It’s been said time and time again, but it bears repeating that 2023 has been an incredible year for games. Between long-awaited, critically acclaimed AAA sensations like Baldur’s Gate 3 or Alan Wake 2, impressive indie titles like Dredge or Sea of Stars, and even big DLC expansions like The Elder Scrolls Online: Necrom or Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, there’s been an abundance of phenomenal games and experiences to enjoy this year.
Amidst the Starfields and the Armored Cores, though, there was one game that came out of nowhere to Steam Early Access in late October, and has been talk of the town ever since: Lethal Company. Crafted by solo game developer Zeekerss, this co-op survival horror roguelike is one of the best social multiplayer games I’ve ever played, and my friends and I have been having a blast with it ever since we picked it up at the start of December.
For the uninitiated, Lethal Company tasks you and up to three other hazmat suit-wearing space explorers with a deceptively simple objective: journey from moon to moon and find valuable "scrap" from abandoned facilities to sell to "The Company" in order to meet a profit quota. Make enough money to satisfy your corporate overlords, and your crew will be fine — but fail to reach quota, and you'll find yourselves being forcibly ejected from your ship into the vacuum of space.
This is only one of the reasons for the game's title, though. The other is the fact that the moons you've got to search are teeming with threats and hazards, including everything from perilous weather conditions and alien predators to supernatural horrors that'd be right at home in the SCP universe. And so, using earned cash to purchase tools such as flashlights and walkie-talkies as well as self-defense weapons like shovels and stun grenades, players have to work together to carefully navigate procedurally generated layouts and mitigate these dangers as they attempt to collect scrap and return it to their ship before it takes off at the end of each day.
It's basically a giant laundry list of over-the-top OSHA violations, and thanks to the sheer absurdity of the threats that await you — some examples include a shadowy flower man that snaps your neck, a Weeping Angel-style mannequin monster that rushes to crushes your head unless someone keeps eyes on it, and a Jack-in-the-box that transforms into a merciless killing machine — the moment-to-moment gameplay is both hilarious and terrifying. I can't help but laugh as I watch a friend of mine get snatched and eaten by a giant tree creature in the same way I'd reach into a bag of popcorn to grab a piece to munch on, but now it's looking my way, and I'm not even close to getting back to our ship yet. Oh god.
That wonderful blend of comedy and tension is heightened by the game's stellar implementation of VoIP proximity chat. Communication between you and your teammates naturally echoes or muffles based on environmental factors, and when someone meets their end, their audio is abruptly cut off. I'm always going to crack up when a giant centipede hanging from the ceiling falls onto my buddy's head and stifles their frantic pleas to "get it off," and whenever exploring partners suddenly stop replying to me, my nervous laughter at that silence soon gives way to skyrocketing anxiety. There’s also something to be said for the distinctly low-poly, lo-fi aesthetic, with its amusingly blocky models, downscaled resolution, and unnaturally deep shadows and carpets of thick fog.
These aren’t the only reasons Lethal Company has close to 200,000 concurrent players at any given moment, however. It’s also remarkably engaging, with limited resources and inventory slots driving teams to put their heads together and make strategic decisions on-the-fly. Choosing the amount and types of gear to buy, who should hold it, how to divide and conquer while exploring (and whether or not you even should), and when to return to your ship with all your treasure are just some of the risk-reward calls you’ll have to make, and the process of trying to balance the safety of your crew while maximizing your profit is at the heart of the game’s core “buy gear, explore, loot, sell scrap” loop.
Progression, too, is finely tuned so that making it deep into a run gives you more advanced tools that open up more options, but also forces you to visit more dangerous moons and collect higher amounts of scrap in order to satisfy increasingly demanding profit quotas. This ensures that the game is both challenging and fulfilling at every level, and makes sure that late-game toys like teleporters, zap guns, and radar-boosters feel important and valuable.
Despite its roguelike structure, there are also multiple broader elements of Lethal Company that can be mastered by dedicated players, rewarding those that pay close attention to their surroundings and learn from past experiences. Interior layouts and monster spawns are randomized, but every moon’s exterior always has the same topography, and learning the behavior of each hostile entity in the game allows you to mitigate the threat they pose. The stealthy neck-snapping Bracken, for example, likes to try and sneak up on you; by keeping your head on a swivel and glancing at it whenever you see it, you can make it temporarily retreat. Just don’t stare too long, though...
Ultimately, with its endlessly replayable structure, rich gameplay depth, and perfect synthesis of heart-stopping horror and slapstick hilarity, Lethal Company is as addicting as it is brilliant — and it's poised to get even better over the course of its Early Access period in 2024. Guided by player feedback, developer Zeekerss has plans to add plenty of new content to the game in updates before launching it in full, and also intends to "iron out most glitches and tighten the game's design and difficulty so it can be enjoyed by new and experienced players alike.”
The latest of these patches, dubbed Update 45, released a few weeks back and brought a handful of new monsters to the game, including player-like humanoids possessed by haunted masks and shotgun-wielding nutcrackers (because why not?). It also added a comical arachnophobia mode that turns the models of the game's giant spiders into floating pieces of crimson "SPIDER" text, which is honestly pretty ghastly in its own right.
If you're interested in trying it out, you can pick up Lethal Company for $10 on Steam. It's undoubtedly one of this year's best PC games, and I'm stoked to see what's next for it in the new year.
This co-op survival horror indie sensation came out of nowhere in late October and quickly became one of 2023's most popular games. Playing it has led to some of the most fun I've had in a multiplayer game in a long time, and you'll have an absolute blast with it yourself.
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