A surefire way of losing your audience is to talk about ‘game loops’. They’re in virtually every game, but it’s about as exciting as talking about camera lenses in a movie review. But it’s difficult to praise Nobody Saves the World enough without diving into conversations about loops. This is a game that’s so masterful in keeping you playing, constantly rewarding you like you’re in the world’s best pass-the-parcel game and you are the only one playing. It’s the true loop hero.
Nobody Saves the World has had us excited for a while now. It’s the latest game from Guacamelee developers Drinkbox Studios, who have gone dark after the launch of Guacamelee 2. But they’re a talented bunch, able to couple some satisfying gameplay with a dollop of mirth. It’s fun to be in their worlds, thwacking things on the head. Nobody Saves the World is a Game Pass day-one launch, too, which makes it a bit of a January gift, and the first screenshots showed a game that was very confident in its art style, sitting somewhere between Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. We got heavy Ren and Stimpy vibes from Nobody Saves the World.
As it turns out, we lowballed our hype. Having savoured Nobody Saves the World for the twenty hours or so it takes to complete its main campaign, we can say that this is a game that outperforms expectations.
Our first impressions weren’t actually that hot. Nobody Saves the World initially presents itself as a traditional dungeon crawler with a single attack button. We’ve got plenty of those, thank you very much. The lack of any kind of identity for the main character – a putty-like character with amnesia – meant there wasn’t much to hook onto either, while your objective is to find a mage called Nostramagus who can save the world. You’re not the hero: it’s someone else. As a kick up the arse to saving the world, it’s not a great one.
But over the next few hours, you see what Nobody Saves the World is doing. You are the titular ‘nobody’ because Drinkbox Studios wants you to play around with its shapeshifting. You are the blank canvas for other characters to paint onto. So, you start by transforming into the Rat. This character can squeak into tight gaps, and can gnaw at enemies, giving them a poison debuff. By completing little character-specific missions (Gnaw X enemies, etc), you unlock new abilities for the Rat, new missions, and you also level up your base character stats, which layer onto every character you have. Even better, you begin to move through a node map of different characters to shapeshift into. Soon, you are unlocking Warriors, Horses, Necromancers, Slugs and Dragons. Each of these has different abilities, and can be levelled up through the same process that the Rat went through.
You could have given us a single room with waves of baddies to fight and we’d probably have been happy. The layered way in which everything upgrades – one action has several reactions – means that you are constantly getting better at something, and it feels hella good.
Those initial reactions of Nobody Saves the World being too simple for its own good, with a combat system that’s a little too run-of-the-mill, go out the window. Characters unlock who have wildly different identities, and you have to mentally readjust whenever you pick them. The Horse has an obnoxious first attack, where it kicks behind itself – meaning you have to point yourself away from enemies, which never feels right. But once you unlock a Gallop move that allows you to wade into enemies (coupled with debuffs like knockbacks and poison), you will find yourself scattering enemies and then stopping to whack the remainder with your horseshoes. Every character has a behaviour shift that feels as meaty and awesome as this.
But the genius comes from how this maps onto the, well, map. Nobody Saves the World has a pretty big world. It’s scattered with dungeons, and those dungeons might have a hard requirement of some Wands, or soft requirements of having a certain avatar level. You get the Wands from completing the missions from each character, so you’re encouraged to switch between them. There’s no leaning into one single OP character here: you’re going to be channel-surfing between all of them, and you soon realise that it’s the best approach anyway. Unlocking abilities for the Magician, say, makes them available for all the other characters, and you’re simultaneously making your way up the flow chart of character unlocks. There are some frankly awesome ones to beeline towards.
So, you’re accumulating Wands which get you into dungeons, and those dungeons are often requirements for unlocking more of the map. But you’re also enrolling in guilds, progressing through their ranks to unlock more missions and therefore more wands too. And characters like the Mermaid – not quite as pretty as Ariel – give you access to more of the map, like a quasi-Metroidvania. All of the progress you make on your characters is reflected in the map: the world grows as you do.
It’s not often that you sing the praises of a map UI and fog-of-war, but they should be held aloft like a Triforce. They’re pivotal to how good Nobody Saves the World feels. This is a game that demands to be explored, but there are so many details – so many things you can’t unlock quite yet – that it could soon become daunting. But the world map logs absolutely everything that you will want to come back to, and it’s incredibly easy to read: a true one-to-one with the game world. But the pièce de résistance is the fog of war. It’s so clear what you have or haven’t rinsed, both on the world map and dungeon maps, because the fog is so intelligent. You can just boot up the map and scan for some of the murky grey clouds, and then head over to that location.
Nobody Saves the World isn’t perfect, but it’s close. We found the humour and story to be a little off. We rarely laughed, which was odd considering the pedigree and the fact that Nobody Saves the World clearly wants us to chortle. It’s not surreal, bawdy or imaginative enough to get us over that line. And a major game mechanic – warding – which protects enemies from certain kinds of attacks, means that you have to change character or update their attacks. It felt more fiddly and invisible than we would have liked; particularly as there are already plenty of reasons to change character, so this felt like an overreach. Major dungeons also block progress on your characters, which feels equally unnecessary: one of the joys of doing a major dungeon in other games is because it is a pinata of progress. In Nobody Saves the World, you have to swallow the fact that a major dungeon will give you ostensibly nothing.
But these are barely a fly in a huge, tasty soup. Nobody Saves the World may not seem like much, being a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler at a time when we’re drowning in them. But it’s a playground for Guacamelee devs Drinkbox Studios to go to town. They have created a Rube-Goldberg machine of unlocks, with every single action you make leading to about thirty different consequences, and it feels divine. There’s no better feeling than emerging from a dungeon with a new character, a dozen new missions, attacks to slot into other characters, and a map that’s suddenly blossomed into a completely new direction. Its loops are generous to the point of absurdity.
Games like Hades have made the dungeon crawler thrive by treating it like a high-end watch. The inner workings are intricate and polished, making it a joy to play over and over. But Nobody Saves the World takes the opposite approach: it doesn’t look inwardly, polishing something to the nth degree. It blows open the doors and makes exploration and progression the focus. It gives you the world.
You can buy Nobody Saves the World from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S