Hear me out, I’ve come up with a really nice riddle. What would we get if we combined a roguelite, bullet-hell, acid, organ donation and Lovecraft? The answer is very simple: a lunatic, frantic bastard child of Workinman Interactive, the name of which is Deathstate.
If I am not mistaken I’ve had this game on my Steam wishlist for over a year and a half, but it was during the last Steam Sale that I decided to buy it. I’d played few others roguelites before, such as The Binding of Isaac, Dungeon Souls or Rogue Legacy, so I knew the drill: layered dungeons with deadly enemies, boss fights, collecting items, quasi-permadeath, different characters with different playstyle… Yep, it is all still there but improved and changed in some way, making Deathstate a distinct title.
The basic concept is simple: you enter a randomised dungeon and look for the exit, killing some enemies on your way out and picking up items which make your journey less troublesome. If you manage to survive 3 levels, you face a boss of the dungeon. Rinse and repeat. It feels very familiar, yes, but it plays differently to me. The devs decided to make shooting automatic, meaning there is no key to fire – if you want to attack the enemies, you need to come closer. A simple trick and yet it changed the pace and playstyle, since positioning and manoeuvring are much more important. Player was also given the ability to dodge which is necessary as the bullets come in plenty. This rewards good timing and reflexes – close combat, while forced, doesn’t seem so terrible. And if you’re not good at dodging, that’s okay – enemies occasionally drop health (and mana) so the battle is never lost.
As mentioned in the introduction, Deathstate is very bullet-hellish, so don’t be surprised that you will die quite often. At first it might be overwhelming – it takes some time to get used to that weird shooting mechanic and to dodging bullets, but once you get the basics you can only get better and better. Deathstate is easy to learn, hard to master. I kept dying and dying on the easiest difficulty but then I managed to overcome the streak of bad luck and voila, finished the game four times in a row with different characters. It was worth playing and trying, because my satisfaction was enormous. Should you be not satisfied with the difficulty, you can always turn on Desecration during gameplay (you spawn a mini-boss which when defeated rises the number of enemies and bullets from then on) or go for Insanity mode which is, as name suggests, pretty insane (I’ve yet to beat the first boss in that mode). Perhaps it’s just me and I simply have to “git gud” but the spike in difficulty seems pretty harsh, even on the normal game mode. It’s quite annoying, because apparently without full Desecration level I won’t be able to beat the final final boss and unlock the final ending.
Roguelites generally offer unlockable characters with unique abilities and stats, and Deathstate is no exception here. We start with a woman called Seeker who’s quite mediocre in comparison to the other characters – her special ability isn’t particularly great, you just shoot out bullets that make the enemies suffer damage over time (here it is called plague damage), but that’s all. Her movement speed and shooting speed are average but it’s a good way to start and learn how to play. Later on, after fulfilling some criteria (defeat X monsters, drink Y potions), you can unlock and then choose out of 10 different characters: some more suitable for speedruns, some for raising the difficulty level. I find experimenting with different playstyles quite fun and beating the game on high difficulty with a low-tier character feels very rewarding (I like pretending it was skill and not a lucky run).
Bullets and dodging are not enough to kill enemies, so even with a pretty tanky character you might need some help. There are few elements crucial for your survival: organs, grimoires, weapons and potions.
Organs are unremovable items that give you permanent boosts, such as additional health, increased damage, faster fire rate – all of which may come at expense of slower movement speed, lower mana pool (which is used to cast spells and use items) etc.. Each boss at the end of dungeon or mini-bosses (called elites) will give you an organ after being slain, making it a little bit easier to fight later on. Grimoires and weapons, on the other hand, can be equipped one at the time. They alter the way in which your bullets behave, turning them into laser beams or allowing you to shoot several enemies at once. Potions are one-use items which have unknown effects on your character – they can replenish your health or mana, slow down time, but might as well poison you or limit your view, making it more difficult to evade bullets. And if you’re a completionist, you’ll be happy to hear that some items or even endings are obtainable only through other game modes. There are many things to do and to unlock, which is great because it keeps the gameplay fresh, however lack of any guide is a little discouraging. You can easily miss some things out; for instance, I didn’t know what the “dark damage” was – only after checking out the Steam forums I found out that it’s all about those trippy visual effects with a dark stretch passing from one side of the screen to the other. I missed out some game mechanics, because I didn’t know how they work (or rather that they exist in the first place). Yes, maybe I wasn’t observant enough but I thought it’s just to make your freak out. So if you like learning everything on your own then you should be fine, otherwise it might a hindrance.
Deathstate is a set in Lovecraftian universe – you know: Cthulhu, Arkham, and so on. As we find out in the intro, our protagonist (Seeker) has been invited by Professor Elinberg, who’d been previously missing, to Miskatonic University Campus – rings any bell? There, she gets sucked into a new, strange realm with disgusting, dangerous creatures within and no way to escape. And that’s kinda it. There are other characters, each with a separate ending (completionists, enjoy!) which somewhat expands on their background or personality, but overall it’s pretty plain. Unlocked items also have short description but these are just flavour texts. Perhaps I’m missing some references for I’m not that acquainted with Lovecraft’s prose. Still, I believe Deathstate isn’t supposed to be incredibly deep with a deep, involving storyline – which is not a bad thing! There are some titbits but you don’t have to engage in the story, meaning you can focus solely on the gameplay. The Lovecraftian atmosphere/setting are still there and you can enjoy it even without having read any of the works by H.P. Lovecraft, although I’m sure that hardcore fans will enjoy some references here and there.
As for the design, there are many things we can talk about. First of all, the artstyle which is the first thing we see. As you may have already noticed, it’s pixel style typical for many indie games, although here it is more refined, I’d say. I’m not a graphic designer and pixel art is not something what I specialise in – but to me it’s of good quality. At first I thought it’s rather simple and undetailed, but then again, in the heat of battle we’re mostly focused on not getting killed. I think use of pixel art kinda alleviates the tension, the dark atmosphere as things look somewhat… cartoonish? I also like this VHS effect that give it the 80’s look. The UI is also pretty straightforward, with health in the upper right corner, info about the dungeon in the upper right corner (again, some information might be unclear), mana and items in the lower left corner, money and potion in lower right corner. Everything is neat and clear, and if not you can always press C to check your stats and obtained items.
Moving onto level design, everything is procedurally generated meaning that no two runs will be the same (unfortunately this means that sometimes you’ll have a pretty bad run). Each layer (there are 4 of them) consists of three levels on which we may find new weapons, grimoires, elite enemies to defeat, and a mystic shop. There will be some narrow corridors, big open areas and an exit portal somewhere out there for you to find. Levels are not divided as in The Binding of Isaac, therefore no map is provided, forcing you to explore the dungeon on your own. I must admit that things can get a little bit tense when the time runs out and you’re rushing in panic, looking for the exit (although apparently these moments are less common now, as the devs expanded the time limit needed for a level). What I really like is the fact that after killing the boss you unlock a completely new world that can be randomly selected during the next run, adding some variation and raising difficulty level (for we don’t know what dangers await us in those new worlds). Every layer has its own theme as well (both visual and musical) – for example, the hellish First Furnace of Carcassus or the misty and stony Grave of Time. Overall, you can feel that you travel from a realm to a realm, looking for the final exit.
The enemies we face differ from location to location, both in terms of appearance and behaviour. I must admit that they fit pretty much their locations, making each dungeon distinct. Some will follow you, trying to hit you, some will shoot a bullet or two, and some will shoot homing bullets that will swap your movement keys for a short period of time. What’s more, Desecration changes their behaviour in some way: they will shoot more bullets and in new patterns. As I’ve mentioned before, there are also elite enemies which are tougher and more dangerous than the rest of the group. They are also different in colour and appear with a sinister laughter which freaks me out sometimes. Then, there are also bosses, each with their unique skills and patterns that you have to decipher and learn in order to succeed, but I won’t disclose it so you can have fun discovering the game on your own.
The last thing related to design is the sound design. In my opinion, everything is on point, cohesive and atmospheric. The music fits well the dungeons and can make you pumped out or, on the contrary, slightly anxious. Other sounds, such as bullets or weapons are very clear and distinguishable, so you always know who’s shooting and what. The soundtrack is really good and doesn’t sound too gameish, although after long periods of playing it might get annoying.
I’m very satisfied with my purchase – Deathstate is a brilliant roguelite influenced by Lovecraft, with some interesting mechanics, and fast and challenging gameplay. There are some issues such as lack of any guide or spikes in difficulty, but all things considered, it’s a very good title which scores 8/10. I highly recommend it to all fans of procedurally generated and difficult games.