One particularly appealing indie game being shown off at PAX Aus 2023 was the asymmetric co-op-focused Criminals Within, a quirky fantasy-themed action-puzzler for two players developed by New Zealand-based Space Rock Games. Although it is still far off its final release date, I was able to check out a decent-sized preview and learn more about the game’s inspirations and future from Game Programmer Varun Naval.
Set in a vibrant fantasy world, you and a friend play as royal guard Helena and roguish burglar Jarel who are wrongfully accused of a heinous crime by their kingdom. Forced to band together to clear their names, the duo must venture forth to find the lost Prince Felix and restore order. The demo itself did show a good amount of the banter between the two leads, however, more of what the story has to show will be revealed closer to the release date.
The genesis of Criminals Within started with Helena being the only protagonist. After being inspired by the Disney movie Tangled to include a roguish anti-hero counterpoint to Helena in the form of Jarel, the developers ended up liking him too much to make him anything other than a co-lead, and thus giving the game its asymmetric co-op focus. Unlike many action/puzzler games which give you an AI sidekick or support character, like God of War: Ragnarök, both characters must be controlled by human players at all times; the game’s concept is to be exclusively co-op in the style of games like It Takes Two, according to Naval, with no plans on giving it a solo mode. Co-op is set to be available online and split-screen.
Both characters control fairly differently in Criminals Within and complement each other well. In combat, Helena is a close-quarters specialist, armed with a mace and shield, as well as healing magic. Jarel has a scimitar, but excels in long-ranged attacks with his bow and assortment of grenades.
The combat really felt like it succeeded when both players were using their characters’ strengths by getting Helena to tank and draw enemy aggro so that Jarel could land some devastating headshots with his bow. While player abilities cannot be upgraded yet, the eventual plan is for gold looted from chests to be able to be invested in improving character stats and abilities.
Puzzle-wise, there wasn’t anything too complicated in the demo, although I was advised that the section of the game I was playing was from quite early on in the storyline. Most areas require you to find a key hidden somewhere in the area and reunite it with a magical statue which opens the door to the next area. Helena can boost up Jarel to high places with her shield, with areas where players can do this helpfully indicated with little red handprint markers. The puzzles and cooperation actions between the characters don’t feel quite fully-formed yet; while Helena can give Jarel a boost, Jarel doesn’t really have any abilities to assist Helena in getting to new areas. Apparently new mechanics, such as Jarel being able to help up Helena with a grappling hook, are in the works, so more varied puzzle designs will likely arrive at some point.
Overall, I was quite impressed with Criminals Within. The colourful and cartoony setting succeeded in nailing the “playable animated Disney movie” aesthetic the developers were going for, and the world felt fun to explore with plenty of small hidden areas to uncover. While the mandatory co-op might alienate some players who would prefer to play it solo, if Space Rock Games can flesh out its puzzle and combat mechanics a bit more and ensure both characters feel equally rewarding to play, Criminals Within might end up being a real treat for co-op fans. The current plan is for the game to release in 2025. Check out the Steam page for more information and to wishlist.