Young Huna awakens in a mysterious castle owned by the Spirit Guides — sorcerers adept at controlling elemental energy. As he’s in an amnesiac state, Huna’s guess as to why he’s here is only as good as the player’s; and since the castle lacks a convenient exit, his only recourse is to follow instructions from Talis, Spirit Guide of Water. Apparently the unassuming Huna has the right stuff to be a Spirit Guide himself, and Talis summoned him here to take care of some elemental odds and ends while she’s busy containing yet another Spirit Guide who’s turned to the dark side, as it were, and unleashed a big can of Elemental Rage (Out Now, $4.99).
The game’s plot drags sluggishly over its first half, Huna’s total lack of memory hindering any identification the player might otherwise have with Elemental Rage‘s characters and game world. Thankfully nothing is as it seems, and Oniric Games manages to pull off what is undoubtedly the most satisfying plot twist I’ve seen in videogame storytelling in quite some time. As it follows in the M. Night Shyamalan tradition of hitting its audience with a sudden Mack truck of a payoff, some are bound to complain that it’s gimmicky — but few will venture to say that their jaws didn’t hit the floor when they found out! As far as storytelling in the “Metroidvania” genre goes, Elemental Rage is par excellence provided the player sticks with it long enough for the payoff.
Wait, “Metro-” what? In a fascinating marketing move, Oniric has billed Elemental Rage very specifically as a Metroidvania — a marriage of sidescrolling adventure and Action RPG that first crystallized in the PlayStation classic, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. While the label certainly feels appropriate, Elemental Rage contains a number of important deviations that distinguish it from either the Metroid or the modern Castlevania lineage — mostly resulting from how liberally Oniric hearkens back to classic platformers. This is both for good and ill.
The Metroidvania ilk has always been characterized – at least in my mind – by a certain wide accessibility to casual gamers that’s lacking here. Metroidvanias typically revolve around challenges of logic: the protagonist’s set of abilities grows with exploration of the game world, and the player must figure out how to use new possibilities to access previously unreachable areas. Elemental Rage has that down pat, with Huna’s elemental abilities allowing him to access different parts of the castle as he develops. What Elemental Rage adds to this formula is level design that’s noticeably exacting in its demand for perfect player performance. As in the hellishly difficult platformers of old, Elemental Rage doesn’t hesitate to throw insta-killing spikes or lava-filled pits at the player, whose best friend is familiarity with the layout of traps — and building this familiarity is a process of trial and fatal error. A fair portion of longtime Metroidvania fans should welcome the visceral real-time platforming challenge on offer here, but some will also be turned off.
Poor Huna’s difficulties are just getting started with the fact that he has to hotfoot it over long stretches of flowing magma; before trying to pull off his umpteenth perfectly controlled double jump, he often has to clear the air of malevolent ghosts left in the evil Spirit Guide’s wake. Metroidvanias have long made strides toward deep combat systems, but Elemental Rage sticks much closer to ye olde platformer in its overly simplistic approach to self defense. This makes enough sense, after all, seeing as Huna hardly fits the profile of a trained combat expert, and he has naught but a cricket bat to defend himself with. That’s not to say Elemental Rage doesn’t do anything interesting here — Huna collects temporary powerups that upgrade his cricket bat into a pretty impressive boomstick, letting him shoot out waves of energy with each swing. Walking around with this handy accessory is the player’s reward for remaining unscathed: Huna loses one layer of his built-up weapon upgrades for every scratch inflicted by enemies or traps. There are a handful of intricately designed boss battles to be found too; it’s a shame these don’t occur more regularly throughout the game!
The most recognizable and unquestionably integral feature of Metroidvanias must be their in-game maps, and here Elemental Rage absolutely excels. Rather than provide boxy caricatures of level layouts that are only partially helpful in planning the next leg of the player’s journey, Oniric has innovated and created scaled-down, true color maps that allow the player to see with clairvoyant accuracy what his or her objective should be once Huna gains a new ability.
On the downside, Elemental Rage also falls victim to the genre’s greatest weakness: backtracking! With too few exceptions to be easily overlooked, Oniric failed to incorporate some of the countermeasures the Metroidvania genre has developed, such as warp points unlocked during the protagonist’s journey or level design that doubles over on itself to provide shortcuts the player can later exploit. Level designs in Elemental Rage feel well constructed the first time around, but by the third or fourth time the player has to re-trace an already well-beaten path, even those who appreciate the game’s take on difficulty will feel irked. At least the breadth of Elemental Rage‘s game world isn’t nearly as large as Planet Zebes or Dracula’s Castle, so the amount of backtracking doesn’t reach truly unbearable proportions; just enough to make the player readily appreciate how Oniric could improve in future games of this kind.
Elemental Rage‘s virtual interface is simple owing to Huna’s limited range of actions: just right and left movement buttons, an attack button, a jump button, and a situational button for miscellaneous actions. That simplicity entails genius as far as reliability is concerned, and Oniric kindly allows the player to shift all the virtual buttons around onscreen to his or her liking via an options menu.