A brutal battle among the stars
Around this time last year, I found myself deep into the world of GRIME. A Metroidvania with a unique world and back-breaking gameplay, that title left a large impression on me. In some ways, Worldless feels like a kindred spirit of that game. The Noname Studios' developed effort also boasts a fresh-looking universe to explore and challenging combat engine. In a genre overstuffed with releases, it's these attributes that immediately drew me to the game.
Born into a newly created universe, the entity the player inhabits is seemingly set for one destiny. Spotted in the background, blue and white creatures, which is the color of our character, are in a constant state of battle with black and orange creatures. As such, when we come face to face with an opposing-colored creature, a fight seems like a foregone conclusion. But something strange occurs, and soon the two different entities find themselves joined together. This new amalgamation now finds itself in search of a different purpose.
At least, that's how I have interpreted it, as what is told in Worldless is purposefully sparse and ambiguous. There are creatures you come across that attempt to spell things out, but even their dialogue isn't as direct as I would have liked. Ultimately, though, I mostly just found myself struggling to care about what was going on. The world is interesting to explore, but that's purely because of the mood and vibes of it, not because of anything the game is trying to tell you about it. Minimalist storytelling can often be thought-provoking, but I struggled to get invested with this one.
Worldless sets itself apart from its Metroidvania contemporaries almost immediately. After some brief platforming, you get a taste of the game's interesting battle system. Rather than take a traditional hack and slash approach, the action instead resembles a turn-based system. You and your foe take turns attacking and defending each other's blows. Your character has access to simple strikes, as well as a handful of elemental attacks. Specific foes are vulnerable to different elements, so you'll need to pay attention to see what works best. When defending, you have specific blocks for magic and physical attacks, and on-screen indicators are provided to show which one you need to use. Failure to put up the correct defense will result in you quickly being defeated. It can almost feel like a rhythm game, except you aren't relying on sounds as much as you are visual cues. Like playing Rock Band with the sound off.
Timing is a crucial component, both for offense and defense. Getting into a rhythm on offense will allow you to chain together attacks more efficiently. Mindlessly mashing buttons will hurt the enemy, sure, but you would be doing a disservice to yourself by doing so. On defense, holding down the correct block will negate damage, but your shield can only withstand so many blows before it shatters. If you perfectly time a block, though, you'll shield will stay intact, and any damage dealt will be negated. It's challenging to get this down perfectly, but it pays to study your enemy's attack patterns.
Another important aspect of the combat is the absorption ability, which lets you drain the opponent's lifeforce rather than kill them completely. As you do battle, there's an absorb meter on-screen. Filling it up will require to mix-up your attacks, as spamming the same one will result in lower effectiveness. Getting it over a specific amount will let you trigger a button-prompt mini-game to complete the action. If you only have the meter partially full, though, only one or two buttons will be on-screen. You'll need to guess the others to absorb, and failure to do so will result in returning to battle. It can get frustrating, but absorbing enemies gives you ability points, which can then be used to augment current skills or purchase new ones. There are also specific enemies that can only be absorbed.
With its tight timing windows and crucial absorption mechanic, combat in Wordless can get extremely frustrating. Enemies can wreck you in just a few shots, and while there isn't a penalty for losing, having to constantly repeat battles can wear on you. There's no way to change the difficulty, so you are stuck with learning in order to survive. It's a system that requires perfect precision, particularly once you encounter the later bosses. Memorizing specific enemy attack patterns, while also focusing on mixing up attacks to fill the absorption meter was difficult to juggle during a battle. It led to many tough defeats, but also many triumphant victories.
The harshness of the combat can be a dual edged sword of frustration and elation. Ultimately, though, I think that the combat may be too difficult for its own good. As much as I enjoyed the satisfaction that came with finally taking down a tough boss, I found myself struggling to avoid burning out through many attempts to do so. There are ways to create challenging battles without skewing the power level to one side as much as it feels here.
Outside of battle, the platforming in Worldless is solid, if unspectacular. There's a good flow to your character's movements, and the areas are well designed. There's good variety to how each biome is laid out so there isn't any lingering staleness as you move between them. As you progress through the game, you'll unlock additional abilities to help here such as dashing and being able to launch off designated objects. Once you have these powers, it pays to go back to prior areas as there are additional secrets to uncover.
Unfortunately, finding your way back to these areas can prove difficult for two reasons. The first is that there is no fast travel system in the game. There are usually multiple ways to exit an area, but if you're trying to move quickly from one level to another, you're out of luck. This really stands out when you find yourself struggling against a tough enemy, and maybe want to try your hand at something else. The other reason is that the map in the game is too sparse to be helpful. On the map, each level is laid out as if it were a constellation. Points on the constellation are used to indicate where you are, and where enemies are. That's about as much detail you get, though. There are no indicators for what else may be in the area.
Having drawn me to the title in the first place, the visuals of Worldless continued to impress. There's a haunting beauty to the fresh universe of the game. Weird landscaping and funky foliage dote each of the areas you visit. The assorted creature designs you come across are impressive as well. Some of them bear resemblance to creatures in the real-world, but others sport other-worldly designs. I also really love how the title uses color. Blue/white and orange/black dominate the scenes, but the game knows when to deploy softer colors such as pink to stand in contrast to what's on-screen. Playing on the Steam Deck, it all popped on-screen.
I feel conflicted about Worldless. On the one hand, I found myself often frustrated by it. The tight windows of the combat engine caused me to repeat certain battles ad nauseum, and the light storytelling struggled to captivate. However, I love the visual design of it, and as difficult as it could get, the mechanics behind the combat are enjoyably sound. For better or worse, Noname Studios set out to create something fresh, and I think they succeeded at that. But with the brutal difficulty of the game being as high as it is, it's tough to give the game a full recommendation.