I haven’t been playing many new metroidvanias but decided to get to it over christmas to have an opinion on what the best one was of the year (Hollow Knight was pretty clear last year, probably Ori in 2015 but I have to play ESA to be sure, in 16 I haven’t played any major ones). This year, there were a few more niche/different titles that I hadn’t gotten a good feel for from trailers; La Mulana 2, Dandara and Yoku’s Island Express. Then there was SOTN-likes Chasm and Timespinner, the not-actually-a-metroidvania Dead Cells, and more familiar Guacamelee 2, Iconoclasts and The Messenger. I played an hour or two of each, which definitely favors some less (La Mulana 2 mainly).
I was thinking Guacamelee 2 might take it for me, but it’s kind of just a worse Guacamelee 1 in a few respects, I really liked that game but even if it was just as good, rehashing the visuals (exact same main character design (should have kept the dad bod), many other repeat characters) and music is a shame and it has to be an improvement to be noteworthy. Lategame it might pick up but after a few hours it’s not grabbing me super hard, resetting the difficulty curve makes it boring and the structure was never particularly good for metroidvania-style exploration. Yoku’s Island Express just has mediocre gameplay IMO, love the world and audiovisual side, and the structure is very compelling, but the pinball gameplay was fairly boring and all too shallow. I think the game would be better if they just took out the fruits and gave you shortcuts or paths forward upon reaching them instead of having to grind and then pay for them. It’s made me lose faith in Rollers of the Realm which I’ve been wanting to pick up, I really like pinball but it can’t just replace platforming. The lack of punishment for failure, the respawning fruits and general mindless progression was pretty disappointing.
La Mulana 2 may have great puzzles eventually but I’m initially put off by simplistic platforming and combat without any story, game feel or graphics to make up for it. Dandara is weird and cool and shows some promise, but I’m far from sold on a lot of it. I do enjoy the structure, there’s a lot of ways to go right from the start and it seems like it will have a proper vertical and interconnected map, not just forced backtracking for extras and isolated dungeons etc. However, the death system is weird (lost most of my currency despite making my way back to my salt, unclear feedback on how that works), zoomed in camera results in some surprise hits and I don’t see a lot of potential for the movement system to result in effective depth – there are just so few unique states. Bosses and enemies will need to have stellar design to make up for it. Dead Cells is fun despite some core problems but it doesn’t really matter since it’s not a metroidvania. I’ve seen it around the place so I want to include it, but after playing it there are only a few surface level similarities and it’s certainly not part of the same genre.
Iconoclasts is a bit too safe I want to say, it’s hard to describe but the way it controls and the hp system, the abilities and level design, it seems kind of uninspired and like it doesn’t have a vision for what it wants to achieve, more-so acting on genre conventions. Ledge grab, for example, is a mechanic I see no purpose in as an isolated upgrade/mechanic, it’s the same effect as a higher jump but much less versatile, and much worse for game feel as every higher ledge has a slow animation to go through to get up on it instead of just jumping up – Darksiders 3 platforming is so tedious because of this, and the similarly slower height gain mechanic of Guacamelee (rooster uppercut) only works because it’s satisfying and versatile in itself. These are small issues, and mostly just feelings I get when playing it, it does well in boss design and such, but first impressions have been somewhat muted. The reason I didn’t play more is because it has separate levels without interconnectivity, i.e. it isn’t a full metroidvania IMO. Chasm is mediocre in every single way, and I have no patience for that. The few scripted rooms that were there were a boss and plot stuff, very few handcrafted challenges and the randomly generated ones are shallow and bland. Timespinner was too easy, reminded me of second half SOTN where you basically cannot die and it was a bit boring. Nightmare difficulty is locked until you complete it, so I’ll download a save file or something and probably like it, but it’s turned me off for now as opposed to …
The Messenger! Damn. The first power seal in this game came in the first 30 minutes and is more interesting than anything I had in Guac 2 for 2.5 hours. The first thing that happens in the game is getting a really cool and versatile twist on a double jump, and the controls are buttery smooth. Then you get a shopkeeper that allows you to attack and cloud step off projectiles, letting you get the aforementioned power seal. Super strong first hour, and with the promise of more exploration later? I’m loving it. It’s the only one of these where I’ve really been aching to play more, both to see where it goes in the long run, what’s in that chest, how the metroidvania elements are implemented etc., but also short term just moment to moment gameplay is fun as hell. After a few more hours, the bosses slowly get better and better, peaking at Timekeeper and Sky Serpent is pretty damn good too, but then the demon general is a big step down and I hope they pick up the slack. The first power seal was still the hardest one I think, it’s fairly challenging but I feel like the designers are holding back a bit, and the death mechanic is strongly indicative of this (a creature will absorb a certain amount of currency, except you can just quit and reload the game to get rid of him, or wait a few minutes of real time. It’s super weak and shows lack of commitment). The metroidvania elements aren’t very good with a fair bit of repetition to access the future/past sometimes, and no real challenges to begin with. I don’t think this is the best metroidvania of the year, but it is the best game from what I played, that can be classified as a metroidvania. It gets close enough that I will give it the metroidvania of the year title, but it does feel a bit wrong and if I do finish La Mulana 2 or even Timespinner, they may rob it regardless of being worse games (which I’m not sure about). For GOTY, Celeste is clearly above it for not slacking past the midpoint, but I haven’t played enough of the big hits to make a substantial list on that.