A first impression is something hard to shift. You only get one, they shave the tendency to warp your perceptions and are a pain in the rump to shift. In Celebration Of Violence managed to deliver one of the most memorable impressions in recent memory. I sauntered out of the front gates, was drenched in a deluge of directions, got assailed by a bevvy of bats and eventually succumbed to death’s sweet embrace at the hands of some brutishly burly bandits. It wasn’t what I would consider a good start. My life was so short, I began questioning whether or not reviewing the game was a mistake. As it turns out, first impressions are the book covers of opinions.
In Celebration Of Violence is one of the most interesting little nuggets I have had the pleasure of playing this year. It’s an action Roguelite the likes I’d most certainly seen before – just not all in one place. The developers described it as: “The Binding of Isaac smushed together with Dark Souls,” which honestly, hits the nail on the head. After a bit more digging though, I began twiddling my ‘stache with excitement.
Character creation is very simple – you name your dude, pick one of many genders and fiddle around with some basic visual customisation tools to deck out your sprite-based avatar. You pick between a handful of classes – all of which sound pathetically incompetent – and off you trot. Each class has very minor stat differences but come packaged with different starting gear. The paltry peasant pokes people with a pitchfork, whilst the cautious coward managed to convince a companion to tag along – he also has a rapier for prodding things. These starting differences can be quite significant at the start, but as a run progresses, you can mould your character into whatever archetype tickles your fancy.
Once that’s all done and dusted you can slap the Live Again button and be whisked away to the sanctuary – a place you will get intimately familiar with. It was at this point the game began resembling a brick wall. You are told how to control the game via some diagrams etched into the earth – and that’s about it. You can stand uncomfortably close to NPCs and they might give you some information about the world, but other than that, you’re on your own. I bumbled around a bit, found a blacksmith, discovered I could kill all the NPCs, then died when I accidentally touched a guillotine and chopped my head off.
I eventually stopped killing people – and myself – long enough to realise that touching the various portals scattered around the place would take me to various levels. The sanctuary was just a place to gain pregame buffs after a run. Each portal will chuck you into a thematically different locale such as forests, swamps, deserts and dungeons. These locations are then broken up into exploration areas and boss arenas. The basic loop is to explore the former for loot and buffs so you can murder the latter.
This is where things got extra spiced, however. Combat is methodical and ponderous, with even the most basic of enemies being able to take large chunks out of your health. Recognising enemy attack patterns, sharp reflexes and an understanding of distance and your limited movement options is the only path to success here. This path is then obfuscated by the stamina gauge. Every action you take will drain a portion of your metre – heck even getting hit will knock off a hefty piece. Running out of stamina is a death sentence as you suddenly move slower, attack slower and your dodge becomes very unreliable. What’s worse, if you get hit whilst your stamina is too low, you will be stunned leaving you open to catastrophic, probably run ending damage.
Anyone who has played a Soulslike in the last decade or so will be familiar with the basic premise. What makes In Celebration Of Violence unique, however, is how balanced this system tries to be. Practically every enemy I encountered was bound to these laws. They can’t just throw out a constant string of attacks, they can’t unleash an endless barrage of spells. They will run out of stamina and they will be stunned. Enemies move slowly and their attacks have the same windup limitations. Things get a bit more complex in larger brawls, but the core of the idea is intoxicatingly good. There are some issues with it, mostly to do with smaller, non-humanoid enemies. Bats, in particular, were a nightmare to kill due to small hitboxes and quick movement – two things you simply don’t have.
The combat is enhanced by the world itself – more specifically the environment. Things like fire and lightning are influenced by the area in which they have struck. Fire, for example, will latch onto you if you stumble into it, and then those flames will very easily light nearby enemies and grass. This can quickly escalate into entire forests going up in flames, which is a sight to behold. Similarly, lightning tends to bounce between nearby enemies and will be significantly more effective if said enemies are wet. Physics also plays a rather big role. If an enemy charges at you, misses and hits a wall, they can take damage and even die. The core combat is methodical, the world is much more chaotic.
During your travels, you will find an assortment of locked doors, chests, shrines, and memento and spell vendors. For the most part, this is where you will spend your gathered experience. Shrines typically provide a run-wide bonus for a gradually increasing fee, whereas vendors will grant you many powerful passive effects. There is no traditional levelling up, so this is where you will shape your run. When you die, a percentage of your remaining experience is carried over, and you can use this at character creation to permanently increase stats. These increases are incredibly minor and will take a long time before the investment will tangibly pay off. This is where the sanctuary comes into play, as you can purchase all kinds of pre-run buffs, making things a tad easier, and therefore more profitable. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive to prioritise temporary gains over permanent buffs, but once I realised this fact, my runs went much smoother.
As you might have guessed by now, In Celebration Of Violence has a serious problem when it comes to withholding information from the player. Everything I have said up until this point has been figured out after hours of failure and piecing things together. The game was a slog for many hours as a result. Simple things such as knowing what a memento is, or does, before picking it up are hidden. This permeates the entire experience. It took literal hours to figure out how the spell casting system worked. I still have no idea why I am doing anything I am doing. People who think games are too handheld nowadays will likely love this aspect – I am not one of them.
The game does try to remedy this by including a very well hidden inspect function. This is where the Switch port starts to show its limitations – it either doesn’t work or isn’t helpful enough. Every memento in the game shares the same description when inspected, so I had no idea what any of them did and had to memorise what each little symbol meant before purchasing them. The game has a very in-depth notes feature which does give you information on every memento and spell you’ve ever seen. But again, the Switch is not ideal. Navigating the menus is incredibly clunky, and none of the mementoes in this book are named, which defeats the purpose.
Speaking of clunk, the controls were a constant battle. This is due, in no small part, to the forced use of Joy-Cons. Anyone who has played the Switch for more than 13 seconds is aware that precision is not their strong suit, and a game that is this punishing needs reliability. It even corrupts the already janky menu and inspect features, and the dead zones are so unpleasant, that moving cursors and scrolling is a nightmare in and of itself. There is some basic touch support if you play in handheld, which does help alleviate some of these issues.
Thankfully the game’s performance is rock solid, something that is required for this kind of game. The game never dropped frames, never stuttered and never crashed. It has a very basic pixel-art style, with enemies and environments being rather simple. Despite this, the game has very noticeable animations which aid in combat. Effects like lightning and fire look fantastic, and there’s a very satisfying blood spurt animation that makes everything feel brutal. Sound effects are ok, with basic clinks, clanks and swooshes when required. Musically though, the game nails the oppressively depressing atmosphere with gloomy background jingles. None of this will win any awards, but it does the job.
In Celebration Of Violence is a game that is incredibly difficult to recommend. It took hours of work before I got any sense of enjoyment from the title, and even then, the lack of controller support, the bugs and the complete lack of direction limited that. I loved the combat and the systems that surrounded it, but it simply wasn’t enough. Mindset is what will determine whether or not this is for you, honestly. The game gives you nothing, promises nothing and expects everything. If that is something you’re ok with, then go for it. If not, then this is an easy miss – even for hardcore Roguelite fans.
6 out of 10
Review code provided by Dolores Entertainment. In Celebration of Violence releases on the Nintendo Switch 26th November 2020 and will retail for £11.69.
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