Having had the pleasure of playing Kaze and the Wild Masks, I’ve regained a love for the simple 2D platformer. You don’t need gimmicks or open worlds; just give me some responsive controls, clever level design, dial that difficulty level up a tiny bit and – boom – you have a pure gaming hit. It’s part nostalgia, taking me back to a Super Mario or Donkey Kong Country, and part simplicity, stripping everything back to the important stuff.
It’s the approach that Acalesia wants to take. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t fit into a sentence or two of description: it’s a 2D platformer with a melee and gun attack, and you have to collect a set number of crystals before a door opens and you can move on to the next level. In between, there are enemies and platforms, and perhaps some characters to chat with for a moment or two. There’s some setup about your character wanting to overthrow Hilmandel and save Princess Celinda, but the game doesn’t care about that story, so why should you?
Everything is reduced to the essentials, which is no bad thing, as long as you get those essentials right. If the controls are tight, everything feels intuitive and responsive, and you structure some decent levels around it, then you’re golden. Unfortunately, Acalesia gets them catastrophically wrong.
Your character can only do little baby hops, and your sword attack is no more than a few pixels either side, so you’re hardly a killing machine. You are slow, and there are no combos to speak of, so you’re going to rely on that limp attack you have. But the developers seemingly understand these limitations, so they create a roster of enemies that are slow and – in some cases – don’t even move. So, while your arsenal is limp, you get to sidle up to enemies, give them a couple of bashes and they’re gone.
That has the knock-on effect of making things trivial, so Acalesia zooms in crazily close to your character. Now you’re going to be ambushed by the barely moving enemies as you move forward, because you don’t get to see far in front of you. As a result, you’re taking baby-steps through the dungeons to make sure you don’t stumble over a giant slime or a hanging spider. It’s compounded by hitboxes on the enemies that vary wildly. You could cuddle a slime and not get hit, while flying enemies have the ability to dink you from metres away. You can see the design dominoes falling, but no one thought to get out of the way and think “is this fun?”.
The gunplay is a little better, as Acalesia lets you shoot offscreen and neatly responds with an “oof” audio cue whenever you kill something. So, you can clear a path a wee bit in advance. But your bullets are limited, restored by finding treasure chests, meaning that you can’t lean on them too heavily. Regardless, the shooting ends up feeling limper than it should, mainly because of the diddy jump you have: if enemies fly, climb walls or dangle from ceilings, you’re going to have a hard time connecting with them.
Then there’s the platforming. Sweet Mary, save us. You can see those design wheels clanking in the background again: the character has a miniscule jump and the camera is zoomed in, so the platforms have to be close together. But if they’re close together, then everything’s easy again, so Acalesia adds platforms that are no more than a few pixels wide. But the controls are greasy, so you end up tumbling off the platforms even when you land well. So, checkpoints are added in platforming sections, when there are no checkpoints elsewhere in the game. Platforming ends up like a game of Total Wipeout, as you tumble off things for no reason at all, cursing the designers for thinking it might be categorised as ‘fun’.
Then there’s the ladders. Shudder. They say that ladders are hard to get right in games, and Acalesia proves it true. You can’t attack while climbing them, yet you automatically start climbing them when you walk near their base. Congratulations, that approaching enemy has now attacked and there’s nowt you can do about it. You’re not locked to the ladder while you climb it, so you can accidentally tap to the left and right and Hail Mary into the abyss. When you reach the top, you randomly do an almighty jump (although you can’t jump that high elsewhere), and you’ll catapult into the maws of a beastie. Ladders are death-luges, and you’ll groan whenever you see them.
Water Cataclysm, Level 5, we’re looking at you. This is a level that shrugs off everything the designers learned from the previous levels, creating a Crappest Hits of the worst bits. It’s purely a platforming level, but with a rising sea. There are no checkpoints, and the three-pixel-platforms are here, alongside more ladders than Frank-N-Furter’s tights. While it’s short, we swan-dived off more platforms than we cared for, and virtually every replay was down to an issue with Acalesia, rather than ourselves. It’s a mid-point low in the game, and we’re glad to see the back of it.
There are three bosses, but they’re borked. They have no cues about when they’re going to attack, so you can either play that guessing game, or you can cheese them. They don’t hurt you if you’re standing on them, and spamming the melee button will – just about – kill them before you reach the end of your health bar.
We could go on, but let’s accentuate the positive: Acalesia is not unattractive, as it’s a colourful take on a post-apocalyptic world. The levels are also nicely non-linear, with little nooks to find the crystals, characters and the odd treasure chest. The animations are decent, with the main character’s little quiff bobbing adorably as he waits for the next plunge off a platform. And Acalesia doesn’t outstay its welcome, with eleven levels that are never difficult in the traditional sense, while showering you with 100G achievements for every level – should that be your thing.
You can strip a 2D platformer back to the basics, but those basics have to be in the topmost of drawers. Unfortunately, Acalesia on the Xbox has made a home for itself in the bottom drawer. Shortcomings are papered over with more shortcomings, as the designers try to make up for slippy gameplay with benign levels that barely offer a challenge. The best thing you can say about Acalesia is that ‘it’s not so broken that you can’t finish it’, but that’s hardly a poster-quote to be proud of, even at the low price of £4.19.