Saturday, 15 February 2014

Review - Excavatorrr 2 : CWOUN (PC)

Dig your way to a thousand deaths

It would appear that videogames have a long term obsession with underground digging. From the early days of Dig Dug, The Pit and Boulderdash, to more recent offerings like Mr Driller, Spelunky, SteamWorld Dig and Minecraft, it's clear that gamers have a penchant for dirt shifting shenanigans. Now lone indie developer Hempuli is adding to the (dirt) pile, with a sequel to his 2009 mine-em-up, Excavatorrr. That title may have possessed crude visuals that aped the style of the Atari 2600, but it was more addictive than nicotine and sex combined. It slipped under the radar of many gamers - which is a shame as it was (is) absolutely excellent - but hopefully this new sequel will get the attention it deserves. 

Returning to the surface is essential, so dig carefully

Essentially a polished remake of the first game, Excavatorrr 2 shares the same basic mechanics as its predecessor; Navigate down the environment by digging - either to the side, or diagonally down - grabbing any gold that appears from blocks, avoiding the enemies that lurk beneath the surface, and returning any special treasures such as gemstones and chalices to the surface shop to gain big bucks. This cash can be spent on useful tools that will assist you in your endeavours: destructive items such as bombs and dynamite are perfect for blowing up the environment or enemies, while ladders, vines and balloons can help you navigate safely back up to higher planes. Your character can only jump two blocks high, so special care must be taken not to trap yourself underground, lending the game a strategic air, as you must leave a stepping stone assortment of platforms for your return to the surface. All is not lost should you take a wrong turning, though, as crates located throughout the randomly generated world can contain many of the tools found in the shop. As you would expect, the deeper you get, the more difficult things become, with far nastier enemies and some even nastier surprises lurking there.

Many nasty surprises await you in the depths

The first thing that players of the original will notice are the vastly improved visuals; gone are the primitive Atari 2600 style sprites, here replaced with a much more appealing pixel art style that brings to mind the original 2008 incarnation of Spelunky. It's such a massive improvement that it makes the first game appear positively prehistoric in comparison. Likewise, music has taken a turn for the better, with a jaunty little chiptune track replacing the bleepy bloopy tune of its forebear. Its hard to knock the original, however, as it was created in only 48 hours for the Ludum Dare 15 indie games competition. With no such time constraints in place for the development of Excavatorrr 2, the presentation has received a huge level of polish. The online scoreboards make a welcome return, and Hempuli has also added a cool stats screen that allows you to view everything from the length of time played, longest (and shortest) game time, enemies killed, items discovered, and a breakdown of every death - allowing you to see which hazard or foe has given you the most trouble. Although extremely similar to the original, there are a couple of new gameplay mechanics thrown in to make life a little easier - well, maybe just more convenient. Your miner can now put an item onto his back with the tap of a button, leaving your hands free to hold another object. This allows you to keep an item safely on your back for use later on down the line, or reduces the number of times you have to traipse back to the surface to sell any treasures procured. Gamepad support is, unfortunately, not present. But this is easily circumvented by using good old joy2key, allowing you to set up the USB controller of your choosing - something I strongly advise, as playing with the keys is a might cumbersome.

The Egyptian section is the final area and houses the golden crown

Just like Spelunky, SteamWorld Dig, Minecraft et al, Excavatorrr is extremely engaging thanks to the incredibly addictive nature of exploring an underground cavern at your own pace. Unearthing loot becomes an obsession, as does making your way down just that little bit further each time you play. On your quest you will traverse three underground enviroments; the earthy first section, the dark blue cavernous mid-section, and the final pass through the Egyptian area, which is where you will find the temple housing the golden crown you so desperately desire. As well as the goblins, bats and indestructible snails that initially hinder your progress, it isn't long before you are being assaulted by angry spectres, over-sized crickets and bone-hurling skeletons. Not to mention the instant-death blocks that can suddenly move in one random direction should you step to close or unearth a path for them. Worst of all is the evil necromancer who shows up as you near the Egyptian depths. He warps around the screen, firing bolts of electricity on your position. His death is utterly vital to your chances of success, so you must have at him with your pick axe (chances of success, slim) or use one of your explosive tools to put him down for good. He soon becomes a real hate figure, and his imminent appearance causes feelings of dread only beaten by Doom 2's enemy-resurrecting abomination, the ArchVille.

The guy in blue will sell you items to assist you in your quest

The sheer number of odds stacked against you is the only flaw I can really level at Excavatorrr 2. The volume of enemies and hazards awaiting you in the depths borders on the ridiculous, and the additional headache of having the necromancers lightening strikes and ghosts homing in on your position feel like overkill. It's a shame really, as this brutal difficulty level tarnishes what could have been a near-perfect platform-roguelike experience. Incredibly absorbing and addictive it may be, but be prepared for feelings of despair and inadequacy to flood over you as you die for the umpteenth time. Despite this, you cannot resist returning to the depths again and again. Maybe I'm a sucker for punishment, or maybe I hold a glimmer of hope that if I just make it that little bit further down, defeating the bastard necromancer on the way, then things might just get a little easier.

BOOM! Explosives should be handled with care!

Whatever the reason, my addiction is strong and shows no signs of letting up. Perhaps this game will drive me to the very brink of my sanity, or perhaps one day I will get lucky and have a fantastic run, perhaps even getting my mucky hands on the elusive crown. Either way, I am guaranteed to see my poor little miner die over and over again, until the very image of it is burnt into my sub-conscious, repeating on-loop ad infinitum. Sanity breaking difficulty levels aside, I still highly recommend Excavatorrr 2 to anyone who enjoys looting, digging, roguelikes and platformers. Just don't expect to finish it without devoting some serious man-hours to it. So get digging, have a blast, and I'll see you in the psychiatric ward for some soothing music and meditation.

Let's hope this becomes a reality

As an aside, I would love to see Excavatorrr 2 get the Spelunky HD style make-over treatment and get released on PS Vita. It's perfectly suited to Sony's fantastic, indie supporting, handheld and it would allow me to take my addiction everywhere with me, thus avoiding the withdrawal symptoms that cause me to sweat profusely and my hands to shake.

The Good

  • Addictive looting and digging gameplay
  • Great pixel art style and chiptune soundtrack
  • Extremely challenging
  • Online scoreboards and great stats screen

The Bad

  • Very, very difficult

Title : Excavatorrr 2 : CWOUN
Developer : Hempuli
Year : 2013
System : PC
Price : Free
Genre : Platformer, Roguelike