In Celebration of Violence is two games. The first is the game that you play in the opening four, maybe five hours. It’s a willfully obtuse, deliberately difficult game that gets a kick out of you making mistakes and then scooping you back to the hub area, The Sanctuary, with only a little more information than you had before. The second game is the one that emerges after those five hours, when things come into view, and you have a precise, rewarding and impossibly deep little top-down, twin-stick hack-and-slash.
We came within inches of reviewing only that first game, because we couldn’t get enough traction in the permadeath to understand what the Dickens it was. But, after more than a little persistence (driven by a need to review the game properly, so heaven hope anyone who’s playing it for fun), we had a sequence of epiphanies based on a longer, more successful run. Suddenly, we were reviewing that second game after all.
From what we’ve written, you will probably know which game you will end up playing. In Celebration of Violence is absolutely for an audience who bemoans modern hand-holding, who wants their combat to punish them for the slightest mistake, and to make deliberate but slow progress through the game. It’s for people who salivate at the Souls-like template, who loved Binding of Isaac and found Hades a bit too unsubtle and easy.
We probably weren’t the best sort to review a game like In Celebration of Violence, as we do like Hades, and we do struggle for motivation when a game gives us nothing to go on, expecting us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and learn by dying. But we’re objective enough to acknowledge that In Celebration of Violence will be a banquet for that other kind of player.
Things kick off in The Sanctuary after possibly the most bewildering and ugly character-create screen known to humankind. The Sanctuary does a few things, but unpicking what they are isn’t easy. It’s a tutorial area, giving you some written controls on the floor and expecting you to welly some dummies to understand which button does what. Except you don’t necessarily know what some of the terminology means, and you won’t have unlocked half the things it’s talking about anyway.
The Sanctuary is also a functioning town where you can chat to people, scavenge information, find the edges of a largely ignorable story, and kill everyone. Yes, kill everyone. The moment you accidentally skewer a quest-giver with your sword (and it WILL happen) will be indelibly etched on your memory, just as it was in Fallout 3. It’s both fantastic and bewildering. Okay, little Mikey, you’re dead: but where did you want me to go?
Most importantly, The Sanctuary is where you manage your loadout for the upcoming battles. The hub will level up with a wider variety of weapons at the smithy, tiered shrines that set you up with temporary but transformative benefits, and other unlocks. While it’s a messy grotto with no logic to it in the opening sections, you can be reassured that it will grow on you.
We wouldn’t call In Celebration of Violence attractive. It’s zoomed out enough that it’s impossible to get detail or interest from its stumpy little hobbit characters. Plus, it’s steeped in possibly the most overused of art-styles: gorey pixel art. But there’s something threatening and oppressive about In Celebration of Violence that we quite like. Perhaps it’s the way that the walls rise up ridiculously high, like you’re wandering the Halls of Moria, or it’s in the music, which never lets up in its misery and dread.
If The Sanctuary was bewildering when you took your first steps into In Celebration of Violence, prepare yourself for the procedural levels. First, your character doesn’t control in a way that you might expect. You move through treacle, and your attacks are similarly ponderous. Your sword, floating in front of you rather than held in your hand, has a large and slow arc, making it easy for enemies to get in and pop a knife between the ribs. For anyone coming out of Enter the Gungeon or similar nippy games, it will just seem like you’re encumbered.
But play long enough and you get what it’s doing. This is Souls-like in its combat. You’re meant to be slow, because combat is a game of chess-like maneuvering. You’re waiting for enemies to attack, popping in a parry and then hitting them with a cleave. You’re conserving your stamina for the right moment. In a fantastic move, your enemies are beholden to the same combat rules as you are: if their stamina runs out, they slow down and their attacks do less damage. So you’re often waiting for that moment, playing the long game. Or you are nipping in with a bleed, and letting the DOT kill them. With more unlocks come more options, and combat starts to ramp up in speed. It’s impressive.
You will need to master this dance because every enemy can wipe you out. When you’re playing the first game, this becomes abundantly clear. You’re beaming yourself back to The Sanctuary regularly, picking a new character and starting again more times than you can count. But don’t worry: you will improve.
To stack on the counter-intuitive elements, which is pretty much In Celebration of Violence’s MO at this point, you don’t approach progression in the same way as, well, any other game. To make the most of the run, you should probably invest in shrines and their upgrading which gives you temporary boosts, rather than the far-too-incremental-and-invisible permanent stat boosts. If there’s a lesson we’ve learned in rogeulites of the past, it’s that permanent boosts are to be saved up for. In Celebration of Violence thumbs a nose at that logic, and you should – more often than not – be gunning for a better run than the last, through temporary means.
There is an audience that craves In Celebration of Violence, and this is one of the purest attempts to serve that crowd. Nothing about it is approachable or obvious. It builds a shell around itself and expects you to slowly chip away at it over multiple deaths. Progress is slow but deliberate, and people who master its rhythms will be endlessly rewarded.
We’re not In Celebration of Violence’s target audience. But we’re objective enough to know when a top-down, twin-stick RPG is doing the business for that audience. So, if you’ve 100%’d a Dark Souls game, or you’ve written snarky comments on Reddit threads about why games hand-hold too much nowadays, then pick up In Celebration of Violence. It’s double-concentrate masochism, and you will love it.
You can buy In Celebration of Violence from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S