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Catacombs Review: Valkyrie, oh Valkyrie! Wherefore art thou Valkyrie?

InMotion Software is seemingly obsessed with underground tunnels. Catacombs is the latest release from the developer of such subterranean titles as Dungeon Defense, I Dig It and I Dig It Expeditions. And with the massive success of the latter two titles, Catacombs has big shoes tunnels to fill. Unfortunately, much like the bodies there entombed, Catacombs is lacking in soul.

Catacombs seems a near relative to the arcade classic Gauntlet. Players select a character class from amongst Warrior, Mage and Archer, then go dungeon crawling through a series of subterranean labyrinths, battling skeletons and other creatures while gathering keys and treasure, destroying monster spawning portals and seeking the exit to each floor of the dungeon. Gauntlet offered players the choice of Warrior, Wizard, Elf (Archer) and Valkyrie, with goals and gameplay amounting to basically the same.

The Warrior is the slowest character, but has the highest defense. He throws axes in combat, and pounds the ground as his special attack damaging nearby foes. His special attack is slow to recharge.

The Mage has the weakest defense of all characters, but moves more quickly than the Warrior while dealing equal damage with his magic. The Mage’s special attack is a chain lightning spell which arcs between nearby enemies, and his special attack recycles faster than the other characters. The Mage is my personal favorite of Catacombs’ characters.

The Archer moves faster than the other characters and has the fastest rate of fire, though his arrows inflict lesser damage than either the Warrior’s axes or the Mage’s spells. He has middling defensive capabilities. His special attack fires arrows in all directions.

For control scheme, Catacombs adopts the dual-stick shooter model. Unlike most dual-stick shooters, however, the battle is waged not in open arenas, but within narrow corridors and confined spaces against a finite number of opponents. And by “finite” I mean that enemies stop spawning into the level when their portals are destroyed.

Likes:

Concurrent Character Progress: The game keeps track of your progress with each individual character, meaning that you can flop between characters at any time without resetting your progress with the others.

Progressive, Labyrinthine Stages: The majority of dual-stick shooters task you to wage combat in an open arena. Far fewer offer progressive stages requiring exploration, and it’s a key difference that makes Catacombs stand out from the pack. The layouts of stages become progressively more complex as you push deeper into the dungeons.

Interface: InMotion has designed a beautiful dual-stick interface. The control areas are large and easily identifiable, but also attractive, unobtrusive and functional.

Dislikes:

Uninspired Art Direction: Character and creature designs are bland caricatures of archetypal heroes and monsters, generic, uninspired and familiar. The designs are not bad, but merely functional.

Repetitive Scenics & Enemies: Each floor of the dungeon looks exactly the same as every other. Different layout, same tile set. Over the course of some 20+ levels, the constant barrage of muted browns and grays becomes tiresome to look at. Nor do the enemies offer any great variety. You will find yourself fighting the same handful of creatures for the full duration of the game, long past they become tiresome.

Lack of Incentives/Rewards: The only reason the game gives you to explore its dungeons is because they’re there. There are no objectives, no goals, no achievements. As you explore, you will accumulate loot, but you have no place to spend it; it increases your score, but there are no leader boards on which to post that score, nor even local high score boards to track your personal accomplishments. There are no items to be found in the dungeons save keys, and therefore no reason to fully explore the levels. When a map is cleared entirely of enemies, you receive a “Map Cleared” notification, but the game doesn’t keep track of your cleared maps, doesn’t award you in any way for clearing them, and doesn’t even allow you to return to previously completed maps to clear them fully if you didn’t the first time — presumably because there’s no incentive to do so. Catacombs is all mechanics, and no purpose.

DLC: Additional levels can be purchased in-app. At present, only the Forest is available as DLC, though the in-game map displays several locations not yet available, hinting at things to come. The Forest area costs $0.99 and gives you 24 additional levels with new enemies. The problem is that the Forest doesn’t do anything more than provide an alternate skin for the same gameplay experience. Instead of brown, the mazes are green. You will skill fight skeletons in the woods, but now you will also fight goblins (which behave exactly as the skeletons, but which must be shot twice to kill rather than once). Neither does your character’s growth carry over from location-to-location. Upon starting the Forest, your character will be returned to experience level one.

Catacombs is solidly built, but utterly lacking inspiration. The game feels incredibly generic and, despite its solid foundations, quickly becomes tedious to play due to its lack of incentive. In writing this review, I constantly had to nag myself to go play the game some more. Comparatively, when I first played I Dig It, I kept going out of my way to find time to play. In creating Catacombs, InMotion seems to have forgotten what made I Dig It so much fun. The constant upgrades that enabled you to delve deeper into the earth, the sense of discovery that came with finding new treasures, the in-game achievements and records kept of your findings … none of this is to be found in Catacombs. Instead, dungeon level one looks just like dungeon level ten, looks just like dungeon level 14 … and you will be fighting the same monsters, collecting the same keys, doing and finding the same things, and the only difference is there might be a larger number of enemies and a larger area to explore (and yet, no greater reason to explore it).

Catacombs may have been more fun to play had their been more variety in foes, or had character development been handled differently. Instead of experience levels, players should have to seek character upgrades in the dungeons, finding health, defense and attack upgrades through exploration. It would serve to make the game more interesting, give players a reason to scour each floor for loot. InMotion should have included achievements, records of enemies killed and loot discovered. There should have been different types of loot, rather than collecting the same generic treasure pile again and again. Collectibles would have given players something to strive for. There should be something to spend loot on — new characters, new weapons or spells. But alas, there is none of this.

As a dual-stick shooter, Catacombs fails because it’s not frantic enough. As an action game, it fails because the combat isn’t very interesting. As an RPG, it fails because it’s not deep enough. As an adventure and a game of exploration, it fails because there’s no incentive to progress and nothing new to discover as you go. Catacombs seems as if it tries to be several things at once, but being pulled in so many directions accomplishes none of them. There’s nothing inherently broken about the game; the controls work, the concept is sound and it’s definitely a dungeon crawler. It’s just not much fun to play and gives you no reason to play it.

Sometimes you dig and come back with a gem; sometimes you dig and find Catacombs.

Catacombs is developed by InMotion Software. The base application sells for $0.99 and includes additional downloadable content for purchase. Reviewed on an iPhone 3G.



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