Before I started reviewing games, I promised myself I would follow a personal standard – a ‘golden rule’ if you will. I would play a game for at least 10 hours before I made a judgement. I don’t believe in the idea that a game doesn’t really start until 15-20 hours in (looking at you, FFXIII) and frankly, it’s a cop out for developers to argue otherwise. Grab me in the first hour and make me want the rest – I think that’s a fair viewpoint. Rarely do I get an immediate, perhaps even visceral, reaction to a game within minutes of playing but oh did I get a reaction to this. Come walk with me through my personal hell and experience Paranautical Activity: Deluxe Atonement Edition.
Paranautical Activity may be familiar to some of you but to those unaware, it’s a game with a – shall we say, complicated – history. Initial issues with Steam lead to its original publisher, Adult Swim, backing out of the deal, leaving the game’s development to be funded through a Kickstarter campaign in 2013. After eventually completing the game, it was mistakenly advertised as an Early Access Game, leading to forum complaints and whispers about the developers, Code Avarice, trying to hide from criticism. So far, so typical Steam shit-show. This cock-up however culminated in an angry Twitter rant from the then-developer Mike Maulbeck which ended up in an apparent death threat to Valve/Steam head Gabe Newell. Paranautical Activity was swiftly pulled from sale and Maulbeck left Code Avarice shortly afterward.
Most of us who followed the hoo-ha at the time considered that the end of the matter and expected Paranautical Activity dead in the water, just another game that stalled and died. But as it turns out, the rights to the game were bought by Digerati Distribution who re-released the game on Steam in its new Deluxe Atonement Edition form. Was it worth it? Well…
Paranautical Activity is a weird mash-up of ideas. It’s a rogue-like FPS with a ‘nightclub in hell’ voxel style – think bright neon glaring at you from dark rooms with a terrible dubstep soundtrack and you’re in the right place. The actual look of the game itself is quite pretty; it’s certainly eye-catching at least. Monsters are pretty if derivative and outside of the occasional bizarre encounter with floating laser whales and mini-battleships, it’s your usual collection of ‘video game’ monsters. Skulls, demons and other assorted goons fill the screen but they do all at least fit in.
It says a lot about the developer having a sense of vision when it sports a unified visual style and not just random shit thrown together so kudos. It is however a real shame the same can’t be said for the in-game menus and screens which seem like they’ve been thrown together using various bits of clip art from the mid 90’s. Is it tongue in cheek? Ironic? Who cares, it looks like crap and lets the game down. Bleeding letters anyone?
So now we get to gameplay. Oh how I hate the gameplay. To be fair, the game bills itself as an old-school Quake/Doom experience but no one told the developers those games get by on nostalgia and fond memories. I spend 20 minutes trying to tweak the mouse sensitivity as the slightest touch sends my character pirouetting across the screen. I eventually manage to get it so I can suffer it but never feel happy with it; it’s always just the wrong side of jerky. The game itself is actually a procedurally generated shoot-em-up with your character moving from room to room, clearing them of enemies. You can find random items to power you up, shops to purchase new things and bosses to take down. If you’ve played anything like Rogue Legacy, Nuclear Throne or The Binding of Isaac, you know what this is.
The vast, looming problem I have with this game however is I just hated every minute of it. I’m sorry, that’s really blunt but I just did. The initial weapon load-outs to choose from range from dull-but-usable to the fucking useless. Choose the weird sickle weapon and you’re stuck throwing a farm implement at Satan 10,000 times until he dies, leaving you with just 3 others in the room left to kill. The shotgun is apparently loaded with pebbles, the grenade launcher requires an advanced degree in mathematics to hit things in the air and the crossbow – Lord save me from the crossbow. Whoever decided a fast-paced shooter needed a weapon that required you to slowly pull it back and release it every time to shoot has never had fun in their life. I know what they’re trying to do, this is a tough game and it’s making you work for every kill, that’s fine. The difference between this and something like The Binding of Isaac is that Isaac still feels fun even when you have the shitty weapons. You still feel capable of winning even with the worst items and it’s still fun to try and do so.
From the first time I tried it, Paranautical Activity felt like a chore. Lurching from room to room with my pissant weapon in hand, falling back into old routines of strafing and circling, I just wasn’t invested. Some power-ups made the game a little more exciting but just not enough to make me want to go back. 10 hours of playing this? I managed 4 at a push and feel bad for that, honest. Maybe it’s a game that some of you will enjoy, it certainly has a janky charm but I just didn’t like it. Give me Nuclear Throne any day.