Review: Nobody Saves the World

If anything is true of a game developed by Drinkbox, it’s that the Toronto-based outfit aren’t afraid of a little colour. An excess of colour, some might say — semi-abstract shapes and figures bursting with a vibrancy that stretches right across the spectrum and back again. One moment you’re moving through a splendour of greens and blues, the next Drinkbox have yanked the dial so far in the opposite direction that the more purple/magenta/rose regions are filling one’s screen. Liberal use of colour is nothing new to this space, nor is the idea that studios aren’t afraid to get weird with the visuals and the premise on show. It’s that eccentricity and somewhat unordinary approach that has helped Drinkbox establish itself in a little under a decade of activity.

While the team’s own interpretation of the Metroidvania craze via both Guacamelee titles — released prior to and during the genre’s modern-day boom — is likely the more recognisable name to many, 2016’s Severed was the more viable proof that Drinkbox were more than a team of avid colour enthusiasts. A game that took something as arcane and redundant (outside of nostalgia value) as first-person dungeon-crawling and created something rather wonderful, Severed was no less than affirmative that Drinkbox had the tools and the know-how to freshen up a worn sub-genre. Tack on the realization of it being built around touch-based controls — the surprise-within-a-surprise of many an elevator pitch — and you had a welcome little bundle of mechanics that could match the attraction of its visuals. Herein lies two separate IPs where Drinkbox have proven capable enough on revisiting old ideas through new perspective. How new the end result may feel with the studio’s latest, Nobody Saves the World, comes down to what you yourself take out of this specific crop of action RPG outings.

The kind that implements roguelite elements, level-caps and a player’s own incessant desire to see the numbers go up in a desperate attempt to feel validated for time spent. If anything, Drinkbox’s signatory art-style — use of colour on top — ends up playing second-fiddle. And for all the right reasons; Nobody‘s own semi-abstract art-style and character design does admittedly feel like it leans more toward the surreal, which is hard to ignore and one you will either love or loathe. More so than anything Severed or either Guacamelee titles dished out. Perhaps that surreal intention is reasonable. After all, a game about a bald-headed, more-ordinary-than-ordinary protagonist — who’s implied early on to be walking around completely naked — being able to transform into a multitude of animals and RPG classes warrants such surroundings. Accompanied too by a general writing approach that isn’t quite self-referential, isn’t quite parody but nestles somewhere between without digging deep into either one of these two comedic directions.

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There are attempts at humour amidst character dialogue throughout Nobody Saves the World. It’s far from flat or in anyway embarrassingly bad, but it says something when the more memorable moments are those of popular internet memes strangely rearing their head in a *wink-wink-nudge-nudge* way that feels neither deserved nor nestled well with the game’s own brand of quirkiness. So in getting arguably the only real negative to the game out of the way, the upside to all this (and in getting back to my previous point), is that Nobody Saves the World thankfully is more inviting mechanically than it is visually. Arguably more so than Drinkbox’s previous games, Nobody feels built to coax players into investment over time without all the mental baggage that level-by-level progression may imply.

Sure Drinkbox’s approach so far as accruing XP here may look initially like an uninviting chore. The idea that one levels up not by beating enemies, but by completing challenges and succeeding at pulling off particular actions/move-sets a certain number of times. Both general level and character-specific rank governed by how much you put into completing one challenge after another. Initially one can’t help but look at the level-gated dungeons and seemingly-endless recycling of objectives and fear the game is doomed to be nothing more than a senseless grind for numbers. But as if Drinkbox have foreseen such a perception, Nobody Saves the World‘s intentions aren’t so much having players on that directionless conveyor belt, but instead encouraging them to experiment and master moreso what the slew of character types can offer. Indeed, a large portion of the enjoyment throughout the roughly 15-20 hour span is in its small details. The ever-present increasing of numbers attached to stats and levels alike quickly fading into the backdrop — the fun felt with tinkering character load-outs as interesting at hour twenty as it was at hour one. That perpetual interest in the more nuanced mechanics is why Nobody Saves the World shines as surprisingly and as consistently as it does.

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For fans of both this brand of overhead, attack-and-dodge, dungeon-crawling RPG, as well as those with some sprinkling of roguelite randomization at play, Nobody Saves the World manages to appease both crowds. Striking a fine balance between intentional and algorithmic design to make exploration satisfying, but combat — in all its many hundreds of screen-filling, chaotic encounters — gratifying to eventually see through to dungeon’s end. The aforementioned latter element, the roguelite aspect, isn’t one that dictates the general play-time and focus of Nobody Saves the World. There are dungeons that implement such a structure of course, but these moments are thankfully spaced out just enough that the otherwise RNG nature of revisiting dungeons is complimentary rather than dictated to its players.

Complimentary not just to its more traditionally-designed overworld though, with its abundance of tucked-away secrets, winding paths and gates to somehow find the other side of. But with the way combat generally plays out, expectedly and unexpectedly alongside. It’s combat and by extension the means with which one improves and masters the tools at your disposal where Nobody Saves the World earns its rightful praise. How Drinkbox — in what is becoming a quirk of the studio themselves — have managed to reassess the formula that has bolted past games of this ilk down. There is of course the basic premise itself: being able to freely switch between a multitude of characters, each with their own attack styles, movement speeds and specific attributes one gradually needs to balance and juggle between as the challenge cranks up over time. An assortment that increases overtime to include well over a dozen different starting bases. But what starts as a simple shift between light, nimble characters and bulky, DPS-style heavy-hitters, soon enough evolves into more than just an arbitrary list of ranks to achieve, but moreso a spider’s web of possibilities. Where the more players invest in characters and increasing their ranks, the easier it is not just to use those same characters in battle, but to apply their associated abilities onto another.

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It’s this unusual “mix-and-match” approach to tackling dungeons that adds a lot to the charm of Nobody Saves the World and not just on the basis of finding the ideal build with the highest stats possible. While that does go some ways in staying alive generally, Nobody‘s evolving of this concept is what makes the continual swapping in and out of perks and passive abilities that bit more charming. A tool that has its more crucial moments, especially during the latter half where elemental classes and what are dubbed “Wards,” further complicate fights. Wards essentially acting as barriers that make enemies impervious to all but attacks of the same colour/elemental class. Adding more reason and incentive for players to get better accustomed to the pacing of combat as much its offensive potential. Being able to switch characters on the fly, but doing so at the right times and also in knowing what characters are best suited to what forms of attack. And more importantly, making sure to use a character with the right-equipped elemental type.

But even outside the dungeons themselves, Nobody‘s side-quests too are another neat accompaniment that stand as more than just opportune XP farming. While there are the obligatory fetch quests that are the least interesting of the litter, some like having to protect an object (or indeed monster) from being destroyed stand as another example of how the game encourages you to learn your way around character traits. Working out which characters are fast, which are powerful, which ones can quickly dish out attacks over those that incur cool-downs. One quest has you taking out elemental-based targets in a short space of time that finding the exact match between attack and character is necessary. It all adds up to yet another example on how Drinkbox manage to side-step the precariousness that is having players grind to certain levels — ensuring that a player’s journey both in the overworld and through dungeons alike isn’t so much the slog to fill meters, but in learning the tools at play and unraveling this same web of possibilities and what-if combinations.

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Closing Comments:

If one were being picky, you could argue Drinkbox’s focus this time on repeated dungeon-crawling may not have the same wow factor the studio’s past projects have garnered on first glance. But while early parts may seem daunting in its implied reliance on needless grind, what players will quickly learn in Nobody Saves the World is that its flexibility with combat and dexterity with character customization is what will keep them happily fixated until adventure’s end. Even if the occasional writing doesn’t hit in the way the studio is hoping. But credit to Drinkbox for not falling into the trap of becoming too reliant on roguelite mechanics in so far as how the world is structured and how players go about rising to the task. Because what truly shines here is the studio’s ability to encourage experimentation without it feeling, like its level progression, too much of a burden to take on. Added to on top by well-suited side-quests, a challenge system that rarely gets tiresome and a general feeling throughout that one’s time never feels wasted, Nobody Saves the World stands as Drinkbox’s most curious but mechanically-satisfying title to date.

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