Review – Archvale
The mixing and matching of genres in order to get a unique and memorable gameplay experience is a difficult field to walk. Sometimes you get brilliant combinations, like Action RPGs, Visual Novel Simulations, or Time Management Waifu. Bullet hell, sometimes called danmaku, is a weird one to try and intermingle simply because it is a very demanding game type unto itself. Whenever you add more to the mix – be it a cohesive storyline or any kind of additional focus – it can take away from the overall art of the dodge and graze. Thankfully, indie developers idoz & phops, along with Humble Bundle, did a great job of remembering what makes bullet hell fun: the high, stressful chance you’re gonna die. And Archvale is a constant, screaming reminder of the crawling hand of death at every turn. Joy!
Like all good bullet hell games, Archvale has a story that is engaging, rich, and completely optional for you to pay attention to. Have you ever tried to dig into the story of Ikaruga? It’s a trip. Anyways, you’re a nameless protagonist in a land that, once upon a time, was terrorized by an insane and evil king who created The Undying; a horde of constant monsters that simply refuse to die. There’s also talk of the fabled Archvale, which may or may not be how the king was banished, and you get it in your head that you’re going to restore peace and banish the not-zombies and all that jazz. Look, you’re a hero, and you’re gonna do heroic things. This isn’t Payback, you’re the good guy and the bad guy is over there, so go stab him with one of many, many weapons that you pick up along the way. Also, while doing it, use a controller. Trust me.
The best way I can describe Archvale is if Enter the Gungeon decided to cosplay as A Link to the Past. Far from procedural, the nameless hero must quest along the map of Archvale to find different towns and locations, gradually unlocking the way forward through a series of items and quests that aren’t exactly quests. For example, an early pathway will be blocked by a stone wall, and then you can unlock that path once you successfully liberate the bombs from your first dungeon.
Then you have a choice: keep going down the original path, or check out where the newly-bombed land might lead? The multiple save points throughout the game (represented by sanctuary-esque statues) also function as teleporters, so don’t feel like you even need to journey too far along one point before doubling back. You’ll always have the option to zip-zap to another point and pick up your exploration from there.
idoz & phops did a great job by telling their story though a pixelated medium, because it ticked off some necessary boxes for Archvale to really reach their audience. On the one hand, it gets you into that mindset of the 8-16 bit era of adventure RPGs, though it also gives me the impression of more modern titles like Slayin’ or even Underhero. Archvale has a low investment in how they look so that they can cram as much of it onto the screen as possible.
You see, on the other hand, all the pixels means that they can flood you with bullets, enemies, and background noise without worrying about the game becoming too system demanding. Although I’m curious how this works out on certain consoles. On my PC, trying to play the game on Hard while at full screen led to slowdowns even in earlier stages: it was only possible to move forward as long as I kept it at a windowed display. I get it, and I don’t feel like I missed a ton needing to squish down my gaming, but I didn’t enjoy being forced to do it in order to avoid lag and stuttering as I moved forward.
In the beginning, I was very, very cocky about Archvale, and I think this was done on purpose. After a quick run-through tutorial of how to control the game, I dived into the entire event thinking that I was in the right place. After all, I’ve done Gungeon. I’ve done Isaac. Hell, I’ve done some Touhou games, albeit not well. And, from the start, you do get the sense that you’ve got a handle on things. Using one input to move and another to control targeting direction (game controller twinstick for the win!), your character gradually moves through some slimes and bats, each of which fires a small spread of projectiles.
At first, you don’t even need to use the dodge option, which allows you to dive through bullets without taking damage and also crosses certain boundaries (rivers, gaps, etc.). You can just circle strafe most enemies and keep mashing the attack button until the cows come home. You’ll find a series of melee and ranged weapons, though even the melee have a bit of range to them. There’s a tradeoff between damage and distance, so you can decide your playstyle quickly. Do you want to be uncomfortably close to everyone and everything, or do you mind taking a bit more time to spray from a distance? You don’t even need to keep it strictly one or the other. The throwing axe, for example, does a fair amount of damage while also giving you breathing room.
However, as soon as you encounter your first mini boss (a massive slime), the game takes a distinct turn for the hate. Even on normal difficulty (I chose two save games to run simultaneously), Archvale begins piling on the projectiles and the enemy sprites as fast as you can keep up with them. Multiple wave variants begin to appear, and the mobs take a sharp uptick in aggression and determination. Suddenly now you’ve got roly-poly badgers who freak out and spray the whole zone with bullets. Warlocks will team up with flail-swinging knights to keep you exhausted on both ends of the spectrum. The health potions, which seemed trivially overpowered at first, are now a necessary sacrifice every few rooms as you decide whether you can hold out for one more room (and pray for relief) or if you’ll take a terrifying three seconds of inactivity to chug and get a couple hearts back.
This is where I begin to question the marrying of the two game types that make up Archvale. Sure, they handle the RPG element very well, with tons of aspects that I think are propped up nicely throughout the different townships and locales. You get crafting components from destroying different landscape fixtures, and, in turn, can make new weapons that you’re allowed to cycle through at any point in battle, swiftly changing between a bow, a spear, a sword and, my favorite, a literal Bag of Knives.
You can get new armor (either purchased or crafted) to absorb some damage, and the banks in each town stand as a holding facility for your money, not to prevent you from using it but to stop you from losing it. Each bank only holds so much, so successful adventurers need to keep finding new accounts in order to store their vast wealth. You collect artifacts and other goodies to unlock additional health points, more dodge slots and even passive badge artifacts that add to your experience (greater chance of enemies dropping healing items, more gold, et cetera). There’s even a good handful of NPCs to add color and direction in case you get your head on backwards.
Yet when you dive into the dungeons of Archvale, which is where all the Archvale components are, the game becomes truly tenacious. You struggle to survive room to room, dodging and shooting like a man on fire. You cannot return to a save spot to heal, because that’ll just respawn all the enemies, and there’s no EXP in this game: the incentive for grinding against enemies is limited only to getting more crafting gear and cash, and that really caps out fast as you move from town to town.
Instead, this really puts the “hell” in bullet hell, and it’s almost a delightful abandon from all the lighthearted and semi-engaging overworld stuff you were doing before. My fingers ached by the time I felled the first boss, and I had to take a bit of a break to recover before going on to getting murdered by some marauders. Maybe I should have stuck to keyboard and mouse? In any case, the difficulty of it all really presents within the dungeons, and Archvale shows a clear separation between what “normal” and “hard” means once you enter into these realms.
So where does that leave the average player? Well, for people familiar with bullet-heavy twin-stick shooter (I don’t mean to keep referencing Enter the Gungeon but damn, it ticks the boxes), Archvale is an interesting departure, mixing in more of a fantasy motif with some slight whimsy and an understandable but engaging plotline. For folks who enjoy 2D action RPGs, this is significantly more demanding, but still quite accessible on the Easy level (and short enough that you can and will want to do multiple runs). For people who don’t have a vested interest in either, I would start with Archvale over other, similar titles.
It’s well designed, it’s approachable, it’s clearly explained both in plot and gameplay and it’s quite open while still being directed in where the game is going. To be honest, I might pick this up on the Switch at some point in the future. I don’t think sitting down and playing Archvale for long stretches of time is the best way to enjoy all of the havoc the game brings, but having bursts of dungeon action in between other activities and then focusing when you’re in the overworld for longer, more relaxing explorations is the key recipe to success. In any case, whether you’re looking for a deep dive into some serious reflex checking or just an adventure that constantly beats you down, Archvale has a mixture that, while not for everyone, is certainly potent and memorable.
Bulky pixels give for clear distinction of bullets and bodies, but the clunky style may not appeal to all.
Excellent execution of heavy projectile dodging with a unique approach to fighting back.
A soundtrack that helps to lend to the atmosphere, but is ultimately forgettable the second you turn off the game.
Though stressful at times, I kept coming back to Archvale to see what else was in store in a fantasy bullet hell.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Archvale is available now on Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X.
Reviewed on Steam.
A copy of Archvale was provided by the publisher.