July 20, 2020
Little Reaper Games
Little Reaper Games
There can a bit of a stigma around critics. Some gamers feel that critics destroy art and expression when they voice negative opinions, creating controversy surrounding a game’s release. It’s a damaging image, and one that I really feel doesn’t hold true for many critics, myself included. Yes, I will gleefully riff on games that do badly, but I genuinely love that as part of my job I get to boost games up. I get to give a voice to the often overlooked indie games. As such, I felt overjoyed at the opportunity to review and give space for an indie game from my hometown of Melbourne. Unfortunately, I can’t really uncritically sing the praises of Little Reaper, despite how good I hoped it could be.
The Grim Reaper’s little assistant has gotten into some big trouble. The tiny guy accidentally released all his master’s souls and must go on a platforming adventure to retrieve them. It’s a cute concept for a cute game. In the grand scheme of things, this is simply set dressing. The real star is the gameplay.
Little Reaper is at its core designed to be a precision platformer. You can run around, jump, and dash left, right, and eventually up. There are also some unique mechanics thrown into the mix including the use of “souls”. Throughout the game you’ll find souls, most of which are green and simply function as collectibles. You then have red and blue souls, both serve as your enemies, and you must defeat them to collect their spirit, necessary to help you progress. Using the soul energy, you can power moving platforms. Similarly, you can turn off the platform to retrieve the soul energy to use elsewhere. There are a few good ideas that work with this. For example, depower a vertical platform, drop it onto a horizontal platform and then power up the horizontal platform to shuttle the vertical platform left and right. Of course, the reverse, using a vertical platform to change the height of a horizontal platform works too. It’s a smart use of the mechanic, even if it felt a little overused throughout the short campaign.
I did take some issue with the soul currency mechanic over time. The reliance on souls means the game sometimes requires backtracking. Occasionally it was my fault for trying to push through challenges and not doing my civic soul clean-up duty. Although it’s still a bit dismaying and frustrating to do some really challenging platforming, then doing it reverse, and then doing forwards again.
The other problem with backtracking is that it, on occasion, brings some of the game’s shortcomings to the forefront. For instance I at one point found myself manipulating a platform by depowering it at the right time to drop it upon a button. Doing so raises the wall blocking you from the door to the next section. Upon going through I was met with the other utility of the red/blue souls, unlocking gates. These are a kind of “did you defeat the guys” checkpoints and I sadly came up a bit short. So back I went. Upon arriving at the previous section, I noticed two things. Firstly the wall was back down, and there was no platform holding the button down. I found myself locked out of the previous areas, and as such I could not progress. This also was the first time I realised there was no way to return to an earlier checkpoint. I had to go to the map and restart the whole level, wiping a significant portion of my progress up to that point. It was an annoying and frustrating moment.
Little Reaper also introduces teleporting. It’s a simple system but an effective one. Tap to throw your scythe, tap again during its arc to teleport to it. It’s an interesting mechanic that caused internal debate over whether or not I fully liked it, but I think overall it was good. I felt a bit on edge because you don’t have a lot of control over your scythe. Each throw is at a set angle, and a set power. As much as I might debate this not “feeling right” and getting frustrated during the moments where I wanted more control, I’ll admit it did make the mechanic consistent.
“I’m reasonably confident that everything is consistent… But it’s also hard to gauge how fair of an assessment that is without user feedback.”
There was however one element of teleporting that I still can’t stand. When you throw your scythe, it doesn’t just hang around forever. Typically when it hits the ground or an object it will disappear soon after. Although “soon after” feels pretty impressive and vague. Whether it disappears immediately or sticks around is still not something I’m fully certain of. I’m just fully certain of how unfair it feels when you press to teleport and you come up short.
In many ways, this one critique symbolises much of my frustration with the imprecision in Little Reaper. I’m reasonably confident that everything is consistent, with all the little timers programmed and functioning as intended. But it’s also hard to gauge how fair of an assessment that is without user feedback. Without some pre-warning that the window is closing, I only know I’m going to miss the timing once it’s too late. The precision is lacking in true value if it is invisible to the end-user.
The real imprecision pet peeve of mine was the purple spikes. These act as your standard “instant death, don’t touch hazard”. The problem is it’s kind of hard to tell where the line between death and safety is. Compare this aesthetic to say a pixel platformer. At no point in a 2D Mario game has anyone cried “Why did that kill me?”. Everything is simple, and straightforward enough that you can easily see the borderlines. For the majority of the time, this is true of Little Reaper. You can see where you are and where platforms are. But these spikes, especially those found underwater, do not feel precise and fair. It makes Little Reaper a frustrating time, to say the least.
Little Reaper does also run into some performance dips, typically frame drops. The most common time you’ll see it plummet is at the various save points. Any time you pass by the save candles, the game will take a few seconds to save. This probably doesn’t sound like a big issue but it also happens frequently and can get in the way of the game. The save system could also kick in just before a big jump, and you’d find yourself already plummeting down a death chasm by the time the frames kick back into action. However, with a really simple fix, this issue has now been corrected since I started writing this review. I’m glad to see patches are fixing some of the more glaring issues in the game although it is also worth pointing out that, while rare, I did occasionally run into some framerate dips not connected to saving
Little Reaper has a few little glitches here and there too. Occasionally after enough failures, I would reset to a save point and notice little discrepancies. Platforms being pre-powered when they shouldn’t, for instance. Admittedly it was more a time waste than an actual screw up, although I was less forgiving of the time I clipped into the geography and had to start over.
I do feel bad about being nitpicky but there are lots of little things that weigh me down about this game. Wasting 5 seconds on one thing is fine, but 5 seconds wasted with every reset, many coming after an unfair death, starts to stack the deck, and not in Little Reaper’s favour. It’s sad because a lot of this is totally fixable. I would love nothing more than for this review to become invalidated by game patches. Although I cannot speculate as to how good this game could be in the future. As of right now the game isn’t up to standards.
- The "soul powering" and "teleport" mechanics are cool ideas
- The story concept is cute as heck
- Lack of user feedback makes the game feel unfair
- Bugs and Framerate dips
- Tends towards frustrating gameplay
I would love nothing more than to tell you how great Little Reaper is. I would love to avoid feeling like I’m burning bridges in the Melbourne indie game community. I would love to tell you about how the heart and soul behind this game outweigh the frustrations. But I can’t do that.
I love the general vibe and some of the ideas but there are too many drawbacks. As small as these little annoyances are, they stack up and compound to make minor setbacks into frustrating timesinks. Looking at the recent patch correcting one of these issues, I hold out hope that more corrections will follow suit. I hope it will live up to all the great things this game has going for it. But for the moment I can only review that which is real and in front of me, and it isn’t quite up to my standards.