A silent, mask-wearing "Harbinger" named Parvus, armed with spear and shield, awakens in a cave and is tasked to find the source of a mysterious voice.
As much as a couple hours to as little as twenty-five minutes
February 27, 2015
Developer: Connor Ullmann and Friends
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Platform: PC (Steam)
Oblitus: First Impressions
Oblitus is a game whose title bears a striking resemblance to the Latin word obitus: “death.” The significance of this became apparent to me within the first fifteen seconds of entering this creepy, fantasy world, when I noticed a destructible platform beneath my character’s spawn point. Curious as to why the developers would place this destructible platform beneath the player spawn of all places, I poked it to death with my trusty spear and plummeted into the depths below. With panic-inducing anxiety, I watched my little masked creature’s health tick away. I had stumbled into a no-go zone, except the game let me go—to my death. Immediately. The first time I started it.
What were the developers trying to teach me about Oblitus and about life? Were they trying to reinforce a primal fear of destructible platforms by way of some nightmarish, Pavlovian torture? Certainly not.
I sullied my resolve, clicked “Start Game” after being taken back to the main menu following Parvus’s demise, and headed left. (You’re more liable to learn the character’s name from the game’s promotional material than from actually playing it. I think “Masky” may have been more endearing. By the way, parvus means “small” in Latin.) In short order, I found myself outside the dank cavern in which I started, free, free at last from its 1980’s-inspired techno beats that bore a striking similarity to the music from Sinbad of the Seven Seas. Upon touching sunlight, a giant bird swooped down and immediately drained half
Masky’s Parvus’s health. I panicked, throwing javelins haphazardly, and stumbled left until I was safe in a new passage.
“Nowhere to go but left,” I thought.
A twenty foot-tall beast emerged from the shadows, striking Parvus and dealing a deathblow.
“…What is this?” I whispered to no one, kissing cheese doodle powder from my fingertips and finding myself once more at the title screen.
It was this moment—it’s so clear in my mind—that I realized in being suckered into reviewing Oblitus, I had in fact been suckered into playing a side-scrolling rougelike game, much like that jerk businessman was suckered into hell in that late-90’s “Got Milk?” commercial.
Oblitus starts out dropping Parvus in the middle of a cavern atop the aforementioned Pit of Doom. Some Times New Roman-looking text—sans voice acting—gives you a vague hint about whether you should be going up or down. You head off in some general direction, cautious not to destroy the destructible platform beneath your feet, and run into blue-skinned mooks and bipedal lizards wearing skulls for some reason. There is no explanation of who these skull-wearing mooks are, or why they want you dead. Heck, there’s no explanation of who Parvus is, why he/she has a spear, or why he/she should give any heed to the nebulous auguring of the Times New Roman font.
While it is stated in the promotional material that the protagonist’s identity is unknown even to him/herself, his/her mysterious identity bears some degree of narrative baggage. In storytelling, especially in short stories like Oblitus, you simply can’t introduce insignificant elements, or elements you don’t significantly address. This principle is called Chekhov’s Gun. The player shouldn’t have to complete the game four times to learn who the main character is.
I learned more about Oblitus’s premise from promotional material than I did from its in-game content. Even the contextual clues where you could piece the story together by paying attention if you want to—like in Five Nights at Freddy’s— are sparse. This game has no plot other than, “Go here, kill this, collect that,” and fails to provide narrative justification for any of your mook-spearing exploits.
The “conclusion” of Oblitus is far from that. Better to call it an “ending” where you receive no indication whatsoever as to what you just spent the past ninety minutes (or if you’re quick, twenty-five minutes; it’s a Steam achievement!) doing. It was an ending I was glad to experience, however abrupt, confusing, and disappointing. If you want the “true ending,” you have to do multiple completions. Maybe players learn in the “true ending” who Parvus is and why he/she’s running around killing mooks. It’s not a design sin to provide bonus material and extras to players who go the extra mile, but to penalize those who won’t replay your game three to four times is. In any case, the gameplay wasn’t fun enough, nor was the nonexistent narrative premise interesting enough, for me to care.
(Note: After looking up the “true ending” on YouTube, I stand by my statements in the above paragraph. The “true ending” does not address any of the fundamental narrative problems with this game, nor did it redeem the overall experience of playing it. It provides a small [pun intended] revelation about Parvus and hints at the Eastern concept of Saṃsāra. That’s about it.)
Other than some cartoonish violence and creepy thematic undertones, not much to be worried about over Oblitus. I referenced Saṃsāra. The game isn’t really teaching this concept as much as it is assuming it.
The game’s Steam page claims it is “procedurally-generated.” This procedural generation is more akin to that in the Left 4 Dead games, where the procedural generation is built around randomized items and enemies, not the world. This isn’t like experiencing similar, but different and original levels in The Binding of Isaac, Minecraft, or Terraria. The world itself is stagnant in Oblitus.
Much of the exploration in Oblitus is about weaving through dark, narrow tunnels while barely-visible enemies pelt you with ranged attacks from off screen, and, hopefully, you’ll guess the right direction to find the randomly-placed items you need to succeed against increasingly-powerful foes. The design of the world itself is pretty plain, featuring big, open areas with ladders, plus the aforementioned tunnels. There was lot of room for the level design to be more interesting and to engage the player to do something more than jump around and hope for the best.
After learning that you should probably start off bearing right instead of left, you meet the first boss, who will kill you in just a few hits unless you either (1) picked up a decent randomly-placed item during your spelunking, or (2), learned that all you have to do to beat him is head to the far left side of the staging area, avoid the brambles, and pierce his glowing back hump with javelins.
This characterizes most of the combat in Oblitus. It’s more about learning tricks and patterns through trial-and-error—again, punishable by death, so have fun backtracking) than about bringing your wit and finely-tuned Nintendo platformer skills to bear on analyzing and battling truly challenging foes. The combat in Oblitus only seems brutal. Once you’ve died enough to learn the tricks and patterns of the bosses, they go down in two to three hits. The developers seemed more focused on maintaining this unforgiving, permadeath aesthetic than they did at actually devising levels, a fighting system, and enemies that were unique, intriguing, and truly challenging.
Many of the regular enemies can’t jump as high as Parvus, and are easily overcome by mounting a nearby hill or cleft and hitting them with ranged attacks while they vainly attempt to grasp at your feet. The scary, swooping bird that ate half my health off the bat? Only scary because it either attacks while you’re climbing a ladder or it comes from off screen, where you have no way of anticipating its attack. This isn’t intuitive game design, friends, especially regarding this notion of being blitzed by enemies Parvus should be able to see but you can’t. Being blitzed from off-screen should have been left in the early 90s, on the Streets of Rage.
Oblitus plays too hard on the idea of being roguelike without executing it in a fresh or interesting way. In its attempt to cater to a hardcore demographic, it tossed intuitive combat by the wayside. This game is challenging, but only as challenging as it is aggravating and time-consuming. It was not fun to play. It was a chore.
I took a playful jab at the music earlier by comparing it to that of Sinbad of the Seven Seas, but truly, it’s one of the most inspired facets of the game’s overall presentation. It’s creepy and idiosyncratic in the best ways for this genre and for the mood the developers seemed to be aiming at. Full marks to the composer.
The sound effects, likewise, mesh fluidly with the music and art. No complaints, but no special accolades, either.
The controls are fluid overall, but there’s no customization.
The graphics are pretty much what you’d expect from a 2D-sidescroller premiering in 2015—static (digital?) paintings that are relatively sharp and colorful in full screen. The animations are the weakest aspect of the presentation. Parvus, the blue mooks, the skull-wearing bipedal lizards, even the bosses to some extent—shamble awkwardly like string puppets. This is probably a stylistic decision rather than a technical one, but it still looks weird.
Text placement and font in-game are unimpressive and inconsistent with the stylized font used in the promotional material for the game. It’s just a Times New Roman-style font that appears at the bottom of the screen and isn’t the easiest to read. When you collect an item, colored text in the same font appears in a block (you can see the black background) at the top of the screen. It’s a small detail, but it smacks of incompleteness on the part of the development team. Something you’d see in a beta; all function, no style.
My favorite part about Oblitus—and about roguelike games in general—was when I made it forty minutes without dying, and then the game crashed due to an unknown error. Because I don’t want to be jettisoned back to the title screen only for my mistakes. I also want to be jettisoned back to the title screen because of software errors outside of my control.
I understand the appeal of games like Oblitus, Dark Souls, The Binding of Isaac, and, to a lesser degree, Super Meat Boy, in sharply diverging from the “Bravo team, Bear and Bird, meet us at alpha point!” mentality in a lot of contemporary video games. This shift has even been seen in games like World of Warcraft. Where players once had to spam general chat in Ogrimmar searching for allies before traveling to Blackrock Spire to dungeon dive for two hours with no strategy guide and only their gear and wits to guide them, the new Group Finder feature has all but removed the need for leveling players to meet each other before playing, let alone to actually travel to the dungeon and fight their way in. Even quests now have clearly marked zones on the world map of where to collect those ten raptor heads for Scout Longhorn in Northern Barrens.
Games have been dumbed-down and given pay-to-win options to appeal to initiates, uninitiates, and the plain lazy to meet a bigger bottom line. Games like Oblitus are hearkening back to an era when it took skill, a Friday night, and all your friends yelling over your shoulder and pelting you with popcorn to achieve victory. While I appreciate the effort of Ullmann and his plucky squad of indie developers, I don’t appreciate Oblitus’s execution. Clunky level design, an overall unintuitive gameplay experience, and merciless backtracking made combat and exploration frustrating. The lack of a solid narrative compounded this frustration and left me unmotivated to keep playing. My sense that the project was hurried to meet a distribution deadline—because several updates were rushed out before the game would even load on many players’ systems, might possibly be the fault of the publisher rather than the developer, and if so, I can empathize further with Ullmann & Co. while still not recommending you drop your money on this game until it goes to half-off in the next big sale.
Oblitus attempts to join the rising genre of brutal, roguelike games, but at fifteen bucks on Steam, I’m not sure it’s worth your money—let alone your time.
Agree? Disagree? Leave it below.
+ Simple, responsive controls
+ Solid artwork
+ Appropriate, foreboding soundtrack
+ Unlike many games today, it requires some degree of skill and patience to complete
- Practically nonexistent plot
- Repetitive, uninteresting gameplay
- Death is frequent, unintuitive, and aggravating