It’s been awhile since I played a good platformer. When I first saw the trailer for Seraph, the premise of a platformer with auto-aimed attacks sounded quite interesting since I’ll admit to not being the best at this genre. I forgot a bit about the game until I saw it a few weeks ago on Steam, and I figured I’d give it a shot since the reviews were mostly positive.
Before I go into the gameplay, I have to address the UI of this game. From the get-go you are told that this game works best with a controller – fair enough, platformers are one of the few genres that can actually benefit from such a peripheral. I didn’t have one handy at the time, however, so I keyboarded my way through the game until several days ago when I bought a controller especially for this review (also I miss playing Risk of Rain). To no one’s surprise, it does, indeed, play better with a controller.
For starters – no mouse-tracking. Why would it, since you actually never need to use a mouse in-game? It’s not a particularly egregious oversight; the menus are simple enough that you really have no need for a mouse, though as a rule if you make a game for the PC, it would be great if you could acknowledge the existence of PC peripherals. My gripe isn’t with that, however.
There are two abilities that you can equip to use in-game, and those can only be switched out from the main-menu. Not in-game, not in between levels, not even on unlocking a new ability. But in the main-menu. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s so annoying early on when you’re still learning the game and getting a feel of each ability and what they do. It’s almost as though the game is trying to discourage you from trying out new things out.
The levels themselves are procedurally generated. They’re nothing stellar, but they work for what they’re supposed to do and are easy to go through (they’re also quite beautiful). The enemies are easy to kill (at first) and the dodging mechanic works nicely. The controls are responsive and make the movement rather enjoyable… until you accidentally jump and touch a wall.
The first instance of wall-jumping I ever encountered in a video game was in one of the Megaman X games where you could grip onto a wall and slowly slide down. This mechanic is intuitive and doesn’t disrupt your movement, but in Seraph the character grips onto a wall and for a second or two will stay fixed there and then start to gradually slide down. Not only does that go against the game’s fast-paced rhythm, it just turns you into a nice little stationary target for the demons get their grubby little claws on. As if sitting ducks wasn’t enough, leaping from a wall-grip position will propel your forwards, which generally just screws up your jump trajectory; you spend most of your time remembering a certain arc that your character will travel as you jump, but suddenly, when latched onto a wall, this arc changes drastically. In my experience, in Seraph, wall jump is mostly useful to getting you into enemy fire than helping you maneuver the terrain. After the demons finish using you for target practice, you kick the bucket (up to three times) and have to restart the level… which brings me to my next point.
When you die, you spend a resurrection charge and revive at the level’s starting point. You also lose a third of your maximum health, which in my opinion just defeats the idea of a resurrection charge, but I digress. This can occur twice and on the third strike, you fail the level and are sent back to the main menu. This would have been so much better if you could simply restart the level then and there and not lose time going to the main menu and then restarting the level. It may seem minor, but when coupled with the, quite frankly, ridiculous level of difficulty this game can rise to, it becomes stupidly annoying.
Seraph approaches difficulty in an interesting way. Instead of just telling you to pick Easy/Medium/Hard, you are given a numerical value that represents those difficulties. While this does nothing to dispel the arbitrary nature of difficulties in general, it does give an indication, or at least the the illusion of one, of how they relate to one another. The standard mode starts at a value of 0 and slowly increases decimal by decimal as you progress through the levels. Hard starts at a value of 4 and Extreme at 7. Just so you know, by the end of the game on Standard, I was around a value of 6 and was routinely getting my ass handed to me, so Extreme mode would be quite extreme indeed.
Initially, I started the game on Hard just to see how hard it actually is. Short answer is, unless you’re a god with the controller, don’t. After getting my face stomped in a few times, I switched to Standard mode, which sounds like how the game is meant to be played. The difference was drastic. I played and got me some new powers and in no time I got the hang of it. I was having a lot of fun and the difficulty seemed to scale well enough. That stopped when I started encountering the mini-boss type monsters that just refused to die and will litter the level with monsters and projectiles, turning the game into a bullet hell with gravity.
The default weapons Seraph carries with her (the game and the player character are both named Seraph) are a pair of automatic pistols with unlimited ammo that do decent amounts of damage. She can pick up stronger weapons that will dish out even more punishment that should help you out with the tougher enemies, but these have an ammo count that you can replenish by picking up the same weapon again or opening chests that have blue lights on them. These weapons need to be saved for the tougher bastards the game throws at you, since those can deal a lot of damage and must be taken down multiple times. All weapons in the game can be upgraded to more powerful versions, but the actual numbers are never revealed.
Seraph can exorcise demons when close enough to them. Demons come in life segments of one or three – once a segment is exhausted, lesser demons will die straight away. Stonger demons will require you to Smite them, but the even stronger variants will need to be, erm, Smitten, three times. Failing to do so will replenish the segment you just dealt with partially, so you should avoid missing those exorcisms. It’s an interesting little bit of complexity added to the game, but when you’re having to face two of these bastards and the slew of minions some of them can summon, things will get chaotic real quick.
The most aggravating part of the game, however, are Serfs, the most basic minions of the game. They are deceptively quick, but my problem with them is that they seem to have an invisible reach and can scratch you even when their attacks don’t seem to connect. This constant chipping away at your health is really what kills you if you’re not clairvoyant enough to avoid their attacks, but it gets worst when you have to deal with Thaumaturgi and their almost-invisible fires that erupt right under your feet… or its miniboss variant with its army of demons. You’d think having abilities would help you deal with crowds, but alas, it’s not that kind of game.
Abilities in Seraph don’t really live up to their expectations, I’m afraid to say. They seem complementary at best and fail to really provide any sort of real firepower, not to mention that the cooldown times they employ are pretty long for such a fast-paced game. Orb will toss a glowing ball of light that returns to you, potentially damaging demons twice as it boomerangs back to you. Lightwell will create a pillar of light that burns enemies that pass through it for the greatest amount of damage (still feel insufficient though). Comet will turn Seraph in a plunging ball of death that deals more damage the higher she falls. Sigil will mark all on-screen enemies that will take bonus damage the next time they’re attacked. Finally, Embrace will do something similar to Sigil, but directly damage nearby enemies after 1 second.
They sound cool, but in practice, I’ve not found them to be much more helpful than the weapons you can find in lockers.
This. This is my principal problem with this game. The progression is slow and painful. You are rewarded some form of currency whenever you kill demons and collect their body parts, but you have to gather so much that it makes every single upgrade a challenge. This would all be ok if the upgrades were rewarding, which they aren’t.
There are three progression aspects in this game: Oaths, Transmutation and Rebirth. With Oaths, you must collect shards and stick ‘em in slots to boost your weapons’ effectiveness, your defenses and your angelic powers. With Transmutation, you use up the crafting materials collected to unlock and upgrade new weapons, miracles and wards (those increase your health and defense). Progression is a fun aspect of any game, in my opinion, but the bonuses you are given are so poor they just don’t feel rewarding at all. Blessings, which you obtain on leveling-up, do not always suffer from this, but there are some that have really worthless bonuses. One of them (I forgot the name) provides you with 10% increases experience gain at level one. Sound pretty good, right? Levelling it up only increases the value by 1%. One percent!
Having said this, there is a not-so-obvious aspect to this game’s progression mechanic called Rebirth, which will slash all your progression for a bonus in your default state. There are five Rebirth levels, but I have yet to reach the first one since it requires 5 of the highest-level shard you can get. I’m on my second playthrough on Hard and have only acquired one of these fabled shards.
It should be mentioned that you can shore up your overall progression by completing daily challenges and doing survival mode (which is some sort of weekly challenge). Those impart a number of shards to use in Oaths and crafting materials to spend in Transmutation, but you have to be quite good at the game since what quality of shards and materials you receive are contingent on your good you are compared to other players on the global leaderboard. Suffice it to say, the average player is not going to have much success at this.
As much as Seraph looks like a high-score game, it does have a story, and a rather compelling one at that. The basic premise is this: the game starts with Seraph being freed from a high-tech sarcophagus on a facility overrun by demons. The story itself is told piecemeal by finding new logs on every levels and conversing through radio transmissions at the start and end of every level with an NPC. The logs themselves don’t repeat, and there are a lot more logs than there are levels in a single run (unless if you keep dying and dying), so you can play through the same level multiple times and still get new logs. This also applies in Survival mode.
The story itself is more about how this entire situation came to be, but you will also encounter new character along the way that will fill in the gaps. One thing I will say, though, is that the ending is not the best. It’s abrupt and just leaves you hanging. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of resolution to a choice you have to make, which was kind of a bummer for me given that it’s a pretty huge decision.
That being said, the Lore should not be the reason why you play Seraph. Moving on…
So, do I recommend this game? Despite all the bitching above… yes, I would, in fact, recommend you play Seraph if you enjoy a good platformer. You will, however, need to come equipped with some patience as the progression can be rather slow. In the end, however, your decision will hinge on whether you like twitchy gameplay. Seraph is a game that rewards good reflexes, and while I thought the end-game boss was bullshit-hard, even on Standard difficulty, I do know there are people out there with reflexes preternatural enough to handle this game without breaking a sweat. This game is definitely for them, but it can also cater to the player with enough determination. That is not an Undertale reference.
For their first game (as far as I know), Dreadbit did a fantastic job. Check the trailer for Seraph below: