Paranautical Activity

Today, we’re going to be looking at a game called Paranautical Activity. But first, let’s have some background, because man, it had some background. The game was initially developed by Studio Avarice, but if you hit up Steam, there’s a different version attributed to a company called Digerati.

So when the game was initially under development, it was on Steam Greenlight when it was still a thing. While it was up there however, Avarice entered publishing talks with Adult Swim Games. Valve did not take kindly to that, because getting a publisher while still being on Greenlight could be viewed as cheating the system, and Steam wouldn’t want the precedent of developers on Greenlight suddenly seeking out publishers.

Studio Avarice instead turned to Kickstarter and was actually successful in funding the Paranautical Activity. So, what’s the problem? Well, when the full game was finished, Valve made a mistake in that it did not move Paranautical Activity out of Early Access, which is something that really hurts discoverability. This isn’t exactly the first time I ran into a game suffering problems from Steam refusing to acknowledge a game’s legitimacy – Lucah: Born of a Dream was one of a few games that was hit with a post-launch discoverability problem from Valve not recognizing it as legitimate.

Mike Maulbeck, one of the developers of Paranautical Activity, went on a completely normal one and posted death threats against Gabe Newell. Unsurpisingly, Valve did not like that and took the game off of Steam. Since Valve apparently refused to work with Code Avarice afterward, the studio ended up selling the rights to Digerati, who ended up posting their own version of the game, Paranautical Activity: Deluxe Atonement Edition.

But we’re not going to be talking about the Deluxe Atonement Edition. Instead, we’re looking at the original version of the game by Code Avarice, which is posted on the studio’s own itch.io, which I guess they can still sell? Well, I don’t know how the law works.

Paranautical Activity is a roguelike FPS where you’re descending through a hell of mystical creatures and sea monsters. Everything is rendered as voxels, and while I usually prefer a PS1 styled look for my 3D indie games, I think it’s a look that Paranautical Activity pulls off well. Though, if the game’s trying to look scary, it kinda fails because everything looks cute as cube people and honestly, the font is too try-hard, I’m sorry.

Starting out, the game offers four primary weapons that offer meaningfully different playstyles that feel well-balanced for the most part:

  • The shotgun is a basic hitscan weapon that’s not very strong, but it’s safe to use and easy to understand. It also starts with a cannon secondary weapon that’s strong, but it honestly doesn’t feel very good to use because it gives really poor feedback; it’s a weapon that I’m eager to swap out when I can.
  • There’s a crossbow weapon that’s stronger, though you obviously have to pull back the arrows and account for projectile travel to use it effectively. It doesn’t come with a sub-weapon, but it’s a very respectable weapon on its own.
  • There’s the weapon that shoots free bombs and can synergize with any items that changes bombs as well, though explosions can hurt you and it’s hard to hit flying enemies… though in the case of the former, there’s an item that gives immunity to your own bombs, so blast away. It also, thankfully, comes with a katana sub-weapon to deal with close range attackers. This is personally my favorite playstyle because I like seeing things get destroyed.
  • Finally, there’s a sickle weapon. It’s a melee weapon, but if you charge it up, you can throw it and it’ll come back to you like a boomerang. To me, this is a high-risk, high-reward weapon because I find it difficult to clear rooms of enemies with it, especially since you start with low health. The high-reward part comes in with boss battles, because a well-thrown sickle shreds straight through big bosses (which is most of them). To assist in fighting in normal situations, you also get a weak homing sub-weapon.

Each floor is a random layout of pre-made rooms, ending with a boss battle that gives a free item linked to the boss and an elevator that takes you down to the next floor. There is a shop on every floor where you can buy items with all the money you get and there are challenge rooms where you can get a free item for a cost; for instance, some rooms forces you to fight an extra (though somewhat easier) boss while other rooms just has the item sitting in the open but it’s rigged to hell with traps.

It took some getting used to, but Paranautical Activity is a game that I really kinda vibe with. After settling into a groove, I spent play sessions circling around a room, gunning down or blowing up all the enemies and hopping into the next room as the last ones explode into square pixels. Obviously, some situations were easier or harder depending on the playstyle picked; I can see the sickle’s use in boss battles, but using it during the room-to-room sections was somewhat frustrating. The only consistently frustrating thing across all playstyles though was dealing with melee enemies, but it depends on your speed.

So, speaking of which, let’s get into items, those things that modify how you preform. There’s a lot of useful ones – especially if you’re rolling with the bomb launching weapon. You have your standard health increases, a double jump, something that makes explosions stronger, etc.

But I also think that a lot of the items are a liability, both to you and other items. For instance, the usefulness of the bomb weapon is destroyed if you pick up the item that turns bombs into bouncing shells because they can’t be fired in the air, making it much harder to fight the plentiful airborne enemies. Speed in general is important, but there are multiple items that lowers your speed as a downside, which can become a detriment in the long-term – especially against those melee enemies, because there’s very little mercy invincibility and they can and will rip you apart.

Now, I have a rocky history with Binding of Isaac, which has its own problems with giving you useless and harmful items, but that game at least had the ability to reroll bad items or turn those items into benefits (like Nine Lives becoming extremely useful for the Lost, Tiny Planet turning you into a walking grinder with the right synergies, health ups becoming devil deal fodder, etc). Here, it’s just liabilities. Like yeah, you can simply not take the items, but why do these items have such arbitrary downsides anyway?

The music is also kind of in a weird place for me. So, all the action in Paranautical Activity is accompanied by high-energy dubstep, which I think is okay. However, I dislike how the music is used. The moment you enter the game’s menu, music plays and that music sticks through the whole time, persisting through fights and through levels until it’s time for the next track to play. It basically feels like Paranautical Activity just pulls up a playlist of dubstep to put in the background instead of assigning songs to specific areas and moments for a more cohesive presentation. Even though I thought the music was okay, I kinda took it as an okay to listen to my own music while playing instead. Side note: Visions of Bodies Being Burned is pretty good!

Now, it’s possible that Digerati’s updated version might not have these problems, but again, I’m looking at Studio Avarice’s original vision. All in all, I think the base gameplay of Paranautical Activity is good and fun – however, I think it has balancing problems with regards to items and the presentation isn’t all there. Why get this over the probably upgraded version, you may ask? Well, I can see a benefit in comparing Studio Avarice’s original outing with Digerati’s tweaked version as a developer because you could get a sense for how a work can be changed and improved. And, well, even though they don’t own the full game, I still think it’s good for the original developers to get a piece of the pie in a time where like, the original Rogue is being put up on Steam but the original developers aren’t seeing money from it.

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