At this point in time, the “roguelike” indie game has become a trite and overused thing; there are more roguelikes out there now than any human could possibly have the time to play, and a lot of them don’t really do much to try separating themselves from the pack. Enter Caveblazers, a Spelunky-esque new roguelike that, much like other games in the genre, aims to combine randomised level layouts, soft RPG mechanics and absolutely crushing difficulty into one endlessly replayable package. It’s not exactly a hard formula to get down, but Caveblazers manages to stick the landing quite well in how it implements these things, even if it feels uninspired.
Caveblazers doesn’t really feature much in the way of story; the narrative can be mostly summed up in there being a cave which holds unimaginable power and you play the role of an intrepid adventurer who’s come to plumb its depths. Unlike, say, Dead Cells, there isn’t much effort made here to even weave in a background narrative, but it’s difficult to fault such a gameplay-focused title for this omission; it’s fun to play, and that’s ultimately what matters here. Even so, this lack of storytelling prowess contributes to Caveblazers’ biggest issue: its lack of memorable identity. Though fun to play, running through a homogenous blend of generic caves and a ho-hum tide of minions comprised of bats, orcs, skulls and other fantasy monsters doesn’t leave much of an impression after you put this one down.
A typical run of Caveblazers will likely take you anywhere from five to ten minutes, and when your character finally bites the dust, its back to square one to start all over. Still, some progress is carried over between runs to give you a gradual sense of ascending power, and this is largely handled through a level up system which doles out EXP upon death based on your performance, taking into account factors like how many enemies you killed and how many floors you cleared. Each time you level up, your character gains access to something new, whether it be a fancy hat for them to wear or, more helpfully, a new item for the loot pool or a new perk to skew your character’s starting stats.
What’s nice about this system is how it creates a constantly rewarding feedback loop, regardless of how skilled a player you happen to be. Naturally, those who can make it farther will accrue more EXP and unlock things faster, but short runs still see you earning new unlocks at a relatively brisk pace. This makes for a rather exciting experience, as there’s always something you have yet to unlock that’s just around the corner, and the drip of new stuff ensures that you more or less demonstrate mastery over existing gear before moving on.
Your character starts off each run with a simple sword and bow, but these can soon be replaced with better weapons, along with a slew of rings, pendants and other magical accessories that can be equipped alongside your weapons to augment your stats and offensive strategy. It’s important that you put some critical thought into the kinds of things you equip, however, as Caveblazers is all about the principle of ‘give and take’. For example, you may find a ring that boosts your ranged damage and fire rate, but also lowers your overall damage resistance. Another example can be found in the coloured potions that enemies often drop. It’s a complete mystery what any given potion will do; drinking one may grant your character temporary invincibility and bump up their melee attack stat, or it may lower their max health and set them on fire.
This unpredictability is what keeps things interesting from run to run, as it can lead to some ridiculously overpowered or underpowered builds, egged on by the constant, merciless pressure of the monsters that live in the caves. It must be said, however, that Caveblazers falls a little short in terms of its combat, which makes up the meat of the experience. Though there are exceptions, much of the weaponry on offer feels too similar in playstyle, and combat ultimately devolves to a quick dance of hack ‘n’ slash action with some evasive jumping thrown in. In short bursts or in co-op, this works out just fine, but longer play sessions (or the occasional boss fight) reveal the inherent simplicity of the mechanics, which can make it easy to get bored.
Those of you that can get past the okay combat will find plenty to love, as Caveblazers is the sort of experience that’s utterly packed with secrets and collectables. Though the meat of your experience will be found in the main mode, there’s also a daily run – which gives you one shot at getting as far as possible with a given loadout – and an arena-style mode with its own progression system that challenges you to make it through as many waves of enemies as possible. Encircling all this is a ‘Challenges’ tab in the pause menu that acts as an in-game achievement system; hitting certain milestones and completing certain feats unlocks new perks and weapons to help you in your journey. Taking into account all this with the added bonus of local split-screen co-op, and it’s not hard to see how one could feasibly spend dozens of hours on all this content; it may not be memorable, but never let it be said that Caveblazers is an anaemic roguelike.
Caveblazers opts for a visual style that apes the look of games such as Celeste and Risk of Rain; it’s clearly in HD, but there’s certain retro flair to the look that keeps things grounded and arcadey. The issue that we have, however, is the lack of imagination or detail applied to the environments and character sprites. Though later areas are a little more interesting, Caveblazers is too comfortable sticking to dull environments packed with browns, greys and greens, rarely approaching anything we’d call eye-catching. Granted, it makes sense given that everything takes place inside a cave, but this art direction isn’t visually interesting, and the simplistic character sprites don’t do much to breathe life into boring environments. The same criticism extends to the soundtrack, too, which is a rather laid back, acoustic guitar-focused collection of medieval-themed tunes that match the action well, but aren’t very catchy or notable in their own right.
Caveblazers doesn’t do enough wrong to be disappointing, but it doesn’t do enough right to be exceptional, meaning that it occupies that awkward space in the middle. The utterly unremarkable visual style and simplistic combat is offset by a surprisingly deep well of unlockables and well-paced progression systems; this is a roguelike that checks all the right boxes, but never becomes more than the sum of its parts. If you enjoyed Risk of Rain or Dead Cells, Caveblazers is a decent recommendation, but also understand that there are far more memorable titles to be found on the eShop.