Review: Spirits Abyss
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I have a great respect for games that manage to be compellingly weird, because it’s a tough needle to thread. I can’t even really say what it is that separates a game from being the interesting sort of weird and the plain obtuse kind. That’s why I enjoy Caiysware games so much, because they manage to put out games that genuinely have their own alien logic to them. They also look great and play well, and Spirits Abyss might be their best yet. Taking a page from Spelunky and scribbling neon nonsense all over it seems to really work here, especially once you start digging into how broad of an experience it is.
Atop a distant mountain there is a chasm, said to lead all the way down to the gates of the Resting Realm. Legend has it that a child consigned to the abyss beneath the blood moon may return wielding the power of the undead. Apparently your mother thought that sounded like a pretty good deal, because she chucked your naked ass down that hole right quick. Beset on all sides by restless souls, undead wraiths, mutant spores, and far worse things, your only hope is to descent to the mythical gates and pray the legend wasn’t some fever dream invention. But what will you find down there? And will it give up its terrible powers so easily?
The answer to that last one is no, of course. Spirits Abyss is functionally cut from the same cloth as Spelunky, with each level being a large area of destructable terrain filled with monsters, loot, and traps. You’ve got to get from the top of the level to the exit pit at the bottom, but you’ve only got a few hearts and the threats are rather adept at taking them from you. My first half-dozen attempts at the game didn’t see me escaping the first level, as I learned the extremely fatal language of enemies and traps. Turns out a lot of stuff in this game explodes, or contains enemies when it might have loot, or is absolutely ready to kill you if you do the wrong thing.
Part of the confusion is because yes, this is a Caiysware game. All the text is in their kitschy house style of pseudo-babytalk, and goodies often look just as threatening as baddies. Compared to Spelunky the gameplay is less technical, thanks to the absence of fall damage and a much higher proportion of powerful abilities. Your basic attack can be powered up to remarkable levels with perks offered between levels, and it starts out pretty strong anyway. Bombs are plentiful, jumps are high, and enemies aren’t really dense enough to stop you from blazing through a level if you want. You won’t want to, for the most part, because of all the weird, wonderful features levels have that can push your power level to even crazier heights.
Really the main learning curve is sussing out what is super dangerous and what isn’t, and once I had that down I was able to beat a run pretty quickly. There’s not quite the challenge or compelling mayhem of Spelunky here, and the devs seemed to know that because they papered over that fact with tons of modes and secrets. You’ve got several classes to challenge the abyss with, including alchemists, ninjas, and miners, each with different weapons and bomb delivery systems. Aside from the normal 10-level descent, there are also challenge modes, online score attacks, horde battles, and an actual card battling game with some pretty neat mechanics. Add to that a wealth of special levels and collectibles sprinkled throughout, and it still comes out as a pretty compelling package.
Tied together with colorful, crunchy pixel art and solid sound design, Spirits Abyss is a great addition to the ranks of platforming roguelikes. It takes all the important parts of Spelunky and uses them as a base to wander off in different directions, and the result is charming, challenging, and compellingly weird. This one lacks the depth of mechanics or challenge that some might, but more than makes up for it with the variety of experiences included. I still don’t fully grok what’s happening or what that ending was, but I’m more than happy to keep abyss diving to see what else I can find.