Review – Worldless
It takes a lot to help breakup the approach that many developers take nowadays. Without pointing fingers, there are many titles that come from every size of studio with one idea in mind: copy an existing success. One glance at the Steam storefront or the eShop and you’ll find endless clones and homages to open world crafting games, sexy puzzles, and copypasta horror ideas. Metroidvanias – the combination genre that beseeches exploration and retracing footsteps – are especially tricky to innovate because the great ones are amazing and the bland ones just reek of forced repetition. So when Worldless came across my desk, I wasn’t sure where we would land: buried in the ground, or somewhere amongst the clouds.
Beyond all expectations, Wordless soars into the cosmos.
A nonverbal, mostly textless adventure, Wordless plunges the player into a galaxy of fighting and chaos, of seemingly two sides warring with one another over the dominance of different landscapes. The protagonist is slain almost immediately, yet manages to not completely die, much to the surprise and curiosity of beings that I dub The Old Ones: ghosts of some long dead civilization. The protagonist, reborn, then finds there to be an imbalance in this new realm, something that cannot be righted by a singular being. Driven by hope or grim determination, you set out to discover what is needed to set this celestial system right, through understanding, through exploration, and, yes, through violence.
There has rarely been a game that’s captivated me so much through the introduction, but Worldless paints a picture that can be seen and heard through every moment of your first steps. The chaos and havoc that explodes across the background of your journey holds the same distress and importance as being in the middle of a war zone, but in a more elegant and terrifying way. To watch these beings of light collide and strike in a seemingly randomized dance of domination gave the impression of a combat of angels, of watching the war between the Seraphim and the Fallen for the very fate of Heaven itself. I know I’m waxing very biblical right now, but that feeling never really gets shaken due to the design of the game.
Wordless’ lead being, who I’ll call Light, lilts and bounds across the lands, of which there are several, and draws the eye from every moment. The decision to keep everything internal as far as reactions and interpretations of the game world at large allows the player to imprint their own reasoning onto Light’s journey. When movements slow or become more cautious, it’s up to you to decide if this is out of fear or a tactical sense of stealth. When Light eventually encounters its antipodal counter – a being I dub Dark – the player must also decide if their union is one born out of actual respect and understanding or merely an unplanned, unwilling combination of necessary forces. Dark, despite being of similar model to Light, has a different set of movements that conveys a different feeling: skulking, undetected, the very essence of something that seeks to go unobserved.
The notion of being “worldless” really echoes forth in the presentation of Wordless, as the different biomes are seemingly both connected and separated by a central, celestial hub. Initially, players are able to access only a couple of areas, but, through both investigation and victory, can explore further and further, plumbing the depths of some truly imaginative landscapes. From a serene land of water and platforms to the rusted red of what feels like a death mine, the way that the lands of Worldless present gives the feeling of some barren potential, of life that has yet to be born and you, the player, must discover and awaken all that can be.
If Worldless was simply an exploration-based metroidvania, it would be an excellent game, no doubt about it. Unlike many modern interpretations, the lack of spoken or textual clues relegated me to finding the way forward through trial and error and actual, gradual improvements. While abilities are few and far between in terms of movement – many of the most important are gained in the first hour of gameplay – their implementation comes to you through revelations and enlightenment. Most of what you unlock subsequently is for combat, but mastering the movement is how you truly take in the game.
For example, Light’s ability to dash and Dark’s double jump can be chained together, through trial and error, to maximize your reach both vertically and horizontally. When you get the process just right, you can attain heights that seemed impossible at first, and the result is so satisfying. Since death isn’t a true impediment, you can accidentally dissolve into water or fall to your doom without consequence. I spent several minutes perfecting a series of double dash jumps to reach the top of an impasse only to discover I could have walked there from a different direction. Instead of being frustrated, I was smug: I just found, in my mind, a new way to get to the same old place.
But the questing role of Worldless takes a backseat to the combat, the double-edged knife of the game. Noname Studios put a lot of care and attention to detail into the encounters of Worldless, resulting in a series of mechanics that take up a majority of your time. The warring entities you find, both light and dark, are here to stop you from becoming evolved by any means necessary. You must fight them off and, if successful, have a limited time to absorb them into your being at the conclusion of the battle. Absorbing them means adding a variable node to your skill tree which can unlock new aspects of combat, like enhanced elemental damage, new combo melee attacks, and ways to block/dodge incoming blows to turn the tide of battle.
Everything, and I mean everything, is about timing. If you have any hope whatsoever of making progress in Worldless, you have to have pinpoint precision when it comes to reaction time. Very early on you learn about one-hit battle enders that can only be stopped if you’re right on the money with when you throw up your block. I am not exaggerating when I say that I spent close to an hour of real game time working on just one fight with a celestial being who wanted to beat my ass in multiple stages of fighting. It’s not enough to simply watch the visual cues and know when you need to block one way or another: it’s then being able to get down to the hundredth of a second to stop the green energy attacks from ending the encounter with no fanfare.
As a result, when it’s good, it’s so damn good. Players will learn how to either block damage at the right time as Light or, with a little variation delay, simply deflect and disappear like Dark can. You get into this magnificent dance of hellfire and righteous wrath that only gets better when you unlock your first Green skill tree and can swap mid-swing between Light and Dark, becoming a whirlwind of destruction. Breaking an enemy shield, perfectly countering an overhead swing, getting the absorption combination correct and erasing the enemy on the first try: it’s a thrill that’s undeniable. As the devs themselves described it, combining the Style combat of Devil May Cry with the Stagger mechanic of Octopath Traveler, results in a fighting style that is unique in both education and execution.
In that same way, Wordless’ combat might be a massive entry point barrier for players. There is no adjustable difficulty, so what you see is what you get and, in the immortal words of the Internet, you have to “git gud.” There are plenty of reasonable encounters where you can hone your skill in combat, but you might need to do them repeatedly to get the absorption timing down at the end of the fight. There will be some enemies that literally cannot be defeated until you unlock some unknown variable somewhere in the game. And when you interrupt your viewing of this gorgeous proto-world on the cusp of formation to beat your head against the wall while you get housed repeatedly by an elemental God, it unbalances the enjoyment factor. Souls enthusiasts will probably welcome the challenge, but people looking for more Rain World and less Blasphemous will be unhappy.
Yet it all coalesces into something truly magnificent, and that cannot be understated about Worldless. I was drawn in by the visuals and utterly hooked by the musical scoring, the expansive areas and the implied lore that was further cemented by my own character’s evolution. The combat, when it was good, was SO GOOD and the reason I kept coming back is because I wanted to be as precise and murderous as the game thought I could be. There is no death, no save points, no turning back and no way out but through. You find more, you see more, you fight more and all you want is more. It is a hunger that spawns from the epoch of creation. Worldless transforms your notion of what a metroidvania could be into something new, exciting and tense beyond comparison. In short, it truly is the birth of a new world.
Incredible design born from a minimalist approach that leads way to a cosmic, encompassing game. Despite a base color palette, the energy and attitude of every encounter has its own flavor of malice and aggression, and that’s born from excellent crafting.
Exploration and discovery is some of the best in modern metroidvania approach. Mechanics and skill tree adaptations are unique and feel natural. Combat is wildly aggressive and demanding with no option to downscale difficulty, resulting in frustration during certain encounters.
Notes of celestial ambience coupled with some dynamics score changes depending on the environment. Manages to convey urgency and determination during fights without resorting to stereotypical bombastic music is a masterful decision. Amazing soundscape overall.
The wonder and mystery surrounding the expansion of Worldless cannot be ignored. Easily the best metroidvania I’ve played this year, I couldn’t help but feel accomplished with each new pathway, each successful fight, each addition to my combat repertoire. I felt, in a word, cosmic.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Worldless is available now on PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series One X|S, PS4, and PS5.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Worldless was provided by the publisher.