It Lurks Below
Over the course of this weekend, I had the pleasure to partake in an early beta-test for David Brevik’s new game: ‘It Lurks Below‘. I played through the relatively short snippet twice for a total of ~twelve hours so far and — just to get my general opinion out of the way — I enjoyed it; I think it will be a good game once it has more content and features. This is not primarily an evaluation of the quality of the game however. Apart from the informative «David Brevik is making a new game and this is what it is» in the beginning, this post is mostly feedback for the developer. Thus I’m not going to explore and explain every single game mechanic unless that is important for that feedback and I’m not going to suggest content.
When you initially see the game you will almost certainly make the wrong assumption, and it’s easy to see where that is coming from. I too lived under the misconception that this is a ‘Terraria’ clone and considering I put more than 600 hours into Terraria and ‘Starbound’, I was excited for another take on that formula. However, two hours in I suddenly realized this is not the case. Yes, it’s a side-scrolling tile-based game with a large focus on fighting and finding/farming better gear, but that’s where the similarities end. Before I go into the why they are very different games, let me make another comparison to better illustrate this point: ‘Quake’ and ‘Skyrim’ are both ego-perspective vertex-based games with a large focus on fighting. Categorizing those games this way is obviously non-sense, and the same is true for It Lurks Below.
Terraria as a game has a huge focus on your personal physical skill. Enemies do damage on touch, the enemies that shoot fire slow projectiles in predictable patterns, some teleport behind you, some lunge and pounce at you, some move erratically, some outright phase through walls, some grab you, some explode, et cetera. Terraria has a lot of variation in how different enemies move and attack because it values your skill dodging these. The game makes an active effort to prevent you from just kiting stuff by walking backwards by having these enemies that lunge, teleport and phase through walls. Many of the items you find in the game primarily exist to give you more options for dodging or safer ways of doing so: Double jump, floaty falling, grappling hook, double-tap dash, wall clinging, wall jumping, more movement speed, higher jumps, less knockback, triple jump, more control underwater, more air-control, flying, no fall damage, and so on. You can beat most of the bosses and endgame mobs completely under-geared regarding stats by just playing skillfully with those items, and the game tries to make sure it’s always realistically possible by hard-limiting the amount of monster spawns and thus the amount of things to dodge on the screen at any given time.
It Lurks Below is practically on the opposite end of this. Enemies don’t do damage on touch, they have attack animations. Most mobs even have ranged weaponry of their own and the projectiles (while slow) are usually too big to jump over in the crammed spaces you move in, sometimes explode on top of that and sometimes they are just instant beams with no windup. You can dodge attacks every now and then in open spaces with not too many mobs are around, but the only mobs I have seen where you can realistically dodge most attacks were the bosses. Furthermore, apart from one single normal mob and one boss who spawns other mobs, mobs do not respawn. They are just there from the second the world is generated and once you clear them, they are gone. The game doesn’t make an effort to limit the amount of mobs you have to deal with at all, it’s not exactly rare to run into a situation like this:
The game doesn’t expect you to dodge, the game let’s you kite what you can kite. The game expects a different skill, the skill of making choices for gear and attribute points. It’s a game about min-maxing stats and left clicking towards enemies to make them die before you do because you (ideally) roll the better numbers due to your choices. Thus it is much closer to Diablo than it is to Terraria. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, it’s David Brevik’s game after all. It’s clear the game doesn’t expect much of you in terms of dodging attacks by moving smartly because the game has a fixed percentage skill for dodging that you can find and level up.
Does that make it a worse game because Terraria also has stats to min-max? No, not really. The systems for that in It Lurks Below are already deeper than in Terarria anyways. But I think it’s important to mention that this is not a game like Terraria where your skills and options to use those skills increase by playing. For the most part, it’s a game where your numbers get better by going through a gameplay loop with the goal of farming gear with better numbers. And if you don’t have the numbers it isn’t about making due with your numbers and supplementing them by raw-skill, it’s about making sure you don’t pick fights you don’t have the numbers for yet. Or to put it into Travis Baldree’s words: It’s a game where you beat the heck out of monsters and shiny things fall out. 😉
Many of the beta testers (and David Brevik himself) claim that this is a hard game. While I certainly don’t consider it an easy game, I personally don’t agree with the notion of it being extraordinarily hard. Obviously that’s a very subjective topic, but in my opinion the systems that make it hard are just too “abusable” in their current form. First and foremost there’s the hunger system. Many people had an issue with this because it’s too harsh. Basically you have a meter for hungriness from 0%-100% which decreases by 1% every seven seconds or so and when it’s at 0% you take damage and eventually die. On the surface of the world you can find and plant different crops and make different foods from those crops (or eat them directly) to fill it up again. My first reaction to it was «Why is this even here?», because it didn’t seem to add much, and what it added seemed incredibly repetitive on the surface. But I ended up liking it once I found out food spoils regardless of wether or not it’s in your inventory or still “on the plant”. I do think that adds something to the game. Apart from giving you a good reason to go back to the surface and sell stuff you found instead of just throwing it away or not picking it up if it looks lousy, it gives you quiet time. Also it’s a skill to manage it and it actually makes sense in a game that is primarily about managing stats. There is something to learn with the food decay. For example, for the longest time I harvested my berry bushes every time I went up from the surface. Until that one time where I went up and saw all the berries on the bushes decay before my eyes. Contrary to all other crops in the game, you only harvest the berries on the bushes and the bush itself stays and grows new berries. You don’t have to replant them and this convenience is set off by a comparatively short time until decay. So if you want to have that convenience and still make sure you got food when you need it (because you obviously don’t want to starve, especially on hardcore with perma-death) you need to find a solution to that problem. Which is either cumbersomely timing your returns, or elegantly cycling the bushes by only harvesting a portion of them, so even if you come up and the berries on one portion of the bushes have decayed or not grown yet, you have berries on another portion.
Wheat on the other hand decays pretty slowly, but can’t be eaten directly. It is however an ingredient in berry-pies and bread, two foods with a decay time that is incredibly lengthy compared to most other foods. And suddenly you are making meaningful choices on what to grow. There are however two issues I have with this system. The first one is that all other crops (like carrots, tomatoes, cabbage and sunflowers) are largely identical in growth and decay time, so there isn’t really any choice there, you make whatever transforms into the best level2 food. I’d like to see some more variation in this regard, berries and wheat have great unique things going for them and it would be nice to see more diverse mechanics for other crops as well. The second problem is that the whole system — while initially a difficult survival system — gets trivialized within the first 30 minutes of play and after that it really doesn’t add much anymore because of that trivialization.
Instead of eating a crop or using it in crafting better food, you have the option to make seeds out of that crop. And the game just gives you too many seeds this way. In the beginning you basically run around the world once and pick up all the food, make half of it into seeds and keep the other half to eat and once you do that two more times with the crops you replanted, you can easily keep a farm going that sustains you with way more food than you’ll ever need with very little time investment. And at that point harvesting your crops and replanting them so you can eat becomes a chore, because at that point you don’t have to make any decisions to “min-max” anymore. It’s easy to see why the system is set up this way: You’ll get a random amount of seeds per crop you make into seeds, between 1-3, and if it was considerably less some players with bad luck might run into a situation where they don’t get enough to make the farming self-sustainable, and that is just unacceptable game design. On the other hand, having a system to add difficulty and choices which then transforms itself into a boring chore by giving you way too much stuff isn’t great either. However, I see two solutions to this:
Option A is removing the whole “transform food into seeds”-mechanic, spawning a fixed amount of crops on the surface at world generation and automatically giving you a seed every time you eat a food item or use it in crafting. Additional seeds can still be found underground (currently these are practically worthless) or be bought from the seed NPC. It’s obviously not random anymore and unless someone loses seeds by letting food decay the whole system is somewhat homogenized, as everyone will have the same options until they find additional seeds and those options need to be good enough to be able to survive with them.
Option B is lowering the chance for seeds, but using the Tetris Grandmaster way of randomizing. When you just lower the chance for seeds to something like an average of 1.5 seeds per crop you have the problem that some people will run into lengthy streaks where they get a single seed over and over again and never get a properly sustainable farm going without dying over and over again for hours. However, you can sidestep that problem with a bag system. Example: You (as the programmer) set up an imaginary bag with 30 seeds in it. For the next twenty times a player makes seeds from a crop they have that chance of either 1 or 2 seeds (1.5 average) until:
- The bag only has as many seeds as attempts left (in which case the player will always get 1 seed) or
- the bag has more than or equal to twice the amount of seeds as attempts left (in which case the player will get 2 seeds).
Once the bag is empty, you generate a new one for the next twenty attempts. If you want more control, you make the bag and number of attempts smaller, if you want more individualistic randomness you make it larger. The player is never aware of the bag existing in the background and you elegantly sidestep the problem. The problem being that for a small averages to work for every player out there, every player needs a sample size that’s just to big for a system that kills you fast if you are unlucky.
Shooting and Healing
Then there’s healing. I think HP pots should either have a way lower drop-rate or have a cooldown or should be split up into a portion of the heal being instant and the other being over time. Currently it’s just way too easy to just stand there and take a beating while chugging potion after potion. Part of the healing being over time would also add the little strategic decision of preemptively chugging a potion when you know you are about to take damage.
Regarding the shooting I feel like wands with the “reflective” attribute should cause some amount of self-damage when you shoot yourself in the face. It’s a tile-based game, you can place blocks, and thus it’s currently incredibly easy to skip right into the late-game by ricocheting your projectiles over/under cover or through little gaps. I think that’s cool, it feels good doing that, but the thing is that right now it’s a ton of reward for absolutely zero risk until you encounter the squid-faced dudes/dudettes that just blast through your cover to get to you. The danger of self-damage would add a little bit of risk, not only because of the damage but because it will make players take a more careful and thus slower approach, which adds risk through other systems like hunger and the invasions.
Wands with the “multi-shot” attribute should probably do something like 50% less damage per projectile, as they just dominate and potentially one-shot every single non-boss non-unique monster in the game. Yeah, you need to get close, but it’s not that much of an increased risk considering many mobs are ranged anyways. If it’s lowered to 50% you are still doing 150% damage compared to a wand without the attribute when all three connect, but you aren’t doing the insane 300% you currently do.
Besides these handful of issues, I really don’t have much to say about the game. Playing it feels good, but it’s lacking in content and usability right now, which is expected, because early beta. Speaking of which:
Quality of life features
I’m just going to make this a list:
- A verbose stat-screen that displays things like extra damage to demons, elemental resistances, where my mana is coming from and what order it’s calculated in with percentage-based bonuses, amount of killed monsters, etc.
- Shift+scroll wheel to scroll the rows of your inventory through the hotbar (as in row1 becomes the new hotbar, hotbar becomes row3, row3 becomes row2, row2 becomes row1)
- Shift+left click to place a torch from your hotbar on the background tile your mouse cursor is on unless you have a pickaxe selected
- Option to auto-pause on alt+tab
- Option to tune down and disable parallax scrolling
- Buttons in the inventory to trash certain items categories (trash all seeds, trash compost, trash all green wands)
- Larger pick up funneling and less delay to be able to pick up destroyed blocks
- Middle mouse to do everything that you currently have to do by pressing E, like opening doors, planting seeds, making seeds, etc.
- Option to put the minimap into a corner or have it as a translucent screen overlay
- “Subcursive” crafting (for example being able to directly craft the blueprint for “The Hat Shack” when the player has 10 wheat bushles + 60 wood (40 for the blueprint, 2×10 for the vertical and horizontal beams))
- Optional “Smart Cursor” (see Terraria)
- “Pick Block” on shift+middle mouse (puts the block your mouse cursor is on into the current slot of your hotbar if you have that block in your inventory)
- “Save Movement” with shift+movement keys (moves you to the very edge of the blocks you stand on but not letting you fall down)
- Torchlight-like item comparison when you hover over wands/armor