When a game is all about warrior nuns waging war with heretical witches how can it possibly be bad? The answer, when it comes to 2.5D nun ’em up Minoria, is that it can’t.
Okay, you got me, Minoria isn’t really a run and nun ’em up – though that really should be a thing – instead this is a classic Metroidvania. It is also wonderfully, blissfully, free from any unnecessary roguelite mechanics. This is the kind of Metroidvania that Samus would be proud of and a game that deservedly sits alongside Hollow Knight as a highlight of the genre.
The tale of Minoria is set within the Witch Wars. Which Witch War does Minoria take place during? That would be the fourth Witch War. Which is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, arguably the best of all the Witch Wars. Enjoyably, rather than being pointless guff, the backstory in Minoria is surprisingly deep and informs a plot full of twists and turns. This is not as simple a narrative as you would otherwise think, with a layered story that keeps on giving deep into the end game.
The player is cast as Sister Semilla (which, embarrassingly, I thought was Sister Semolina for far too long) who, alongside the talking head of Sister Fran, must venture deep into the castle of the heretics for a spot of princess rescuing and baddie bashing. Sister Semilla works for the Sacred Order, though perhaps all is not what it seems as they delve further into the dark maze that makes up the castle and its grounds.
With all the confidence of someone who completed every Metroid in their youth, I was lured into a false sense of security by Minoria. Than I meet the first ball-headed demon who promptly killed Semilla with one lazy strike. The only thing that surprised me more is that Semilla explodes into what appears to be a pack of cards thrown in the air with wild abandon upon her death. What’s that all about?
Minoria is hard from the very beginning. But it is, to its great credit, absolutely fair. The attacks of the enemy are clear to read and respond to, you just have to up your reactions to do so. After a painful slog in the game’s opening, I found that my reflexes soon started to improve. An elegant combination of attack, dodge and parry makes up the combat of the game and it is a mechanic that is satisfying in its simplicity. There’s fantastic audio and visual feedback to every every attack you land, whilst dodging is so immaculate in its delivery you’ll wonder how other games manage to get it so very wrong.
Parrying really is the name of the game – thankfully it’s not really called ‘Parrying’, as that would be a rubbish name for a video game – nail the timing and Semilla will wipe out her enemy with an over-powered counterattack, but fumble it and see most of your health bar wiped out. It’s an intoxicating risk and reward mechanic, and one that is immeasurably improved as your skill at the game increases. Soon I was parrying attacks I wouldn’t have even dared earlier on, a yelp of joy coming out of me every time I did.
There’s another risk and reward system that’s the beating heart of Minoria and the reason why the game haunts my dreams. As you explore the labyrinthian map, chock full of secret passages and short cuts you’ll be pleased to know, you’ll acquire new weapons, relics (basically the game’s magic attacks and passives) and level up. However, if you die before making it to the safety of a floating inkpot in order to save the game then you’ll lose everything you’ve gathered between saves and it’s back to the last inkpot you go. It’s a design that constantly puts you on the edge of your seat.
Dare you plunge deeper into the maze and explore another sector and maybe find the safety of a new inkpot or do you cut your losses and head back to more familiar environments? This surely would have led to frustration had the placing of these save spots not been so well implemented, fortunately the positioning of the inkpots is pretty much perfect. Minoria will punish you, but not unfairly so. It will also make your armpits sweaty as you desperately push on through an ultra-tough dungeon, hoping against hope that there’s a quick save in the next room. There’s also, thank Zeus’ curly soup strainer, a quick save before every boss.
Boss fights are, of course, a key part of any Metroidvania and can make or break a game. Minoria somehow manages the careful balancing act of the boss fights being initially impossibly hard, but feel entirely achievable. On a first try Semilla will be dead in seconds. Yet as you return to the boss its attacks patterns will begin to reveal themselves and then suddenly, as if by magic, you’ll take down the boss that had, until this point, seemed unbeatable. It’s a remarkable achievement and one that is continued until the end of the game. The player will certainly need to power-up to take on these tough enemies, but the game never resorts to tedious grinding. Instead you’ll naturally level-up as you explore the environment, discover secrets and track down powerful relics.
Unfortunately the disappointing map screen can make this process far more difficult than it need be. The map cannot be scrolled, limiting your view to only the immediate rooms around them. There’s also no visual representation of doors nor the type of key required to open them, which results in unnecessary traipsing as you try to remember where the doors were that can now be opened by your brand new shiny key. A clearer map would have certainly aided the process of discovery and prevented irritation from inevitably getting a bit lost.
Visually Minoria is charming, bringing to mind in many places the delicate, almost ethereal aesthetic of Team Ico’s work. Despite the dream-like quality I never lost track of where Semilla or her enemy were. Character design is robust enough to stand out against the airy and varied backdrops. There is one oddity though, the game’s obsession with overly bouncing breasts. The princess and several demons clearly have boobs that defy gravity as they bounce around like a blancmange on a plane in turbulence. It’s an unappealing choice and one that stands at odds with the excellent design work elsewhere. It’s as if Team Ninja gave Ico the Dead or Alive treatment and I’m not sure anyone wants to see that.