Recently I got to thinking about all the great games I've played over my gaming lifetime, wondering what it was that made those titles memorable when so many others have fallen by the wayside. Ultimately I concluded that the best fall into two categories. Firstly are the games that do something different or unique and invent entirely new mechanics or concepts. Many times these titles are the first of a new genre, creating a new game type and also spawning a host of copycats. Those of us who remember the launch of the original Wolfenstein and Doom will know exactly what I'm talking about and recall how these games popularized FPS games, thrusting them into the mainstream.
Then there's the second category of games.
These don't do anything particularly revolutionary, they include mechanics and styles you've seen in other franchises but they'll take these things and do them in a way that, while familiar, feels well executed and great to play. These are the games that become good additions to an already existing genre and, although they don't add anything new or exciting, they provide an example of "how to do it well" and can become must-buy titles for fans of that particular game type.
And it's that second category that tonight's game tries to fit into and, for the most part, succeeds. It takes the tried and tested Metroidvania map and progression style, combines it with the storytelling, death mechanics and "progress opens shortcuts" idea from Dark Souls and tops it off with responsive and impactful feeling combat, where weapons feel weighty and effective. It then sprinkles in a wide range of enemies, each with their own movement and attack patterns, alongside battles with huge bosses that require skill and pattern recognition to defeat.
Which title am I talking about?
Well, it's called 3000th Duel. It showed up in the Switch e-shop recently, and I knew nothing about it except that it had a "Metroidvania" label attached but, as a huge fan of that type of game, it was more than enough to entice me to take a look. I've been playing a LOT of this genre lately and, even though I've grown very familiar with the workings of this type of game, I still found 3000th Duel to be an interesting and enjoyable addition to a game group that's hardly hurting for new members.
So go grab your favorite tipple, fetch some snacks and settle down as ya boi Jonny tells you all about his time with 3000th Duel by Neopopcorn Corp.
The story begins with your character having flashes of his past. Images of battle, of pain and mysterious beings flash in his mind before he suddenly snaps awake. He finds himself falling from the sky and is awoken as he smashes into the ground like a fiery meteor, and with no memories of his previous life. He is an amnesiac, with his only possessions being his weapon and a mysterious mask that covers his face and cannot be removed. His only clue to his identity comes from a disembodied voice, it tells him that to remember his dark past he should immerse himself in the riddle of the world, and how it fell to corruption. The only way to reveal his past, and to recover his fractured memory, is to heal the corrupted land. To do this he must fight he way through each of the game's locations, find and defeat the darkness filled guardian of each area which will ultimately lead to a truth that is both hard to swallow, and truly horrifying. I don't want to go into too much detail here but, to be honest, the story is pretty simple and told in a way that it sits in the background. For the most part, it's told through collectible memory fragments that fill in the details of how each area's guardian fell from grace, as well as providing information on the wider world and its corruption. It takes the Dark Souls route to tell a story by giving little glimpses of information but never explicitly holds your hand. The fragments of memory and story aren't intrusive is what I'm saying here, they do give loads of well crafted little details for lore lovers to seek out, but are also rare enough to allow you to ignore them completely if you want, leaving you to concentrate on exploring the Metroidvania style environments instead.
Now I'm pretty sure you know what I mean by "Metroidvania style environments" but, just in case, I'll explain for those who don't. Basically, the areas of each section are made up of a variety of rooms, corridors, and caverns of various sizes, with most of the rooms having branching paths and different exits to explore. As you search through them though you'll find many paths are, in the end, locked to you and won't be available to explore until later when you've discovered the relevant item or ability needed to advance. Usually in this genre that would be done through acquiring new and, hopefully, interesting powers but 3000th Duel takes a much simpler approach of just having locked doors to require keys to unlock. Much more common though are doors which can only be opened from the other side and, much like Dark Souls, enables the creation of shortcuts that allow you to quickly pass through areas and avoid tricky parts when backtracking. There are a few secret chambers with item chests and collectibles to be found, many of which will be unreachable at first and the map does a good job of recording these for you making finding them again later much easier than many other games do. The powers you need to access these items or chests aren't the most surprising though and you'll have, for the most part, seen them a million times before in other titles. One of the earliest powers is a simple dash, mostly used to dodge in combat it can also be used to increase your jump range and aid in environmental traversal. Later this gets upgraded to also work in the air, increasing its usefulness and eventually gets upgraded again, adding the ability to link dashes together and increase the distances you can cover. Eventually, the standard double jump gets added, though much later than you'd expect, allowing platforming to become even simpler than before. Lastly, and most usefully actually, is a final upgrade to the dash which makes it omnidirectional. Instead of being limited to simply dashing left and right, you can then use it to boost straight up vertically and diagonally into the air. When used in conjunction with the double jump and multi-boost this makes the early platforming parts really easy, and to be honest they weren't that difficult to begin with. Luckily this ability also opens a few new areas, specifically designed to take advantage of it, which requires split-second timing of multiple dashes to land on moving platforms and avoid crushing spiked walls. These sections are some of the most challenging and add some greater difficulty to the standard platforming you'll have experienced till then.
When exploring each area, you aren't given much direction or hints of where to go. There are no waypoints or "go here" markers so you are left to discover the correct direction through trial and error for the most part. It would have been nice to have been guided a little more but the excellent map does a good job of recording where you've been and where you've still to explore, making it pretty easy to know where to head next, although whether this is the correct way is something you'll only find out through exploration. There are also portals located off certain rooms to allow fast travel, making backtracking a speedier proposition than it would be otherwise and making going back for collectibles a lot easier when keys and new abilities are discovered. The way to progress is pretty simple for each area though, with locating and killing the level boss usually being the way to go. Most times this will grant an item or ability to open the way to the next area, where the cycle will continue, but sometimes finding where to go next can be a little bit of a problem.
Luckily though, traveling and exploring leads to battling with enemies, and engaging in combat is where 3000th Duel is undoubtedly at its strongest. Taking on baddies, which come in loads of types, is mostly done through melee combat and you have three weapon types to cycle between, depending on which is most effective for the situation or best fits your style. The first of these types is your Blade, and this style of weapon does the least amount of damage. It is however also the quickest, letting you get in a few speedy hits before you dash away from enemy attacks. Next up is the Spear types, doing mid-tier damage and having mid-tier speed, they quickly became my favorite as they have the longest reach by far, and are the most balanced of the three classes. Last, but certainly not least, is the Broadsword class. Think of Cloud Strifes Buster Sword and you'll have a fairly good idea of what we're talking about here, a ridiculously oversized giant sword that requires two hands to wield. These Broadsword class weapons are the exact opposite of the Blade types, in that they are the most damaging of the three classes, but their immense weight also makes them the slowest to swing of all three classes. The attack patterns for the weapon classes must be considered too as each type works slightly differently. For instance, the Blade and Broadsword types are swung in an overhead arc, allowing you to hit enemies directly above you. Spears, on the other hand, thrust directly forward and, although they have a longer reach, can't hit opponents directly above you or strike objects falling onto your head. As you explore, you'll discover new weapons in each of the different classes, which will all have different attack stats, but unfortunately, these all seem to have relatively similar attack patterns. Having them function differently would have been a nice touch here but, as far as I could tell, they worked the same despite looking differently and doing more damage. Occasionally however you'll discover a weapon that has some sort of status effect attached and these do make a difference in combat. Some have an Ice power attached that, upon a critical hit, will freeze the enemy making them unable to move for a few seconds. Others will apply burns, or are poisoned, and will slowly drain an opponent's health over time. Many enemies also have an elemental type and will be especially vulnerable to these effects, fire enemies are hurt by ice for instance, and changing them up can really be to your advantage. You can have 2 weapons equipped at once and can switch between them with a simple button press so this is relatively easy on the go or in the middle of combat. Each weapon’s basic attack is assigned to Y and at first, this basic combo is the only attack you'll have available to you. Don't worry though as it isn't long till other moves and attacks are added to your repertoire, increasing the options available to you.
One of the major abilities, and also one of the most effective, is granted early on, the Death Blow. Powered by a Magic Points bar that slowly fills as you land normal attacks in combat, it allows you to launch a powerful attack with a press of the "X" button. The type of attack will differ depending on the weapon type you are using at the time and, after an upgrade, you can link these attacks together into a death blow combo that will keep going with every button press until your Magic Points run out. Other upgrades you'll discover include the ability to do more attacks in midair, up to three, before needing to land and a downward air attack that, just like a death blow, varies depending on the weapon type you use. While using the spear for instance you'll stab quickly into the ground, impaling your opponent in the process, while the Blades will launch you forward and down in a flying kick instead. Finally are the large number of magic spells you can find by exploring, defeating bosses or even can be gained from certain normal enemies. These take a load of different forms and work in different ways, all with different elemental effects and styles of attack. These can range from simple fireballs and ice blasts that fire forward in a straight line, to poison blasts that spray in the air, to summoning waves of flame or whirlwinds and even giant weapons that are conjured from thin air. These magic spells are all powered by a resource called "Occult Devotion" and the more powerful the spell, the more Occult Devotion points are required to cast it. They'll also have status effects that are especially effective against certain enemy types, just like weapon effects do, with fire being especially damaging to ice opponents and so on.
And speaking of enemies, the types I encountered in 3000th Duel are some of the best I've encountered in any Metroidvania and can hold their own amongst the best the genre has to offer. They come in a wide range of forms, all with different styles of combat or special moves that really shake things up especially in later stages. Admittedly they do start off pretty simple and predictable with all the usual suspects like slimes, skeletons, and flying bats all making an appearance. It isn't long till more interesting to fight opponents start to show up though, and in the later areas even these normal level opponents have the ability to surprise and give you trouble if you aren't paying attention. I had an especially love/hate relationship with a jumping ninja skeleton for instance because every time it leaped towards you, it would launch "bleeding" status inflicting knives in every direction. Added to this is the fact that the area you're fighting in has high winds coursing through it, making movement difficult, and this enemy type provided a decent challenge and requires skill to defeat. I was also constantly surprised by a set of ghost arms that would hide underground, only to grab you when you stepped on them and inflict "shackled" status leaving you unable to dash and dodge attacks. There are also certain "miniboss" style creatures in various areas that have more punishing attacks, and can handle more damage than normal enemies and although tougher they also don't reappear when leaving and re-entering a room, unlike the normal opponents. Giant rock-throwing trolls, and an exploding ghost summoning spirit being amongst the most troubling. The most impressive opponents though are the bosses that must be discovered and defeated in each area. These tend to be amongst the largest and most impressive of your enemies, with many being 3 or 4 times your size and taking up a good part of the room you'll fight them in. Most will have a special attack pattern or routine to suss out and discovering this will be the key to defeating them but, even then, they can still provide a decent challenge, especially when the later bosses are encountered, as these are significantly more damaging.
And taking damage, or more accurately how you recover health, is one of the places where the Darksouls comparisons start to come in. I mentioned earlier how the game has significant DS influences and it's felt keenly in quite a few areas. You see, pretty early on you'll be given an item called the "Violet Scripture" and this is 3000th Duels version of "Estus Flasks" from the Souls franchise. You'll start with only one Scripture, but will pick up more as you explore, and each will heal a chunk of health when activated. Just like the Estus Flasks though it takes a few seconds for the Scripture to work and getting hit will cancel the effect, meaning enemies can still kill you if you don't take a second to get somewhere safe.
The Estus Flask style healing isn't the end of the DS inspirations either. The Violet Scriptures will refill each time you rest at a save statue, just like Estus Flasks do. These Save statutes are pretty much the same as bonfires, allowing you to save, refilling your health and allowing you to spend any Karma you've earned on leveling up. Karma itself is just the Souls currency, in a different form, and works the same way. You'll gain a certain amount from every enemy you kill and can use them to level up or to buy things from the mysterious merchant you'll discover later in your travels. We still aren't finished with the comparisons though as they've also used one of From Software's most famous mechanics, the way it handles death. When you die, you'll appear at the last save statue with all your collected Karma left behind. But, just like many From Software titles (and admittedly a myriad of other titles too) have started to do, 3000th Duel will give you a chance to collect them again if you head back to where you died, without dying again, and destroy the ball of Karma energy that's been left behind. This Karma ball will hang in the air till you approach then it will float towards you, if it touches you it'll do damage but give it a few hits and it will burst, giving you back all the Karma you'd dropped upon your previous death. The developers have taken a lot of inspiration from the From Software titles but it is used in an effective way and, when it's combined with the staples of the Metroidvania genre, you get something that's fun to play but a little unsurprising at the same time.
Lastly, I should probably talk about the look and style of the game because it's an area where 3000th Duel doesn't do as well as the competition. The main character and varied enemy designs are represented reasonably well, with a quite large and chunky look to many, but also feel distinctly "last-gen" to my eyes. They reminded me heavily of the Xbox 360 titles that used to feature your Avatar-like "A Kingdom for Keflings" and so on. The main character in particular looks like he was modeled using the 360s Avatar creator and, while I wouldn't say they were bad, they certainly don't come off well when compared to others of the genre like "Symphony of the Night", "Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night" or, most recently, the gorgeous "Ori and the Will of the Wisps". 3000th Duel is created by a small team though, it's their first game and presumably has a much smaller budget too, so it's probably understandable considering. When in action though, the animation is quite smooth and it's very easy to see the telegraphed attacks and moves of enemies. What is a little more disappointing is the look of each level. They do have some lovely background illustrations in some areas that look great but the foreground is a little blander. Every area has a basic palette swap to differentiate it from the others and have very simple layouts made of flat platforms and corridors. They're clean and uncluttered, I suppose, but lack the features that would make each area significantly different from one another. There's nothing as memorable as Ritual of the Nights pirate ship for example and feel kinda basic with little of the charm and style you'd get from loads of other Metroidvania games out there.
So, in summary, as a first game from a brand new developer, 3000th Duel is a reasonably good addition to the Metroidvania genre. Its combat is particularly good, featuring weighty and meaty attacks and the enemy variety and boss battles are enjoyable from beginning to end. Platforming is basic to start but the later addition of the omnidirectional dash adds some tricky, challenging and frankly better sections later in the game. It’s simple art-style, the basic look of each area, and it's selection of "seen it all before" powers does let it down however and veterans of the genre will find nothing new here. Its budget price does make it one to consider though. There is a huge variety of Metroidvania titles available right now, many of which are top of the class, but those who give 3000th Duel a chance will probably find it satisfying. For those who like solid combat, and won't feel let down by its lack of innovation, it's certainly one to consider.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 7.5/10
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