In Death is a roguelike bow-shooter from Sólfar Studio, the developers behind Everest VR (2016). Now in Early Access on Steam and Oculus Home, the procedurally generated, medieval-inspired world stretching out in front of you offers a pretty standard selection of monsters, bow-shooting baddies, and magical shops along the way to offer weapon upgrades and precious health points—a fairly familiar concept for fans of the roguelike genre. While the premise is standard, the results are actually pretty surprising.
GDC Update (03/29/18): We went hands-on with a few new modes at GDC 2018 that promise to deepen gameplay in ‘In Death’.
Firstly, Sólfar showed off a new prototype challenge mode that lets you send a challenge request to a fellow player. This gives your competitor all of your available achievements with the objective of beating your high score with all the tools you had during the best run you could muster. While it still isn’t finalized, the mode gives players bragging rights over each other – something Sólfar co-founder and business development director Thor Gunnarsson told me was designed to keep users engaged without relying heavily on concurrent usership of the app.
Besides showing off a few new enemy types, including giant fire-throwing succubus and a terrifying ethereal ghost mob that can morph through the game’s architecture, requiring a single well-placed shot to the heart to kill, the most important update to ‘In Death’ I saw was the newly revealed dungeon system, which places extremely difficult dungeon portals periodically throughout your run.
Stepping into these portals, you’re transported to a high-stakes dungeon filled with ghouls and a boss at the end. These dungeons, while incredibly tough to beat, are also extremely rewarding, throwing plenty of coins and buffs your way upon completion. And once you go in, you have to fight your way to the end no matter what – i.e. no turning back.
Substantially, the game remains the same from my original hands-on (seen below), although Sólfar is still iterating in Early Access. So far, it’s shaping up to be an extremely polished exemplar of a VR roguelike.
Original Article (02/03/18): You’re given a minimal training session, which teaches you how to shoot your bow, and move around. Locomotion is simple. You can teleport by shooting a magical arrow, or teleport by throwing that arrow with your hand for a more precise short-range jump. In the settings, you can also add in smooth-forward motion, which personally makes peeking around corners and dodging arrows a little easier if you’re playing seated. Teleportation is a key element to the game since the world’s architecture isn’t always foot-accessible however. Since it supports both HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, you can of course play standing so you can get the most out of dodging those incoming arrows too. Rift users with a standard two-sensor configuration will likely make good use of the game’s snap-turning to get around.
Like most roguelikes, your health bar is the most important element to watch for. A few well-placed arrows from an enemy monk, or a mace square in the jaw from a towering 6-foot Crusader, will put a quick end to your run. If anything, I found ranged enemy accuracy to be too on-point; or maybe it was just my relatively bad accuracy that made me think so. After playing for about 20 minutes and experiencing my first death, I restarted, noticing that I had only made it 7% of the way through. At the time of this writing I’ve still only made it a paltry 25% of the way, the results of a plodding 40-minute run. What lies ahead at this point, I just can’t say.
Accompanied by ominous Gregorian chants and extremely well-realized Romanesque/Gothic architecture, In Death is incredibly atmospheric. A mix of melee and ranged enemies are placed throughout the map’s winding path. Although enemies are finite, once you’ve encountered a group, they can easily outflank you by teleporting around, snapping into existence with a faint screech and re-emerging from a blue ethereal mist. Each enemy telegraphs their attacks differently, so they can be interrupted at any time when shot with an arrow. This is good news for when the hordes start piling up, desperately trying to amble past each other to get to you, although don’t expect them to stay put, as they’ll just as easily poof out of existence and behind you, keeping you on your toes.
That said, I definitely still need work on balancing the game’s locomotion with its combat system, and getting my accuracy down better too. Bow mechanics are rock solid, although I would like some haptic feedback to go along with the audio cue of nocking an arrow.
One thing I learned quickly: you can’t take the easy way out. Traveling by rooftop means you’ll most likely miss out on coins and special items picked up along the way as you kill baddies. Going to the shop, dubbed the ‘Reliquary’, with less than 2500 coins will probably mean you’ll have to backtrack and flush out that last zombies creatures or Blood Templars.
Thankfully, you’re given infinite combat arrows, a basic single shot that is good for most tasks. Although the further you go along, finite arrows like scatter-shots or triple shots help clear out tougher enemies. These can be purchased or found along the way after a particularly impressive headshot.
Since I haven’t made it to the end, I can’t really comment on the game’s length or overall difficulty level yet. Suffice it to say, In Death is neither generous, nor an easy game to play, so practice those headshots, dodge and block those arrows, and clear every last bad guy if you can. If you’re demoralized by a quick death, there’s plenty of achievements to entice you to come back that provide more help (and danger) the more you play.
We’ll be checking back in for a proper review once it exits Early Access, although taking into account the game’s high level of visual polish combined with the reliability to both locomotion and combat systems, it feels pretty consumer-ready so far.