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Prisonela DX Review

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The roguelike genre is a bit like cheese. It’s so versatile that you can mix it with pretty much anything and get a decent result. Action-platformers? Of course. Shooters? Absolutely. Dungeon-crawlers, card games, even narrative adventures (Road 96, in case you were wondering)? They all combine as well as cheese and, well, anything else. 

But something has to be the chocolate in this scenario. Cheese doesn’t mix with everything. And to prove this protracted analogy correct is Prisonela DX. It takes the indie precision platformer – the VVVVVV, N++ or Celeste – and folds in the roguelike genre mostly to mixed-to-negative results. It shows that the roguelike isn’t a magic wand that will improve anything it touches. 

prisonela dx review 1
Get ready to jump some spikes in Prisonela DX

The fact that it didn’t work for us has nothing to do with the effort or presentation. Prisonela DX is a lovingly crafted game, and it takes almost no time to make this clear. The soundtrack is an absolute bop, only occasionally punctuated by the sounds of us dying. The graphics hit the spot too. While it’s simple pixel art, with character designs that look like negatives taken from a Super Mario artbook, it’s given a nicely dark and oppressive mood, and the chromatic aberration makes it look like a SNES game being played on a CRT. It’s a vibe, and we found that vibe reasonably easily to find on the second or third play.

While we’re complimenting Prisonela DX, it’s also hugely considerate of your time, and that’s annoyingly rare in modern day platformers. When you die, and that happens a ridiculous number of times in Prisonela DX, then you appear almost instantaneously back at the start of the game. There are no death animations, no prompts to continue, no strange delays. It’s a game that knows that death is a pain by itself: it doesn’t need to stack more pain on with loading screens. 

The roguelike + platformer combination works like this: you are given a short platforming level that barely overflows the game screen. These are scenarios that include a maximum of four or five obstacles on the way to an exit ‘fire portal’ which completes the level. So, you navigate them by jumping and double jumping, adding level ‘notches’ to your tally.

Being a roguelike, death means you reset to the start. The pressure keeps building and building with each level that you complete, until it’s an anxiety-skyscraper on your back. Beat a personal best and you can feel the weight of the achievement. Because every misstep, every clipped pixel, means that you have to restart at level 1 and find the enthusiasm to try again. 

prisonela dx review 2
You can chuck some cogs of doom in too

And it’s here where the problem lies, at least for us. We needed to be bribed, offered a little extrinsic reward, to keep making runs in Prisonela DX. But none were forthcoming. The closest you get to rewards are cosmetics unlocks: admittedly cute skins for your main character, bought from the coins you accrue from your achievements. These clearly don’t improve you for the next run – something that we see as almost essential for a satisfying roguelike – so the developers are relying on the pull of the platformer itself to keep you going. 

Playing Prisonela DX for the sake of playing Prisonela DX wasn’t enough – not for us. There’s a couple of reasons for that, with the first probably being immediately obvious. Playing a platformer is about progress, whether that’s ticking off levels until you reach a castle in Super Mario, or surging towards level 100 on innumerable budget indie platformers. We wondered whether that a lack of unlocks would be a dealbreaker in Prisonela DX, because you can absolutely lose all of your progress, and so it proved to be. We just couldn’t get over the disappointment of reaching level nineteen – our best run, which relied on a fair amount of skill and luck – and meeting an untimely death, knowing that we had to attempt it all over again.

Prisonela is also insanely unforgiving, which needs to be factored in. Platforming speed-runners might lap this up, but there’s no give in the collision detection. If the merest sliver of a fraction of a pixel hits an obstacle, you are dead. Obstacles also have a knack for suddenly appearing. Unless you are extremely, extremely methodical, watching the level like a hitman staking out its target, then at some point you are going to get hit by an unexpected fireball, spinning blade or missile. Prisonela DX loves an ambush, and there were plenty of times that I questioned the need to make the hazards difficult to spot, on top of hard to avoid.

It’s baked into our personality, but playing excruciatingly slowly isn’t in our personality. That’s because we know, deep down, that a single toe in the wrong direction can lead to our death, making the slowness moot. There’s something unsatisfying about halving our level-per-minute speed, in the hope that we might make better progress, when we know – in our bones – that a fireball is going to appear out of nowhere and kill us anyway. 

prisonela dx review 3
YOU WILL OBEY!

Which finally leads us to level-variety. There’s actually a large library of levels in Prisonela DX, larger than you might expect from a £4.99 budget. But they can only stretch so far. After the fourth or fifth death, the levels noticeably repeat, and that means a couple of things. First, the fatigue starts to set in. These levels don’t change particularly as you get higher into the teens, so it rarely feels like you are unlocking something new. Second, you start learning the levels that kick your ass. There’s nary a worse feeling than reaching a personal-best level, only to spawn in a layout that you hate, and have never completed before. 

The independent pieces of Prisonela DX are great. The music slaps, the art does a strong job, bolstered by some dynamic visual effects. The levels themselves are dopamine hits translated into spinning blades and precise platforms.

The fault lines appear in the translation to a roguelike. Prisonela DX’s bones are snapped and cracked to fit it to this new shape, and the result becomes less than the sum of those parts. It’s more repetitive, more testing of the patience, and we wondered what it might have looked like without going through the roguelike mangler. Speed-runners might find some satisfaction here, but we just longed for something simpler.

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • Cracking soundtrack
  • Well-realised 2D world
  • Levels are precisely designed
Cons:
  • Roguelike fusion didn’t work for us
  • Lacks a sense of progress
  • Hazards have a tendency to appear out of nowhere
Info:
  • Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Ratalaika Games
  • Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch
  • Release date and price - 9 February 2024 | £4.99
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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Cracking soundtrack</li> <li>Well-realised 2D world</li> <li>Levels are precisely designed</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Roguelike fusion didn’t work for us</li> <li>Lacks a sense of progress</li> <li>Hazards have a tendency to appear out of nowhere</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Ratalaika Games</li> <li>Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch <li>Release date and price - 9 February 2024 | £4.99</li> </ul>Prisonela DX Review
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