Chasm Review: The Battle Below
Although Chasm offers a rare procedurally generated spin on the classic Metroid formula, its demanding combat is what makes it stand out from the sea of imitators. Monsters roam among the twisted confines of an underground lair, demanding deft swordwork and stubborn determination to survive. And it's in that deadly dance against lurching zombies, scurrying rats, and all manner of creepy-crawlies that Chasm truly shines. The tense fights leave you with sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate, keeping you glued to the action as you venture ever deeper below ground.
As a recruit stationed in a castle far away from civilization, Chasm hints at a greater world just waiting to be explored. But after you're chosen to investigate the disturbances at a small village, it soon becomes clear the world's mysteries have to take a backseat to more pressing dangers. Journals uncovered as you explore the mines, temples, and jungles explain why evil beings are being summoned, but the story doesn't offer an interesting spin on a ho-hum premise. The little narrative appeal comes from the citizens you release from cages. Each person has their own tale to tell and errand for you to run, giving you someone to fight for as you eradicate the enemies.
Thankfully, combat is the main draw of Chasm. Melee is the predominant manner of attack, and there are a wide variety of swords, hammers, knives, and other short-range weapons to find throughout the adventure. Fighting relies heavily on timing as you must learn the behaviors of each enemy to have a chance at survival. Wights, for example, lunge at you with a sweeping sword strike that can be avoided if you know what to expect but could spell your doom if you're too slow. The clear signs from every enemy ensure that it's your skill that determines fights and not cheap tactics.
Once you learn an enemy's attack patterns, patience is often your toughest foe. Monsters can take a half dozen strikes or more to die, but just one mistake can drop your life bar down to nothing. Trying to get one more hit on a bouncing Grilla or boomerang-throwing skeleton can be a suicidal strategy. The enemies take advantage of even the tiniest mistake, and there's no worse feeling than dying because of your own hubris.
The first half of Chasm offers a tough-but-fair challenge that is every bit as intense as you'd expect when there are demons and ghosts milling about. Save points are few and far between. Trekking across unknown places with little health makes every encounter agonizing in all the right ways. Even a mere bat–among the weakest of all video game enemies–can strike terror in your heart. I died more times than I'd like to admit from a swarm of flies when I got cocky that no insect would be the end of me. Whenever I came across a branching path, I would poke my nose in every new area, hoping that a save point would relieve me from the pressure. More often than not, there was an undead knight or green slime waiting, and I'd have to calm my nerves as I prepared for another life-or-death battle.
Bosses pose a formidable threat during those early hours when you're still weak and inexperienced. Like normal enemies, bosses telegraph every attack, so it's on you if you take too many hits. The first boss in the game–a Wendigo who can become invisible and cling to the ceiling–killed me over and over again before I mastered its attack pattern. Finally tasting victory was incredibly fulfilling because I knew I earned the win, and I was eager to see what new challenges awaited.
Chasm emphasizes the "vania" in Metroidvania, giving you experience points for every enemy you kill. There are dozens of weapons to collect and pieces of equipment to wear, so you can tailor your character to your playstyle. Like slow but powerful weapons? Grab an ax! Prefer quicker ones with less range? Go for a handy knife instead. In addition to melee weapons, there are also ranged items that use your magic meter. Hurl shuriken at faraway enemies or throw a Molotov cocktail to set the ground aflame. None of these are as satisfying to use as a sword, but they can be mighty handy when things become overwhelming and you need a little help to progress. There are also food and potions to stock up on if you're feeling acutely vexed by a particular enemy.
All of these extra items, though, lead to an unbalanced difficulty as you get deeper into the adventure. Although I never set out to grind, I did backtrack frequently and killed every enemy I encountered as I retread the underground world. By the end of the game, I was so powerful and the enemies were so easy, I never felt threatened. I defeated the last two bosses on my first attempts, which would have seemed impossible after I struggled for hours to kill those early bosses. The last boss was so easy it was almost comical. I just stood underneath it, never bothering to avoid its many attacks, as I hacked and slashed at its glowing weak point. I had more than half my health left when it died and felt the dull ache that only an anticlimactic final fight can produce as I watched the credits roll.
I did start again from the beginning, this time on Hard difficulty, but couldn't find that sweet spot I had been hoping for. Hard is, as you'd expect, hard. Not needlessly so, or even unfairly so, but harder than I could have endured as a novice. It's a real shame that the difficulty balance is so out of whack. I enjoyed playing every second of this game, even when I was killing enemies without breaking a sweat, mostly because the combat mechanics are so satisfying. But I missed that creeping danger from the early goings when I could die at any moment.
The randomly generated levels also sound more impressive in theory than they are in practice. Yes, the layouts of the stages were different the second and third times I started over, but not so different that it felt like an entirely new adventure–the rooms were mostly the same, just located in slightly different positions. This isn't to say the random element is bad–my first time through was so fun that any extra incentive to start over again is appreciated–it's just not as noticeable a change as I was hoping.
I'm a sucker for beautiful pixel art, and Chasm is bursting with rich backgrounds and well-realized enemies. It's the little details that make all the difference. The rats eagerly wag their tails as their sprint toward you, making them seem almost cute as you thud them hard on the back with a hammer. The human-sized Meatman is every bit as gross as his name implies, and it almost felt like a mercy kill when I struck it through its muscled heart with my sword. Every new creature brought with it its own delights, so I was happy that there are almost 90 different enemies to meet and kill.
Even when its flaws are obvious, Chasm is a well-crafted adventure, and during the more than 12 hours I spent playing through my first time, I got lost only once. That's a huge bonus in a genre where getting lost is often the most frustrating aspect. Even after I finished, I was eager to venture forth on a new adventure, to test my combat mettle against harder foes and find the one secret that eluded me the first time through. It's a shame the randomization of the world isn't that big of a deal and the challenge could be better balanced, but the superb combat and visual design ensure your time with Chasm will be well spent.
Editor's note: The review score has been updated to reflect the PlayStation 4 and Switch versions of Chasm. — October 11, 2018, 7:50 AM PT