There was a time not too long ago where the first person shooter genre was filled with triple A titles, all looking to outdo each other with more realistic visuals, destruction physics and epic narratives. The genre seemed to be filled with cutting edge advances to the gaming experience and were usually the top selling games every year. In 2013, developer Code Avarice decided to take the opposite approach to the crowded FPS field by offering Paranautical Activity, a stripped down shooter if ever there was one, that distilled the gaming experience to just shooting as many things in the face as possible. The game now makes its way to Xbox One with the Deluxe Atonement Edition.
Paranautical Activity’s visuals and controls are firmly rooted in shooters of yore such as DOOM and Quake. While these games had clear goals and routes of progression, Paranautical Activity offers procedurally generated rooms and enemies so that you literally never know what is around each corner. Lacking any sort of narrative, the goal of each level is simply to finish off the boss and find the elevator to take you down another level. Sounds easy enough but with a perma-death system, limited health and claustrophobic rooms on later levels due to the sheer volume of enemies, each game is challenging and unpredictable.
Jumping, switching weapons, shooting guns and throwing explosives are the only actions at your disposal to dispatch a wide array of bizarre enemies such as devil-like characters, sharks that swim along the floor of the room, evil Nazis and floating skulls. Each hit received from an enemy consumes a unit of health, which seems to always be in drastically short supply. Therefore avoidance of ballistics and constant movement is a requirement to elude an early death. While I liked this heated action and ever constant motion I found myself just continuously strafing in order to avoid damage. After a while I almost completely abandoned walking forwards unless a room was completely emptied of threat.
In short this felt to be the limitation of the minimal control scheme to the game. Quake and DOOM overwhelmed gamers with volume of enemies and tight quarters. Paranautical Acitvity on the other hand forces you to continuously run from danger during an assault. This leads to an odd struggle in nearly every room where you can never be fully defensive or fully offensive. Instead half measures are what is most successful. As a result there is little need for thought or strategy based on the type of foe you are facing with the exception of determining which of your two pre-loaded weapons to employ in each situation.
I did appreciate that there are options for the weapon combos you have at the start of each game which play towards individual gamer’s tastes. I found myself drawn to a grenade launcher / katana combo which allowed me to dish out heavy damage from afar and close up while focusing less on a mid-range attack. The initial weapon loadout is critical to get your feet wet but you’ll soon find opportunities to purchase new weaponry and upgrade your assault capabilities in some of the rooms offering rewards. I would have liked to see some sort of stats on these weapons before deciding which to replace my time tested arsenal with as many times I found myself disappointed with the new gun I had decided to “upgrade” to. Significant replay time would be needed to find out which guns fit which gamers like a glove.
Beyond the opportunity to fine tune your weaponry, I really appreciated the upgrades available throughout the game to your abilities, often granted at the end of each level. For instance, I finished an entire level without jumping. My reward, a double-jump which made me a force to behold as I was able to add significant verticality to my strafing attacks. These gems that are granted sparingly are in my opinion the strongest driver for game replay ability. To have new skills augment what I felt was a tired approach to battle had me coming back to the well to play another game in hopes of dialling in to the gameplay.
Despite all the opportunity to inflate your attack, Paranautical Activity is a deviously difficult game due to its unforgiving nature. I am not afraid to admit that on many occasions I never got off the first level, especially when I’d enter a room where the particular enemy and platform configuration foiled my strafe and gun attack. The game’s difficulty is a double edged sword. While it led to some great highs and moments of satisfaction whenever I completed a level and descended that elevator, it was all the more frustrating when I finally died knowing that I would have to start all the way back at the beginning of the game. While I understand that is the intent of Rougelike titles it does stand as an impediment to replay and has been dealt with more deftly in other titles.
Sound design in the game is serviceable and as you would expect in a pixelated title channeling the early 90s. Blips, beeps and bangs account for the majority of the audio with a decent if not forgettable loop of tunes overlaid. This matters little as a $9.99 price tag is enough to forgive minor quibbles of the ear. It isn`t enough to forgive any indication of purpose or narrative though. It seems almost unforgiveable that there is nothing to tell gamers why they should care about what is happening on screen or what the story may be. I would have even accepted the corny paragraph of text that would sometimes be the prelude to 80s arcade games but complete omission is a mistake and a core reason why I a never found a true connection with the title.
Paranautical Activity combines classic visuals and gameplay with unpredictable procedurally generated enemies and levels. The payoff is the dopamine rush a clearing a room chalk full of nutty but deadly enemies with one unit of health left on the fifth level while employing a laser shotgun you just bought. Unfortunately these moments are too few as the high difficulty and generally bland attack options result in much frustration and limited appetite to jump back in after another death. The game will hit the sweet spot for those that can handle punishment without narrative but in general may miss the mark for the less sadistic crowd.
- - Inventive character upgrades
- -Rush of hitting the end of a level
- -Different weapon load-outs at start
- -Limited attack options
- -Less interesting enemies on early levels
- -No narrative
-- - No `hook` towards replay ability
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