Procedural generation is something that can be tough to balance when developing a game; too much reliance on it can make for a game that feels insincere, like it was artificially churned out by an algorithm, while too little can often extend the development time considerably to reach a product of the same relative value. Chasm aims to find that well-fitted balancing point in how it ‘randomly’ constructs a Metroidvania world, and largely succeeds in this endeavour, along with expertly copying the ideas of previous masterpieces in the genre. The tradeoff is that it lacks a certain degree of originality, amounting to a fun but somewhat forgettable adventure.
The story opens with you taking control of a nameless recruit in the Guildean army, dispatched on a mission to a mining town that has mysteriously ceased producing materials. Upon arriving there, you find a ghost town and learn that all the townspeople were carried off into the nearby mine by monsters. At first, the mine appears to be just a mine, but probing deeper soon reveals there’s much more to it as you uncover the remains of an ancient civilization that worshipped a demon king named Ulak. The narrative here is mostly told through a series of journal pages you occasionally find as you explore, and while there’s nothing groundbreaking or particularly emotional about this plot, it possesses a fitting amount of mystique to keep you wanting to know what’s going to happen next.
Chasm’s claim to fame is that the world is entirely created through procedural generation, with each run through the campaign being more or less a completely unique experience. Elements such as certain plot points and item locations are kept static from game to game, but the connective rooms that make up the majority of the experience are handled via an algorithm that stitches them together. A key thing to realize here is that the room designs themselves are not random; each one has been carefully designed by the developers, it’s simply the order in which you encounter them that’s randomised.
The problem with this approach is that it stumbles a bit in some places with the pacing; there’s a relatively sparse number of collectables to find on the journey, which can make for long sections that feel rather boring once you’ve gotten the hang of combat. There were several points along our run in which it felt like progress was quite sluggish, as we went from forgettable room to room fighting the same handful of enemies with little in the way of secrets or puzzles to break things up. It doesn’t help that the handful of permanent upgrade items that you do find seldom feel useful outside of a few sparse examples in which the ability is needed to get past an obstacle. This disconnect in the integration of map design with your ability set creates a sense of stagnation, as you’re essentially doing the exact same stuff eight hours in as you were doing two hours in, with slightly more variation tossed in every now and then.
Along with finding upgrades and equipment along the way, there’s plenty of townspeople that you find every now and then trapped in cages. Releasing them sends them back up to the town, usually with some sort of shop or service being offered in the process, and also unlocks a new sidequest to take on that expands on the service they offer. For example, unlocking the blacksmith lets you buy weapons and equipment in the town, while also unlocking a sidequest in which you must find his father’s hammer somewhere in the mine. Once that’s delivered, the blacksmith can then forge brand new equipment out of materials you’ve been collecting from monster drops on your adventure. The town then acts as a tangible metric of progress that you don’t necessarily get when exploring the poorly-paced segments of the dungeon; even if it doesn’t feel like your character is changing very much from hour to hour, having a gradually more populated town does add that much-needed sense of burgeoning power.
Luckily, Chasm’s combat is rock-solid (even if not very original), and this goes a long way towards making that moment-to-moment gameplay fun. Chasm directly apes the combat system of the seminal Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, centring strongly around RPG elements and quick, melee-focused tussles. Your right-hand weapon is your primary damage dealer, and there’s a wide array of swords, lances, clubs, and more to choose from, each with their own animations to cater to each playstyle. If you’d like something that’s quick and dirty, a knife is your best option, while a claymore would be a better choice if you want something more powerful at the cost of speed. Your left-hand weapon is there as a secondary choice to supplement your offensive strategy, with each one being a generally smaller consumable projectile that uses a little bit of MP with each use. Throwing knives, molotovs, and hatchets are your bread and butter here, and these can be conveniently sifted through with the shoulder buttons mid-battle.
There’s a tight rhythm to combat, which makes each encounter fun. A quick tap of ‘X’ will trigger an instant backdash which can quickly get your character out of the immediate range of an enemy attack. As you battle enemies, you’ll come to understand their ‘tells’ better, knowing when to better time a jump or backdash as you see the wind-up animation start, something which adds a more abstract sense of ‘exp’ on top of the numeric value your character gets after each kill. There are no skill trees or gating in terms of levelling up, but getting enough kills will see your character getting regular stat bumps that come in handy when exploring latter portions of Chasm. These stats can also be supplemented by your equipment, which can be obtained in town or in the mine somewhere, allowing you some autonomy in the kind of build you want to pursue.
From a presentation perspective, Chasm manages to impress, with some top quality pixel visuals that feature some of the finest animation we’ve seen in a title of this ilk so far. It’s the attention to detail in places where it’s not necessary that this quality is most felt; for example, in one room in the town tavern, there’s a tiny fishbowl on a desk with a well-animated goldfish, seaweed, and a mini-castle. The room would’ve been perfectly fine without it, but it adds that extra bit of character that helps to make it all the more memorable. This eye for detail extends to every bit of Chasm; though the designs of each area aren’t particularly original, each one is gorgeously well-realized. Multiple scrolling layers in the background add a substantial amount of depth and life to each environment, while the movement of each enemy and character has a surprising amount of frames in each animation, lending things a buttery-smooth and organic look.
The same couldn’t be said about the soundtrack, which is rather inconsistent and forgettable. The relaxing acoustic guitar theme that plays in the town is a highlight, with a certain nostalgic and quiet quality to it, but the majority of the music down in the mines can be repetitive. There’s not a lot of variation, with plenty of thundering, ominous tracks to set the atmosphere, but after repeated listens of the same track in one area, it gets grating at worst and unnoticeable at best.
As for replayability, subsequent runs are obviously different each time, and you can modify the difficulty by adding in a permadeath option that wipes your save if you die, raising the stakes substantially. Along with this, there’s a series of in-game achievements that are unlocked along the run, rewarding you for killing certain enemies or clearing runs in a certain way. A typical run through Chasm should last you somewhere in the realm of ten to fifteen hours, but the hook here is that doing it again means that most items and collectables are in a different place, making it feel like a new game in many ways.
Chasm is a fascinating, mechanically sound take on the Metroidvania genre, but it also fails to do anything innovative or original that hasn’t been done before in the genre, apart from the relatively minor hook of procedurally-generated worlds. Despite this, it’s still a fun side-scrolling adventure that’s sure to be worth your time, with challenging combat, fantastic graphics, and a cool premise all combining to make for a release that we’d recommend to fans of the genre - although there are better examples out there, many of which are on Switch right now.