Have you ever been found playing an old, early Zelda game and thought to yourself “What this needs is a load of bullets flying everywhere, maybe with some of them homing in on me”? Well, number one, you are a bit strange (but I like you) and number two, your wishes might just be about to come true. You see, the latest title from idoz & phops is Archvale, and it is basically as I described in the first sentence. So, the question I hope to answer having spent more than a few hours battling beasties is this: should you invest the time in Archvale or would you be better off playing Zelda II again?
The story to Archvale is suitably grandiose and overblown, as we have come to expect from these titles. A long time ago, a cruel and malicious king ruled the land, terrorising the population. Both he and the fabled arch to Archvale have almost passed into myth, with the only exception being the Undying; creatures that the king cursed with immortality to live out eternity in his prisons, guarding lumps of the arch that can lead to Archvale. And luckily, someone has now appeared who can kill these Undying! The slightly less good news is that it is the character we play as, a cute little pile of pixels that needs to travel the land, exploring, defeating enemies and bosses and rebuilding the fabled arch brick by brick.
Now, the comparison to the early Zelda games is borne out by the presentation of the game, with a determinedly retro approach to the way that it looks. The enemies and the player sprite, along with the backgrounds and the weapons you find are all literally piles of pixels, yet they look disarmingly cute as they go about trying to kill you. The graphics work very well for this style of game, and there is absolutely no slow down as you go, despite there being more bullets on the screen than you can shake a stick at. By contrast to the retro look of Archvale, the music is bang up to date (although a chiptune soundtrack may have been more in keeping) and sounds great, especially the creepy music the first time you encounter the undead enemies.
However, for all the best presentation in the world, a game cannot be saved if the actual gameplay is rubbish. Thankfully then that of Archvale is very good, although strangely, very occasionally, bad.
We’ll start off with the positives, as I’m an optimistic kind of guy and Archvale is presented as a bullet hell twin stick shooter, kind of like Enter the Gungeon if you will. The action is viewed from above, and almost every room that you enter will have a bunch of enemies that you need to dispose of before you can move on to the next. Where this game differs from Gungeon is in the wide choice of weapons that you can equip.
There are melee weapons, like a sword or a big axe, there are magical staffs that fire bolts of magic, there are bows that shoot arrows (surprisingly) and many more; personal favourites have been a Snowflake Cannon that fires massive ice cubes, and an Octoshot – a kind of crossbow that fires eight bolts at once. The only issue with the melee weapons, in a bullet hell style game, is that you need to be nearby to do any damage, and with the rate that the enemies fire off projectiles, you have no chance to react if you are stood on their toes.
In addition to new weapons, you can also find badges that alter the way the game plays, along with the chance to find or craft armour to go with your build. The badges are a nice touch, as they allow you to tweak your character to match your playstyle. For instance, one of the badges I have equipped allows projectile weapons to behave almost like homing bullets, which makes staying alive a whole lot easier as there’s no longer the need to try and keep aiming at a boss. Blind fire and some serious concentration on dodging is all that is called for. Armour can also be matched to your playstyle, so I have a hat on that increases ranged damage by 25% for instance. With a bit of luck, a little light crafting and the purchase of certain bits and bobs, you too can have a bespoke character that will do as you ask.
The only fly in the ointment, and I realise even as I type this that I may be ridiculed, is that for a bullet hell game, there are too many damn bullets! Seriously, some screens, as soon as you set foot into the room, are so filled that it’s like the air is made of projectiles. It’s all very well having a dodge dash move, but when there isn’t a square inch of the screen without a bullet in it, you’ll very often find that there’s nowhere to dodge to.
Recognising patterns of bullets from different enemies, and which ones will home in on you and which won’t (pink bullets are the ones to watch, fact fans) is very useful, but you’ll then get a room with enemies overlapping and firing at the same time, so the patterns cancel out the gaps in the bullet spreads. Luckily, Archvale is quite generous with the health upgrades, and the armour can also help, but you will not get through this game without getting hit, no matter how on point you think your skills are.
Apart from the odd minor issue, Archvale has been a pleasure. There’s some real joy in exploring, in meeting and shooting new and strange creatures, and in enjoying the cute and cuddly visual style – even as the same boss stomps you multiple times. If you like bullet hell games, Archvale should certainly be on your radar.
Archvale is available on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S from the Xbox Store