In the nostalgia-fueled retro game resurgence of the past decade, game developers take influence from any number of classic games. A lot of the time it’s the usual culprits like the Mario and Sonic series. One game that hasn’t gotten much love from current game developers is the classic SNES genre mash-up Actraiser, but that has finally changed with the release of Smelter. Developers X Plus took the same two unrelated genres – 2D Action Platformer and Strategy – and combined them. Each part could be its own game, with the action-platforming taking place across twelve sizable levels and the real-time strategy gameplay taking place on the overworld map. There are a few shared elements besides the story, but each is its own entity in terms of gameplay. This combination worked the first time, but can Smelter make it work again? And is it worth a try for fans of just one its genre?
The game starts with you controlling a man in a green loin-cloth, this is Adam, and Eve is right next to you. Pretty much all you can do at this point is interact with an apple on the ground. Adam picks it up and takes a bite. Then all hell breaks loose with what looks like a nuclear explosion that triggers in the background enveloping both of you. The view switches to Eve who is falling through the blackness and eventually lands in a green-tinted, peculiar-looking underground dungeon area. She immediately calls out for Adam, but he is nowhere to be found. After exploring the cave for a few minutes and getting accustomed to the controls, text appears on your screen indicating someone is trapped nearby and needs help. Breaking the rock in the doorway reveals a small flying green face, who introduces himself as Smelter, and tells you he’s “just your run of the mill angel, a really good one”. This is highly questionable and hard to believe once you’ve spent some time with him, but he offers to help you find Adam by becoming your armor. The game has a name for this – Flootipooing – which is the first in a long line of strange and sometimes funny words the game comes up with. Fortunately, there’s no vocab quiz at any point in the game. Smelter can still talk when he’s your armor (which looks kind of odd in the character portraits) and talk he does, providing much of the comic relief during the story by having heated yet humorous arguments with certain characters, poking fun at Eve, and making japes at the expense of others.
After escaping the cave the view switches to top-down and Smelter learns that his empire has been destroyed, so you must help him rebuild it. Eventually, you learn that you must recover the three Doma stones scattered across the three areas of the map, and Smelter convinces Eve that they’ll find out what happened to Adam in the process. The story as a whole is somewhat elaborate and you meet a lot of interesting characters. There is also a fair amount of lore in the loading screen flavor text and all of this adds to the uniqueness and enjoyment of the game, but at the same time, you can skip through a lot of the dialogue and still enjoy the game. There is a decent amount of dialogue, but it is spaced out nicely.
The 2D platforming gameplay is what drew me to Smelter and it is also what stands out the most after having played it. It actually doesn’t play much like Actraiser, the best comparison I have for it is the early entries of the Mega Man X series. The movement feels a lot like that game, and some animations are pretty similar. Each of the three areas of the map (Gorubi, Eramagu, and Nutoro) has its own set of elemental abilities for you to learn and unlock. You can switch between elements at any time using the trigger buttons. Each skill tree has the same setup. First, there are the attack skills. Gorubi is associated with the ground and has basic punches and kicks, Eramagu seems to be lightning-related, with a whip attack, and the Nutoro element is air inspired and equips you with a mega man-like blaster. Next are the jump/movement skills, for example, Gorubi has a double jump and Eramagu gives you a special somersault jump that you can use to jump across larger gaps. Lastly are the defense moves: Gorubi gives you the ability to harden your skin to rock, which lets you deflect enemy projectiles with a correctly timed button press and keeps you from blowing away in wind sections. Nutoro has a phase-out ability that lets you pass through certain walls and briefly makes you immune to attacks. The skill trees aren’t complex at all but they offer a nice variety of moves and abilities making the 2D gameplay very enjoyable. When I first started unlocking multiple abilities in more than one element it was a little overwhelming, but I quickly got the hang of things. Part of the problem is telling which element you have equipped, there is an indicator in your HUD and a slight change in your character’s hue, but it could be more pronounced.
You can unlock new abilities at forges. The first level in each area is sort of an introductory level and each one has three forges that give you the basic abilities for that element, but the rest of the forges are found in the overworld map. This switch is a little confusing at first. The elements supposedly function in a rock paper scissors fashion, and some enemies seem weak to the corresponding element but then others don’t. Also, the blaster attack seemed much weaker than the other two, especially when comparing their charge attacks. Two more of Eve/Smelter’s mechanics that I should mention are the abilities that you gain when Smelter Flootipoos with Eve at the beginning of the game. As you kill enemies you fill up your power meter and if you have three ticks available you can use the Smelt blade by pressing Y causing a powerful medium-ranged green sword attack. The other ability occurs when you press LB causing a giant green hand to come out of you, this is called smelting in the game and has several functions. Basically, you can interact with anything that’s glowing green. Some enemies will turn green when at low health and you can smelt them which refills part of your health. You can also activate the checkpoints in each level by smelting them. There are also green bars in some levels that when smelted launch Eve past the bar. In addition, most of the boss fights have some element that requires the use of the smelt hand. I was having the hardest time with one of the earlier bosses until I realized he was glowing green during one part so I launched the green hand at him and he was no longer a problem.
There are twelve side-scroller levels split evenly between the three areas. Each level is depicted as some type of structure in the overworld that you must enter to play that level. There is a nice variety in the designs for all the levels, from Gorubi’s desert levels with windy platforms over spikes and big Dune-like snakes that chase you through parts of the level to Eramagu’s factory level, with conveyor belts moving crates all over the level. There’s also a level that takes place in a sort of nightclub that’s run by the goofy Bad Boy, who challenges you to a dance-off when you finally get to him, although that just means a fight. Each level had interesting and nicely drawn background art. Some of the environment tiles might have been reused here and there but I enjoyed exploring each level. Overall the levels have all manner of platforming obstacles for you to traverse, as well as a decent amount of enemies, some of which can be annoying until you figure out the best way to deal with them or get more powerful upgrades. Each obstacle usually has more than one way around it by using different elemental abilities and move sets, and I found this to be one of the best aspects of Smelter. After I died and respawned at a checkpoint I would usually check to see if there was a faster, more reliable way to get through that section.
The levels are linear in design, although some of them have a few short branching paths, usually hiding one of the collectibles or challenge trials. The trial rooms are mini levels with a virtual, computerized look to them. There are three hidden in each level and each one restricts your elemental abilities to the current area and is a good way to sharpen your skills with each element. Most are platforming-focused, but a few are mini combat arenas. At the start of each one, a prompt is displayed informing you of the challenge, such as “Don’t get hit” or “Beat the time”. One of the more interesting ones is the “Don’t get spotted” challenge which has you getting your stealth on. After finding a challenge trial room you can access them again at any point from the centre area in the overworld. This is useful since some of them are difficult, especially if you don’t have all of that element’s upgrades. Once you complete a trial you are awarded a forge token, which is the main currency you need to unlock an ability at each forge in the overworld. This creates a positive feedback loop that makes the game easier for players that are able to beat all the challenges and unlock all the abilities, and the final tier of all the abilities is extremely useful. Inexperienced players who aren’t able to beat all the trial rooms will just be out of luck and have to try to beat the game without the upgraded abilities. A partial solution to this would be to create extra challenge trials so players could skip the ones they thought were the hardest, and still be able to potentially earn enough tokens for all the upgrades. Players who were able to beat all the trials would earn the achievement so they would still be getting a reward.
There are two other types of collectibles you can find in each level (Moxie and Apple Cores) and they are also used as currency in the overworld, these are essentially the only overlapping elements between the two gameplay modes besides the story. As you progress into the game the levels get more and more substantial in length, taking thirty minutes to an hour to beat if you don’t want to miss any collectibles and try to complete all three trials, some of the bosses can take a while to beat as well. All the levels can be reentered after you beat them, so don’t worry if you do miss one of the collectibles. Some of them are very hard or impossible to reach without certain upgrades you unlock later in the game. As far as I know, there’s no way to save your game in the 2D sidescrolling levels which is kind of annoying. Sometimes life calls and you can’t game for an hour straight.
Even though some of the bosses were kind of tough and a little frustrating, I had a lot of fun fighting them. You have to make use of many different abilities to defeat them including your smelt hand. Most of the early levels are either missing bosses or they have unconventional boss encounters, where someone else will swoop in and dispose of the boss, and in one case take that boss’s place a minute or two into the fight. It seemed like some of the bosses have a dynamic difficulty curve. There’s a dragon boss that has two phases, the first is a regular fight, but then you have to climb a platforming section. After dying a few times in the platforming phase, the game respawned me at the start of that phase instead of the beginning of the fight like it did the first few times I died, which was much appreciated.
When you reach the overworld for the first time you take control of Smelter as he flies in the sky over a harsh and slightly bizarre pixelated landscape of a different planet. All the assets are flat, but their shading gives them some depth, and you are obviously in a three-dimensional space. Once Smelter learns that his kingdom has been destroyed while he was imprisoned he decides that he will rebuild it at once. There are a number of actions you can take in this mode. First off you move and attack like a twin-stick shooter, which is very useful for fending off the waves of enemies, especially early in the game. You can build four types of buildings: Houses, Orcharion shrines, Barracks, and Outposts. Each house you build creates four Zirms, which are the units in this game. They can then be assigned to the other three buildings. One Zirm can be assigned to each Orcharion shrine and this produces five apples. Each time a Zirm is created from placing a house one apple is consumed – the apples can go into the negative but if it stays negative too long then the Zirms will start to die of starvation. After they are created and take the one apple you don’t have to worry about upkeep anymore unless the shrines get destroyed by enemies, but this rarely ever happened to me. The other two buildings are your defensive structures, you can assign three Zirms to each one. The barracks provides ground-based defense while the outposts defend against both air and ground assaults. Selecting the building displays the circular defensive zone of that building. The only thing you need to create these buildings is the hellium which is automatically harvested from fissures once a Zirm is assigned there. It replenishes very quickly, and I never came close to running out of hellium at any point while playing. There are also a few other structures that can be found in the overworld that aid you in your quest, there’s the already mentioned forges, altars that let you warp between them, and a few others.
The game does a decent job explaining the platforming mechanics to you but the tutorials for the strategy part could be a little clearer, and for someone who is not used to playing strategy style games I was a little lost; luckily, they give you the information in waves, teaching you a few things and then allowing you to access another platforming level. There’s also a glossary featuring the tutorials that can be accessed anytime from the pause screen. Fortunately, the game funnels you very quickly towards the first Garubi platforming level to the north, and after that you have some time to experiment with the strategy mechanics and have more freedom in which level you want to explore next. After beating any of the first levels you can go into the next section of that area; however there are three types of mountains (each type of element) blocking off further sections and they vary in size from one to three, which is depicted by a Roman numeral above each mountain. The mountains can only be destroyed once you have the required level of elemental Domo stone, which are earned in subsequent levels of each section.
Once you get past the intro 2D level of each element and are back in the overworld you’ll have an objective to complete in order to access the next level. There’s almost always some sort of forcefield around the level entrance that you must remove in order to enter. Thankfully, you have plenty of time beforehand to set up your defenses, and you can save in one of seven slots at any point in the overworld. Once you’re prepared you can talk to the NPC that’s standing in a square in that area and they’ll explain the objective. The explanation is almost always somewhat confusing but the objectives are usually easy to complete if you’ve built up plenty of defenses. There was one section that was very tough where you had to occupy three towers and defend them for about 90 seconds without any of the towers being destroyed. You can slowly heal any structure at any time by pressing RB, but I kept losing one of the towers forcing me to restart. Eventually, I realized there were orbs floating above a different type of pre-built tower structure that I could drag to the towers and this was much more effective at healing them.
The audiovisuals in Smelter really stand out, especially if you’re a fan of the 16-bit console generation. The game’s 2D visuals are heavily inspired by the Mega Man X series but instead of a futuristic look and tone, it’s more of a mixture of ancient caves and unusual, otherworldly structures. The music would be perfectly at home in an action platformer on the SNES. The soundtrack is fantastic, with a decent number of tracks – over thirty – which get more intense and ominous the farther you get into the game. The iconic composer Manami Matsumae (known for working on the Mega Man series as well as recent indie games such as Shovel Knight) created the opening theme song that plays during the fantastically done animated cutscene. I like how more and more games are making anime or cartoon-inspired cutscenes and trailers, it really helps bring the games to life and the fans usually love it. The music in the intro adds to the anime feel of it, sounding like a catchy and upbeat but also intense theme song from an action anime show. There are also a few cutscenes during the game animated in pixel art, these also look fantastic; however there isn’t much animated movement in any of them, although despite that I still would have liked to see a few more of them.
After replaying a few levels to find all the trials and collectibles it took me roughly eighteen hours to get to what I believe is the final level/boss fights. I say this because at the time of writing there’s a game-breaking bug in this section that freezes your character in place preventing you from playing any further in the game. The developers are aware of the issue and have submitted a patch. They are hopeful that Microsoft will have it up by the end of this week. I was able to unlock all but what I think are the final two boss-related achievements during this time. I’m not sure if there’s a new game+ mode since I haven’t beaten the game yet. The game doesn’t offer much replayability, you could play the whole thing again after some time away and enjoy it again, but replaying the strategy sections would be a little tedious since they don’t offer much depth. Supposedly the developers are thinking about releasing an Arcade mode update that would only feature the 2D gameplay; however, they would have to make some adjustments to how the ability trees are unlocked, as well as upgrading Eve’s health (normally you get twenty extra HP for every 70 soldier units in your domain). It would also be neat if they released a DLC or title update that let you play as Adam and make a few changes here and there.
The 2D action platforming in Smelter is fun and very enjoyable for new or old fans of the genre. The game features three sets of swappable abilities to play around with and aid in your exploration of the extensive levels. The combination of two very different genres makes Smelter stand out, but the strategy style of gameplay cannot stand on its own as the platforming half can. Together though they work decently well, I felt like each style of gameplay provided a nice break from the other. The strategy gameplay is somewhat shallow and confusing, but once you understand the mechanics it’s pretty simple to succeed. Strategy fans looking for a meaty title to sink their teeth into will be disappointed, especially if they aren’t good at platforming games. On the other hand, 2D platformer fans should definitely give this a try. They’ll certainly be happy with half of the game and they might end up getting some enjoyment from the strategy part of the game as well like I did.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.