PS4 / Xbox One / Wii U / Vita / Steam (PS4 version reviewED)
Metroidvania games are ten a penny these days, so it’d take something special to catch the attention of this grizzled veteran with boyish charm and a tough exterior but gentle heart.
Um… what I’m trying to say is Forma.8 is bloody good.
Developed by Italian studio MixedBag, Forma.8 puts you in control of a dinky little space probe: the type that looks like a drone, not the type aliens jam up your hole.
After an expedition goes wrong, your little probe is left stranded on an alien planet. It’s up to you to survive while at the same time trying to discover more about the world you’ve found yourself in.
Although it’s a Metroidvania game in some aspects, Forma.8 isn’t your typical action platformer like… well, Metroid or Castlevania. Instead of running or jumping your probe can fly in all directions, making it feel more like Ubisoft’s Child Of Light or Insomniac’s Song Of The Deep.
It’s also very minimalist in design, not just obviously in terms of the art style but also the way the game’s presented to you.
Other than simple button symbols appearing the first time you discover a new skill, Forma.8 makes no other attempt to explain to you in words what you’re supposed to do and how to do it.
For example, shortly after you start the game you find another probe, lying smashed on the floor, deader than the Leicester City manager’s office. When you approach it you absorb from it your first power, the ability to create a little shockwave around you to attack enemies.
Half an hour or so later you’ll get your second power, the ability to lay little timed bombs in the sky. These are initially used to take out the plant-like organisms you find early on which are capable of churning out an infinte supply of enemies.
Inevitably, during the process of dropping a bomb while fighting some enemies, you’ll inadvertently discover that you can use your shockwave to hit the bomb, essentially turning it into a fireable weapon.
It’s a brilliant eureka moment – the realisation that you can combine two skills you’ve discovered to get a ‘buy two, get one free’ skill – and because you weren’t explicitly told about it, every time you do it you feel like a cool bastard screwing the system (even though you really aren’t).
Things aren’t always this pleasantly organic, mind you. The game’s text-free nature and its reliance on you figuring it out for yourself ultimately means that on occasion you won’t be able to, and won’t know what to do or where to go next.
It doesn’t help when the solutions to some puzzles – like the initial ‘boss’ battle against a fire-spitting flower – are a little obtuse and aren’t so great at telling you when you’re doing it wrong.
I spent a good 15 minutes dodging fireballs and shooting my well-aimed bombs at said flower, and each time it flashed like it was doing damage. But it wasn’t. In reality I had to head to a nearby enemy dispenser, convince one of them to follow me, and fly near the flower during one of the odd occasions where it stopped shooting and exposed a white light.
When I did this, the enemy lost interest in me, flew towards the light and did damage to the boss. Two more shots like this and I’d beaten it.
It was nice to finally figure out what to do, but after 15 minutes of blissfully pumping bullets into the prick under the false impression I was making an impact, it was a bit annoying.
Something as simple as not having it flash when I hit it with bullets would have made it immediately clearer to me that a different approach was needed. I’m a busy man, I can’t be spending a quarter of an hour throwing bombs at a plant.
It also occasionally falls into the same trap as numerous other Metroidvania games, in that the world is so large it’s sometimes tricky to figure out what to do next.
Some games have ways round this. Guacamelee’s obstacles were colour-coded and each power you collected had its own colour too, so every time you gained a new power you could backtrack through the game world and know exactly which areas were newly available by their matching colours.
Hydroventure, meanwhile (or Fluidity as it was known in America), spelled it out for you in no uncertain terms by literally locking off parts of the map and making you collect rainbow drops to unlock them, like stars in Super Mario 64.
In Forma.8 there are no telltale signs like this. When you get a new power, if you can’t think off the top of your head of places you’ve passed that could be addressed with this new power, prepare to do a lot of backtracking through the game’s sizeable world. If only there was a way to maybe even place a marker on the game map so you knew where to return to.
These aren’t necessarily issues exclusive to Forma.8, mind you. The games I’ve given as examples above are by and large exceptions to the rule, and most Metroidvania games suffer from similar navigational quandaries.
Get used to the fact you’ll have to do a bit of exploring, and you’ll quickly accept that at least the world you’re exploring is lovely. What it lacks in texture detail it more than makes up for with charm, and the incredible soundtrack is brilliantly tranquil, ramping up at just the right moments to suit tense occasions.
(Sample gameplay captured using the PS4 Capture tool, frame rate and quality not indicative of the actual game)
This is a game that’s designed to be played at a slower pace than you may be used to. Your probe gently swoops through the sky, its little jet trail behind it, and the occasional wide zoom out not only makes for some impressive views of the world but also has the side-effect of making you move even slower and giving an even more relaxing feel to proceedings.
Later on you’ll get a speed boost power but it almost seems wrong to use it, so satisfying is the gentle pace you’re usually travelling at.
Forma.8 is lovely. It isn’t without its issues, and Metroidvania veterans will be familiar with most of them. But what it does right, it does with a style and ambience that few games accomplish, and as such anyone interested in a more laid-back, atmospheric adventure should check it out.
Forma.8 is available for download now on PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, Vita and Steam. A mobile version is planned for the coming months.
In order that I could write this review, I received a free download code for the game from a PR. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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