Review – The Sealed Ampoule (Switch)
Part of game developers trying to defy and bend genres to create something new is accepting that not everything is going to work out perfectly. Brütal Legend is the best example of this, where the first half of the game as an adventure vehicle works perfectly, and then suddenly it’s a tower defense game and I hate it. Maybe that went well with DoubleFine’s vision, but it didn’t resonate well with many critics and players, myself included.
In that same vein, Japanese developer CAVYHOUSE constantly tries to take an interesting story and turn it into something more through dynamic elements. The Starry Midnight We Make, Forget-Me-Not: My Organic Garden…these two titles both have fascinating undercurrents of storytelling, and they’re frustratingly tied to game mechanics that can take far, far too long in delivery to make it worthwhile. To date, The Midnight Sanctuary is the only straight visual novel they’ve done, and I deeply, thoroughly enjoyed it. So I knew I was in for something off kilter with their latest release, The Sealed Ampoule, but I guess I didn’t know how far off base it would be.
The Sealed Ampoule puts players in the shoes of Irene, a combination witch and alchemist who we last saw in My Organic Garden. This, however, is a prequel, so forget everything you knew about Irene (which, for many of you, is easy). Irene has just recently purchased a slightly used dungeon, planning to use it as a new area to harvest ingredients and perhaps give her the capital needed to start her own store. Irene shockingly discovers that the dungeon has NOT been cleaned out of monsters as promised, and so she takes it upon herself to dive in and evict the offending squatters so she can better cultivate various potion and magic ingredients.
It only takes a little diving, though, before she discovers a whole mess of things wrong, not least of which is a dead body and two creepy twins standing watch. Confused and enthralled by this mystery, Irene goes deeper and deeper, seeking answers as to who this dead person was, why the fabled Philosopher’s Stone was the murder weapon, and who the heck is still living in the dungeon she paid for. It’s a wild ride, so buckle up: it’s going to take a while.
The Sealed Ampoule is billed as a “clicker dungeon,” but that’s a rather weak and inaccurate description of the game. Essentially, it’s an isometric dungeon crawler with growth elements similar to clickers, but without the rapid wrist movement. You go into a dungeon, pick up items that are scattered about, fight enemies if you want to and then either go deeper or teleport out. The objective, each run, is to gather as many items as you can (some ingredients, some key) and then return safely to your shop. Killing enemies gets you XP, which in turn levels you up and improves your HP, Attack, Defense and MP, as well as unlocking the potential for new spells to cast to aid you in the dungeon crawling (some passive, some active). If you die, you automatically teleport back home with some loss to the items you found. Lather, rinse, repeat. Straightforward enough.
As you gather items, you begin to unlock the dungeon itself, and this is a rather charming element of The Sealed Ampoule. Irene can use the various weeds and shards she discovers to level up the dungeon floors, improving the quality and quantity of items that she’s found, and, eventually, clear them of enemies altogether. When you’ve gotten enough, you can flatten the dungeons, turning them into straightforward paths with no encounters and plenty of crops to harvest that can be gathered in seconds.
This, I suppose, is the “clicker” element: repetitive work that nets you improvements with minimal effort. When the dungeon farming aspect works, it works really well: I was satisfied to see dungeon floors one through five suddenly merged into a single, simple area that I could pile drive through, grab stuff and then be on my way. It helped keep the game moving in a big way, so that I was able to make the average dungeon run anywhere from five to ten minutes, depending on my tenacity.
There are good and bad points to The Sealed Ampoule, not the least of which is that it takes a long time before you even see the world ampoule in the game (apparently that’s the proper name for a potion container). On the plus side, there’s a ton of work that went into this game that big name developers can’t be bothered to think about. Pokemon Legends: Arceus just launched as this massive open world game yet doesn’t have a single spoken line. Irene, the creepy twins, some other ominous figures…they’re all voiced. And voiced well. Hell, the opening song to The Sealed Ampoule is sung, and I can’t say that about most games that have been released from indie studios (WayForward being a huge exception). The fact that time and effort was made to do proper VO work for a game that amounts to repetitive harvesting of thyme and tin is impressive, and I admire the dedication that went into this simple aspect.
Also, the game is charming as hell. There’s elements of what feels like purposeful deterioration that captivates, like there are holes and mistakes everywhere on purpose. The way the characters look gives them this ethereal quality that CAVYHOUSE has become famous for, where it feels like there are tears in reality everywhere to give glimpses into feelings and ideas not being said on screen. The enemies, all variations of evil fairies, are designed in simple, geometric ways that allow you to see their elemental type and level of difficulty without understanding anything else about them (except for the Smile Fairy, which will DESTROY you).
It’s effortless to get to know what the hell is going on, and then getting into a groove about how to conquer each floor. I positively loved that, once you unlock the creepy farmer who watches over your newly cultivated land, he’ll just follow you around the whole map, and, if you decide to return to your room at that point in time, he’ll just extend forever to follow you home. Bizarre and hilarious.
What really makes The Sealed Ampoule take a turn, however, is the addictive nature of the game itself. As a clicker, the incentive is to spend as much time in the game as possible. Makes sense, but I hate the way that it works out. After some initial success in moving forward, the game suddenly turns into a massive, MASSIVE grind in order to get anywhere. You’ll find yourself diving into the dungeon and going down twenty, thirty, a shocking forty levels to find a single element that you’ll need to unlock the next upgrade to the basement.
You’ll get literally hundreds of elements that you don’t need while painfully searching for the ones you do. Some, like “small earth shard,” are easy enough: fight earth fairies, straight over the plate. But then when you need a goddamn olive, which monster drops olives? Are they found crops on the dungeon floor, or do I need to fight more of the terrible Puffie monsters that can do serious damage? You keep going back again and again, trying to figure out what you’re missing.
Additionally, The Sealed Ampoule feels like a game of luck that can turn on you at any second. The biggest example is Discomfort, which is essentially poison, and it’s an affliction that scales with your level. Therefore, even when you get strong enough that you’re absorbing blows from Dry Fairy X like it’s no big deal, the second you get Discomfort you’re seconds away from death if you are in the middle of a fight. You can carry Medicines of Harmony to cure Discomfort, but that takes up inventory slots for healing or magic potions, and you can’t buy any of this stuff: you just find it in the dungeon and hope you actually NEED it when you use it.
In that same vein, leveling sometimes feels like a totally wasted effort. I ended up getting to level 40 before I even encountered the first boss, but it was the random magical circles that I encountered, not the experience I gained, that was the difference. These circles can heal you, but they can also permanently buff one stat, including attack and defense. Once I fully cultivated my first few floors, I just kept going in and getting one portal, then zipping back out. In the same amount of time it would have taken to grind a single level I got five attack and five defense, plus some HP and MP up. For comparison, you can also unlock increased defense and attack by “purchasing” it in your room, but it requires so many elements that you might as well not waste your time. Better to invest in things like “resist discomfort” and “pick up elements from afar” so that you can maximize your run.
Some people look at an addicting title as a hallmark of something great, but I’m still on the fence about The Sealed Ampoule. Several hours to just get to chapter 2, no major change in gameplay and very, very incremental improvements after multiple runs can be discouraging, yet I keep coming back for more. My hope is that the storyline payoff is to the same effect as My Organic Garden, which was significantly more taxing as it was literally just a clicker. This is a truly randomized dungeon crawler with low stakes and low gains, good presentation but barebones gameplay, and appeals mostly to those who love Japanese indie titles. Approach with caution, but don’t be surprised if you find it to be a great pick-up-and-play title for every once in a while.
Strange graphical glitches aside, the dreamlike quality lends to the strange state of Irene’s journey.
Repetitive and randomized, strategy can go awry when madness takes hold, but joy can be found elsewhere!
Spectacular voice work, great songs, and a varied soundscape that suffers only from abrupt changes.
When it’s a good run, it feels great. When it’s fruitless, it just bums you out.
Final Verdict: 7.0
The Sealed Ampoule is available now on Nintendo Switch and PC.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of The Sealed Ampoule was provided by the publisher.