I generally don’t review Early Access games. Not because of any strong principled stance or moral obligation: I’m a firm believer of the idea that if the developers ask money for participation, you’re free to criticize the product as much as you like, no matter how many ‘technically unfinished’ labels they slap on it. It just feels a little strange to me, I guess, to write reviews of products that are nominally supposed to still be in heavy flux. What good is my current-state review going to do if the next build two weeks from now changes the whole thing up? Particularly since there are also hundreds of gold-release indie games out there I could be reviewing instead, I tend to not go out of my way to find the ones with the disclaimer.
Never let it be said I’m not open to suggestions, though. Developer Dreadbit — they of Ironcast, the Victorian/steampunk-themed match-3 puzzler that I was somewhat positive about — sent me a review key for their latest in-development, Seraph. I gave it a shot, to see if it was at all in a state I’d be willing to write about, and — well, here we are! Seraph seems very near completion, to be honest, both in the audiovisual and mechanical departments. I don’t think I’d have picked up it was Early Access if it wasn’t for the few areas that spell out THIS PART OF THE GAME IS NOT COMPLETED YET.
I’m still not comfortable writing a ‘full’ Indie Wonderland review on Early Access games; what you’re about to read is going to be a little shorter than usual, as I sometimes do. I’ll also mark this review with an explicit ‘time of writing’ disclaimer — so to anyone coming in a significant amount of time after this, be wary of how much what I say here might be utter nonsense.
And I’ll thank you to keep the obvious quip here to yourself.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, high-ish.)
(Game source: Developer press key.)
(Time of writing: 2016-05-09, ‘May 9th, 2016’.)
Seraph is a bit of a genre-bender. My first instinct is to describe it as a combination platformer and twin-stick shooter, with a twist — the twist is that you don’t actually twin-stick-shoot. But then it also has a leveling system. And a ‘talent tree’ system that involves slowly unlocking more and better bonuses to your abilities. And a meta-game crafting system, where items you can find in-game are turned into new weapons, items, and abilities. Which might make you think that there could also be roguelike elements in the mix, except… I don’t know if there are? An abundance of checkpoints seems to suggest that linear progression is the intended gameplay goal, but a strange visible ‘numerical difficulty’ seemingly punishes you for succeeding too much without dying. At least, I think that’s what it does?
Let’s try to unpack this.
In Seraph, you play the role of… Seraph, I guess. An angel spirit inhabiting a human body — think Supernatural — who only just awoke from some kind of imprisonment. Seraph’s prison has been overrun by demons, and Seraph needs to escape so she can return to heaven. And then means you, the player, need to guide Seraph in running and jumping through the facility, finding and unlocking elevator doors, and shooting anything demonic-looking in the approximate face.
On the movement front, Seraph the Seraph is an agile acrobat. She can run, jump, and double-jump — always, but always doing some strange, overblown cartwheel. She can also latch onto walls, and climb up and jump off of them. Finally, she can teleport short distances in any direction.
And on the combat front, Seraph is quite the gunslinger: she carries two infinite-ammo handguns by default, and can grab and carry one optional weapon as well. You fire your weapons by pulling the right trigger, or keyboard-analogue, and…
One of Seraph two biggest marketing gimmicks is that the player doesn’t actually need to aim. Seraph auto-aims her gun(s) at nearby targets, split-wielding whenever… whenever it looks cool, I think. You can ‘nudge’ her into selecting a particular target, but it’s not necessary. Just hold down the fire button and the bullets go into where the demons are.
Practically speaking, playing Seraph follows a fairly simple pattern. You’ll go through a series of discrete levels, thematically tied by the texture set they are procedurally generated from. At least, I’m pretty certain these levels are procedurally generated; if they’re not, then apologies to the level designers, I suppose, for saying your levels look like they were laid out by a computer. Every level starts with a bit of talking-heads dialogue between Seraph, and whatever other character happens to have drawn the short stick.
(The writing in this game isn’t bad, honestly. Just a little unremarkable. It does that thing where… I can’t find the source, but someone on Twitter once commented that a hallmark of vague (YA) fantasy writing seems to be taking proper nouns and capitalizing them for effect. You know what I mean. ‘The Elders’. ‘The City’. ‘The Faith’. That last one’s directly from Seraph! From what little I’ve played, the story seems to be headed for the somewhat predictable ‘God is actually bad and angels are actually demons’ type of beat, although I’m totally open to being surprised on this later.)
Lore-setting done, you’ll then be confronted with your level’s mission. There are, er, two of these. At least in the part of Seraph I played. Sometimes, you have to find and kill the level’s big bad demon lieutenant. Other times, you’ll have to find a set number of ‘Terminus Fountains’, spooky enemy spawners, and destroy them. In both cases, doing so opens the level’s exit door, and off you go. Rarely, a third type of level has you fight a significant boss enemy — these encounters are scripted, though.
And off you go.
Seraph‘s levels are big sprawling acrobat mazes, dozens of rooms loosely ‘connected’ in ways that only a double-jumping wall-climbing teleporting angel could make us of, and absolutely jam-packed with monsters, weapons, floating shining doodads, collectible items, and monsters. Seraph keeps it intent clear here: you’re supposed to make your way through the levels with cool acrobatic moves, and stay alive by dodging monsters with cool acrobatic moves. Don’t sweat the aiming, Seraph does that for you. Your biggest in-combat decisions are usually ‘where do I run to in order to not get hit’, ‘where to do I run to to get the auto-targeting to pick the enemy I want to see dead’, ‘when do I use any of my three recharging special abilities’, and ‘when I do use my more powerful but ammo-limited secondary weapon’. So the cool decisions; not nerdy shit like ‘how do I make sure I hit the guy I want to hit’. Oh, and while most enemies just die after you kill them, some go into a regeneration mode — requiring you to sit next to them for three seconds and use an ability.
Seraph‘s levels are large and often very similar-looking, so it’d be easy to get lost in them. But the game ‘solves’ this problem by way of remarkably clever objective markers. Not only do these floating arrows point you to what you need to kill to proceed, they actually dynamically adjust themselves to the room you’re in: the arrows always point to the next room you should go into to get closer to your target, instead of just blindly pointing globally. I like that, it’s clever. It does tend to turn Seraph into a game of ‘follow the arrow’ a little, particularly at times where I just wanted to get a level over with. But the off-path areas do tend to be packed with collectible to collect and enemies to kill, so it can still be worthwhile — and maybe even fun — to explore them.
The thing about Seraph is that it’s pretty impressive at first. Particularly for an Early Access game, this game looks and feels really smooth. Seraph’s animations in particular are noteworthy: I’m almost willing to bet some form of mocap went into animating the character. In which case they mocapped someone who has a weird way of walking with drawn guns, but okay. And the whole thing just… feels good. The title screen is slick, the audio is okay, the graphics look fancy, the controls work, and from the get-go there’s a strong focus on jumping around like a maniac and shooting demons in the face.
But after a strong blast-off start, Seraph just kind of… peters out. Firing auto-aiming guns at demons while dodging slow-moving ball projectiles and telegraphed area attacks is cool at first, but after four levels or so the experience becomes a little samey. I certainly felt like I’d seen enough. And this was four levels in; I ended up doing sixteen. The feeling didn’t really get much better.
Seraph‘s core gameplay is fun enough at first, but it never seems to evolve, never seems to change meaningfully. You can find more guns, but almost all of them are small variations on the theme of bullet-spray. You fight more enemies, and new enemies, but… in spite of the art directors’ best efforts, I felt they started to blur together fairly soon. All demons I’ve seen so far, and I mean all demons, look like glistening grey pseudo-humanoids. All of them. The spikey crawly ones, the floating brute ones, the horned snake ones. They all have vaguely humanoid features, they all glisten in direct light, and they’re all grey. Every enemy is grey. I genuinely can’t remember if I’ve seen any one that isn’t.
And while Seraph has no less than four different player power ‘upgrade’ systems… all of them feel like variations on the theme of ‘your numbers go up slightly’. The limited upgrades you get while leveling up can have some mechanics-changing abilities, like the one that lets you heal when killing boss-type enemies. But the ‘coin’ items you find, and the ‘oath’ talents you unlock, and the ‘gun’ guns you craft… It’s incremental percentages, all the way down. Five percent added here, ten percent added there. I really hope you like small number upgrades, is what I’m saying.
(The crafting system deserves some particular merit, not because it’s an egregious example of this — it is, in a sense, but you can also build a railgun — but because you only unlock the whole system partway through your first playthrough. Suddenly, enemies start dropping ‘crafting items’, which you need to make better things and abilities and of which you never have enough. And, of course, there doesn’t seem to be any direct connection between what you do and what you kill, and what items you get. How could there be? It’s not like you can go back to grind earlier areas — the game is linear. It’s a strange ‘un.)
I have the somewhat optimistic view of games being changing sensations over time. The game provides an experience, you adapt and adjust to that experience, and then the game gives you a new experience. Keeps the thing from going stale. But Seraph‘s core experience never really seems to change. You do in level 16 what you do in level 1: shoot demons with handguns while doing sweet kickflips. The numbers involved change, and the backgrounds change, and the enemy models change, but the core experience — does not change. Particularly for a single-player game, I see this as something of a potentially-lethal flaw. If your ten-hour game doesn’t have enough steam to keep me entertained past forty minutes, why should I keep engaging?
But then there’s the rub, maybe. Seraph isn’t marketed as a strictly single-player game. Seraph is marketed as a streamer’s game. Its second big marketing gimmick — 13-paragraph callback, hoo — is its built-in Twitch integration. Not only is Twitch streaming built into the game, but so is Twitch voting: viewers can determine the play experience by voting for levels to be ‘good’ or ‘evil’, influencing the difficulty and adding particular level modifiers.
Or so I’ve been told. I wouldn’t actually know.
I can sort of see how Seraph could work as a streaming party game. The gameplay gets repetitive, sure, but that’s not an issue in streaming; particularly when you add difficulty voting to the mix, people are going to show up to watch the streamer get their ass handed. And Seraph is definitely a game you can be good or bad at — guess where I fall on that scale — so there’s room for improvement and room for skillful play.
For my part, all I can do — and all I really want to do — is judge Seraph on the merits of a single-player game. And on those merits, it’s currently a technically impressive, audiovisually neat game with good controls, that starts off strong but never evolves beyond that start. I had fun with it for an hour. Don’t know if I’m likely to go back after Early Access ends. Dreadbit seems fairly committed to Seraph‘s current overall design. So while I’m sure they’ll use their Early Access time and income to make the game even better before release, I don’t know if they’ll ever make it a game that I’d be long-term into.
If Seraph sounds like your cup of tea, it’s currently thirteen euro on Steam.
If streaming is your cup of tea, Jarenth is probably not the writer for you. Try Justin instead! Yell at him in the comments to do more streaming, just in case. And follow Jarenth on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam for no better reason than you’ve got nothing better to do with your day anyway. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?