Helvetii Review – Staggered Dream
Developer: Team KwaKwa
Release Date: February 3, 2023
Reviewed On: PS4
Publisher: Red Art Games
Genre: 2D Action, Roguelike
Action roguelikes are a dime in a dozen nowadays, so standing out has become difficult. But, the most straightforward way of becoming distinct involves boasting an impressive presentation and art style.
Games like Hades have utilized their character art as their prominent identifiers, and this new title by developer Team KwaKwa, Helvetii, follows the same general philosophy. Its visuals are immediately similar to Vanillaware’s works, especially Muramasa The Demon Blade, yet its gameplay systems fall drastically short, creating an underwhelming, forgettable experience.
In this title, the dryly delivered premise details how the region of Gaul fell under control by the titular Helvetii during 100 BC. A war chief by the name of Divico eliminated a Roman legion via a mysterious boon from times past, but this usage spawned a rot that spread throughout the land.
Because of this event, Divico’s mind and heart became corrupted, and monsters and cultists caused immense chaos throughout the land. In an ambitious effort to undo this rot, he teams up with druid Nammeios and half-beast Renart.
I’ll be frank and transparent here; I had to rewatch the opening cinematic and read throughout the Steam page to recall even the generalities of this narrative because the way it’s depicted in-game is not gripping or lasting. After that introductory scene, there’s no semblance of a story until the end of a run. The only interactions between the cast occur at rest points, which honestly comprise throwaway dialogue. Still, with roguelikes, the gameplay is the meat and potatoes to make up for the lacking narrative.
Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, the combat in Helvetii is not enjoyable. Regardless of which of the three characters you play, their uniqueness is shallow, resulting in a monotony that becomes apparent as soon as the middle of the first area. There’s a lack of combo diversity, making every encounter feel similar in fundamental ways. While the enemies telegraph their attacks via a red flash, the dodge window and wind-ups are too generous, especially in Normal mode.
I’ll emphasize that I appreciate the transparent telegraphs since other mediocre action games fail to illustrate incoming attacks adequately. Still, it means little in Helvetii’s case because the cast doesn’t boast combo freedom. This issue is found in how undemanding it is to interrupt and combo enemies, resulting in beatdowns and creating one-dimensional encounters.
Further, foes are oddly tanky, so first-time players will undeniably be greeted with a few rough runs. On the other hand, bosses are weirdly frail, as even the final boss can go down shockingly quickly with a moderately adept setup.
Another inherent gameplay flaw resides in the absence of audio feedback when performing an attack. While seemingly minor, providing prominent sounds while attacking is a subtle and necessary way to reinforce and congratulate players’ behavior.
Furthermore, it instills the sheer act with thrilling purpose, meaning that even well-designed bouts can feel like a chore when such a feature is not implemented. For instance, the boss battles in Helvetii are passable, with them boasting identifiable moves. But due to player strikes not possessing any auditory identity, figuring out how to best handle and bypass specific boss behavior feels like a hollow victory.
Additionally, they can be slain in no time, despite their movesets having some thought put into them. It’s a series of saddening faults that ruined the experience for me early on.
Aside from the combat, each area is divided into several rooms displayed on a map viewable via the top right of the screen. Alas, all of the locales, even the later ones, are compact and come off as linear despite the multiple pathway structure, so the sense of discovery with finding potentially helpful boons fails to hit its mark.
Moreover, there’s a handy shop players can use, requiring currency earned from destroying a few supplemental parts of the environment and winning battles. The items players can obtain here are self-explanatory, ranging from heals to raw stat gains.
This simple but notable reward loop is one of the few genuinely worthwhile parts of each run, which should be embraced whenever possible. Another positive worth mentioning is the standard roguelike system of currency used between area traversal to gain more permanent buffs, establishing a scale of what to strive for. It’s basic, though it undeniably gets the job done.
Regarding the visuals, the aforementioned striking similarities to Vanillaware’s Muramasa The Demon Blade are almost humorously apparent, to an extent where even this facet of the game’s identity is muddled. Yet, for those unfamiliar with that title, the presentation here will likely be one of its most uniquely compelling aspects.
Helvetii is an unfulfilling action roguelike that contains a few conceptually neat ideas not strongly delivered on any front. The practical nonexistence of effective feedback during combat heavily mires the gameplay and incentive to keep going.
Additionally, the questionable difficulty, regardless of the chosen mode, creates a detached relationship between the game and the player, ultimately resulting in an unmemorable venture of the genre. While Helvetii functions without issue, there are countless other examples of worthwhile action roguelikes to sink your teeth into.
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