A few hours in
It turns out that the Creeper does, in fact, have quite a few tricks up its sleeve. From aerial Spore Towers that deliver a bombardment of Creeper to far-off places…
…to indestructible ‘slipspace’ Emitters, tied to a central Emitter, that are functionally invulnerable as long as the main hub stands…
…to… whatever the hell the Digitalis and the Runners are, I was never too clear on that.
Of course, my arsenal hasn’t exactly been standing still either.
At time of writing, I’ve beaten four solar systems. I’m in the Frykt system now, which actually seems fairly close to the end. While quite a few systems are left un-conquered, those systems are spread across three branching paths… each leading to one of the locked campaigns we saw in the main menu earlier! It’s ingenious, I tell you.
Am I enjoying Creeper World 3? Yes, I am. Does it have flaws I’m going to talk about regardless? Well, sure, of course, every game has those. Will I talk about it in mostly glowing terms in spite of those flaws? It seems likely. Will I play more Creeper World 3 after this review is over?
But yeah, frippery aside: I’m having a decent amount of fun with Creeper World 3. It’s a mechanically simple game that uses a straightforward set of core systems to good effect, before varying on that formula in later levels to prevent rut-forming. It attempts to ludically reinforce its narrative themes, which I respect, it has an interesting visual and acoustic style, and it manages to be both relatively forgiving and balls-out hard. But more on that in a little bit.
Creeper World 3 is… you know, you could be forgiven for thinking that Creeper World 3 is a tower defense game of some sort. I made that mistake too! It’s an easy one to make, what with the propensity of towers and whatnot. Or maybe the resource management and structure stuff makes you think of it more as an RTS? Also understandable. Or maybe you see Creeper World 3 as more of a survival game at heart, almost horror-esque, one man (and his talking spaceship) against an infinite, unstoppable, unreasoning force. I can certainly see how that would work.
But if you ask me, Creeper World 3 is first and foremost a puzzle game.
Okay, hear me out: Creeper World 3 is a game consisting of a sequential set levels, that are — on any significant level — almost entirely unconnected. Each level posits nothing more complicated at the outset than one or two straightforward objectives: it’s always ‘get the items’ and/or ‘destroy all Creeper Emitters’. But every levels differs in its terrain layout, the Creeper Emitter locations and the places you can place your Command Node(s), its complicating factors, and the ever-growing set of tools and goodies you’re allowed to bring.
You are provided with all this information from the outset, during the briefing cutscene before the Creeper starts flowing. And this static information is always correct: once you go in, levels play out exactly the way you can predict they’ll play out. Creeper flows from Emitters at a certain speed, slowly creeping through cracks and over walls that you can identify as weak spots before you start. Here’s a gap in the walls that the Creeper will surge through. Here is a cascading mountain that will be difficult to cover with cannons. This chasm will provide a good natural defense which I can leave relatively undefended.
And for all the stress of the Creeper’s relentless advance, Creeper World 3 is often a rather slow-paced game, too. You can pause the game at any time, plot out structure construction and flight and browse over terrain altitude levels and Creeper depth at your leisure. Hmm, the Creeper is really stacking up against this wall. Maybe I’ll use my terraforming engine to raise them a little… create a neat little platform for a mortar launcher to stand on. That should keep it back.
The end result is a game that very often feels less like a stressful ‘humanity’s last stand’ and more like a laid-back puzzle game. You’re presented with a situation, you plan out how to use your tools to achieve your aims, and then you do so.
It’s almost scientific in its gameplay, sometimes, as you test and reject hypotheses and alter your layout based on data. “I thought two cannons here would be enough to close this gap, but it looks like I forgot to take rising Creeper levels into account. Placing another cannon there should do the trick.”
Hence, ‘puzzle game’: Creeper World 3 is a slow, methodical battle against a mostly predictable enemy. Later levels add enemy types and gameplay elements with more inherent randomness, like the random-targeting Spore Towers… but even these can be planned, by design.
I quite like this slower-paced puzzle aspect, actually. It’s an interesting gameplay style that I don’t recall really ever having seen explored elsewhere. It posits challenges that reward both situational insight and the ability to adapt plans on-the-fly as needed. And it fits, narratively: the Creeper is supposed to be a mindless, seemingly predictable force.
I say ‘seemingly predictable’ because the Creeper does switch things up with almost every level. A game that it just about holding back floods of scary liquid from linear sources would probably get boring sooner rather than later, but so far, Creeper World 3 has managed to keep my attention throughout.
And please don’t mistake my talking about the game’s planning-based nature and slower-paced gameplay as me saying Creeper World 3 isn’t ever tense. Because hoo boy, would that ever be a wrong assessment. It turns out there’s a big difference between ‘seeing and understanding what you should do and how you could go about doing it’ and actually doing that.
While the spread of the Creeper is ‘slow’ and predictable, so is your startup: every level has to begin with dropping your Command Node, placing collectors and reactors, and building your network to reach advantageous positions for stymying the Creeper advance. And particularly in later levels, you find yourself more and more in precarious starting positions, places that put you in close contact with the Creeper from the word go. Energy is almost always in short supply during this period, and your network links going red as your small starting supply quickly runs out visibly adds to the tension as you try to get all your important buildings up and running before the Creeper does what the Creeper does.
Doubly so because not every level plays by entirely the same rules.
And I particularly dig the way Creeper World 3 uses terrain elevation levels as ways to actively throw spanners in your works. Cannons can’t shoot up, only down, so mountains that are too small to build on can be hindrances as much as allies. Mortars do fire across mountains, but their random targeting makes them anything but predictable. And pitted terrain is difficult to build on, necessitating that you lug around mobile terraforming units to your front lines, rapidly filling up the holes the Creeper evacuates in order to secure your breach. And/or build a bunch of 3-by-3 10-high block towers for your cannons and sprayers to stand on, that works pretty well too.
Creeper World 3’s gameplay intensity almost follows an interested skewed sine curve, doesn’t it? Initial setup is a little dull, placing Command Nodes and collectors, but it ramps up pretty fast. Carving out a foothold against the Creeper’s advance and new tricks is probably the tension high point of every level. Once you manage that — once your defenses are good enough to hold the Creeper more or less indefinitely — gameplay intensity slowly starts dropping off, as you move into a phase of slowly, methodically breaching and securing openings in the Creeper in order to access the Emitters.
This stage of every level is also where the game’s ludonarrative themes break down a little. We are constantly told, through cutscene dialogue after cutscene dialogue, of the Creeper’s incredible ability to overwhelm and to adapt to everything humans throw at it. But… I seem to be doing pretty okay? Three upgraded cannons in a shield generator can hold back any Creeper wave you care to name. Yes, even that weird endless slipspace one.
As you reach a homeostasis of sorts in every level, with enough well-defended power reactors to effortlessly keep your weapons supplied, the Creeper starts feeling less and less scary and more and more nuisance. And the Creeper’s remarkable adaptability and corrupting power is only ever shown by way of new tricks at the start of a level, never during play. It feels like an informed ability more than anything else. “Oh no, the Creeper corrupted the Ticon Digitalis!” Er, yeah, sure, ship, whatever you say. Has it become immune to basic cannon shells yet? Wake me up when that happens, okay?
It’s a bit of an odd complaint, of course: most of the Creeper’s narrative tones are still conveyed perfectly well through its mechanical design. And besides, creating a fully Borg-like adaptable fluid enemy would be a tough sell for even the most well-funded development studio, so I can understand the smaller Knuckle Cracker’s decision to maybe let that slide for now. And it has to be said that the Creeper they did implement is already really quite impressive. Deceptively simple mechanics creating intense emergent gameplay situations.
I’m also not particularly a fan of Creeper World 3’s seeming assumption that I’ve played Creeper Worlds 1 and 2. Certain gameplay elements — like the Forge and the Totems — aren’t introduced as much as dropped. “Hey, remember this thing from before? It still works the same way!” Luckily, it’s usually not very hard to trial-and-error your way through figuring out what your new toys do. “Totems… what do those do again, Lia? I’m afraid I forgot, given that I slept for literally billions of years. Refresh my memory.”
Controls-wise, Creeper World 3 is similar: mostly simple and functional, with a few hang-ups. You can — and I did — control the whole thing mouse-only, and most of the commands and functions are fairly straightforward. But selection is rather sticky, and it can be annoying to, say, select a cannon, then misclick trying select another structure and send the cannon flying over. You’d think Escape would deselect structures, but… I’m still not entirely sure, actually? It’s not very clear. The big Cancel button in the bottom right seems to have a 100% success rate, but I’ve still messed around with incorrect selections more than was probably strictly conducive to my victories.
Finally, and steering away from gameplay talk for a brief bit: Creeper World 3 has an interesting own visual style, with stylized icons over a more muted terrain backdrop, that comes into focus more sharply if you zoom in on it. Which, you know, here you go:
I also dig the ability to change up the colours for both the Creeper and the Anti-Creeper. It doesn’t necessarily add much, but it’s a cool touch nonetheless. I’m not sure why I can’t also change the collector node’s green area, but two out of three colour options is pretty far from bad. I made my Anti-Creeper yellow! It’s the opposite of purple, you know.
Creeper World 3 also has… like, two songs. Three? I think there’s the menu tune, the ‘select a level in space’ tune, and the ‘playing a level’ tune. That’s it, really. What do you want me to say about it? They’re music. Maybe keep a personal playlist handy if you’re into that sort of thing.
Just to be on the safe side, I played a little more of Creeper World 3 before calling it a night. I’ve tried some of the user-created DMD maps. They… work fine, I guess? It’s essentially the same gameplay as the campaign maps, except with less Ur-Scandinavian dialogue. The list of available maps I saw was fairly large, so for people who are way into leaderboard-chasing and Creeper-fighting both, this represents a significant gameplay time extension. Good call, Knuckle Cracker!
And it would be remiss of me to not mention that the Credits screen is actually a small top-down dungeon crawler mini-game.
For people who are less into that beating the impossible times of single-minded strangers, Creeper World 3 is still a mechanically interesting puzzle-tower defense-survival game. It uses straightforward mechanics to good effect in order to create a gameplay experience that’s incredibly tense at the best of times, it’s easy to learn and to control, and it looks neat. It’s also predictable, slow at times, and not incredibly compelling as far as stories go. But maybe that’s just because I didn’t play the originals? Any readers here who have, please let us all know. We’re dying to hear from you!
Creeper World 3 is available from a variety of sources for give-or-take fifteen dollars, or twenty-five bucks for the whole three-game set. There are also demoes for all three games, which I highly recommend: it was the third demo that convinced me to pick up this game in the first place.