Between the original version for PC released in 2008 and the console release that made waves on Xbox Live Arcade as well in 2012, Spelunky was one of the most addictive and iconic indie titles in what was the start of the golden age for indipendent games. A sequel has been a long time coming, and it’s finally here, available on the Xbox One and Series X|S families of consoles as well as on Game Pass since launch. Here’s XboxEra’s review for Spelunky 2!
I’d rather mine gold than crypto
For those not familiar with this game’s first installment, it was one of the first beloved and recognized roguelikes, one that ended up inspiring other classics like the Steamworld Dig games. The player, a miner, needs to dig deeper and deeper into caves ranging largely different biomes, fighting creatures, avoiding traps, trying to obtain better gear and strategically using ropes and bombs to climp around and destroy parts of the randomly generated grid-based levels. With no power levels to increase between runs, it’s all about finding the most favourable randomly generated world and try to get through with the skills and knowledge obtained from prior runs. Doing it on first try is practically impossible by design.
Let’s not circle around the issue here: the game is unapologetically difficult, which will be a major turn-off for many. The player starts with only 4 hearts, which are very hard to even replenish, and short of breathing air, just about everything is out there to kill the player. Enemies with largely different behaviours, traps, spikes, falling platforms, with even fall damage to boot. Some attacks can even be instantly fatal regardless of the amount of health left, and with most hits sending the player into a short fainted status, it is possible to get hit once then be thrown around between other lethal things on the map, causing immediate death for a small mistake. 4 players can at least share the pain in local co-op and help each other to go through, but funnily enough it doesn’t make the game much easier.
Everything happens for a reason
All of this can be partially countered by understanding each enemies’ patterns, attacks, but also by acquiring new items. These can range from clearly offensive weapons like shotguns and boomerangs, to utilities like a pickaxe that allows us to break through any block, a parachute to break fall damage, and so on. What never really comes around in this game is extra resistance. No matter what you get, the player is still very vulnerable to things, so touching a spike trap or lava is still an instant game over no matter what. This is far from a typical power fantasy progression, at all times the player has to keep walking on a tight rope. On fire. Blindfolded. With a tornado nearby.
Risk versus reward is the solution to it all, really. Destroying items, fighting enemies and exploring can net more bombs and ropes to use, but most importantly more gold, which then can be used in shops in exchange for items, or to play challenges and minigames with all kinds of material rewards. Players can blitz towards the finish of each area – doing so minimizes the risk of death, but it also means that the player will never really get better tools and equipment to get out of messy situations later on, making an already hard area nigh impossible. As such, players can even attack shopkeepers or steal items, which will make all future sellers become a menace. Is it worth angering NPCs that can kill us with a single shot for a good item? That’s the kind of decisions players will have to make every single run.
A different breed of roguelike
Spelunky 2, much like its previous episode, is not quite like the roguelikes we’re used to nowadays – there’s, in fact, no skills, upgrades or items that can be implemented between runs to make further attempt easier. The closest we get to some sort of helpers are shortcuts, which can be unlocked by repeatedly beating an area’s final boss and then giving an NPC what they need (cash, bombs, weapons, etc.) afterwards to build it. This will then allow us to start runs from further below with full health, but also with none of the cool equipment we may have got our hands on in earlier areas. In some cases, the shortcuts themselves may have optional routes for different worlds as well!
Roguelikes rely on randomness as a key gameplay mechanic, but with games like Rogue Legacy 2 and Hades having practically perfected this formula, the way Spelunky 2 does it can feel rather sadistic at times. Certain generation seeds feel either practically impossible to beat, with enemy and trap placements that make it too difficult to go through without losing too much health or too many equipments, or simply not offering good enough items to collect or buy to make further levels feasible. The game wants players to quickly adapt to any scenario, but not all situations are created equal, and in some cases it makes more sense to restart the run (which only takes like 2 seconds, fortunately) than pushing through a terrible seed.
The inevitable pitfall
The other key problem is that the controls and general hit detection, while serviceable, aren’t always precise enough for the surgical accuracy Spelunky 2 constantly asks from players. Grabbing ledges where there’s only one block of height, dropping from high locations towards small holes, landing on enemies’ heads and such often result in either hilarious or frustrating mishaps, breaking potentially amazing runs in the process. The item and AI behaviours aren’t always on point either, with certain rules that seem arbitrary at best. To make an example: for dozens of attempts, I used my own ropes to hide away from angered shopkeepers after attacking them, as they never ever were able to climb those for some reason. Except, this one time, they did, murdering me and a very good run of mine. The amount of rules, exceptions and scenarios to keep track of is simply excessive, and the game itself can appear to bend them at will occasionally. This was an issue with the first game as well to be fair, a game that has been iterated upon here, so the few shortcomings of said installment haven’t fully been addressed.
These are, however, part of the inevitable trial and error of a roguelike. As frustrating as it can be, it always takes no time and effort whatsoever to restart the run and try again. Speaking of fast, Quick Resume is also brilliantly implemented in this game, as it loads instantaneously into wherever we left the game at, even mid-run. The game’s runs tend to be short, so the fact it takes so little time to get into the game and to a new match is fantastic, and I can see myself coming back to short bursts of chaos for weeks, if not months.
Did we struck gold?
Despite the long wait for this sequel, Spelunky 2 merely follows a bigger and better approach, without innovating a whole lot. Bigger variety of areas, enemies, items and challenges, but without upgrading the gameplay to stay on par with some of the most precise 2D games of our age, such as Celeste or Dead Cells, and continuing to rely way too much on favourable random world generations . And yet, the many quality of life changes, the shortcuts and a great implementation of Quick Resume on Xbox Series X|S makes this title a gem worth keeping pinned on the dashboard for the time being on, with its bite-sized format that makes it easy to get over even some particularly frustrating runs.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X and Series S, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Xbox One|
|Release Date||January 12th, 2022 on Xbox Platforms|
|Rated||T for Teen|