First released on Steam in 2014 and developed by Code Avarice, Paranautical Activity was ported onto Xbox One through the ID@Xbox program.
It was through a friend on Twitch that I came to know of Paranautical Activity. It looked like a fun, fast-paced, 3D-pixel art, Quake/Doom-esque first person shooter. To be fair to my friend, who performed very well, in my opinion, he made it look easy. Yet, I'm not comfortable with keyboard and mouse gaming, so Paranautical Activity and I were not meant to be at that time.
Life's a beach
And then you die
My own experiences with the game when it came to Xbox One, however, were not as easy as my friend made it seem on Steam. At first, I hated this game. I know, it's a bit strong of a word, but Paranautical Activity made me furious. I thought that this was just a retro first person shooter. I was always dying. No way the game is this hard...
Paranautical Activity is actually a first person shooter, with rogue-like elements.
Rogue-like games are digging out their own niche in the indie market, though the RPG sub-genre has existed for more than thirty years. Randomly generated levels and rooms, with randomly generated monsters spawning in each, shops and treasure rooms; and PERMANENT DEATH. Which makes Paranautical Activity rogue-like as heck. Yes! With that discovery, my fury simply melted away, like a sandcastle meeting the surf. It made much more sense now.
Despite all of my beach and sea related puns, the real nautical theme is represented in the characters and weapons, while the paranormal part is portrayed by monsters and ghosts. I've blasted a giant cannon at humanoid demon fish and used a boomerang sickle to hit flying enemies. Yet the setting for the game is merely a darkly lit labyrinth of rooms filled with various platforms and pits. Completely unremarkable rooms utterly devoid of decoration, yet this isn't something I noticed at the time.
Selecting from one of four pre-set characters initially determines your starting stats and your weapon. There is no story, and you never get to see exactly what your character looks like. The characters have a main weapon, and a superweapon capable of high damage, which has a limited number of uses until you collect an item to re-fill it. It's quite fun shooting a giant pixellated angler fish with what appears to be homing piranhas flying out of a grenade launcher.
- The Tank: Has the highest health of all the characters but suffers from a reasonably low fire rate, low movement speed, and the cannon superweapon takes ages to charge up. However, this is supposed to be the character for inexperienced players to get to know the game due to its high health.
- Gorton: Wields a throwable sickle/boomerang. While they have a high damage output, they only have 3 health, so this makes them a high-risk character to play as. With top speed, strafing to safety while under fire should be no problem. Their other weapon is the aforementioned Piranha launcher.
- Dyno-mite: The main weapon is a grenade launcher, shooting bombs at everything in sight. It is possible to hurt yourself with your own bombs, so with middling health, it's best to watch where you're shooting. The other is a Katana, dealing lethal damage.
- David Bowie: So maybe the name might make you roll your eyes and the fact your only weapon is a bow is worthy of a groan or two (David Bow-ie. Get it?). But charging the bow is super effective, and it's the second fastest character in the game.
There are no sprites of the characters. You're presumably nothing more than a hovering weapon. Perhaps you're a ghost? Who knows.
Surprisingly, the enemy sprites are dark too. This just adds another dimension to the difficulty of the game and the inevitable frustration at yet another loss. They're not designed to be bright and friendly, and only their eyes glow, so enemies are easy to lose in the gloom. Their projectiles are very bright, however, and much of the time you won't see them until it's too late.
Fish out of water
Fizzing dubstep tracks barrage your ears from the title screen onwards. You won't be without auditory company for the duration of the game unless you choose to turn it off in the settings but why would you? The dubstep actually fits the look of the game really well, the dark electronic music gives a perfect setting for what looks like Minecraft laser-quest.
The aim is to defeat the boss of every level in order to move to the next, that's it. Kill monsters, get stronger and get to the end game boss.
Monsters and creatures from the deep will plague your movements in each room determined to stop you from making progress. Collecting gold coins dropped by monsters enables you to buy things from shops. From new weapons, damage boosters or one-time use items, there is much and more to be unlocked and discovered to develop your own personal arsenal.
Fulfilling goals set out within the Unlock section makes new items become available, and these can be done in specific ways. Taking no damage for a room, using up all of your superweapon ammo, or completing a floor are just a couple of the ways you can unlock new items, difficulty modes, and characters. Item effects can also stack, enabling you to burn through levels (if you're skilled enough to even get that far).
Completing a floor is no easy task, even for a skilled player. I still find it tough to regularly beat the first floor. The randomization of the monsters in the rooms, the layout of the levels and the different item pick-ups means nothing is ever the same any time you play. The buttons are also mapped strangely, with Y button doing the same job as the Left Bumper, and jumping is mapped to the Left Trigger. This felt alien to me as a console gamer of 25 years because I'm used to my right thumb taking control of my acrobatic prowess.
This is definitely a game that takes skill and practice. You're going to get knocked back a million times over, so it's great if you love being challenged and not playing the same experience over and over again. It's hard, but when you realize it's supposed to be, that the game odds are firmly stacked against you, it makes it an even more thrilling experience. When permanent death looms with a badly timed dodge, or you're hitting skulls with a melee weapon while it's shooting at you because your superweapon is out of uses, it's exciting. The blazing dubstep fills you with the energy to carry on, though don't worry if you find you're getting frustrated and don't want to. This is all part of the magic.
When you learn that some of the taller enemies don't fit into the same spaces you do, you can duck into them and attack where they can't reach. This isn't always a foolproof plan, as sometimes their fiery orbs clip through the textures, but it's worth a shot in a pinch. Getting to know the game and how the monsters behave will definitely help you improve your performance (no dodgy energy-drinks required).
While this is a single player game, I feel as though Paranautical Activity would be a stellar game if it had a multiplayer mode. It already throws back to LAN-parties on Quake from a time that seems a million years ago. Unfortunately, roguelike multiplayer games aren't too common and are usually relegated to the most niche indie markets. It would be a brilliant addition to the game, in my opinion.
What started as a mostly unpleasant experience, turned into one of the most fiendishly fun yet difficult games I've played in a very long time. When I got over my bad case of Gamers Ego, I learned to roll with the punches the game dealt me and tried harder. I discovered little exploits I could use to take down some harder monsters a bit easier. I learned how to use weapons properly and which items stack with each other to make powerful builds.
- Lots of items to unlock adds huge replayability
- It's difficulty is a great challenge
- Steep difficulty curve makes the game hard to get into to begin with
- Button mapping is unorthodox in some respects
Paranautical Activity could be overlooked for not being as polished-looking as other titles on the Xbox Store, but it would be a shame to miss out on it. It's definitely one of those games you shouldn't judge by the screenshots and try for yourself. The roguelike genre isn't for everyone, but if you can get into it, you'll find it highly rewarding, and you'll be addicted in no time.
Disclaimer: This review was conducted on Xbox One with a review code provided by Code Avarice.