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Friday, June 24, 2022

Nobody Saves the World Is Another Notch in Drinkbox Studios' Belt

I’ve wanted to write something about Drinkbox Studios for a bit now. I played their Guacamelee and Guacamelee 2 back-to-back a few years ago, and genuinely enjoyed both of them quite a bit! But I never really got a handle on what I wanted to say about them.

They were both good games, solid Metroidvanias with well-designed maps and strong beat-em-up mechanics for combat. Maybe they weren’t the best entries in either genre, and there wasn’t really anything revolutionary about anything they did with either system. But they did genuinely do two things really well, which is no small task! I considered making another Genre Mash-up article, but never quite gathered enough other material, so I settled for praising them in my year-end review instead.

Maybe I couldn’t think of what to write then, but I knew I wanted to check out whatever they did next. Which happened to be this year’s new release, Nobody Saves the World, their first title since Guacamelee 2 four years ago. Nobody is a Top Down A-A game, with the notable new mechanic being that the titular Nobody is a shapeshifter who can jump between over a dozen forms. Each of those comes with its own handful of abilities to learn, and about a third of the way through the game, you get the ability to mix and match them across forms.

Despite being a different genre than the Guacamelee games, Nobody actually winds up having a lot in common with them, as a more combat-focused take on a genre that’s usually more about exploration. The more I thought about it, the more that I realized that in top-down Zelda games (and its many followers), fighting monsters is usually a major part of the gameplay, but also… not really an active part of it.

Like, you need to know how to fight and dodge against new enemies, but once you’ve got a grasp of their weakness and attacks, there’s not really more you need to do. Just execute the same things you learned (or just go around them, if you’re in a hurry). And most of the time, the patterns and weaknesses aren’t even that big of a deal to begin with; sword slashes of various amounts will do it probably upwards of 90% of the time, but of course so will most weapons that do damage if you prefer something else, and there will usually even be some mid-game long range weapon that will let you preemptively stun monsters or take them out entirely without even needing to get in close.

And on the one hand: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? If you want to focus the game more on exploration and puzzle-solving, maybe you don’t need anything bigger. But at the same time, there’s also nothing really saying you can’t do more with it. And wasn’t that ultimately the same impetus behind Guacamelee? Like, there are enemies in a lot of Metroidvanias so that it’s not just a walk in the park, but the way to dispatch them was usually kind of straightforward. But why not add in the sort of complex fighting and combo mechanics you would find in a traditional beat-’em-up?

So Nobody is really in that same vein, as a top-down Zelda-style action-adventure game with combat more in line with a traditional hack-and-slash game. I feel confident saying that they can’t be the first game to do this, but after spending a decent amount of time considering the question and talking to friends about it, the field definitely seems thinner than it should be? Especially given how obvious that combination seems, it feels like half a dozen examples should immediately spring to mind.

In my experience, though, most hack-and-slashes tend focus on the combat almost exclusively and build worlds that are rather straightforward, often just linear dungeons; meanwhile, games that want to build a fully-fleshed 2D Zelda-style world, with exploration and backtracking and secrets and such, tend to follow Zelda’s lead on combat as well.

And as it would turn out, when you actually want the combat to be a focus in your game, there are some interesting things that you can do with it! As mentioned earlier, Nobody gives you a bunch of different forms to swap between, each with a few unique moves that you’ll unlock as you use them more, complete more quests, and level up. These abilities get a wide variety of ways they work as attacks (with a variety of ranges, attack patterns, strengths, cooldowns, etc.), plus four types of damage that can go with each attack (and enemies or obstacles requiring a specific damage type will be color-coded), although usually each form will have one or two aspects it specializes on.

The game’s standard hordes of enemies that swarm you eventually start to be less terrifying, at which point they increase the difficulty by giving specifications on how to take them out, most often with barriers that can only be broken with specific kinds of damage (much like Guacamelee used). And of course, a lot of your sidequests will ask that you use specific attacks, or perform them in specific ways. Nothing forces you to do these sidequests, but completing more of them improves your stats noticeably and unlocks more abilities, and there are a ton of quests to get through, so you start trying to strategize the most efficient way to clear them as you roam the game’s world. And if nothing else, they’re a good way to incentivize players to explore the full extent of each new ability that they unlock.

And as alluded to earlier, the other big element that pops up is the ability to gradually customize what abilities each form can access. They all start with their own unique attacks that they’re uniquely well-suited for, but eventually you can swap out more and more of them, whether it’s to fulfill a new mission, or because you only like some of one form’s abilities, or to provide coverage for multiple types of damage. This all culminates in some of the later dungeons, which start putting even more restrictions on what you can do.

Actually, some of the later dungeons make building a skill set for the dungeon into a puzzle of its own; do things wrong and you’ll make no progress, as enemies shrug off attacks and you slowly get overrun by mobs of monsters. And of course, you still have those sidequests to complete all the while. Really, it’s a fun thought exercise to work through, as you try and maximize every aspect! The punishments aren’t devastating (you just restart at the dungeons, none of which is super long), which helps to encourage this experimentation; and you’ll generally know if you overreached with a questionable build very quickly (sometimes with humorous results, especially if you’re trying to learn an unfamiliar skill). And if you stick it out until the New Game+ after beating things the first time, you get to keep everything from your first playthrough and face a full gauntlet of these battle-puzzle dungeons, with their own new, specific requirements.

Outside of the gameplay, the art direction is probably the second stand-out aspect of Nobody Saves the World, which is again right in line with the Guacamelee games. The world of those games had a very distinct and memorable visual style, with its bold, unreal color palettes and cartoony shapes, not to mention the overall thematic cohesion centered around Mexican luchador wrestling (some visual references, for those who never played them).

Nobody has a similar appeal, while also setting itself apart to some degree. There’s the same use of bold, vibrant color palettes, that distorted cartoonishness, that semi-grotesque style of weird thorny plants and landforms, and so many different elements that make this feel like a coherent world. But the world of Nobody is still definitely its own thing even with all of those overlaps, with an art style all its own. Like, I think it’s not difficult to connect that these elements are all from one studio, but if Juan from Guacamelee were to cross-over here (as he is wont to do), he would stick out pretty badly without some subtle design changes.

I will repeat my common sentiment and note that I am not an art critic, but there are definite differences. The art style is even more cartoony, losing Guacamelee’s sharp lines and defined shapes for characters that are allowed to be a little blob-ier and lumpier (it weirdly reminds me of the humans in The Far Side, for some reason? Possibly for making lumpy humans characters somehow still look normal and even a little appealing). And the grotesque designs move on from alien-looking plants and monsters, giving that weirdness to a lot of character animations in a way that reminds me of ‘90s cartoons. And they definitely lean into that aspect as well, with locales like mutant towns near nuclear leaks and towns full of cursed witches that let them get even weirder with designs. I hope I’m giving a fair description of all of this. Either way, I’m not sure that it’ll be everybody’s cup of tea, but even if it isn’t for you, I think it’s extremely easy to see how much work went into all of the art and direction.

Most other elements of the game are fine, if not as standout. The writing is fine, with a solid character arc at its center, a reasonable mystery to pull you through the story, and some goofy dialogue for NPCs (although with a lot less references to memes and internet jokes, in what I’m sure will be a relief for those who were more put off by that aspect of the Guacamelee games). None of the music really sticks in my mind, but I also don’t remember ever getting irritated by it either, despite how long I dithered in some areas. But even if these elements don’t stand out a ton, I don’t think any of it is bad either, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Overall, I’d definitely call Nobody Saves the World a solid win, and yet another strong game from Drinkbox Studios. If you at all enjoyed the Guacamelee games or a fan of the Top Down A-A games, definitely consider giving it a look (and, conversely, if you haven’t tried the Guacamelee games and find you like Nobody, consider giving them a glance as well). I’m pretty well invested in whatever the team makes next, as they seem to have a solid grasp on how to put their own interesting and unique, yet surprisingly simple, twists on established formulas, especially with strong visual identities, and that’s always a solid base to build a game idea off of.

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