Having been in development for 6 years, Chasm was clearly a labour of love for the small team at Bit Kid, Inc. Aiming to combine the best of Metroidvania conventions with a retro pixelated graphical style straight out of the 16-bit era, it has been on my radar since being successfully funded on Kickstarter way back in 2013. It’s a peculiar quirk of timing, therefore, that it has finally been released hot on the heels of amazing games like Dead Cells and Hollow Knight, both of which take the Metroidvania concept and push it forward through roguelite and aesthetic refinement respectively. With these titles in mind, is Chasm everything I had hoped for, or a disappointing descent into the abyss?
In many ways, Chasm is a product of the times in which it was initially begun. This is not a criticism, but more a way of highlighting the stripped back nature of its take on old-school Metroidvanias. The lovely pixel aesthetic was relatively novel back in 2012-13 whereas now it can feel almost clichéd and overdone. Fortunately, the graphics here are not just hipster posing and suit the game itself perfectly. The deliberate limitations of pixels mean that the enemies and characters take on a particular character of their own, and the environment is clear and easy to navigate, with none of the clutter that can plague more overtly ambitious examples (Ori and the Blind Forest, despite being beautiful, suffered from this).
Many of the enemy types will strike a familiar chord of nostalgia to genre aficionados, from jumping insects to flying imps, but manage to steer clear of simple copying. It is Castlevania that comes most to mind given the pseudo-medieval fantasy setting, although there are six distinct areas with their own individual styles and assortment of enemies. In fact, a Belmont would not be out of place in this world in any way, which is made uncannily clear when you happen upon a whip dropped by one of the skeletal enemies.
You begin the game as a new recruit to the Guildean Kingdom, but whilst waiting for your initiation into being a Knight, you are entrusted to investigate the rumours surrounding mysterious disappearances at a key mining town. What starts as a routine expedition soon becomes an epic adventure of exploration and danger that will have ramifications far outside its initial context. So far so generic, but suffice it to say that the background soon becomes lost amongst the familiar joys of navigating rooms and seeking out the powers required to access previously hidden areas. This is pure Metroidvania and unashamedly so. Rather than trying to shoehorn in entirely new genres or tricks, Chasm concentrates on providing a pure Metrodvania experience and succeeds in doing so.
What Chasm does have in the way of originality, however, is intriguingly disguised to a first time player. While Metroidvanias are judged to a large extent on the quality of their map design, with shortcuts and inaccessible areas combining to both reward and minimise timely backtracking, Bit Kids have taken the brave decision to introduce procedural generation into this mix.
As was discussed in our glowing review of Dead Cells, any hint of random generation in a Metroidvania seems almost oxymoronic, but I have been hugely impressed in how the map I played managed to feel handcrafted. Each room is hand-designed so avoids the cookie-cutter feel of some procedurally generated games, and there is some amazing trickery happening beneath the surface for the game engine to stitch these spaces together to create an organic world to explore.
The overall progression and story of Chasm remains the same for all players. Bosses appear in a set order and powers need to be found to open up new areas, but each player will encounter a different path to these goals and so there is a genuine replayability to be offered. The world you are exploring is generated from an alphabetical seed that is displayed on the menu screen. Writing this down and sharing it should mean that friends can enjoy the same map, or you can have a replay of the exact map again if you should desire.
Taking this mechanic that largely works in much smaller roguelite environments and stretching it to a world of the size of Chasm is an amazing touch and it is perhaps a shame that many players will never even realise it is there if they move on after one playthrough.
Making your way through the depths of Chasm will take you through mines, catacombs, temples, strange underground gardens and imposing keeps, with each area being distinct in terms of colour palette, enemy types and dangers. New creatures are constantly introduced, with a bestiary to complete by slaying enough of each. This, along with a familiar experience-based level system, rewards the patient exploitation of new foes, building up your knowledge of their attack patterns and harvesting the various items they drop.
The latter is particularly helpful, as rare equipment dropped is often more powerful than what’s available in stores. In any case, stores are only opened when you find the relevant resident and free them. I spent a long time wielding a bone whip for an authentic feeling Castlevania experience, augmented by the magical sub-weapons that follow the example of Konami’s vampire epics. Weapons have a suitable range of benefits and drawbacks with heavier ones sacrificing speed for power. Armour equally has various effects on your stats and both strength and magic builds seem equally viable.
It has been a long wait for Chasm and I am happy to report that it provides a great classic Metroidvania experience. It isn’t as obviously polished graphically as the likes of Oni or Hollow Knight, and doesn’t offer the Dark Souls stylings of Dead Cells, but it succeeds entirely on what it sets out to do. The art style is perfectly suited, the controls are responsive and focused (although I would have liked to move dodge from the Y button) and the world map is a real joy to explore, despite my worries about the procedural generation. It may not be the gamechanger that Dead Cells seems to be (having not yet played it myself) but it is a wonderfully pure and challenging experience. If you have even a passing interest in the genre, Chasm deserves a place on your playlist.
Version tested: PC – Also available on PS4 and PS Vita