Noita Review: A Bewitching Pixel Explosion

Noita, the new roguelite debut from Nolla Games, promises “every pixel is simulated”, and it delivers on an explosive physics sensation where gravity and the elements are your best friend and worst nightmare. This platformer action game has roguelite permadeath and a difficulty curve that unfortunately leads to repetition ad nauseum in some of its core gameplay loop.

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Within the first ten minutes of playing Noita, I had died twice. The first time, I had wondered carelessly, “What does this weapon do?” and blew myself up. The second time, I meandered naively, “Where does this secret passage go?” and drowned myself. Noita is a punishing time, where even the slightest mishap can cause deadly mayhem, and the unknown is a thing to fascinate and to fear.

Noita follows in the footsteps of many roguelites before it, setting players the task of scouring dungeons, caverns, and other tunnel-laden locales, on the hunt for hidden treasures amidst the ever-present threat of ghouls and monsters. Areas are traversed through 2D side-scrolling, platforming with jetpack-like Levitation to navigate dangerous environmental hazards and engaging in that lethal ballet of projectile-based combat. As with other genre brethren, in Noita there is always the risk of impending permadeath that will reset your progress back to zero.

Noita 1.0 Launch Trailer

Noita is available for PC on Steam, GoG, or Humble Store for your regional pricing.

Story – A Closed Book

Roguelites allow their gameplay and systems to take center stage, often at the expense of minimalist narratives. Even by those genre standards, Noita is incredibly light on storytelling. Players control a witch (hence the name Noita, which is Finnish for “witch”) on their journey to escape its dungeons; beyond that, there is never any motivation given. An opening cutscene shows a bird, and an egg, likely referencing the Finnish creation myth of Kalevala, where the Earth is born from the shards of an egg, an ode to Nolla Games’ own studio origins in Helsinki, Finland.

This lack of story hurts Noita. Other modern roguelites, such as the recent and brilliant Hades, have perfectly married the genre trappings with first-class storytelling and characterization. By comparison, Noita feels hollow for its lack.

The empty temple ruin is indicative of Noita's minimalist world building

The empty temple ruin is indicative of Noita’s minimalist world building

Gameplay – Pixel Perfect

In Noita, the goal is to progress ever downwards, cave-diving in a way reminiscent of genre classic Spelunky. However, in Noita there are no Indiana Jones whips, instead the primary method of survival is the trusty magic wands that your titular witch finds and wields. Wands scattered throughout Noita’s distinct biomes each carry one or more of a staggering variety of spells. Each wand casts either in succession or randomly shuffled, with differing mana costs and recharge times associated. These stats are procedurally generated too, leading to some pretty surprising results. Finding a new spell type unlocks it in that and future games, but the first time you come across a spell you don’t know can be a pleasant, or harrowing, experience. My initial encounter with a wand containing the Black Hole spell — which I unknowingly fired at my own feet — was an unmitigated disaster. The Black Hole literally tore chunks out of the nearby enemies, scenery, and of course, me.

The scale of Noita’s environmental destructibility is the key to its appeal, and arguably its greatest asset. Where a run might otherwise feel similar to the rhythm of Rogue Legacy or Dead Cells, that is quickly dispelled when you are taking chunks out of a wall with a Fireball. The physics of Noita’s aptly-named Everything Falls engine are a genuine treat, with every single pixel a potential victim of your actions; kicked mine carts roll down cliffs; barrels tumble believably; pieces of ceiling debris fall with the kind of lethality only ascribable to gravity. But the star of Noita’s physics game is the liquids, which pour and fill spaces exactly as you’d expect. I have solved many of my near-drowning experiences by blowing a chunk out of a neighboring wall to watch the deadly fluid drain rapidly onto a lower level.

Noita's fire effects are genuinely gorgeous to watch

Noita’s fire effects are genuinely gorgeous to watch

Elemental Hijinx

The properties of these liquids (available around the levels or in convenient carriable potions), and the often-ensuing fire, become Noita’s puzzle mechanic, where learning combos is essential to long term survival. Water can drown you if you stay in it too long, but it can also wash away poisons and flames. Blood can do the same and wearing it as a ‘stain’ provides some fire mitigation, so exploding an enemy into gibs can often be a hastily made extinguisher. Being covered in oil or booze, on the other hand, creates a lingering sense of dread that you are moments away from a life as a walking pyre. Well, less walking, and more dashing hastily for the nearest pool to jump into.

Excessive heat boils water, or it can be frozen solid entirely, ideal for trapping unsuspecting enemies but dangerous if you get yourself caught in it. And electricity turns just about any fluid into an impromptu death trap. Trust me, I found that one out the hard way. In fact, I found most of these properties out the hard way…

Acid and fire quickly eat away at wooden structures, turning levels into a spontaneous game of The Floor Is Lava — because quite often, it literally is. Sometimes the risk is worth the reward, as torching away entire platforms can make an easier route to the dungeon exit. Don’t mistake that for any kind of strategic level planning, though. A run on Noita is quick to descend into pandemonium, as half of the map is exploding or melting around you and the other half is still at-least-mostly alive and trying to shoot you, bite you, or otherwise decapitate you in some way.

Weapons often leave you feeling undermatched against enemies

Weapons often leave you feeling undermatched against enemies

This chaos is Noita’s unique selling point though, and an obvious focus of most of its pre-release marketing. The anarchy looks great visually and is a blast — figuratively and literally — to both orchestrate and survive. It is a game that thrives on unpredictability; not just in the randomization of its levels and weapons, but in the dynamic moments that it creates. I’d like to say I entirely planned the instance where I surfed a falling mine-cart down a steep incline and into the face of an unsuspecting zombie. I’d love to take credit for exploding a potion of pink liquid over a deadly Cthulian tentacle monster that turned it into a harmless winged sheep. At every turn, Noita makes you feel like its giving you the tools to perform destructive miracles, but these unscripted moments are yours to own.

The Holy Mountain

The time to catch your breath in Noita is in the Holy Mountain, essentially a shop between dungeons that allows you to replenish health and spell uses, and to spend hard earnt gold on new wands, spells, or perks. Perks provide a global buff, but these aren’t incremental percentage changes; Noita’s perks can be absolutely game changing. Ranging from total immunities to certain stains, allowing you to swim through toxic poison or survive electrocution or drowning, or perks that unlock elements of the map, or even make you completely invisible to enemies. As with anything in Noita, perks can be as dangerous as they are beneficial. I should probably have foreseen the end result of using a fire wand after unlocking Oil Blood, a perk that literally makes your character bleed fast-burning oil when damaged.

You can add the spells acquired through the Holy Mountain to any wands in your inventory, and in any order. This swapping in and out of spells offers a staggering amount of customization of your arsenal and lends itself beautifully to Noita’s wider theme of experimentation.

The Holy Mountain is your one stop shop for spells and feats

The Holy Mountain is your one stop shop for spells and feats

Audio and Graphics – A Mixed Spellbag

The visuals of Noita are an oddly mixed bag. There’s no denying that when the screen is ablaze with colorful flame and explosions it is, excuse the pun, spellbinding. In fact, I caught myself on a number of occasions simply standing still to watch my handiwork, as acid would ripple down the map, eating anything in its path, or fire would casually consume a structure and everything in it. Despite being just colored pixels devouring one another, there is an uncanny serenity and magnificence to the visual spectacle.

Outside of explosions and black holes though, the pixel art style is fairly mundane. Comparisons to Terraria barely do that game justice, as Noita’s simplicity feels often functional at best. The game is underwhelming on the eye right up until the moment a wand goes off, like staring at an empty sky in early November waiting for the first firework to launch.

Biomes offer some visual variety to the game (as well as a great many hidden secrets and mysteries to uncover) but lack the atmosphere and personality to create interesting and cohesive world building. I can list the different dungeons of Dead Cells years after its release or tell you my favorite foes from Slay the Spire, but I’m unlikely to hold similar fond memories of any of Noita’s enemies or areas. 

Hidden secrets encourage exploration in Noita's depths

Hidden secrets encourage exploration in Noita’s depths

The audio feels much the same way; explosions have a punch, fire and lightning crackle beautifully, acids fizzles nastily and black holes and walls of lava sound as terrifying as they ought. A particularly nice effect comes from the changes to sound and gravity when underwater. But Noita’s soundtrack will unfortunately not have you reaching for Spotify to download it, and the audio does nothing to otherwise emphasize the standard moments from the epic ones.

The game’s cluttered UI can be prohibitive at times, with a lot of stats and no easy way of switching between wands. Played on a control pad, this problem accentuates to the point that some of the explanatory texts aren’t even accessible. So, whilst a controller feels the most appropriate input device for movement and platforming, the game is better played on mouse and keyboard where hovering over stains, spells, feats and even environmental items offers an on-screen explanation, and number keys switch wands quickly.

One of Noita's many shocking visual effects

One of Noita’s many shocking visual effects

Repetition – A Rogue Curse

Noita‘s lack of a greater narrative purpose or enjoyable characters hurt its replayability, and as good as they may be, the fun of its physics, exploration, and experimentation quickly become tired.

Noita struggles in general from this repetition, a result of its punishing difficulty. The game has a generally high skill curve and a lot of reliance on luck. Finding a Lightning Bolt spell and an Electricity Resistance perk early on might lead to a very successful run, where you can run the entire game with just that one wand, but you’re banking on some pretty unlikely RNG — and it’s much more common to wind up with a lackluster Magic Bolt and a perk that doesn’t complement in any way. That means a fairly early death from one of the punishing enemies or an accidental hazard. Just a handful of hours into Noita, the opening Mines and Coal Pits areas become very familiar, even by roguelite standards. Aside from the normal game mode, Noita includes a Daily Run and a Practice Run, but both essentially play like the main game with slightly different seeding.

Get used to the Game Over screen in Noita - you'll be seeing it a lot!

Get used to the Game Over screen in Noita – you’ll be seeing it a lot!

Noita was reviewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by Sandbox Strategies.

Summary
In its best moments, Noita is a visual treat of interesting physics mechanics, status effects, and weapons that encourage experimentation, explosions, and just a damn good time. It offers hours of amusement and surprises wrapped inside a fairly traditional roguelite offering. What it lacks in actual progression systems, it makes up for with a bewildering amount of exploration and a high skill ceiling for those willing to master it. That difficulty is also its biggest shortcoming, as the ease with which players can die — often unfairly — means a lot of repeating familiar areas and weapons, and the user interface and RNG often get in the way of the better parts of the experience. Noita isn’t a game to sink 50 hours into, but it’s a blast to drop in and experience for its systems, and it 100% lives up the promise that “every pixel is simulated” — often to deadly and hilarious effect.
Good
  • Pixel physics are an absolute blast — literally — and genuinely unique to the genre
  • Deep elemental system that encourages experimentation
  • Huge amount of spells and perks keeps player builds feeling unique
  • When there’s a lot of action on-screen, Noita looks fantastic
Bad
  • Difficulty curve and permadeath means a lot of repetition in the early areas
  • Pixel-style is visually bland when physics aren’t in play
  • User interface can be bewildering and uninformative, especially on control pad
  • No story or world-building to speak of
7.5
Good

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