I do like a twin-stick roguelike. The genres dovetail nicely into each other. Twin-stick shooting lends itself to short bursts of adrenaline, while roguelikes love a short game session. Die and there’s a good chance that you’ll wake up with bigger guns and better bullets. The next run should be an even bigger burst of adrenaline.
It’s lucky that I like twin-stick roguelikes, as they’re flipping everywhere on the Xbox. The two genres mix as wonderfully as bacon and cheese, but sometimes – very rarely mind you – we want to try different flavours. It’s the situation that Bestial Reception finds itself in. It’s got some great twin-stick ingredients, but can it find something that makes it stand out?
You play humanoid animals, so there’s that. Bestial Reception isn’t about a wedding gone wrong; instead, it’s about an apocalypse where the humans have gained animal heads. We won’t question the logic. To survive, these anthropomorphised animals have to fight through level after level of animal bandits, slimes, and the occasional boss.
It’s a very simple structure – too simple, you could say. You and a co-op partner, should you fancy, pick your animal hero. The heroes have a few things that make them stand out, aside from being raccoons or rabbits. They have different amounts of health, their own starting gun, and an artifact as standard. Some artifacts offer more ammo on pick up, while others might get more coins from drops, as an example. With your animal chosen (we plump for the iguana-frog-thing every time), you head into the first level.
The levels are your procedurally generated, top-down affairs, with an objective of killing every last enemy. Which means running away while blasting, until there are few enough enemies that you can start chasing and blasting. All of this is done with the conventional twin-stick controls: you move around with the analogue stick, and fire with the trigger buttons. There are alternatives if you’ve got long, aye-aye fingers that can perform different combinations.
It’s all fairly satisfying. Our initial reaction was that there were too many obstacles between our player and the enemy, making shooting fairly unstimulating. But most guns make short work of blocks and bushes in the way, obliterating them with a single shot, so you just need to pick the right starting character. Soon, you’re in a dance with the various enemies, knowing which ones run headlong at you (and need to be dispatched pretty quickly) versus the ones that can be left till last.
Something that Bestial Reception absolutely gets right is its feeling of power. The guns are ridiculous. Most of the starting weapons, and almost all of the weapons that you can buy from the in-game shop, will vastly overpower the enemies. We are in love with a crackling lightning gun which one-hits pretty much every enemy and clears the room as it goes. You are twenty times more powerful than the enemies you face, and they each die with a satisfying ‘pop’.
Levels are semi-destructible, which only makes the guns feel more powerful (there’s rarely anything of use within the walls though, natch). And explosive barrels mean that a single shot can create a chain reaction. In pyrotechnic terms, Bestial Reception is great fun.
Things can get a little unreadable, as enemies pop into green snot that can be acidic. Those acidic pools can be hard to see, particularly against green backdrops, so you can feel occasionally cheated out of a life pip. And finding the last-enemy-standing is more dull than it needs to be, as they’re often in a corner of the level crying. Ideally there would have been an arrow pointing at them, or they should have got into a Bubble Bobble-fury mode, charging at us.
The levels aren’t hugely different from each other – an ice level is much like a desert level, all told – which would have gotten boring if there weren’t a few spicy elements to add variety. Enemies drop artifacts, but none of them are positive. Pick them up and suddenly you can be one-hit-killed, you’re slower, or hearts no longer drop. So, why pick them up at all? Well, every two levels you come across a shop, and – as long as you survive long enough to reach them – you can trade these cursed artifacts for coins which will gain you positive artifacts and better guns. It’s a neat take on simple risk-reward mechanics, and we never left an artifact behind.
Bosses, named imaginatively as ‘Vinnie’ and ‘Billy’, pop up on occasion too. They’re nowt special, with reasonably telegraphed attacks, mobs, and bullet-sponge health pools, but they act as satisfying milestones along the path. There’s one boss that deserves special mention as it changes the game genre completely. We liked it to a point: while it’s a bonkers left-turn, it also rips all of the guns and artifacts that you’ve gained away from you, which seems against the point of a roguelike.
But what disappoints most about Bestial Reception is apparent as soon as you finish a run. It’s almost not a roguelike at all. Aside from a couple of characters to unlock, you don’t make any progress between runs. The characters don’t level up, nor is the deck of potential weapons or artifacts added to. There’s not even a completionist aspect, where you get rewarded for unlocking everything the game has to see. You are dumped back at the start with a shrug and a question: can you do better next time?
That question becomes more complicated over time. Yes, I probably will do better next time. I know what each enemy does, and I’m more privy to the bosses’ attacks. But do I want to go again? The answer quickly becomes ‘no’. Because there’s not enough of a carrot, not enough of a reward for getting further than we did before. And there’s not enough variety in the levels and enemies to bridge the gap.
The lack of roguelike elements gives Bestial Reception a short shelf-life. After our fifth or sixth run, we could feel the enthusiasm waning. We knew we should play on, but we didn’t want to. When twin-stick roguelikes are common as muck on Xbox, Bestial Reception needed to do something spectacular to stand out. But instead it’s headed the other way: it’s doing everything you might expect, nothing more.