Allow me to preface this review by saying that I wouldn't consider myself an inexperienced gamer. I've spent a good few thousand hours plugged into a variety of games over my lifetime, and I always manage to come out the other side with a modicum of respectability to be found in the calibre of my playing.
That said, I've never been one for the self-styled 'hardcore' genre of games that has surfaced on the indie scene over the past half decade or so. These games generally sport an 8-bit retro art style and have minimal controls, story and lore, in order to emphasise the gameplay which, usually, is the main attraction.
However, while I consider myself a fairly seasoned gamer, I was not prepared for the gruelling trials of this game's very first level. First and foremost, it is important to note that this game is not 'hardcore' in the sense of games like Super Meat Boy, it is 'hardcore' in the sense that it dances the fine line between being unplayable, and being a Youtube-fodder rage game. Short of having a counter for a number of times you die, even a platforming fan can expect to be pressing the 'R' key to restart at least ten times or so before you start getting anywhere.
21 Steps to Soul describes itself as a 'classic old-school hardcore two-dimensional platformer' and is currently retailing for $7.99 on Steam.
The gameplay is always going to be the main attraction of games like this. What else is there? They rely on the attraction of challenge and the savoury nature of overcoming that obstacle. In that way, 21 Steps could be seen as a formulaic response to the ongoing trend of nostalgic 2D platforming games. There are no difficult puzzles, very little story and narrative, and not much to do other than repeatedly try and overcome the same monotonous section.
Predictably, there are no checkpoints, of course. This sentiment runs through the entire game – after years of being served games billing themselves as 'hardcore', it is easy for consumers to become weary of developers making games this difficult. Naturally, with the booming success of Demon's Souls and its successors, small indie studios are aware of and seek to exploit, the demand created in the wake of this style of game, but there has to be a balance. Having developed some indie titles myself, I know how easy it is to become locked in a state of self-reassurance that everything you're creating is sound and necessary. Not just that, but one also begins to lose perspective on a game's difficulty, which in this case has more serious repercussions, as players (like myself) are locked not just to the first level, but the first phase of the first level. If you can find some gameplay footage, I implore you to watch it before considering your purchase. You can see for yourself the platforms, small as a pin's head, moving at a frankly ludicrous speed across the map. Monsters, hands, and randomly spawning enemies move faster than your character is physically capable of doing, resulting in a frustrating loop of dying and re-spawning.
This is the very first screen you see when you start playing the game. It is immediately making a statement. That statement proves to be true – that the experience of playing the game is as dark, gothic and overtly morbid as the experience of looking at the stark and rather drab visual element of the game.
Needless to say, things don't improve.
The best thing I can say about the gameplay is that it's a shame I couldn't master the mechanics and progress further before deciding to pen this review, because if I had perhaps I would have found more features to redeem the difficulty. More caveats to justify the painstaking and infuriating unfairness with which the player is teleported back to that red door again and again. There are many levels to this game, and I want to see them, but the exclusive nature of the game forbids you from doing that unless you're willing to plumb in the necessary hours to see them. The problem is, to entice the player to invest that heartache, there needs to be a prospect of seeing or experiencing something worthwhile: a story hook, a great piece of music, an amazing artistic flourish. But that offer simply wasn't anywhere in site, and so, as I suspect many others did, I gave up.
The visual style of 21 Steps is interesting and well-executed. It's appealing, reminiscent of the best that the 8-bit era had to offer while also providing responsive animations and pretty creepy elements.
Overall, I enjoyed the art style. It's not particularly innovative or fresh, but it's professional and appropriate to the game.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest let-downs of this game is the soundtrack. The stock music by Kevin Macleod doesn't quite invoke the necessary atmosphere to accompany the visual style. The opening cinematic is creepy, but ultimately rather ineffectual, as the art styles of the video and the game are so far removed from each other. In a game like this, it's difficult to find things to say about the music and sound effects. The most prominent sound effect that the player hears over and over again is the toll of a bell, the sound of death, as the boy's soul escapes into the ether and the screen blacks out to show a single instruction: Press 'R' to restart. This sound is fitting but quickly becomes a trigger for unbridled and wildly unfettered rage. Be warned!
The most important thing to keep in mind when you're considering whether to buy this game is to know what you're getting yourself in for. If you don't play this kind of games normally, then I can say with a strong degree of confidence that you will not enjoy this. If, however, you're a seasoned veteran of these 'hardcore' platformers and have a spare hundred hours or so, then I encourage you to try it out after vetting it on YouTube to see for yourself the level of difficulty this one manages to bestow upon itself.
Grigory is working on a new game that has recently been Greenlit on Steam: 'The Cut', which looks to be a kind of spiritual successor to 21 Steps, so hopefully this new game will be more accessible to gamers like myself, and I'll be able to congratulate the developer on achieving a healthier balance in his work.
|+ Tight controls||– Almost unplayable for newcomers to the genre|
|+ Polished, spooky animation||– Lacklustre soundtrack|