The Magic Wears Off
HIGH Incredible physics.
LOW Dull combat and dark, repetitive levels.
WTF Right, so who the hell am I?
One of the most infuriating things that can happen to me in a roguelike – the genre in which a player is yanked all the way back to the start upon defeat – is when I die for reasons that aren’t my fault. I can’t be sure of how often this is the case in Noita, but it’s a messy, chaotic experience in which things are constantly spiraling out of control.
The central gimmick of Noita – a side-scrolling, twin-stick action/platformer in which we dig to the bottom of a cave full of Nordic horrors – is that every individual pixel has simulated properties. Fire spreads over flammable surfaces until it burns out. Liquids flow and pool, transferring their effects to any characters or surfaces they stick to. Rock bursts into gravel when hit with an explosion, and ice cracks and splits into smaller chunks upon impact.
So, while Noita looks like a relatively unassuming 2D indie game in screenshots, in practice it’s a stunning technical showcase. If anything, Noita’s visual style being so crude and undetailed makes it all the more extraordinary when it begins behaving so convincingly like the real world.
The procedurally-generated caverns offer frequent opportunities to take advantage of Noita’s wild physics. Lanterns can be shot down to coat surfaces in oil, which can then be ignited. Basins of acid can be emptied onto enemies. Explosive barrels can be used to blow open new tunnels, and if there aren’t any around, players start every run with a limited number of bombs so they can carve their own routes out, Spelunky-style.
Just as often, though, experiments can backfire. For example, a would-be victory against a slimy enemy resulted in its poisonous blood spilling all over me, so I jumped into the nearest body of fluid to wash it off (which just happened to be oil) and then I was in a new kind of danger. Playing Noita often feels like I’ve accidentally set my sleeve on fire, and in a panic to put it out, I flail wildly and wind up burning my whole house down.
The patience required to study Noita’s environments carefully and take full advantage of the physics without dying in the process wouldn’t be much to ask if the core gameplay loop wasn’t so dull, but there wasn’t a single moment in which engaging enemies head-on felt satisfying or cathartic to me.
The AI is incredibly basic – their only real strategy is to overwhelm the player with large numbers in tight spaces, and it only works because the balance is completely off. Enemies move at lightning speed and can fire projectiles with better accuracy and at a much higher rate than I can, all while tanking damage and not reacting to being shot.
My character’s only real advantage is the ability to hover, which honestly feels kind of sluggish and only serves to complicate the already-messy encounters, since I’m having to clumsily navigate two axes while also fending off angry mobs with a crap weapon. In this aspect, Noita feels like using a remote-controlled drone equipped with a pellet gun to fend off a zombie horde. Yes, occasionally I’d stumble upon a weapon that would actually even the odds somewhat, but relying entirely upon random generation to feel in control of a run is exactly what detractors of the roguelike genre rail against.
The procedural design also broadly fails in the area where roguelikes are meant to excel – variety. In the best rogues, no two runs are the same. In Noita, every one does.
Although players can pick up cool perks between levels (like making enemies explode upon death or being able to hover for longer) the actual ‘builds’ are largely based around spells that players pick up along the way. They’re all variations on projectile weapons, and while some are more powerful than others, none evolve the messy shootouts into anything interesting.
As Noita gets more difficult and provides nothing for players to carry from one run to the next, it offers little compelling reason to keep diving down. The setting – supposedly based on Finnish folklore – is potentially intriguing, but there’s zero narrative context for who my character is or what they’re trying to accomplish, and thus no intrigue. The unintuitive interface, which assaults us with numbers instead of telling us in plain English what anything does, isn’t any help.
Look, I don’t envy any roguelike unfortunate enough to release immediately after Hades — that game made every run feel distinct and provided a persistent narrative justification for the repetition inherent to the genre. I obviously can’t expect smaller developers to match that effort, but what Hades does well underlines the fact that so many roguelikes let stellar ideas go to waste, lost amid endless monotony. Noita is a spectacular technical showcase in desperate need of a more fully-formed game.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Nolla Games.It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 13 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: As of press time, this game has not been rated by the ESRB. The blood effects are both extensive and a crucial component of the game, but the character sprites are so small and lacking in detail that it’s hard to imagine parents finding the violence particularly disturbing.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no voiceovers whatsoever and audio cues don’t play a vital role. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: This game offers fully remappable controls for keyboard and mouse, but not for gamepad.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.