If you've been paying attention to gaming in the slightest lately, especially indie gaming, you'll notice that there has been a major resurgence in the use of pixel art. If you're old like me you'll remember when polygons were all the rage, sprites were seen as old-fashioned and were being left to go the way of the dodo. Now though it seems they're back with a vengeance and even though you might feel it's become a bit of a gimmick, you probably can't deny that it's also being used much more effectively than ever before. And No Place for Bravery is one of the titles using the medium for maximum effect. The second I saw the screenshots I knew I had to take a look at this one, simply to see this bloody, brutal and gory sprite work in motion. It is some of the best I've seen in a while. The character designs are great, monsters look amazing, bosses and large sprites are impressive, hell even the background characters of no consequence ooze character while seeming wholly part of the world. The backgrounds and settings were, for me, a real highlight though. In the opening prologue section, you see the city of Ossuary in the background and it is genuinely stunning. A city built around the bones of a dead god, the skull and ribcage used to provide shelter and walls, while the sword used to impale the giant is used as a marker that can be seen for miles around. It looks amazing when moving too, with sword slashes, shield strikes, blood spurts, and in particular the enemy execution scenes feeling visceral and gory. Seriously, the art guys did well on this one…
The art though is used to tell a story and here the game does well too. We're introduced to Thorn, a gruff and world-weary warrior who has left the battlefield behind to raise a family. He's out hunting with his young daughter Leaf when tragedy strikes. They stumble across a group of strange and brutal goblin-like creatures and discover their city is under attack. Leaf runs off, worried about her mother who is still at home, while Thorn rushes to follow after her. Unfortunately, though, he doesn't reach her in time, arriving on the scene just in time to see her be stolen away by a powerful Warlock… We then flash forward 10 years, to a situation where Thorn is troubled by dreams, regrets, and dark thoughts. The creatures he saw that day now besiege the city, the last true city still in human hands, and things are dark and growing ever darker. Discovering a lead on the location of the Warlock who stole his daughter a decade before, Thorn is filled with thoughts of revenge and sets off on a journey that will take him far and wide, through not only quaint countryside and ramshackle cityscapes but also frozen lands, enemy-held territory and more. You'll make choices that impact the story, in ways both small and large, as Thorn goes on his journey. Will he find his daughter? Or has the Warlock done something horrible to her? Will he end the invasion and save the world? Or will it be too much for his fragile spirit?
You'll find out as you go through a well-written and lore-filled world. There's a larger narrative, involving the killing of gods, their subsequent revenge on humanity, and how their punishment has been held off by a secretive ancient order. You'll discover various organizations, all with their motivations and history, and discover plenty of optional world-building information. There's plenty here for lore lovers, each item and location as well as most characters and enemies, all have lore attached. It'll show up as a notification and you can read or ignore as you want. It's all well written, definitely worth checking out if you really want to understand the larger setting, and adds to the feeling of this being an epic fantasy universe. I did find myself occasionally ignoring it at times, not wanting to break the flow to read a block of text, but it's there to be looked at whenever you want a break from the action.
Speaking of action, I suppose talking about gameplay would be good around now. No Place for Bravery is a Hack and Slash adventure with some mild RPG elements, where dialogue choices affect the story and gorgeous sprite work is used to full effect. You'll make your way through various locations, with the world opening up more and more as the story continues. There's a souls-like "bonfire" system in play, except here it's called a "Battle Memorial ", and you'll progress from one to the next just like you'd expect. These memorials act as a save point, by praying at them you create a checkpoint where you'll restart upon dying. They'll also refill your supply of "Meddygeath", a healing potion that, for the sake of simplicity, is basically the "Estus Flask" of this franchise. You can quickly drink one at any time and refill your health, but can only carry a few at a time. Just like in other Souls-inspired titles however refilling your flask also respawns all the enemies, giving a risk/reward to doing so when going through previously cleared areas. You can also spend money at these memorials to learn new skills, but only if you've found the relevant artifacts while exploring the world. This makes getting skills a thing that's tied to exploration rather than a character level. In fact, the game has no "leveling" system at all, you don't increase stats or anything like that, instead as the story progresses you'll unlock new weapons which will allow access to new areas and ways to solve puzzles. It's rather "Metroidvania" in that way, with many skill-granting items being hidden behind puzzles that require weapons from later in the game to solve. Backtracking is a thing. In the first act for instance you'll come across large switches or huge stone columns that require the Warhammer to take down. Or you'll come across enemies or switches that require a long-range weapon to hit. You'll need to come back to those areas later to get these ability-granting prizes. But obviously, new weapons don't just give a way to solve puzzles. They give a new way to take down enemies, which is the real meat and potatoes of this game.
Combat is visceral, bloody, and gory. Each slice of your sword causes arcs of crimson to splash around. Each thump of your hammer sends dust and debris flying. Dismembering and brutal executions abound as you slash with your sword, pummel with your hammer, or pepper enemies with throwing knives. Each press of the attack button (Y on Switch) unleashes an attack with your equipped weapon and can be strung into longer combos with repeated presses. By tapping the dodge button (B on Switch) Thorn will dash a small distance and you can use this to both escape damage and close the distance between you and your opponent. Don't however be fooled into thinking this is a button masher type of experience. It isn't and the game uses a few mechanics to make sure it doesn't become one. First off is the stamina system which, as you'd expect, governs every action you take. When you swing your weapon, block with your shield, or dodge, this bar will diminish by a certain amount depending on the action taken. When completely drained, you can't do any action until it's restored enough. It fills quickly though, recharging completely in merely a few seconds, but it's still something that you must keep an eye on. There are times you'll be fending off a handful of fast enemies at once, perhaps dodging arrows from afar at the same time, all while dodging around and trying to get in hits where you can. Watching stamina isn't the only thing to consider though, there is also the damage bar (not to be confused with the health bar) which ties into a major focus on the combat here. That focus is the parrying system. When using your shield you have 2 options. By holding down the button (X on Switch) your shield will stay raised, stopping any damage to your health, but with each hit dropping the damage bar by a small amount. If this bar, shown as a yellow bar below the red health and green stamina ones, reaches zero you'll find Thorn gets staggered and becomes unable to move or react in any way until it refills completely. Or secondly, you can tap the shield button just before an attack falls and pull off a parry, reducing the enemy's damage bar instead. That's right, the enemies have a damage bar too, and, just like you, reducing it completely will cause a stun allowing you to do major damage as they wait helplessly as it recharges. Pulling off a parry is a great advantage in combat but is also high risk. Mistime it and you'll be hit, receiving damage, and enemies also hit in combos much of the time requiring multiple presses at exactly the right time to parry completely. Learning attack patterns and the timing of different moves is essential to becoming a parrying master especially as not all attacks are even capable of being parried in the first place. You see enemy attacks come in 3 "flavors", shown by the color they flash beforehand, and you must pay attention to which style they are using. The most basic attack, with either a white flash or no flash at all, can be parried, blocked, or dodged. A yellow attack cannot be parried but CAN be blocked or dodged. Red attacks, the most powerful of all, will go straight through a shield regardless of a parry or block attempt so MUST be dodged. All these elements, combined with item use and (when you find them) both special moves and weapon swapping make combat a deep and engaging experience where you must pay attention or you'll be brutally cut down.
Unfortunately though, it can also be frustrating and not in a good "gotta do better" type of way. I found the parrying very difficult to pull off, even when I changed the setting to make it extremely forgiving. Seeing the incoming attack, with all the blood, "swish" sword effects, small characters, and sometimes really busy ground textures going on was a real problem. And this was playing docked, on a 60inch top-of-the-range LG TV. In handheld mode, it was even more difficult. The big enemies and bosses weren't as bad, their attacks were slower and more telegraphed, but the smaller, quicker, way more numerous smaller enemies became almost impossible to see them going for the attack. I found it much easier to just attack them relentlessly and finish them off that way. Which meant you didn't get to practice parrying when it was needed later. Dodging too was something I found took a lot of getting used to. I was constantly misjudging the distance my character would go with each press of the button. He seemed to hardly move at all and I got caught out a lot. There's a large claymore-wielding enemy type who uses a combination of the different colored attacks I mentioned earlier. Getting away from his red slashes became almost a gamble as you couldn't dash far enough to get away. Eventually you do get a dodge upgrade, where you briefly become invincible during the action, but its activation requires you to hold down the button for a split second instead of just tapping it. This extra half-second to do the invincible dodge can make avoiding attacks more difficult as you get hit before you can pull it off. It actually became a hindrance to do instead of an advantage. In fact, I found this timing issue ran through the whole game and its reason will be obvious to any souls fans out there. It's the controls. Having attack, dodge, and block all assigned to different face buttons means you have a slight delay as you move a finger from each button to the next. Now you may be thinking "Jon, come on surely that's not THAT big a problem!?" but I assure you it was noticeable. That slight delay where you have your thumb on "attack", see an enemy attack being telegraphed, assess the required response, and then move your finger over to pull off the correct move, was just enough to cause a problem. It's why Souls games have that strange shoulder button to attack and block set up. So you can have a finger on each button, attack block, and dodge, all at the same time. It also doesn't help that the game already seems to have a slight delay built in anyways, with everything taking just a millisecond longer than it should to pull off. This becomes really noticeable and frustrating when the game throws you into situations where flawless timing and quick reactions are required. Early on you'll come across "platforming" sections, and these were controller smashingly annoying. A series of tiny squares, with gaps between which must be dashed over. Now remember the dash is pretty small already, add in quick attackers chasing you (who are invincible because a far away wizard is casting a shield around them) AND a handful of quickly firing crossbow men AND archers. You have to block the arrows, but there isn't much time between shots to move or dodge them. However the platforms are tiny so you can only really dodge to the next platform anyways, and the gap is so big that you have to dodge from EXACTLY the right place or you'll fall off and get heavily damaged. Oh and if an arrow, which is impeccably aimed btw, hits you as you cross a gap? It stops the dodge move, dropping you straight into the hole you were crossing. Don't even think about healing either, the attacks don't let up enough to let you. Expect to die if you make the smallest mistake, and that death will send you back to the last save point.
Now I don't want you to get the wrong impression. When the combat flows and you take down an opponent, pull off an execution, and are rewarded with the brutal death animation, the game feels great. It's visceral and bloody, but with a beautiful look to it. However, there were just as many times when I felt like a cheap hit or input delay had caused me problems and resulted in an annoying death. It's not a constant, not by any means, but these frustrating sections occurred regularly enough that I dreaded them. Especially when I knew they were coming. You see I had to play through the prologue and the first half of Act 1 twice after a game-breaking bug froze my character in place, even after a reload, and meant I had to start all over again on a new save file. Experiencing the platforming sections again was not something I was looking forward to. There were a couple of other small bugs too, a little problem with the map updating (it should fill in as you explore new areas but didn't always) as well as some very mild stuttering in the city area of the game. This was an early build though, a day one patch is incoming and will perhaps fix those minor issues.
So to surmise, No Place for Bravery is a top-down hack and slash adventure, with some minor RPG elements, that takes a "Souls-like" approach to its gameplay. It utilizes a beautiful but gory pixel art style that's second to none. The environments are beautifully done and well-conceived. The world-building is a huge deal, with almost every character, organization, or item having a story or chunk of lore to read through. Those who love a fleshed-out world will have plenty to enjoy here, with deep fantasy details to discover. Combat is the real focus though. It's brutal and bloody, you must not only watch your health and stamina but manage a damage bar while blocking and parrying. The focus on parrying is a major thing, with most enemies much easier to deal with it you can do it successfully. Pulling off a successful series of parries, stunning your opponent, only to then finish him off by cutting him in half with his own claymore is as satisfying as can be. Never gets old. However, you might find this a little difficult to do. The timing for parrying, even when set to its most forgiving, can be difficult to do successfully and flawlessly. The small sprites, the flashy effects, and gushing blood trails all conspire to make small quick enemy attacks hard to judge. It can be frustrating in certain sections but stick with it and you'll get through. Worth a look for the art and story, those who like difficult games might get a kick from this one, even if the combat is a little flawed.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 7/10
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