After a pretty straightforward tutorial, Leap of Fate immediately confused me. I knew it was an action game, and I knew what the setting was like, but the rest was new. So many things didn’t make sense to me at the beginning. Why did I only have one life? Why was it so hard? Why were the stages randomized? As I continued to play, I started putting all of these pieces together. And soon, I realized what it meant: Leap of Fate is a roguelike! But even with that knowledge, Clever Plays’s new Early Access game left me with a lot of questions, and a lot of concerns.
Let’s start with the gameplay. The action takes place in small stages, sort of like the different rooms in normal roguelikes, with an isometric perspective. Each one has a set number enemy waves, and a corresponding amount of loot is awarded for defeating them. There are obstacles, some of which explode, and things to pick up during and after fights. The combat is fairly simple; using the mouse, you click on what you want to attack, and your character will fire in that direction. You can also hover over enemies with the cursor to direct special attacks, launched from the keyboard.
It actually feels a bit like a keyboard and mouse version of a twin stick shooter, and it works very smoothly. In the right dosage, it’s a lot of fun. It’s heavy action, but it also requires being careful. Again, you only have one life, so every hit is costly. Unfortunately, when you have to fight the same type of battle over and over again, as I’ll get into, it loses a lot of the fun and becomes a chore.
The aspect of the gameplay that took me the longest to figure out is the progression, both through the levels and in improving the characters. First, there’s the card system. You aren’t dealing with large, open environments in Leap of Fate; those small stages I mentioned are each self-contained. You progress via a collection of cards, forming a loose tree. Each tree is one of the game’s six levels. Most cards represent action stages, but some represent stores or treasure, as well as ways to change which cards are present. Once you complete the card’s stage or other task, you can move onto one of the cards directly below it. The branching paths allows for some customization of the pace, but it doesn’t make things easier.
As for character progression, it involves collecting various types of items from the various battle environments, treasure rooms, and stores. You can permanently upgrade your character’s skills for both the current and future runs, get new special abilities for the current run, or get more health or items. None of this is clearly explained during gameplay, though. It’s just sort of there. Hopefully, this will be changed before the full release. The biggest issue is that the permanent upgrades, the skills, only seem to save permanently when you beat the current boss, and that means long term improvements are few and far between.
A high level of difficulty is standard in roguelikes, but Leap of Fate adheres to this too well. You’ll get better as you go, but with the randomized stage trees, you might not get past the first couple of cards despite playing for a while. And if getting down the tree is that tough, you can imagine how ridiculous the boss battles can be. Yes, on the last card, you must fight multiple waves of enemies plus a powerful boss. There are items that refill your health, and a currency that can give you one revival per run, but no matter what you’re going to die a lot. Some players will likely find that even the first level is too much.
Extreme difficulty isn’t necessarily a problem, but I do think it should be easier to improve your chances over time. In Crypt of the Necrodancer for example, it was easy to buy permanent upgrades; they were just minor at first. That game always gave me a serious challenge, but at least I improved. It also let me start from later levels after I reached them, which Leap of Fate does not. If you’re on the boss of the 6th level and you die, it’s back to the first level for you. It just seems like too much, and I really hope the developers add difficulty settings. On the forums, they’ve discussed having a one time only Easy Mode, but I’d rather have a permanent Easy Mode. This game wants a lot of your time, making sure you practice over and over again to get good enough to finish. But with the gameplay where it is, I just don’t know if it’s worth getting better.
One area where I will give credit to Leap of Fate is in its style and setting. It takes place in what I can only describe as a gritty modern cyberpunk version of New York, where techno-mages seek power in secret societies. The designs of the two characters available so far fit perfectly, and the stages (that I’ve been able to reach) are pretty cool. Sure, it’s not going to set the world on fire or anything, but it’s cool and isn’t used too often. Enemies include such things as magical-looking birds, cybernetic cops, and eyeball-headed people.
The graphics themselves could probably stand to be a tad better, but as this is an indie game in Early Access, I’m not too concerned with that. There’s actually a fair bit of story available too, with alternate endings depending on how you play. But when you can barely get through the second level, you’ll find that those endings don’t help you out much.
I really do like Leap of Fate, and I’m excited to see how it progresses. For the moment, though, I just think it’s too hard, and too unforgiving. If there was a way to lower the difficulty, or if it were easier to get permanent improvements, I would highly recommend checking it out. But as it stands now, it’s an exercise in frustration for me. To some, the difficulty level might be perfect. Heck, it might even be too easy; there is a Hard Mode available.
But for me, and I think for the average gamer, progressing is more trouble than it’s worth. The gameplay and stage design hold up well in a vacuum, but when you have to keep fighting the same battles in the same types of areas over and over, they start to lose their charm. For now, I’m planning to keep an eye on how development progresses. In the meantime, I’ll stick with other roguelikes.