EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Joel France
previewed on PC
Developer Hyperstrange’s debut title ELDERBORN is a first-person melee slasher which aims to channel the experience of genre classics from the 90s. Light on story but heavy on combat, you’ll be slicing undead and smashing skulls within seconds of loading up the game. The aesthetic, evocative of bands like Iron Maiden & Motörhead, is a vintage heavy metal appeal to occult imagery and death. There’s also a fair tinge of the ancient Egyptian - from to the khopesh (sickle-sword) your character starts with, to the sprawl of maze-like caverns and tombs, with sand that gets everywhere. The soundtrack is exactly what you would expect from the visual style - booming drums and aggressive distorted guitars blasting out riff after riff. Whilst not the most innovative of approaches, it is very much a doubling down on the art style and helps form the game into a cohesive experience. It’s nice to hear some variety in the soundtrack, too, especially in an Early Access title - most encounters are met with a different battle anthem, and in the time I spent with the game I didn’t notice much in the way of repetition.
GET GOOD OR DIE TRYING
Without any ceremony, you’re awakened in a pool of water facing a door. On the wall is a plaque that reads: ‘Your destiny lies at the very top of the cavern’. This constitutes about as much storytelling as you’ll get during the climb; aside from a few dispassionate lines of text upon completing certain objectives, the game remains extremely hands-off when it comes to narrative. As you wander through the narrow passageways, you’re set upon by a multitude of reanimated corpses, who are often covered in some rather unpleasant glowing pustules. As you swing your weapon of choice, enemies will shed these orbs, which appear to be the source of their reanimated-ness. Once they are fully de-orbed, they go back to being plain old dead. This not only provides a refreshing alternative to health bars and damage numbers, but offers some insight into the possible source of this undead uprising.
A SMATTERING OF STRATEGY
You’ll unlock more weapons to play with as you progress, including a hammer and a pair of katars (daggers). While the game attempts to set these apart in terms of strategy - the hammer is a bit slower but can bash through shields with impunity, while the katars are able to parry incoming attacks and respond with a powerful blow - the most effective technique usually boils down to just hitting the attack button over and over again until the enemy is dispatched. I do enjoy the way your character nonchalantly spins his hammer in his hands during downtime, making it clear that to him, this is just another day at the office.
Outside of battling the undead, the gameplay is fairly basic, requiring you to roam the ruins looking for your next taste of combat. There are some platforms to climb, levers to pull and keys to fit into locks, but nothing that provides any real sense of challenge.The store page invites a comparison with DOOM, another game renowned for its brutal combat, but design decisions in ELDERBORN lead to a much less frantic experience. Where DOOM requires you to push forward and kill demons in order to regain precious health and ammo, ELDERBORN’s infinitely regenerating warrior incentivises retreating, waiting impatiently for the danger to pass.
NOT FOR THE NAUSEOUS
ELDERBORN’s first-person perspective, combined with its twisting passages and close-quarters combat, can make for some rather unpleasant motion sickness. Though this is an issue inherent to the viewpoint, it’s not helped by the overzealous visual effects applied to the screen when you take damage or perform a parry, nor the insistence on shaking the player’s viewpoint whenever they perform an attack. The way the camera sways as you strafe left and right, like a drunken warrior stumbling home for the night, was particularly nauseating for me, and meant that I had to take multiple breaks to regain my sea legs. Whilst this will affect some more than others, it's worth being aware of before going dungeon crawling.
At the end of your ascent, there’s a boss waiting - though I won’t (or more accurately, can’t) spoil this too much. As this foe draws its sword you’re met with a credit roll for the upcoming content, a somewhat cruel bait-and-switch no doubt intended to increase anticipation for future updates, but that left me feeling a little swindled. With only an hour or so of play time up to this point, I was ready for a proper challenge. When Hyperstrange do expand on this encounter I’m intrigued to see what they have in store - but in its current state, there’s little to draw me back in.
The game has potential, but we're not ready to jump in with both feet. If the game interests you, look, but don't touch - yet.