Neon Abyss – A Cool Way To Die
PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch
“Death is the only way out.”
This ominous message, shown as you throw your character off a cliff and plunge them into the darkness (or in this case, fluorescence) of hell, can sum up most of the Neon Abyss experience. This roguelike action-platformer from Veewo Games is all about making your way through randomly generated dungeon levels armed with a wild assortment of weapons and abilities that change every time you play and often won’t reveal their traits until after you’ve already chosen to collect them. Basically, it’s a frantic ride filled with a lot of deaths – but you’ll have your share of fun while it lasts.
The plot of Neon Abyss is a little unclear. When you begin, you’re recruited by Hades (god of the underworld) to join his ‘Grim Squad’, who were formed with the goal of taking out the slew of ‘New Gods’ that have been trying to conquer his turf. You share a drink (you have no choice) and then you fall into a bar called Neon Abyss which acts as a homeworld and rest stop for the rest of the game. Here you’ll find the nice bartender who manages upgrades, a dance floor ready for you to boogie on, a character selection poster and a giant crevasse leading down into the depths of hell – and the only way forward is to throw yourself into it. Then the fun begins. Armed with your character’s weapon of choice, your job is to defeat the enemies in each randomly generated dungeon until you get to the level’s boss – a ‘New God’. What that apparently means is ‘meme lord’, and it becomes pretty clear that hell is being taken over by representations of modern-day tech and memes. If I was Hades, I’d be pretty mad too.
Your weapon starts out pretty weak, but many of the randomly generated dungeons will reward you with items for clearing them out, or for interacting with them in a special way. The catch is that these items won’t show you what they do until you’ve already picked them up, and not all of them have positive effects. It’s always a risk to pick something up, but it’s almost always worth taking. Along the way, you’ll also pick up grenades, keys and crystals that can be used to open doors, unlock chests and blow up piles of rock, and these can quickly become scarce resources. Because of the random nature of the dungeons, sometimes you’ll be fully stocked with more crystals than you can carry, and sometimes you’ll be left with none – and therefore unable to access things like the shop or specialty dungeons. The same can be said for all resources. It can get frustrating to be left unable to access big sections of the level because passages are blocked off by rocks or a door you can’t open, but for as many times as you’ll encounter situations like this, you’ll also have some perfectly smooth runs. You’re rarely left with any way to pick up anything from the dungeons in any given level before you’re forced to fight the boss.
As well as random weapons and items that are just as likely to allow you to jump higher, fly, ignore environmental damage, force you to sacrifice a heart to get any positive benefit or turn half your health items mouldy, you’ll also pick up eggs during your travels. These eggs can hatch into pets that will either help or hinder you on your journey and often it’ll take a while to work out which it is. You get a description of your pet’s abilities when it hatches, but often things are so chaotic that you don’t really take in the information, and just allow them to join your line of followers. Some of them will do useful things like shoot enemies for you, but some of them will steal coins or worse, hearts before you can get to them to pick them up yourself. At first, I thought my little butler friend was picking up coins for me so that didn’t have to do it, but I eventually realised he was stealing them from me instead. These pets can be upgraded, or they can die, and often the negative effects will be reversed, but they can be sturdy too. Sometimes you’ll be stuck with them much longer than you were hoping for.
After defeating each level boss, you’ll be rewarded with a token that you can use to buy new item packs to be integrated into the game, new characters, or new speciality rooms to add mini-games and a little variety to otherwise repetitive dungeons. Some of the upgrade routes unlocked by your purchases also allow you to buy rule changes that will permanently change the way some game elements work, which does mean that the game remains somewhat fluid. If you’ve ever played the card game Fluxx, this game feels a lot like a video game version of that – chaotic, ever-changing, with rules being updated and amended on the fly. It makes for an unpredictable experience every time you head into a dungeon, and different combinations of weapons and upgrades can definitely lead to different kinds of chaos. That said, there are some things that remain largely the same.
You’ll soon get used to the enemies and the dungeon layouts, and even with the addition of special rooms that introduce rhythm games and arcade elements, it can get a little tiring. Every run will allow you to make progress, as long as you kill a boss, but depending on your luck with items it can be a slog to get through a set of levels. If you can complete a bunch of levels in a row, you get the opportunity to defeat a ‘manager’, but it’s not entirely clear what makes each manager different. Though some new enemies are introduced, everything remains largely the same from one manager to the next, except for an increase in difficulty. If you like the chaotic gameplay of this game, you probably won’t mind – there’s definitely enough here to keep it from being predictable. But if you’re easily frustrated or bored by roguelikes, it might not take much to encourage you to give up.
Overall, Neon Abyss is a bright, polished roguelike dungeon crawler, and if you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll probably get a kick out of it. It isn’t without its flaws – the boss levels often came with some frame-rate issues, for example, and the character roster is made up almost entirely of dudes (except for the two women wearing skimpier clothes, so that felt like the bad kind of blast from the past) – so there’s little variation there. You can go from feeling frustrated that things aren’t going your way to getting a good run of items and instantly getting back on board with the whole experience. It isn’t life-changing, and it does borrow a lot of elements from other champions of the genre, like The Binding of Isaac or Enter the Gungeon. A lot of the jokes and pop culture references feel lame, but some of them (particularly the references included in item names and descriptions) are pretty clever. It’s not perfect. But when you’re flying through a level with an overpowered gun that shoots stars and fireworks, followed by your army of alien/mummy/cactus minions, it can feel damn good.
Neon Abyss was reviewed on the PC with code kindly supplied by Team 17
Jess is a writer and researcher who loves games with good puzzles, good stories, and a tendency to punch you straight in your feelings. She is one of the directors of not-for-profit organisation Queerly Represent Me and is particularly interested in games told from unique perspectives that highlight themes or characters from groups that are often underrepresented. She also just really loves coffee, hot chips, and terrible superhero TV shows, and is always secretly hoping that one day the world will give her a good Sherlock Holmes game.