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Oblitus (PC) artwork

Oblitus (PC) review

"Great initial impressions are rendered somewhat moot by the inherent tedium of the game's harsh design principles."

Oblitus (PC) image

Because we're picky, the gaming community has decided that the term "roguelike" refers to a game with a very specific set of qualities, including turn-based combat. "Roguelite" is a far more flexible term, but the many indie games to occupy the recent resurgence of this genre all seem to retain one major attribute: permadeath. You die, you go right back to the start. Developers working on roguelites are confronted with the very tricky question of how, exactly, to keep players interested in a game that is inherently built to be replayed over and over again.

It's a question that Connor Ullmann never quite answers in the promising but trying Oblitus. The game is both brutal and punishing, and there's a difference. It's a 2D action-platformer in which the enemies hit hard and full mastery of the game's combat the dodging, the guarding, the careful balance between melee and ranged attacks is absolutely essential. That's fine. What's not so fine is that no character progress whatsoever carries over from one life to the next, and that the variants in level design are so minimal that there's no thrill in discovering unseen content or familiarizing yourself with new level layouts with each run. Full resets are constant, and the need to constantly retrace your steps through repetitive environments becomes a chore. It's not a terribly long game in and of itself by nature, it can't be but I don't foresee many players having the patience to put up with so much redundancy.

Oblitus (PC) image

Procedural level design tends to be the heart and soul of any roguelite, since that's the obvious solution to keeping a game fresh when frequent restarts are the driving force. It's a difficult balancing act, because there still needs to be an objective and a general sense of world flow. Rogue Legacy did this brilliantly; the map changed with each run, but you always had the forest to the right, the tower above, and the dungeons below. There was a sense of direction. Oblitus does something similar. You've always got the cliffs to the left, the dark forest to the right, and a hazardous underground area directly beneath you. That's a start, because you'll at least feel oriented every time you're pulled back to the beginning.

Unfortunately, Oblitus is only half-heartedly committed to procedural level design. It's there, but it's so minimal that within a few stops to each major area, you'll have seen all of the major variations. Sequences of platforms will remain identical and power-ups will still generally be tucked away in the same areas. Upgrades can improve your chances of survival and drastically change the way you approach combat, and as such, the need to reacquire them on each play becomes tedious. Your continually-increasing understanding of the combat is the only thing speeding up subsequent runs, but even at your best, Oblitus is not a game that can be rushed through. Health goes quickly, demanding cautious, defensive play. And this is where the permadeath thing feels like a step too far.

So Oblitus wasn't for me, and I reckon it won't click for a lot of people, but that doesn't mean that it's unworthy of your attention if this ultra-punishing approach to the roguelite formula is to your liking. While the combat is simple, it's intuitive, particularly with the right controller. (I recommend the Dual Shock 4, since Oblitus demands a good d-pad.) There's a huge emphasis on using the right analog stick (or mouse) to aim your strikes and blocks, and I particularly enjoyed the synergy between melee and ranged attacks. You can throw your spear at any time, but it takes a moment to retrieve it, so employing ranged attacks leaves you defenseless for a moment. That enemies behave intelligently and seem to abide by the same rules as you helps.

Oblitus (PC) image

Also helping is the game's rather extraordinary atmosphere. Oblitus is light on straightforward plot go hunt some demons or whatever but that's only because it adheres to the rule of showing rather than telling. The colorful but imposing architecture confronts the masked protagonist with towering obstacles, painting that familiar indie game image of a small, helpless being lost in a big and terrifying (but beautiful) world. Oblitus's single greatest attribute is its soundtrack ominous and surreal, like gorgeous ambient music creeping out of hell. The sort of atmospheric attention to detail is the kind of world building that you can't mention in today's culture without comparing it to Dark Souls, and that's a comparison that artists and composers should strive to hit. The alien world of Oblitus is imposing as hell and all the more memorable for it.

Sadly, great initial impressions are rendered somewhat moot by the inherent tedium of the game's harsh design principles. Challenge only works when there's a sense of reward; Oblitus's lack of character progress and constant retreads through the same material are at odds with its demanding combat, and I suspect that most players will throw in the towel when they've hit their first trial-and-error boss battle. Technical issues ranging from startup problems to performance hiccups only make matters worse. The dark audiovisual direction is irresistible, and the basic ingredients are solid enough that I'd bet on Connor Ullmann and his team producing some fantastic work in the future. Sadly, the frustrating Oblitus isn't quite it.

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (March 09, 2015)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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