With each new day, we can take comfort knowing that the sun will rise. The sky will be blue, the Earth will keep spinning, and eighteen new, procedurally-generated indie games will be released. Some of those may be roguelikes, while some of them may be roguelites. I have no idea what the difference is, but you can guarantee that we will not run out of them anytime soon. Since there are more of these games than there are warts on an especially warty toad, it can be difficult to find the ones worth playing. Fortunately, despite a few odd design choices, Genetic Disaster offers plenty of bang for your buck.
Genetic Disaster is the premiere title for Team8 Studio. By yourself or with up to three friends, you will choose a wacky character, grab any gun you can find, and shoot your way through a sequence of procedurally-generated dungeons. If you die at any point in your adventure, you will find yourself sent back to the beginning of the entire game. If that sounds immediately familiar to you because you have played Enter the Gungeon, then you have the right idea.
Unlike Enter the Gungeon, Genetic Disaster is not a pixelated homage to video game weaponry. The characters and weapons you have at your disposal are entirely unique to the game, and they are brilliant designs. Each of the four playable characters has a distinct, readable silhouette that ensures you never lose track of yourself in a maelstrom of action. Likewise, the guns have distinct designs of their own that make it easy to identify weapons you have not tried in a previous run.
While we are on the subject of readability, the animation on display is marvelous. Character actions are big, cartoony, and enjoyable. The gunslinger-esque twirl of a freshly reloaded gun makes it all the sweeter when you blast away a swarm of enemies. Enemies themselves are also wonderfully distinct from one another so that you always know what attacks are about to be hurled your way. Each animation in the game works hard to make gameplay enjoyable, and to aid the game’s bouncy, lighthearted tone. Looks, however, can be a bit deceiving.
Do not think for a moment that the game’s colorful, child-friendly visuals mean that your journey through the dungeons will be an easy one. There are three difficulty options, but even on the easiest of these I found myself getting obliterated quite handily. It took me five or … eighteenish tries to finally make it to the game’s first boss on normal. That may sound ridiculously hard, but after beating the big, bad boss I found myself getting much farther on each subsequent run. High-tension battles happen often enough to keep the action and player engagement high. In fact, Genetic Disaster does something that I find even the biggest games struggle with: creating flow.
Once you have found your favorite character, mastered their unique ability, and equipped them with a nice pair of guns, getting into a zen-like state of mayhem is a wonderful payoff. Due to the game’s procedural nature, though, not every run will achieve such heights. More often than not, I found myself with one useful gun, and one that helped as much as a hyperactive five-year-old during tax season.
Now, you might recall the beginning of this review where I mentioned, “a few odd design choices”. Let us begin: firstly, progress is a tricky thing when you have your player start from scratch upon death. Playing for thirty minutes or more, getting farther than ever before, and ending up with nothing can make the game a bit of a chore. This is where green crystals come in.
Occasionally, defeated baddies will drop green crystals that you can store in a large canister that is located on most levels. Storing enough crystals will earn you a green-jelly-tube-thing that allows you to equip any level one mutation before beginning a new run. If you want level two and level three mutations, you will have to continue to fill that canister with crystals. These mutations are found as you play the game and defeat baddies as well. When it comes to those mutations, you had better really love playing the game. I have found only one mutation in all of my playtime, and that bites. It makes me feel like storing my crystals is a waste, and I feel much more inclined to spend them on small, randomized upgrades that I lose upon death. All of this makes restarting the game after a long, eventually unsuccessful playthrough feel like a daunting task.
Going back to the odd design choices, this one is the weirdest: there is not a single tutorial explaining anything about the game. All of that information that I gave you about crystals, mutations, and green-jelly-tube-things is stuff that I had to personally interpret from the gameplay. There is a screen that shows what your controls do, (how to shoot, use your abilities, reload, and so on) but I had no idea what crystals were for. Each time I lost in the beginning, an image would show an empty canister saying “40 crystals to fill the canister.” So I thought, “Okay, I just need to fill the canister. How do I do that?” Eventually I found out, but it took oodles of playthroughs to fill that wretched, jewel-hungry jar. Once I finally did, I had no idea what I had accomplished by doing so. There was not even a message about mutations. I had no clue what mutations were or that they existed until I earned my first one and saw it appear after the character selection screen.
If all of that sounds frustrating, it is because it certainly was. Trial and error is perfectly fine in games, but not when you just want to know the basics of how to play the game.
Those design faux pas aside, one of Genetic Disaster’s design choices is a truly brilliant one. There are plenty of rogue-likes/lites that offer multiplayer, but this multiplayer brings the game to new heights. Combat with friends is a rambunctious breeze. Yelling out plans of attack, passing throwable stools at each other, and bickering over who should get what gun is a genuine delight. No matter how much is happening on screen, keeping track of yourself and your friends is effortless. Multiplayer is exclusive to local couch co-op, but the idea of trekking through large amounts of levels is much more appealing with a friend.
Imagine you ordered your favorite sandwich, and they forgot the buns. You might be a bit upset and confused, but the rest of the sandwich is there and it is delicious. An odd metaphor, sure, but it is definitely how I felt about Genetic Disaster on Xbox One. Despite zero explanation of how to play, and a feeling that little is gained on each playthrough, there is more than enough twin-stick shooting action in Genetic Disaster to keep you satisfied. It may not reinvent the wheel, but it is a great sandwich all the same.