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Old 12-06-2010, 09:50 AM   #1
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Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 67: Escape From the Underworld

2010 seems to be a year of resurgence for the difficult platformer. I suppose that's a fairly obvious claim to make for any year that opens with VVVVVV and closes with Super Meat Boy, but I've noticed it in this column, as well - from twitchy madness like Super Crate Box to more slow paced but no less diabolical challenges like L'Abbaye des Morts, everybody seems to want to make a classic throwback game that loves to kill you this year.

This installment of Free and Worth Every Penny highlights another game you can stack on that pile. In some ways, it's one of the better ones I've seen lately, with a great concept and some moments as satisfying as the ones I loved in Hero Core and IJI. In other ways, it's a frustrating mess that doesn't live up to its potential. Still, I don't regret the time I spent with it, so if you think you're up for a challenge, let me invite you to...

So you're an angel. Not a cute cherub "bow with love arrows" angel, either - one of the avenging kind. ...Well, you were. But without those wings, or that badass sword, it might be harder to convince anyone. I won't tell you exactly how you ended up stuck down here, because the opening to Banov's Escape from the Underworld is one of the better introductory surprises I've seen this year, but stuck you surely are. You'll need to figure out how to reclaim your lost power, with nothing and nobody to help you.

Everything seems so idyllic. What could go wrong?

As in many of the best freeware side scrollers - the aforementioned IJI and Hero Core, as well as the exquisite Cave Story, come readily to mind - Metroid is the most obvious design influence for Escape From the Underworld. Stripped of your abilities, you must make your way through a labyrinth of caverns, slowly acquiring the items that will let you open new areas and face increasingly difficult enemies. It's a classic formula, and in many ways it works here. Every power upgrade feels significant (honestly the last one feels almost game-breaking), and a helpful automap keeps track of where you haven't been yet, and what you found in the places you have explored.

This sucks. I want my wings back.

Sadly, I can't say that all of the design choices behind Escape are successful ones. The opening sections of the game are brutally hard, giving you absolutely no directional clues to help you figure out what you should do first. You constantly run up against areas that are blocked off to you or enemies you can't handle, until you manage to luck into the right path. Worse, save points are few and far between, so it's easy to lose progress to a quick death if you're not meticulous about backtracking to save every time you find something useful.

Speaking of backtracking, you won't find the handy telepoters of VVVVVV here, or the ability to warp between save points, or anything like that. You'll be traversing the same ground many times, and given the number of enemies and environmental traps that can quickly become tedious. Barriers to pathways re-spawn even after you have the ability to remove them, so you're going to have to destroy that boulder / energy barrier / etc every time you want to get to the room on the other side. It doesn't break the game, but it sure does break the pace.

None of that might matter - after all, Super Metroid had plenty of backtracking and no teleporters - but on top of it all, the controls feel far too clunky for a game that demands so much of the player. Let me give you a recommendation: get a gamepad, and map the Jump command (the Up Arrow key if you're playing on the keyboard) to one of the buttons, because having to actually press Up every time you want to jump in a game with this much jumping is torture. After such gamepad mapping, I found it playable, but still never as precise as I wanted it to be.

This. Is. What. I'm. Talking. About.

So why put up with it? Well, largely for the reason displayed in the screenshot above - you get to be an overpowered God by the end, and it really is pretty satisfying to tear through areas and enemies that once gave you so much trouble leaving naught but destruction in your wake. When you get to the aforementioned near-game-breaking item, you won't complain, you'll say "F*** yes!" and have a blast using it.

The usual pleasure of exploring a map and finding items in a Metroid-style game remains, including the requisite hidden ones you'll want to locate if you're a completionist. I should also mention that the music by "Prophecy" is great, hopping back and forth between catchy synth with a solid beat and Gregorian-sounding chants. I didn't get tired of listening to it at all during two playthroughs.

That's the bottom line, I guess. As often as I smacked my forehead at the way Banov did some things in his game, I played it from beginning to end twice. I write up lots of games I can't say that about.

Escape From the Underworld is...
  • a really neat concept for a game and character that I've love to see fleshed out more.
  • inspired by some of the best games of all time, which never hurts.
  • sadly hindered by not learning all the right lessons from those games, and furthermore by finicky controls.
  • still an impressive effort, and one I'm glad I played.
The game is Windows-only, and comes in under 15MB. You can pick it up here.

Done with this one? Want more? Check out the complete archives of Free and Worth Every Penny.

Last edited by Ravenlock; 12-06-2010 at 11:27 AM.
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Old 12-09-2010, 04:58 PM   #2
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I agree. The controls are finicky and dying, in many cases, is very punishing.

However, after playing for a bit, I got the hang of it. Not sure how far I am in the game right now, but from the amount I've explored, I'd guess about half-way.

Good find.
Check out my new Let's Play series, Hardcore Failures!
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