As We Play: Forced Beta

As we play offers the thought strands of the reviewer as they’re going through the game. This offers unique content for the reader so they can come to understand the conflicting feelings of the reviewer as they’re playing a game for the very first time.

All feedback on this concept is welcome.

Getting set up

Presenting itself as an action RPG with tactical and puzzle elements, 4-player co-op brawler Forced caught my eye at this year’s Eurogamer and today I’m sitting down to try out the beta currently available on Steam.

Menus!

While there’s nothing particularly special about the menu, it is worth pointing out that the co-op option appears before the single player campaign, which if nothing else stands to reinforce the games primary function as a multiplayer experience.  Payday did the same thing.

Speaking to the developers at Eurogamer they talked about drawing inspiration from Diablo and Dark Souls, so it’s good to see that the game offers controller support as I found those titles were played best with the 360 pad.  There’s also fully customisable keyboard support to, I’ll be sure to give that a whirl later on.

 …and my axe! Anyone want my axe? Nobody?

Given that there seems to be nobody online at the moment and I don’t currently know anyone else with the game it seems like I’ll be getting stuck into the single player campaign.  That’s not all bad, it’s often a concern with multiplayer focused titles that they live and die with the community, often not being viable offline.  The folks at Beta Dwarf assure me that the game is fully functional as a solo experience, so let’s get stuck in and see…

Balfus, Spirit Guardian

The influence from Diablo is apparent from the get go, with the same style of sketched stills being used to set up the game’s story.  It seems that at birth I was sentenced to one day enter the gladiatorial pit in order to appease the Gods, and after a lifetime of training the day has finally come for me to descend into the darkness!

I’m running a fairly decent rig with the graphics set to “Beautiful”, which is akin to their maximum setting, and even in these first few moments the game is gorgeous, with smooth animation and sharp textures – it actually reminds me a lot of the aesthetic from Torchlight.

After being introduced to my Spirit Guardian, who reveals this is gauntlet designed to breed warriors for a race of guardians, I’m thrust into “The Selection” – sounds ominous.

No axe?!

I’ve been given a choice of one of four weapons; a bow, a two handed mace, what appears to be a set of daggers of some kind and a sort of glaive-shield hybrid.  Given that the game uses a twin-stick shooter control style I figured ranged was be the best choice so I went with the bow, although I’ve got no idea of any pro’s and con’s for each of these weapons – or even their names, you have to have weapon names in a fantasy RPG!

Forced Choice

Which weapon?

The Selection

So the bow was a mistake given the close quarters corridors I found myself in – thankfully years of playing geometry wars means I can out-strafe these enemies.  It’s clear that there’s more of a focus on tactical combat here than simple health bar management as my attacks interrupt those of my foes and charged attacks can be used to knock them down.  I’m told it’s possible to complete the game without taking any damage – let’s hope that doesn’t become one of the achievements…

I’ve just been granted my first ability and much like in Diablo 3 these can be switched out and changed at any time, without penalty – allowing players to mix up their play style to meet the challenge ahead.  It’s not a system everyone will like, but I’ve always preferred it as removes the fear of wasting skill points or having to hunt for cookie-cutter builds and promotes the level of experimentation that I feel underpins games like this.

Whenever you attack an enemy in Forced you apply a “Mark” to them that can then be consumed to enhance the various special attacks you have on offer, making them more powerful.  The more marks, up to a maximum of five, you have on an enemy, the more powerful your attacks become.  It’s an interesting system that adds to the tactical nature of the combat, as it balances the desire to use weaker, more rapid attacks to build up marks on enemies, against the need to use more powerful charged attacks to dispatch them quickly before you’re overwhelmed.

Get over here!

Accompanying the combat is a puzzle system that uses your spirit guardian, Balfus, to interact with elements in the environment.

At any point any of the players can call Balfus over to them, and during The Selection I had to activate three shrines in order to continue, requiring me to position Balfus such that he would pass over an area I couldn’t reach.

He can also be used to augment your combat abilities, in this case passing over a healing shrine that applied an area of effect, heal over time spell that steadily got smaller.

Trials HD

Having successfully passed The Selection I’m exposed to the game’s hub world, a series of six doorways that offer challenges called Trials, leading up to an eventual engagement with this area’s boss, the Guardian Wrathhoof.

The room between rooms

Prior to beginning one of the trails you are sent to the preparation room, where you can change which weapon you wish to use and prepare strategies for the battle ahead.  Thankfully, this room gave me chance to have a quick play around and experiment with the various weapons.

Up to this point I’d been using The Storm Bow, a quick, ranged weapon with a lightening enchantment.  Alternatively I could now use; The Volcanic Hammer, a heavy hitting, area of effect flaming mace; The Spirit Claws, a set of poison tipped knives capable of rapid strikes; or The Frost Shield, a bladed barrier of ice that can melee enemies and block incoming attacks.  The different enchantments on the weapons also change the suit of armour the character wears, which should help differentiate between players when the action picks up.

As I had reached the first level with my bow, I had automatically done so with the other three weapons, meaning I had access to their first ability and wouldn’t need to grind each weapon up separately.

One of the early abilities with the shield enables me to throw it as well hitting people with it, giving a nice hybrid of melee and ranged combat.  While that’s definitely one for the Captain America fans out there, I can’t say no to this hammer!

My first trial: Activator

Much like the tutorial earlier, I had to use Balfus to activate a series of shrines around the map in this trial.  Alongside having to navigate my spirit guardian around the map, I had to contend with waves of enemies, making me glad I picked the hammer as its area of effect attack is great for dealing with them when they surround you.

Moving Balfus around the map is easy and there are a number of options at your disposal.  As well as leaving him stationary in a position that, be warned, affects the pan level of the camera, you can either call him to follow you or set a waypoint for him to travel to.

After activating all the shrines the boss appeared, it was here that an area of effect style weapon didn’t work so well against a single target boss and I started to feel the disadvantage of not having teammates.  While the game doesn’t strive to replicate the trifecta of tank, healer and damage dealer you can see the roots of the system at work here.

Upon finishing a trial you are awarded up to 3 crystals depending on your performance; one for finishing the challenge, one for completing an option objective and one for completing the trial under a par time.  These crystals are then used to level up and unlock more weapon abilities – giving you reason to go back and retry.

Forced AOE

Mark smash!

Crystals everywhere

In order to get my hands on some more abilities I thought I’d give the additional objectives of the first trial a go.  I was tasked with completing the level in less than a minute and twenty seconds and defeating the boss within eight seconds of him spawning.  Given speed was an issue here I opted to take the Spirit Claws.

Sadly I didn’t do it, even with the speed of the claws my damage output wasn’t high enough and I’ll definitely need to get some more abilities – or friends – before I can best this trial.

Trial: Vandalism

This trial had me passing Balfus through a statue that turned him into a bomb.  In his explosive, volatile state Balfus could not only be used to blow up the objective statues around the map, but also to neatly deal with groups of enemies.

Using the shield this time around I got to take advantage of the block feature, which came in handy dealing with the waves of enemies whilst carefully moving Balfus around the map.  While this did keep me relatively safe, I couldn’t help but wish I had a dodge roll ability to kite enemies or escape danger.

Moving Balfus through the maze of walls here was a relatively straightforward affair – although there was one puzzle that briefly stumped me.  It was obvious how two players would reach this final statue, but it took me a moment to figure out how I was going to do it alone.  Turns out rather than having players stand in different places and call Balfus at different points in order to avoid collisions with the walls, I’d have to call him and move quickly to use splash damage to complete my objective.

It can be really hard to design a set of puzzles in a game that works equally well with one or multiple players, such that the challengers aren’t too hard or too simple, but kudos to Beta Dwarf for pulling it off here.

Trial: Tremors

Mixing things up a bit this trial tasked me with using Balfus to destroy statues that continuously spawned enemies.  Given the horde-like nature of the challenge, it also introduced a shock statue that enabled me to send out a pulse wave to knock down all the enemies on the map.

The gameplay is beginning to feel quite elegant now that I’m getting used to kiting Balfus around the map and integrating him into the combat.  Completing challenges in a series of well-timed move executions comes with a definite sense of achievement.

Trial: Blast Off

A tooltip on the loading screen pointed out that the difficulty scales with the number of players present on the map, which will undoubtedly serve to further extend the life span of the bite size levels as players come back for a heftier challenge.

This trail served as an amalgamation of everything I’ve seen so far.  I was tasked with making Balfus into a bomb to destroy statues again, but this time the maze was much tighter, testing my skill at co-ordinating my spirit guardian.  On top of this there were lots of enemies on screen and various combat statues to be used.

It all got a bit crazy and once again made me wish I had teammates with me.  Thankfully, by stacking the abilities granted by passing Balfus through statues, you can slightly make up for this loss.  This technique meant that whilst guiding the bomb through the level, I could also have him heal me and increase my movement speed all at the same time.  Much like Payday, the game can be played alone, but it’s going to require some skill to do so.

Like a boss!

Though there were trials still on offer, I’d managed to unlock more abilities beyond simple damage dealing, adding escape effects like invisibility on the bow or healing on the shield, and so decided to have a stab at taking on Wrathhoof.

Thankfully the boss fights aren’t simple races to see who can do the most damage, but instead incorporate the need to employ various tactics that test what you’ve learned so far.

Initially I had to stand still while Wrathhoof pounded the ground in order to block the shockwave else it would knock me down.  Periodically he would also charge at me, pinning me to the ground and dealing a hefty amount of damage unless I could call Balfus over to get me out of it.  Of course, if he missed me during these charges he would collide with the wall, becoming stunned and giving me a window to inflict some damage of my own.

Alongside dealing with Wrathhoof there were waves of enemies constantly spawning, making it all quite hectic and causing me to nearly die a couple of times.  I eventually bested him through and I won’t spoil the story for anyone but it does begin to pick up here, making me curious enough see what happens next and elevating it beyond a mindless hack and slash title, but without getting too deep for what is essentially going on.

Forced Boss

Enter Thunderdome

Your fight, I’m afraid, has only just begun

At this point the rest of the game world opens up, offering four and a half different worlds with their own unique theme.  The first trial in a desert world had me bound to Balfus, damaging me if I went outside of a specific radius and adding an extra challenge to dealing with the levels puzzles.  The original area quickly ramped up the difficulty in each of the trials, adding new mechanics and enemy types regularly.  This trial was no different and it was rather hard to manage movement restrictions, waves of varied enemies and a puzzle requiring me to move slabs to activate various switches around the level and saw me die for the first time in this As We Play.  This isn’t a game to be rushed.

Forced Puzzles

I bet there’s an underwater level later…

Survival

Having died, I thought I’d give the game’s survival mode a go.  It recommended I was at least level six before attempting to enter The Amphitheatre, luckily I was level six.

Taking a leaf out of the book of the Horde mode popularised by the Gears of War series, Survival involves you lasting as long as possible against waves of enemies.  After short periods new waves will spawn, regardless of whether or not the last has been wiped out and as such failure can also come by letting the number of on screen enemies exceed twenty.

You’ll come up against the usual variety of enemies and obstacles from the campaign and have to use the entirety of your special abilities and skill using Balfus to top the leaderboards.  It’s a fun distraction and way to test out skill builds, but it definitely needs friends to get the most out of it, more so than the campaign.

Thankfully I managed to rope someone in for some local co-op and got a chance to try out the keyboard controls.  As expected it’s much easier to handle the waves of enemies when playing with a partner, even to the point where you can delegate responsibility between you as to who handles the enemies and who deals with the puzzles and Balfus.  Of course, this also has the potential to devolve into arguments as you co-ordinate Balfus and try to survive, but its frantic fun none the less.

The keyboard is perfectly serviceable and the level of customisation where you can set your key of choice to your various moves means you can iron out any kinks in the control scheme that don’t suit your play style.  Still, it works best with the gamepad.

Summary

Though just a sample of what’s on offer I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Forced today and if it can get a decent community behind it when it launches for Steam on the 24th of October it’s poised to offer some enjoyable, accessible, bite sized combat that’s easy to pick up and play.  It’s a game that doesn’t take itself as seriously as some others in the genre, allowing you to enjoy the core combat experience and requiring the kind of skill that isn’t derived from getting bogged down in stats or loot.

If you have a Steam account there’s a free demo on offer that I highly suggest you check out.  If not you can also expect to see Forced releasing on the Xbox One, PS4 and WiiU over the next year.