I’m so happy that Smelter exists. I’m so happy because I was a huge fan of Actraiser, which was a deep, deep cut on the SNES that tried to shoe-horn an action-platformer into a resource management game. It was such an odd marriage, and for all its flaws, I loved it. As it was so odd and niche, it didn’t feel like anyone would ever try to emulate it, and then SolSeraph came along in 2019. It was boring, it didn’t have the same charm, and I thought its lack of success would kill off the chance of a good version coming along. But I was wrong, and here Smelter is.
I’m also happy because Smelter manages to capture everything that was fantastic about games of that era. It’s there in the soundtrack, which is full of Streets of Rage-style midi-rock bangers. It’s there in the intro, which is a swooshy homage to the original Thundercats. It’s there in the minute detail of the world-building, the responsiveness of the controls, and the smoothness of the pixel art and their animations. Everything is completely authentic to that period, but also modernised to feel slick and intuitive.
Describing Smelter could fill the entire review if we’re not careful, because both sides of its gameplay coin – the resource management and the platforming – are individually deeper than most other games, so we will try to keep to the surface.
Play starts in the action-platformer viewpoint, which is 2D and similar to your Metroids and Mega Man. You play Eve, and in the opening cinematic, your Adam eats the apple in the Garden of Eden and is captured. You plan to get him back, and on the journey you come across Smelter, a demon-thing that snakes around you to become a mask and armour set. Smelter, it seems, was a general in the ‘Rumble Lands’ before he was banished, and you have a mutual goal to find Adam and conquer the world on the way.
The action-platforming is initially simple, but doesn’t stay that way. You can jump and attack, but you soon come across Forges that unlock abilities. In the opening level you will learn to double-jump, wall-grind and unleash a green whip that can interact with green elements of the environment. The abilities keep coming at a hell of a rate. You soon learn to dodge, harden yourself into rock, ground-pound and more.
A huge cast of enemies, all with unusual attack patterns, are there to be mown down, and you’ll come across checkpoints, various collectibles and trial rooms. These trial rooms are optional, but they’re massively rewarding – get to the end of them and you will earn a stone that unlocks a permanent perk in the resource management sections, which you’ll definitely want. The problem is that they’re staggeringly difficult, right from the get-go. They’re brilliant, always just-about achievable (often requiring you to complete a level without a single hit, or defeating waves of enemies), and you’ll probably have mastered a set of controls once you complete them.
On reaching the end of the level, you will have found a Doma Stone. You then take these to the surface, and to the second half of Smelter: the resource management stuff.
These bits zoom out the camera so that you’re looking at whole continents from a bird’s-eye view. The first thing you need to do is build, and you have four basic choices: houses, which generate your troops called the ‘Zirm’; harvesters, which give you apples that can feed your Zirm; barracks, which your Zirm use as a base to defend; and towers, where your Zirm can fire at enemies. You’ll be managing meters here, making sure you have enough food to feed the Zirm, and enough Zirm to man the defences.
With your defences built, you can extend outwards, constructing paths to resources, grabbing more land to build on, and finding various landmarks, like temples to spend your trial room stones on, and objectives for quests. More often than not, you’ll also trigger waves of enemies, and you can switch into combat mode, playing a simplified twin-stick shooter, or you can manage your defences, repairing or rebuilding anything that’s damaged. Ultimately, though, you will end up at a mountain with infinite bad dudes, and you’ll need to hop in and do some exterminating.
Complicating this further is the different regions of Smelter, as you move from your Rumble Lands domain into the realms of the Gurabi, Eremagu and Nutoro. You can largely choose which front you press ahead with at any time. It’s complicated because each region has its own dedicated unlock tree and mechanics within the action-platforming section. Initially in Eremagu, for example, you cannot use any of the abilities that you’ve gained from the other domains, so you can’t even double-jump. You have to start afresh, and unlock completely new abilities that revolve around lightning, like turning yourself into a spark and travelling through wires, and making yourself incorporeal. The enemies and levels, too, are built around these new dynamics, electrocuting water pools and dropping electric feathers in your path. In our view, the regions feel like completely different games.
Nowhere is this more true than our personal favourite, the Nutoro. Your abilities shift from hack-and-slash to revolve around shooting, so this elaborate game of Castlevania suddenly becomes Mega Man. Smelter has calmly become a different game with a flick of a switch. You can also literally flick switches in the Nutoro regions to enter the ‘Underbelly’, a kind of Upside Down where the level layouts are completely different, and you’re navigating realities to finish puzzles.
Three different regions, three different tech trees, and three different methods of approaching them – as well as a completely new cast of enemies – is incredibly generous. If anything, it’s a little too generous. As Smelter progresses, you unlock the ability to switch between your ability sets within a level, and the sheer cognitive load is overwhelming. Which ability-set lets me phase through walls? Which one lets me float across this chasm? Keeping all of the abilities memorised, and knowing which unlock tree is needed to access them, is enough to get your brain squelching out of your ears. In our view, we’d have preferred that the abilities stayed within their related regions.
Smelter is also not overly hot in describing what you need to do, particularly in the resource management sections. Too often, we found things by stumbling over them. To help with a ritual I need to manually carry energy balls to towers. To help my troops, I can join the battle myself. I will need to cancel repair commands, otherwise they will run forever, draining my resources. When you tally up the unhelpful tutorials, the ability-switching, and the depth of both gameplay types, Smelter can be an unfriendly game, particularly in the opening stages or – heaven forbid – if you decide to take a break from it for more than a day or two. This is not a game that you can graze on.
But Smelter is well, well-worth it. Submerge yourself in it, and you have two fantastic games that supplement each other better than Actraiser ever did. If we had to choose, the action-platforming is the better of the two: it is constantly inventive, never repetitive, and you’ll be moving from automated dragon rides to dodging Dune-like wyrms. The ability sets are wildly different from each other, and you’ll soon find a favourite to master. While the combat doesn’t quite have the depth or pyrotechnics of a Hollow Knight or a Dead Cells, it gets awfully close, and that’s a mighty achievement.
The resource management is, once you understand it, fun and intuitive, but perhaps a little too simplistic. You’re given so many overwhelming levers to pull at the start, but get over that hump and they don’t change much as the game progresses. You’re mostly just balancing the books, making sure that apples match troops, which match the number of defences. Repetition can creep in. Saying that, just as you think the resource management is letting the side down, you unlock a new area and the joy will pour back in. You complete quests, find unique treasures and begin to optimise your layout once again.
Together, the two game modes complement each other superbly. The platforming sections hand you trinkets to use in the resource sections, and vice versa. Just as you get bored of one of its halves, there will be an opportunity to play the other half.
Smelter on the Xbox shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s chilli and chocolate, peanut butter and jam. The action-platformer bits are superb, near best-in-class, and would have been a hearty recommendation on its own. But, as you tumble out of dungeons, you bring your spoils to the resource management bits and feel doubly rewarded. While managing your troops is not quite as quality as the platforming, it’s still entertaining and full of discovery.
We worried that we’d never get to play another Actraiser: a game that was foolish enough to twist platforming around RTS bits. But what we have is so much more. Smelter is leagues ahead of its ageing relative and deserves all the success that it (hopefully) gets. Smelter is a belter.