Archvale: Legend of Bullet Hell-da…Man that’s a stretch.

So, I recently got my hands on XBox Gamepass for PC, and I’ve been trying a few things out on it. This particular indie entry stood out to me, so y’know what that means. Review Time! And let me say this was one fun little Twinstick Shooter RPG, something that frankly there isn’t enough of in this world. 

GENRE: Bullet-Hell Adventure

GET IT HERE: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1296360/Archvale/

Also available on Xbox One and OneX. …Is it OneX? Those console names, I tell ya.

Free on Gamepass (At the time of writing, games come and go from Gamepass)

The Twinstick Shooter, a unique form of shooting in which one stick moves, and the other shoots, typically done from a top down perspective. This particular format originates with classic Midway arcade titles like Robotron, Smash TV, and Total Carnage, but had something of a resurgence on the Xbox360 thanks to Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm, among plenty others. Archvale could easily be seen as “yet another game in the genre” but sets itself apart by combining twinstick shooting with some simple RPG mechanics and an open Zelda-esque world to explore, creating something that feels fun and fresh in an admittedly cluttered market where only a few titles stand tall.

Archvale puts a Zelda spin on the Twinstick Shooter, and by god I love it for that.

The premise of Archvale and its overall story admittedly aren’t anything huge or groundbreaking, but this is another case of “I didn’t really come here for the story in the first place, so who cares?” You are a Child of a world called Archvale, a supposed paradise. You have been commanded by some unseen force to gather the Archstones that create a portal to Archvale (Have you noticed an arch theme here?). It’s about as Legend of Zelda as you get: Gather several magical macguffins scattered across the land by exploring it, finding dungeons they’re hidden in, and kill bosses guarding them. What sets Archvale apart from its inspiration is its Bullet-Hell Twinstick Shooter approach, as most enemies fire a variety of multi-colored bullets you have to avoid while whittling away their HP with a variety of weapons until they’re ideally dead while you ideally aren’t. This makes the combat fast and frantic, as you’ll constantly be dodging as you return fire.

That’s not to say simply pointing the right stick towards enemies until they die is your only option. One thing that helps make the Bullet Hell aspect of Archvale approachable is the dodge function you start with. A tap of your left trigger will cause you to quickly dash in the direction you’re facing, which you can do up to three times in a row before having to let the dash’s meter recharge. While dashing, you’re immune to bullets (Though not ground hazards like thorns…) and can also cross pits. Your own attacks aren’t stopped by dashing either, meaning you can continue to freely blast away at your foes while dodging their own attacks via the dash.

Your methods of attack also vary: Given the game’s fantasy setting, you have the classic Fantasy RPG archetypes at your disposal: Melee, Ranged, and Magic. Melee weapons tend to hit strong and can strike multiple targets, but of course require you to be dangerously close to your foe. Ranged weapons are just that, ranged. Usually sacrificing multi-target capability (But not always) for the safety of distance. Magic is similar to ranged, but has some unique weapon types Ranged doesn’t, like beams and homing shots. On top of this, most Magic weapons have relatively low refire rates until you get an enemy to drop Magic Stars that temporarily power up magic weapons by boosting their rate of fire, something you don’t have to worry about with Melee/Ranged. On top of this, you get helmet, armor, and ring slots, with each piece of equipment contributing towards defense as well as offering boosts to damage types, attack speed, or additional temporary health depending on the gear in question. Continuing with the RPG Lite approach you also have Badges, which require slots to allocate. Badges offer various perks to help customize and build your hero, like adding a semi-homing property to bows, letting melee weapons deal fire damage at full health, or making the boost from Magic Stars doubly effective on your Magic weapons. All of this  allows for a relatively simple, but genre appropriate amount of character building and customization as you play through the adventure of Archvale.

Much like the Legend of Zelda: Archvale uses a world map as the base of its exploration, though it has a more ‘corridor’ type layout you would expect to see in a Metroidvania, versus a big, sprawling open map. On top of this, the world map itself is procedurally generated, although the dungeons of the game itself are static. That’s not to say there isn’t a sense of exploration in this game despite its map formula, as you will have side paths that don’t lead towards dungeons but may still be worth checking out, as the world map is littered with useful upgrades like permanent defense increases, challenge shrines that provide new badges, and minable resources you can use along with items dropped by enemies to craft new weapons and armor. You’ll also find towns in a few parts of the map that offer shops to buy new gear, badges, as well as Health and Badge slot upgrades, with more appearing in the shops as you find more towns. Every town also has a new Bank branch you can open up, and more banks opened = More gold you can put in storage. This is fairly important, as half your gold is lost when you die, and you are NOT getting it back. Banked gold however, is completely safe, but you’re limited in how much you can store based on how many banks you’ve unlocked total.

That said, don’t expect a big open world: Again, this feels more like a Metroidvania in terms of its map design, just top down instead of side view.

The world map is littered with upgrades including shiny new weapons, making exploration that much more rewarding.

That said, the game itself is still fairly non-linear to a degree, which is what made it so enjoyable: After the first dungeon of the game, you’re free to theoretically tackle the remaining six in any order you want, although some dungeons may be more difficult to reach than others due to the strength of enemies guarding your way, or a challenge you have to overcome to reach a new part of the map like passing a DPS check. But due to the non-linear approach of the game, you’ll almost always find that if one dungeon or area is too tough to tackle at the moment, you can try another unexplored path which may provide more upgrades or even a new piece of equipment that helps you out where you were having trouble. This is honestly what made me enjoy Archvale so much: The freedom to try something else if the current area was kicking my butt.

And kick your butt it will, at least on Normal and Hard (I can’t speak for Easy mode, didn’t try that one). This is, again, a Bullet Hell RPG, so it will put your dodging to the test. While you won’t necessarily die in one hit, taking multiple hits adds up quickly, and with so much flying around, it’s easy to take multiple hits. This is a game where you’ll need to be able to formulate an escape plan and act on it quite often, finding a path through a maze of shiny, colorful death. The dashes help to an extent, but there’s times I just kept dying to the same spot over and over until it finally clicked for me. Bullet Hell experts will probably have an easier time of it, admittedly, but just be ready to face death a few times. You do get Dark Souls esque healing potions to restore health, and those refill at the game’s checkpoints (which of course also revive all enemies you’ve previously killed), but finding opportunities to use said potions can be very difficult as they take a moment to chug, and sometimes you feel like you don’t have a moment as bullets fly all around you. Just remember: If the current area feels too hard, try elsewhere. At the very least you’ll probably find some Defense upgrades and maybe a shiny new weapon, or the means to make one.

Once you hit the dungeons, the Zelda feelings only continue. Dungeons are not procedural, with each being hand crafted. They have their own puzzles and hazards to overcome, as well as enemy layouts, and of course, bosses. With the world map being fight after fight, it is nice to have a break in the action for something else, even if it’s as simple as navigating past spike traps, or using well timed dashes to get past pits and bullet traps.

And then there’s the bosses. They admittedly are a bit of a balance issue in that they can be either too hard, or laughably easy depending. If you get to a boss under-geared? It will likely obliterate you. Come back to that same boss after a lot of upgrading, and suddenly you melt it a few seconds. That said, sometimes you hit them at just the right moment where you’re doing the amount of damage intended, so you get an actual boss battle out of it that’s frantic, fast, and fun. Like the regular encounters, they’re about dodging lots of colorful bullets as you try to kill them, but also involve reacting to unique attacks or mechanics, depending on the boss. The last few in particular are definitely on the tough side, even if you’re fully geared, so be ready for a challenge.

And if you’re a couch co-op type? Great news! This game has couch co-op! If you’re online? Uh…Hope you’ve got a good enough connection for Remote Play Together on Steam because that’s the only way you’re doing this online, which is unfortunate. This and Chronicon are both very much cases of “I wish I could play this online.” Especially with the COVID pandemic making having a social life outside of the internet more difficult than ever.

Even if their difficulty is a bit of an issue due to game balance, the bosses are still a blast.

The only thing I can truly fault Archvale on is that it might be a bit TOO simple for RPG enthusiasts. There’s no sidequests to speak of, and the character progression is based entirely on finding things or crafting them, there’s no level ups or skill system. And I feel like this format could easily allow for those kinds of things, and hope that if the developers plan on a sequel, we see something like that, because despite being a bit on the simple side, I love Archvale for what it does: Provide twin-stick bullet hell that has a bit more depth to it than a typical arcade shooter like Geometry Wars. It’s easy to pick up and play, and quite enjoyable if you go for arcade style shooting but want it to be a bit more than just a simple arcade game, but I feel like we could see so much more in this genre! I’m legitimately surprised “Twin Stick Looter Shooters” aren’t a thing. 

That all said though, if you want a good time killer that takes a simple concept and manages to give it some depth while still maintaining that simplistic fun that comes from a twin stick shooter, Archvale is absolutely worth taking a look at. While I got it via Gamepass, $15 USD is definitely not a high asking price for this title.

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