders of magnitude more insane), so I had no choice but to take Nijman's word for it.
He went on to tell me about a damn-near godly combo involving one character's ability to fire two bullets in a single shot, a double-barrel shotgun, and an upgrade ability called Wasteland Prince. If I were to combine all those with another perk that makes my shots bounce, I could theoretically "clear whole levels in one shot if you angle them right.” How do you balance that? I haven't the foggiest, but it's not like Vlambeer is any stranger to cramming wildly dissimilar items and upgrades under the same mechanical roof.
Again, though, this is hardly about popping out the unholy, blood-and-feces-puking lovechild of Binding of Isaac and Vlambeer's sensibilities. Rather, Vlambeer's doing its own take on a similar genre, and Nijman is quite confident that his outfit's signature sensibilities will shine through in the end. Because in a very big way, Wasteland Kings is meant to serve as both a brand new game and a tribute to Vlambeer's past.
“It feels really good after something like Luftrausers – which is really right and minimalist – to make something with a bit more breathing space design-wise," he said. "One secret I really want is that you can find a rusty spaceship, and then the screen goes black and it says, '400 days later.' And then you leave the ship and you're on Venus, and it has all the enemies from GUN GODZ. And there's golden guns and stuff. And then, at the end of the level, there's another spaceship, it says, '400 days later,' and you're back on Earth again.”
But Nijman isn't pushing himself to cram in as many references, winks, and nods as humanly (or fire bearably) possible. For Vlambeer, Wasteland Kings is all about freedom, and right now just about anything goes.
"We can just fit whatever we want in there," he concluded. "It's fun to go to work and be like, 'We should just add a chicken character, and his ability is that he can die of decapitation but keep running for ten seconds without his head to try and find a health pack.' That's probably going into the game, actually.”
Wasteland Kings will be available to all via Steam Early Access soon. Vlambeer also plans to stream a significant portion of the game's development process on its Twitch channel.