If there’s one thing I’ve learned by playing lots of indie games, it’s that sometimes the most relatable, touching, funny, and enjoyable games have the most basic looking characters. Many of them use simple shapes, and one of my favorites of all time, One Finger Death Punch, even uses stick figures. When I first learned about Zarvot my thoughts quickly went from “okay so you shoot squares and rectangles?” to “whoa this looks really cute and interesting!” And hey, who doesn’t love when an indie game is truly unique: Zarvot blends art styles, game modes and a sweet story with challenging combat.
This is a game of cubes. Tiny, adorable cubes with hopes, dreams, unrequited loves… and unlimited destructive power.
In Story Mode, you’ll follow the adventures of Charcoal and Mustard as they search for the ultimate birthday present to cheer up their best friend, Red–who is feeling quite blue. Take the subway to nine unique worlds where you’ll battle rogue bananas, evil milk cartons, and crayon box spiders–whatever it takes to make Red happy again!
In Multiplayer Mode, invite your friends and challenge them to cutthroat competitive cube combat! Show your skills with precision lasers and rapid fire guns, and master the devastating radial beam. Blast, warp, and crash through walls in over a dozen destructible thunderdomes across a variety of game modes. Zip around boulders in the forest, face off in dramatic rainstorms, evade environmental dangers, and more!
Q: What’s blue, has six sides, a yellow, childlike buddy, and a collection of powerful attacks to take down enemies?
A: You if you’re playing Zarvot!
Zarvot is a game where cubes manage to convey as much emotion as many AAA games. Think of it like a Pixar movie, but instead of living toys or emotions that live in our heads and control us, it’s about a couple cube buddies who are trying to collect a handful of presents to give their friend Red the best birthday ever! At the start of the game you have all but one of the items, but – believe it or not – things don’t go as smoothly as they should and all of the items are lost. You’ll have to regather them from all over their wild little world, defeating hordes of enemies along the way, to accumulate them once again and cheer Red up.
Each item that you need is found in a themed part of the world, including a giant freezer to refreeze a melted mochi and a spooky creepy land for a skateboard (yeah, that may not entirely make sense, but as Mustard points out the boss there has a 100% drop rate for skateboards!). You’ll fight your way through them all with four types of attacks: a ring that expands as it charges, damaging anything it touches when you let it explode; a standard projectile that can be charged into a beam of death; a spin attack; and a chomp that devours enemies and heals you in the process. In addition to these attacks you can double-jump and dash, and that’s it! There are no complicated combos and there aren’t a dozen abilities to equip and charge up, it’s just you and a buttload of enemies while Mustard watches from a safe distance.
What really surprised me the most was just how hard the game was, especially when juxtaposed with how funny it is and the themes of friendship and depression. I suffer from depression now and then myself, and Red portrays it incredibly well. A few of the boss fights were especially brutal, and if I ever see another crayon again in my life it’ll be way too soon! I even ended up complaining about how hard the fight was on Twitter and got a response from the developers that helped a lot, but I still feel like it was mere chance that eventually let me win the fight, like rolling a critical hit on a d20: highly unlikely in each instance, but eventually inevitable.
The up side to the combat was that it’s my favorite kind of challenging: the strategic kind. The controls are perfectly responsive and, aside from the crayon battle, nothing ever seemed any kind of unfair. There are a good combination of types of enemies, including some that pounce at you and then melee attack; animated rotating blades that are slow but are immune to your melee attacks; towers that rotate with long beams; and enemies that fire projectiles. Each enemy is very balanced, and has weaknesses that outweigh their strengths, which is why you’ll often find them working together. You’ll come across some enemies as you go, but most battles are done in closed-off areas that require you to defeat every enemy before moving on. Some enemies have shields as well, which are immune until you either chomp off the shield or blast it off with your ring explosion. The action is fast-paced and kept me on my feet, and the game adds new enemy types and variants at a great pace throughout the story to where I never felt like I was bored or overwhelmed (aside from that dang crayon spider!).
In fact, while I enjoyed the game overall, I liked the story and the writing much more than the combat. It’s not that the combat was bad, and in fact I’d be more than happy to go back through and get better grades on levels I didn’t do very well on – you’re given a grade based on how many times you die, how much total damage you take, and how quickly you beat the level. Instead I was paranoid I’d come across a boss even worse than the crayon spider and it would be so horrible I’d be unable to pass the level and see the rest of the game. There are no difficulty settings, and while you accumulate vings (a sort of in-game currency) each time you kill an enemy, I never saw where I could use them to buy anything at all, certainly not upgrades to give me more health or do more damage. While this likely would’ve needlessly complicated the game, even something like an easy mode or a “help, this boss is beyond my abilities, lemme drop a nuke on them really quick and give me an F grade for this level” option after failing 10 times would’ve been nice. Maybe Mustard could’ve jumped down from safety and shown off that he’s actually a ridiculous fighter, taking the boss out with one hit and then making a witty comment about it.
In addition to the story mode there are two additional modes: arcade and versus. Arcade mode is made up of single player arenas against five waves of enemies, and you unlock each through items you find in story mode. These waves are much bigger and longer than ordinary waves in story mode, and you’re graded on these just like the story chapters. Versus mode is where you can compete against local friends, and you begin with two modes: Elimination and Death Match. The combat works the same, although some of the arenas you battle on have dangers on them to make things more interesting. I really didn’t play this mode much since there are no options for AI opponents, just enough to see how it plays and only with one other person (the mode supports up to four), so I’m still not sure what the additional locked modes are or exactly how to unlock them. It was fun, and while I can see it being some really crazy action with all four player slots full, it isn’t something I see playing with two players unless one of the extra modes ends up being something especially awesome.
Zarvot blew me away, even though I still have no clue what the name means after beating the game. I expected a simple little romp, pew pew-ing various evil shapes with my good guy shapes, but walked away feeling very content after beating one of the hardest games I’ve played in a while and very satisfied with the story. I doubt I’ll be playing the multiplayer modes much, but I would’ve been happy paying full price for this one for the story alone.