Spotlight on Greenlight: Paranautical Activity

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Welcome once again to PCGamesN’s Spotlight on Greenlight, our regular Saturday feature where we look at the best and the most interesting Greenlight games that are hoping to make their way onto Steam. We’ve already looked at dozens of other titles in weeks past, so do take a look at our back catalogue.

Paranautical Activity is a cruel game, like all good roguelikes are. It wears you down with room after room of monsters – stripping your health, armour, and ammo until you’re left a hair’s breadth from death – and then it offers you a choice: fight the boss and leave this hellish floor or explore one more room. After all, maybe that next room will contain a health drop, a new shield, enough gold for you to buy that upgrade in the shop.

It’s all a tease, though. You walk into the room, the doors lock, and you’re surrounded by spiders. Exploding spiders. And it was all your own stupid fault for not choosing to fight the boss.

Failure stings all the more when you had a choice.

This constant battle between managing your ability to fight and exploring each level of the dungeon is what drives you through Paranautical Activity, a game which is essentially a first-person version of The Binding of Isaac, only with more voxels. It taps into the hoarder desire in everyone, the wish to search every nook and cranny for that last bit of loot, and it punishes you for it.

Like I said, cruel.

It’s also ridiculously satisfying when you clear a room, winning a fight that seemed unwinnable. It’s like you’ve got one over on the game.

Each game starts with you arriving at level one of hell via an elevator cage. You’re provided with a randomly assigned weapon – everything from a boomerang sickle, to a shotgun, to a rocket launcher – and then you’re left to explore a network of randomly generated monster rooms.

All the rooms are simple cubes with a varied assortment of walkways, staircases, and walls. And each room is filled with hellish creatures; hooded acolytes that cast fireballs, horned demons with miniguns for arms, and, if you’re really unlucky, butterflies. The butterflies are the bane of sublevel two and beyond. They float about the room firing white orbs that home in on you. Because the orbs don’t disappear till they hit a surface (or flesh) before long you can end up with whole swarms of orbs circling around you. Fucking butterflies.

Initially, the dungeon’s layout is completely unknown to you. Your minimap shows just the elevator room and any rooms that adjoin it. Because you can only descend to the next level once you defeat a boss character, you’ll have to start clearing rooms to find out where the boss is hiding in the dungeon.

As well as a boss room, each level has a secondary boss and a gift shop. The secondary bosses can be ridiculously hard and take you from full health all the way down to a puddle of blood on the ground in moments but beating them usually provides you with a powerful upgrade (speed boosts, damage increases, a higher fire rate). It’s up to you whether you want to risk it.

It’s always up to you.

Because monsters don’t spawn until you enter a room and the doors lock behind you, you can’t know what you’re about to fight before it’s too late. Once you go through the door you are committed, you must fight and you must win. It means that in the later stages of the game, when you’re down to the third and fourth sublevels (I still haven’t managed to get further – this game is hard, seriously) entering any room unnecessarily, rooms that don’t lead to the boss, could potentially sink you.

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Make no mistake, Paranautical is a rough game. It’s geometry is simple, the menus are ugly, and the guns don’t have recoil, and everything has a sense of the rudimentary about it. This lends the game a certain charm, that it is fun in spite of its build quality, not because of it.

There are points when the lack of polish gets in the way of the game, though. For instance, there’s no crouch button. This means that if you kill a monster that’s standing under a staircase and it drops a vitally-needed health pack, you can’t reach it. You can’t crouch to get into the gap and pick it up. That’s frustrating.

There’s a magnet upgrade you can buy in the store which pulls loot drops towards you, alleviating the problem, but it feels like the magnet should be a freebie not an upgrade you need to buy to fix a break in the game.

Nonetheless, Paranautical is a great little game.

There’s another reason why it’s making this weeks Spotlight, the developer’s been caught in a bit of a Catch 22. Originally submitted to Greenlight, developers Code Avarice managed to secure a publishing deal with Adult Swim. However, because the game was already in Greenlight, Valve didn’t want to give the impression that you can skip Greenlight by signing with a publisher, so they won’t let Paranautical onto Steam until it passes through the community vote. It’s a naff situation for the developers because they are limited to where they can sell their game and as a result are struggling to make a living from their work.

We can help sort all this out by voting the game through Greenlight or buying a copy from the team.