Necrosphere Deluxe asks players to escape from hell with only two buttons
Can a game with no items and no jump button be considered a Metroidvania?
What sort of video games exist in hell? If we imagine a Far Side model of hell, there would be nothing but the worst of the worst games of all time: choppy FMV games, deliberately obtuse adventure games, and a bottomless pit of shovelware. But I suspect if hell is truly designed to torment souls for eternity, Satan's video game collection would have to contain games that were almost good but fell short, games that torture players by promising them the sky while delivering a frustrating near-miss. In my case, when I'm languishing in endless flames, I imagine I'd see a lot of games like Necrosphere Deluxe, out this week on PlayStation 4, Vita, and the Nintendo Switch.
Necrosphere Deluxe is a game about escaping hell. It's not called "hell," it's called the "Necrosphere," and the hero is a cop/fed/spy named Terry who is stuck there because he died. He's trying to return the "Normalsphere" which presumably is where all of us are living right now. It's a cute enough plot for a video game, especially one that tortures the hero relentlessly.
Necrosphere Deluxe is described as a "two-button Metroidvania" which is more literal than I expected. I pictured an action game with simple attack/jump controls, but in this game all you can do is press LEFT or RIGHT. In the case of the Nintendo Switch, you can choose between the shoulder L/R buttons or pressing the leftmost button on the left joycon and the rightmost button on the right joycon. Pressing any other button brings up a reminder showing you the buttons you should be pressing instead.
Having a two-button game is a choice that lines up well with the simple pixel graphics and the bare bones "escape hell" narrative, but it's a gimmick that I never quite adjusted to. Every so often I'd slip my left thumb onto the right side of the d-pad in order to move right only to be forcible reminded that I was doing it wrong. And since this does not pause the action, it usually killed me.
In case that title didn't give it away, Necrosphere Deluxe is one of those games where players are expected to die a lot. The good news is that the difficulty curve is reasonable as the game gently eases players into the world and the objects they must come to understand. Bubbles make Terry jump. Purple bubbles make Terry jump and then disappear for a few seconds. Blue doors open when Terry touches them, red doors require touching a button first, and yellow doors require a button but open for a limited time. All of these elements are introduced one at a time in a way that never overwhelms or requires tedious explanation. The game is also generous when it comes to checkpoints and respawning is nearly instantaneous, making failure nearly painless.
The bad news is the two-button control scheme will likely cause more than a few of those deaths which is a hard flaw to forgive when controllers have plenty of other buttons available for use. Terry is always in a hurry which makes small movements difficult; I struggled with gentle taps to get Terry through tight spaces. As Terry acquires new abilities, the buttons now cover additional actions besides walking: double-tap a direction to dash hop, press and hold both buttons for a jetpack. Juggling all these movement options becomes essential in Necrosphere Deluxe as obstacles in the game's second half will require Terry to bounce on bubbles, dash in mid-air, jetpack, then dash again before landing on solid ground. Double-tapping a button is harder than pressing a single button - that is fact - just as pressing two buttons at once is harder than pressing a single button. Necrosphere Deluxe, by design, does not forgive mistakes. The game expects players to learn from their failures and improve but I when the pace of Terry's deaths approached once per second, I found it impossible to continue.
I also question whether Necrosphere Deluxe can justify its self-applied Metroidvania label. It's true that the Necrosphere has power-ups that open up new paths to explore, but each path is linear to a fault. Each area of the Necrosphere is more like a one-way chute of puzzles than a world to explore: each puzzle the player clears leads them to the next puzzle, and the only way back is to reach the end of the level where an exit warps them back to the Necrosphere entrance. Frequent checkpoints mean that if a player is stuck on a difficult puzzle, they are stuck there permanently with no choice but to solve it or put down the controller and walk away. Does that qualify as exploration?
If I sound harsh it's because Necrosphere Deluxe appealed to me on a lot of levels: the aesthetics are nice, it's not a long game, and ever since I finished Chasm I've been looking for a new Metroidvania to consume. Also, the narrative of the game makes it natural to compare the experience playing it to being trapped in hell with no escape. Necrosphere Deluxe isn't actually akin to torture though, it's just disappointing and I write about it in the hopes that people who didn't rage-quit ultra-hard games like 2018's Celeste might give it a try. There's even a super-difficult bonus game called Terry's Dream where you cannot save at all! Surely that appeals to at least one person reading this.
Besides, I think we all know that the only video game in hell is a battle royale shooter where every player gets sniped just as the action starts. Kind of like my experience with Radical Heights only...forever.
Review code for this game was provided by the publisher