Review copy provided by developer
Metroidvanias are a crowded enough group that new ones really have to do something special to distinguish themselves. Some, like Chasm, have gone the questionable route of procedural generation for their levels. I say questionable because map design is an indispensable cornerstone of quality for these games, and the maps you’ll be exploring in Chasm are of questionable quality. It seems an odd trade for randomness and replayability in a genre that doesn’t value it all that much, and if not for some very solid designs elsewhere in the game I don’t think I’d be here suggesting you check it out anyway.
You are a young army recruit of the nation of Guildea, currently at war with a neighboring fantasy government. One of your key mining towns has gone quiet, and your commanding officer has decided to take the Lone Video Game Protagonist approach to investigating it. Upon arrival, you find the town deserted after strange events whisked the inhabitants away to the darkest corners of the mine. It’s up to you, then, to descend into the hostile caverns and tunnels to liberate the missing folks and figure out what disappeared them in the first place. And there’s quite a story to it, as you’ll learn by collecting the many lost journals and exploring the many lost regions of the cursed subterranean depths.
The arc of Chasm’s story is one that follows the restoration of the town and revelations about the threat you face. Hunting the lost villagers is plenty good motivation to get you through the introductory caverns and into the stranger spaces beyond, and by the time you’ve found most of the wayward souls you’ll have a very good idea of what you’re up against. While not the most unique story, it’s told with a lot of tantalizing clues and world-building details that help stretch the mystery out towards the endgame. Unfortunately, the town and its inhabitants are mostly separate from that, with very little additional insight to provide or details to flesh out the world further.
You’ll be focused on building up the town for most of the game, with most residents providing new services once rescued. The first will always be the sub-weapon merchant (unless you purposefully give her a miss), and others will offer familiar aid like potions, healing foodstuffs, equipment, and a rather frustrating slot machine to gamble on. Each person will also give you a quest once rescued, usually to find some specific item in the depths but occasionally asking for enemy drops you’ll probably have to grind for. Completing their task will earn you enhanced services or a one-time reward, though unless you’re diligent in your backtracking you may end up getting it past the point of usefulness.
Backtracking is going to be a major feature of Chasm, because of how the world is laid out. Past the mines there are five more regions to the underground, connected in various ways but progressed to in a mostly linear fashion. The game will corral you along a specific path until you find a new power for accessing areas (eight in all), and then expect you to backtrack through the areas you’ve been to to grab more loot and find the path to the next power. There’s a decent fast-travel network of caves and gates, but because of the procedurally-generated maps they won’t always be placed in very helpful places for getting where you want to go.
This ends up being my main gripe about Chasm, the procedural generation. Everything else about the game is standard metroidvania design (sometimes too old-school, like attacks freezing you in place and forcing you to use jump attacks constantly), and I can take the good and the bad well enough with the solid story and wonderful pixel art. But I cannot, for the life of me, understand why procedural generation was such a priority for this game. It makes sense for something like Dead Cells, a game you’re going to be restarting every hour or two, but not for a game that takes around 6 hours to 100%. One-and-done players are only going to see the janky map layouts, and honestly players that come back for more aren’t going to see much benefit either. Unless I got super unlucky with the three map seeds I tried, all the big loot and setpiece rooms are still in roughly the same spots, with only different hallways connecting them. There’s no creative remixing of routes or power orders here at all.
It might sound strange for me to recommend Chasm after all that, but I honestly did enjoy my time with it. It’s a very familiar metroidvania at its core, down to the combat and consumables, and it benefits from the attention shown in the writing and art. The problem is that it doesn’t innovate on these core designs, the ones that can really set a metroidvania apart, it innovates in a completely different and rather unwelcome way. I would happily trade the procedural maps for smoother combat or randomized bosses or procedural progression with different powers, because what we get here feels less than the sum of its parts. Still, it’s a good run if the maps don’t throw you off and you’re looking for more adventures in that classic, crunchy, old-school style.