Dungeon crawling has been a staple of gaming for quite some time. Link did it, the original team of Final Fantasy did it, and before video games, we played on table tops with sheets of paper as we delved deep into the dungeons we created. It’s come a long way since then, and Hyperstrange’s latest excursion into the darkness is a fresh yet familiar take on the genre. Elderborn is a title that takes gaming back to the simplicity of the original first-person experience and couples it with a great soundtrack, modern graphics, and a feeling of being a badass not unlike playing DOOM. While this game excels at making you feel like the true barbarian you are, there are just a few hitches I encountered along the way.
Having checked out an early build of the game at PAX West this year, I had a rough idea of what I was getting into. Elderborn is light on narrative, instead telling its story through your actions: you play as a barbarian in the bottom of a dungeon that needs to get out. Fairly straightforward, right? The game, however, differentiates itself by being incredibly minimalistic. You will have no map, no compass, no waypoint markers, and no hints to speak of. Elderborn is about getting lost in the labyrinth of animated dead and terrible monsters who all want you dead, but being a brute of strength and violence means you are just as good at killing as they are. Your inventory will show the items you have collected splayed out on a sheet of fur. There is no equip-able armor or buffs or upgrades to speak of, just you, your weapons, and your wits. I appreciate the minimalist feeling the game is going for and the completely uncluttered HUD that lets me pay more attention to my surroundings.
The game offers basic puzzles to progress with color-coded keys and doors and relies heavily on the sense of being lost and the need to explore to get the most out of the experience. In my time with the game, I was smart enough to backtrack and explore different tunnels to get a new weapon and a much-needed checkpoint. I died several times but the difficulty feels fair; this is a game about skill and not just button mashing. Enemies have specific attack patterns you need to learn and weapons have their own strengths and weaknesses, so picking the right one for the right enemy is key.
To drive home just how badass the game wants you to feel, Elderborn features a soundtrack of heavy metal that ramps up when combat gets serious. In some cases this can actually be a hindrance as you want to run into combat in true barbarian form only to get picked off from a distance – but what can you do when the soundtrack gets your blood pumping? I did learn a few great tactics through trial and error, and each time I died I was motivated to try harder rather than feeling frustrated at the loss. Combat feels excellent with a combination of dashing, blocking, parrying, kicking, and striking to help you out of any situation. It only takes a few strikes to fell you, so you’ll want to find the best tactic for you and be smart about combat. If you need to take cover to heal, do it. You can also swap between various melee weapons mid-combo to chain together some cool attacks.
Graphically this game is stellar. Lighting effects, the stage design, enemies, everything looks fantastic and the fact there is no HUD to distract you really makes you appreciate it even more. Dying thankfully lets you keep any weapons and gear you discovered, sending you back to your last checkpoint but resurrecting everyone you already killed. This makes dying far less frustrating as I can’t imagine having to backtrack for every single piece of loot or needed item each time.
I did, however, run into a few technical problems that soured the experience. Using my Xbox One controller was the far superior option, but having paused and unpaused the game the controls automatically reverted to the keyboard. Whatsmore, my controller locked up and the only response I could get out of it was to move the camera and take screenshots. I had to reset the game and the controller to continue playing. Thankfully this only happened once, but after another half hour, or so of playing I put the controller down and my PC crashed completely. I am aware this is a game in early access and I feel like these are bugs that will be hammered out later on, but it definitely detracted from an otherwise greatly enjoyable experience. I tried playing the game with a mouse and keyboard but the quality of combat and indeed the survivability was greatly reduced compared to the feel of a controller.
With beautiful graphics, a killer soundtrack, and a fitting minimalist theme, Elderborn borrows concepts from games like DOOM, Dark Souls, and classic first-person titles to create an experience that is challenging in the best way. If you are looking for a winding and complex narrative, it isn’t here. While the bugs I encountered were unfortunate, I know there is still time for these issues to be fixed. The overall experience is a fun step away from the usual story-heavy RPG I thoroughly enjoy and it’s a great way to relax. I look forward to seeing Elderborn in its final release and despite the bugs I encountered I’m itching to jump back into the dungeon.
**PC code provided by the publisher**