BetaDwarf’s fully capitalized new title FORCED has had a long ride over three years of development, finally finishing its Early-Access phase on Steam two weeks ago. It’s an isometric brawler that takes inspiration from Diablo and Portal 2, creating a cooperative experience that combines elements from the two while adding some new ideas of its own. It’s also extremely, extremely challenging. If that’s all you needed to hear–and it will be for some–stop reading now. Others, however, may find that the innovation tends to clash with the fun.
FORCED places you and up to four friends in the sandals of gladiators, forced to fight for their tribe’s survival through a series of arenas and boss battles. Players choose from one of four classes: dagger guy, bow guy, hammer guy, or shield guy. Switching between classes is painless, and the classes are entirely different in their playstyles, lending the game considerable replay value. To be fair, many classes feel like parts of a team rather than viable solo warriors, which can be disheartening for those without any friends; fortunately, each class has more than a high enough skill ceiling to make the combat tight and enjoyable in single-player.
The gameplay entirely takes place in discrete levels, or “trials,” chosen from the hub world (a la Gauntlet: Dark Legacy). The actual interaction in these arenas vacillates between combat and puzzles, unfortunately in a way that isn’t always as cohesive as it could be. Tasks aside from combat often feel like chores, asking you to destroy four shrines, escort a slow-moving box, or stand on a pressure plate for a period of time. This could be mitigated by the combat, but for one of the game’s main mechanics–controlling your spirit mentor, Balfus.
Balfus, or “totally-not-Wheatley,” is a glowing orb that follows you and serves as your main interaction with the plot. He’s also a central mechanic of the game, as players command him to float over altars and triggers to activate them. For better or for worse, the only way to give him orders is to command him to your position, essentially turning your character into the cursor for Starcraft 64. Though the command system is innovative, it’s about as fun as it sounds.
Learning how to control Balfus is not optional, as his flight serves as the main way to interact with puzzle pieces and buff altars. The process for activating a healing altar, for example, generally goes as follows: move near the altar, call the orb, move to the other side of the altar, call him again, wait for the orb to hit the altar, and finally stay near the orb for the duration of the slow heal. Even with four players, anything short of perfect coordination is functionally the same process.
The tough thing about FORCED’s campaign is that it tries to mash activating these altars with normal combat, and the two tend to resist each other at every turn. It’s unbelievably frustrating to move to one side of an altar, set the orb up, and after fighting your way to the other side, miss the altar by inches because you were focusing fighting enemies over aiming. Wading through enemies is a core feature of these sorts of fighters to be sure, but if you’ve got to keep your eye on fighting, you want Balfus to show up with a healing buff when you call him. Balfus tends to fight you for control of the camera as well, which can make some deaths feel cheap coming from enemies off the bottom of the screen.
The problem of contradicting ideas tends to be a motif for FORCED, unfortunately. Much of the combat involves manipulating cooldowns and kiting enemies away, but many of the levels force you to stay near the orb or stand on a switch before you can progress. Anything but perfect dodging will require a visit to the healing altar eventually, but waste too much time waiting for the altar cooldown and you can’t complete the level’s time trial, which is one of the only ways to level up.
It should be noted that many of these problems are mitigated by playing with friends, as more characters with more abilities tend to round out weaknesses in healing or damage output. Some of the levels have challenges that are almost functionally impossible to complete solo, but may be less daunting for a well-organized group. Even still, most of the later levels will require some memorization and trial and error to get monster spawns and objective locations down.
For those who favor a less complicated endeavor, Survival mode drops your group in an arena more true to focused combat. You and your friends simply have to survive against endless waves of monsters, losing if you die or if the numbers get too great. It’s worth noting that you only get to play with as many abilities as the least leveled up character has, however. And the only way to gain levels? Campaign, which functions the same way, only letting you play the lowest character’s progress.
The game does have a brilliant presentation, with a good variety of level design, consistently smooth animations, and a cohesive art style. The soundtrack is frantic and appropriate, while the voice acting…is slightly less than up to par, especially when compared to Stephen Merchant’s work with Portal 2. Most of the bosses went to the same voice acting school as the Cookie Monster, and Balfus’s cries of “by the ancestors” get old fast.
The casual player will still find plenty to like in the combat of FORCED, and the cooperative play is enjoyable when the opportunity arises for players to get together. For all the game’s frustrations, when a group of four players coordinates together, you start to see the way it was intended to be played. For those looking for a challenge, or for a group seeking a good way to pass time together, FORCED will likely deliver in spades. For everyone else, FORCED may not quite be the bargain Diablo 3 you expect.