Playing A Classic Tune

HIGH The scientist boss.

LOW How utterly broken the wasteland Brutes are.

WTF Sacrificing people for gear is a disturbing mechanic!

There’s no shame, I would suggest, in just making Castlevania: Symphony of the Night over and over again. The game was so iconic and so revolutionary that it spawned a quarter-century’s worth of imitators in a subgenre now commonly known as metroidvanias.

The Metroid half of the title is a nod to the past, but mechanically it’s Symphony developers are copying, and it’s not accidental that the vast majority of them are melee-focused – developers just want to make Symphony of the Night again, to the point where the only significant change I’ve observed in the decades since its release is that enemies have largely stopped dropping weapons and started leaving crafting supplies behind when they die.

Elderand is a perfect example of this me-too phenomenon in action.

This 2D game establishes a setting – a corrupted kingdom (no surprise there) – then drops the player at the bottom of a map and lets them freely explore a dungeon, blocking a few pathways with doors that need to be broken or platforms that they can’t jump quite high enough to reach. It’s just enough to make sure they remember to come back a little later on, although the fact that these obstacles aren’t marked on the map screen is inexcusable in this day and age.

At this point it’s fundamentally it’s up to the player to define their experience – are they going to follow the quest markers through the main plot, or explore every nook and cranny of the levels? There’s no right answer, per se, and just like its inspiration, Elderand is simply packed with secrets for those determined enough to track them down.

To its credit, Elderand‘s setting is delightfully grotesque. The various maps are decrepit and overgrown, with scattered dead bodies and blackened stains suggesting massacres long-forgotten by history.

The story is standard fare – a creeping evil has infected the land, and it’s up to the player to decide whether they’re going to cleanse it or become its tool. While there are no notable characters or dialogue that will stick in players’ minds long-term, the worldbuilding is certainly intriguing. Various notes tell the story of the kingdom’s rot and the historical figures that fought against it or helped it along — and in one of the high points, the player encounters one of the most loathsome figures responsible for the horror that surrounds them.

Elderand‘s gameplay is fundamentally solid, but lacking the polish to elevate it above so much intense competition in the same space.

The developers chose to give combat a ‘soulslike’ flavor — which in this case means every enemy has the ability to kill the player with just a couple of hits, even early on. With paltry amounts of skill points on offer for each level-up, players have to quickly decide whether they want to focus on tanking damage, dodging, or magic power, because a character build that tries to balance these traits will be woefully unprepared for mid to late-game battles.

Upgrading strength is non-optional for all builds – while there are some relatively powerful weapons to be found, big damage is the only way to deal with bosses, and at some point most players will tire of trying to find the items they need to upgrade their weapons, and instead focus on upgrading strength.

This focus on melee combat makes Elderand feel a little basic, and renders a huge amount of range-focused builds non-viable. There are magic wands and ranged weapons, but each is frustrating in its own way. The wands don’t do huge damage even at high levels, and the only way to regenerate the mana needed to wield them is to wait a long time for it to regenerate, or drink one of a small number of potions that are a hassle to obtain. The ranged sub-weapons have such tiny reserves of ammo that I found myself ignoring them completely. Elderand wants to feel like it’s offering the player options, but so heavily weighs the design towards basic melee that there’s no reason to invest in the other playstyles.

As a tribute to Symphony of the Night, Elderand is fairly charming. There are some familiar callbacks to that inspiration, but it’s not as immediately accessible and balanced as that masterwork, and its attempts to add complexity amount to little more than distractions and annoyances. There’s no shame in wanting to make Symphony of the Night over and over again, but perhaps Elderand’s developers would have been well-served by embracing that formula more closely — every time it tries to go its own way, it just gets itself into trouble.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed Mantra and Sinergia Games, and published by Graffiti Games. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 15 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game is rated M by the ESRB for Blood and Gore and Violence. Seriously, keep younger children away from this one, and indeed any title that lets the player team up with a murder cult.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game has full text for all character interactions, although it cannot be resized. There are no audio cues of note – I played most of the game without audio and encountered no difficulties. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game’s controls are remappable.

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