It really feels like we’re in somewhat of an extended ‘bullet hell’ renaissance, doesn’t it? As soon as developers realised that the sub-genre didn’t need to be confined to linear vertically scrolling shmups, we’ve seen fresh takes that inject new life into other genres. Archvale is a mashup of a top-down 2D adventure title in the vein of The Legend of Zelda, with twin-stick bullet-hell shooting mechanics as its main hook; quite similar, then, to the recently released Trigger Witch.
Unlike Trigger Witch, however, Archvale feels more like a traditional fantasy adventure game; there’s no crazy modern weaponry or over-the-top blood and gore. Instead, Archvale puts its focus on challenging gameplay, exploration, and progression via crafting and levelling up. It’s a lean experience, but also one that hides many secrets and fun tidbits that naturally extend its runtime without feeling needlessly or artificially bloated.
The story itself is pleasantly straightforward, with little lore or backstory to bog down the moment-to-moment gameplay. You take on the role of an adventurer who must travel a diverse land and explore dungeons in order to vanquish the world of the Undying; living remnants of a cruel king that roam the land and spit out ungodly amounts of ‘bullets’. Along the way, you’ll be hunting down the fabled Archstones, collecting gold, looting ore, and building your character to be the most fearsome, agile warrior in the land.
Of course, in order to do so, you’ll need some weapons, and there are a lot to choose from. You’ve got your standard weapons like swords, daggers, and spears, but you can also branch out into ranged weaponry with bow and arrows or boomerangs, and even a dash of sorcery with fire tomes and staffs. The great thing is that pretty much every weapon in Archvale feels viable. We all like to settle on weapons that feel comfortable and reliable, but Archvale encourages experimentation by making each and every one of its wide selection feel powerful and intuitive.
Not only this, but as you explore the land, you’ll be able to loot new materials like iron, gold, obsidian, mauvite, and more. You can then utilise these to craft new, more powerful versions of your favourite weapons at anvils in the local towns. Crafting and customisation is easy in Archvale; there’s no grinding or digging out rare materials, everything you’ll need is gathered organically as you explore new areas of the map.
You’ll need to ensure you’re consistently upgrading your character, too, because the combat is ruddy tough. It’s entirely skill based, so you’ll need to strike a fine balance between unleashing a swift offensive on your enemies and dodging incoming attacks. Often, you’ll find yourself up against multiple enemy types in one go — particularly in the later stages — so keeping an eye on each of their attack patterns is crucial to survival.
The same goes for the boss battles. Boss characters on their own have several moves that fire out a dense range of bullets in every direction, but they’ll also frequently call on standard enemies to help out, particularly when their health is dropping low. Failing to keep an eye on the lowly grunts while focusing fire on the main boss is a sure fire way to ensure a swift restart at the latest checkpoint.
The game does include three difficulty settings when you start off. We started the game on Medium, and while it does gradually ease you into proceedings, the latter portions of the game were horrifically tough, almost to the point where we nearly threw in the towel and started again on Easy. This, for some folk, may prove to be a bit of an issue. There’s currently no way of altering the difficulty during the game, so if you are finding it a bit of a struggle (or you want an even tougher experience), then you will have to start from scratch with a separate file — we decided that we’d passed a point of no return, and so simply powered through.
Aside from crafting weapons and armour, the towns offer up a welcome change of pace from the relentless combat faced in the game’s overworld. You’ll have access to a range of different services, including a bank in which you can store your gold, multiple shopkeepers who will sell you magical apparel, stat buffs, and other trinkets, and blacksmiths who will be happy to give your current weapons a bit of a boost in exchange for shiny coins. There are plenty of individuals to chat with, but we do wish there were some characters to encounter out in the wild (though from a story perspective, it makes sense that they’d stay confined to the safety of towns).
Graphically, the game looks pretty similar to a lot of modern ‘retro’ titles on the market already, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While not entirely original in its art style, Archvale is nevertheless an incredibly slick-looking game. It runs at a smooth 60 FPS even with the screen full of bullets, and the combat feels effortless as a result. Enemies display health bars over their heads and you can see the damage counters flash up as you attack, but none of this feels intrusive or out of place. It all just works. Environments look fabulous, too, with diverse colours and tones as you move from one biome to the next.
And if you’re up for a bit of co-op action, Archvale also includes local multiplayer for you and a friend to unleash carnage together. The frame rate remains solid during multiplayer sessions, and taking down enemies is a lot more manageable when you have an extra pair of hands to help out. Definitely one to try out if you’re after an engaging couch co-op game.
Archvale is a triumphant bullet-hell/RPG genre mashup. Although you could argue its similarity to one or two recent releases, it trumps the competition with incredibly slick combat, simple and satisfying progression, and varied environments and enemies. The difficulty ramps up heavily as you progress to the later levels, so the inability to change difficulty on-the-fly may prove a bit of an issue for some players. Push through, however, and you’ll find Archvale to be one of the most satisfying twin-stick games available right now.