What’s Up (and Down) with TowerClimb

Shamelessly stolen from the Davioware site. This game definitely doesn't look very good in screenshots, so I had no pic to use for the header. Sorry, Davioware!

The theoretical game box for TowerClimb.

Possibly the best way to get me interested in a game is to compare it to Spelunky (serviceable link, fancy link). Not that Davioware, the developer of TowerClimb, has been doing this—in fact, my guess is that they’re already sick of that association, just like Aaron Eckhart is tired of his butt-chin being compared to Cary Grant’s. They’re distinct, darn it.

Regardless, the similarity in genealogy is so strong that I think we can be forgiven the comparison: TowerClimb feels like an inversion of Spelunky, and that’s no bad thing. I’ve been playing it for a bit now, and I’ve had a few thoughts about its ups (and downs).

It's also a game about the existential angst of climbing the inside of a giant tower, but you have to squint really hard to get all that.

TowerClimb is a game about climbing the inside of a giant tower (pictured).

Up #1: It’s Difficult!

I like a game that’s bold enough to encourage players to ration their resources and move cautiously—and that possibly backs them into a corner if they fail to do so. It’s just icing on the cake that TowerClimb’s tower segments are randomly generated, encouraging slow and sure footing over rhythm and memorization. It’s also great that your supply of potions, which allow you to double-jump, toss a terrain-blasting corrosive bomb, teleport, or revive upon death, are extremely limited. There are berries that will grant you some of these abilities temporarily, and it’s possible to have witches brew you more, but these options come with their own limitations.

All in all, it hits the sweet spot with difficulty, balancing increasing player skill against the cruel whims of the random tower layouts. And that’s refreshing.

I wonder who's ever been justly torn apart?

When you die, you're presented with a (usually gruesome) picture of what horror befell your adventurer.

Down #1: It’s Too Difficult!

Okay, all that stuff I said up above? That still stands, except when it doesn’t. Difficulty is fine, but sometimes the game goes a little too far. This might be because the game is still in beta, but I’ve seen more than one unbeatable situation—and they weren’t unbeatable because I’d used up my double-jump potions or whatnot. More seriously, I’ve seen the easy blue-hued intro caverns about a hundred times, because every time I make it past that section of the game I get eaten by a worm or impaled by some sort of horrifying leviathan gnat. Or I just misjudge a jump. I’d like to spend more time in the creepy grub-filled hatchery, but it seems like I’m doomed to wander the lower levels of the tower forever.

Remember the tunnel man from Spelunky, who would let you eventually skip straight to later portions of the game at will? Well, if TowerClimb has something like that, I haven’t found it. I don’t know how it would translate (scaffolding man? piton man?), but I would really like to have some way to jump forward to sets of five rooms or so. It might undermine the developer’s goal for the high-score table, which is based on how high you’ve managed to climb (it only just now occurred to me that “high score” is a great pun here), but then why not judge the score based on the actual climbing and not the elevation? Then you can start the character from any point without fear of messing up those scores. Anyway, difficulty is fine, but the prospect of repeating those blue caverns forever is already driving me silently insane.

The tower is thankfully made from lava-proof stone.

The climber uses floating vegetation to escape rising lava.

Up #2: Cool Style

Okay, TowerClimb ranks up there with games from Illwinter Game Design in terms of how bad it looks in still frames. But in motion, it’s a sight. Blue mist swirls around the climber when he’s able to double-jump, rising lava illuminates shadowy halls, and black hounds snooze in the inky blackness, just waiting to jump up for a snack. Even though the graphics are simple, they’re tremendously cool. Besides, simple graphics can be a great bonus in a game like this, allowing a developer to continue to add new elements with much less fuss.

As much as I love the clean style of Spelunky, I’m gradually falling in love with these muddier visuals. It feels more like I’m exploring a dark, damp place, one where death waits around every corner. It accentuates the game’s slower, more cautious approach to the act of clambering around foreboding ruins.

You cannot stop halfway up a wall. You either climb, or slide down. So pausing to avoid these worms, which push out of the rock regularly, can be a huge pain.

The climber avoids nasty yellow worms.

Down #2: Too Slow?

While I appreciate the slower pace, I wonder if the inversion of Spelunky’s gameplay (heading up rather than down) is a problem. It’s faster to fall than to climb, after all, and in TowerClimb you’ll spend gobs of time slowly clawing your way up walls. There are some powerups that will give you a short-lived boost to climbing speed, and I’m certain there are a few rare items as well, but after a number of runs (climbs?) through these infinite towers (disclaimer: probably not actually infinite), I’ve begun to approach higher walls with a sigh. Sometimes the climbing can be exciting—while outrunning a swarm of tower-wasps or hoping a hound above you doesn’t wake up and come down after you—but most of the time it borders on tedium.

The witch also can't rebind your keys. Darn it, neither can I.

The climber visits a witch and realizes that he has no golden berries for her to alchemize into potions.

Up #3: Variety Hour

For a game that’s so simple, TowerClimb sure has a lot of variety. Even though I’ve only been through the first few chambers, I’ve seen a huge number of different dangers and challenges. I’ve not only out-clambered tides of lava and flown through the air on steerable balloon-plants, but also swam through shark-infested lakes and hidden from flying monstrosities. I’ve blasted new paths to avoid swarms of enemies, gone out of my way to unlock glimmering treasure chests, traversed quadruply-dangerous alternate back passages, and performed dizzying acrobatics to find safer routes. The early chambers rely a bit too much on sleeping dogs and scurrying rats, but after a couple more levels it’s common to see a healthy mix of threats. This sort of thing is probably the most important point that I’ll make here, since it transforms the game from a competent platformer into something that I plan to return to for quite some time.

For real. This isn't like one of those images of a marsh with the caption that says: "Pictured: ten US Army RANGERS. Can YOU spot them? Join the ARMY."

Pictured: at least one waking and four sleeping dogs. Can you spot them all?

Down #3: Motivation

As I mentioned, your score is determined by how high you climb. Which means that if you have one great run, you aren’t going to be topping (get it?) yourself anytime soon. The stats screen consists of how high your various climbers went and how they died.

Compare this to Spelunky, where you’re scored in multiple ways: how many times you’ve beaten the final boss, how profitable your grave-robbing was, how many damsels you saved, and how many monsters you eliminated. By being scored in so many areas, it’s possible to play through the game with different goals in mind, and the game provides minor rewards as incentives. In TowerClimb, there are only occasional reasons to travel out of your way. The direct or safest route is usually the best. If the game added some sort of loot system to give a reason to explore different paths, it would certainly feel more fleshed out.

I hate to keep drawing these sorts of comparisons, because TowerClimb is brimming with potential. Its engine, (most of) the platforming, the ambiance, and the variety are all top-notch. I definitely would recommend keeping an eye on this indie, despite the flaws that I’ve outlined above. I’ve already had some memorable times with this tight, lean game, and I’m excited to see how its development progresses.

You can currently gain access to the beta for five dollars, which also guarantees you a copy on release.

Posted on March 28, 2012, in Indie and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Good review, Dan. I think I’ll pick this up.

    Do you ever play normal games anymore? I don’t remember you being so indie. =P

  2. Just don’t get him started on New Vegas. He’ll talk your ear off.

  3. It amazes me how great games can be even when the graphics look ancient. I like the Indie reviews – there is a lot of creativity out there away from the fancy graphics.

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