I enjoy story-based RPGs, tabletop gaming, and making myself sick in VR. I haven't let a professional cut my hair in years and I do not intend to start now.
Xbox One, PS4, PC
July 27, 2021
Blightbound is a dungeon-crawling action RPG from Awesomenauts developer Ronimo Games and published by Devolver Digital, emerging for its full debut after spending a year in Steam Early Access. With a structure reminiscent of Diablo, you’ll establish a steady cycle of embarking on raids for loot and gold before returning to an upgradeable home base, the Refuge, where you can prepare your party for the next dungeon. Gameplay is exclusively three-party co-op, though you can play with bots if your friends are offline and matchmaking isn’t your cup of tea.
Blightbound makes a strong first impression with its skillfully hand-drawn art. While level and enemy design is in fairly familiar style for the dark fantasy genre, they are well crafted and the unpleasantly fleshy monsters created as twisted aberrations of the Blight can be genuinely unnerving. One enemy, something between a centaur and a flesh golem with a featureless pyramid head, is a particularly unhappy sight. Player character design stands out as the most varied with a large number of distinct heroes to unlock for each class. It’s good to see diversity in racial representation among the playable heroes, with characters drawing inspiration from a number of real-world ethnicities. Unfortunately, gender representation isn’t on the same level. Of the three classes—Warrior, Assassin, and Mage—only assassins are female. If you want to play as a woman your only option is to play as an Assassin, and with only one Assassin per party, this is even more limiting. I would like to see gender and class separated so that I could, for example, play as a cool Mage lady. Even better I would love to see some gender-diverse heroes, with opportunities for better representation always worth pursuing.
While the game’s art is good, the positioning of some elements can seem lacking. At the Refuge, for example, the central tent clips oddly through nearby stairs as though the elements were drawn separately and not quite integrated cleanly. The placement of some screen elements can suffer from a similar issue, with text being obstructed by images or text boxes overlapping each other.
While great care has been given to Blightbound‘s visual art, narrative is another matter. Despite a powerfully-voiced narrator, the story seems oddly shy, peeking out in a few lines per dungeon or hiding in character bios. With each character given voice lines delivered by talented actors, it’s surprising how little of a tale actually gets through. Maybe once or twice per level, you’ll interact with an object that prompts your character to say something, but it tends to be a throwaway line with nothing to hold onto. Similarly, dungeons are introduced by a narrator, but he has little to say. This could have been a great opportunity to set some stakes and build drama, but it tends to be just one line of brief direction to rescue a person or kill a monster rather than a more engaging narrative hook. This feels like a real missed opportunity because there does seem to be deeper worldbuilding and concept behind Blightbound and its characters, but what comes through in a typical run boils down to “the Blight is bad and it’s making monsters happen”, which is probably not a premise that will stun you with its originality.
By reading character bios you’ll learn that some heroes are related and some hail from distant lands, so there is room to bring unique storytelling in to bolster an otherwise familiar premise. Balancing this storytelling with gameplay is hard, particularly in a multiplayer game where your audience is most likely talking among themselves most of the time, but the narrative would greatly benefit from being brought into the gameplay and fleshed out in the normal course of your dungeon/Refuge/dungeon loop. The current system feels a little like Destiny where the broadest and blandest strokes of the story act as a backdrop for all players while the interesting and unique details need to be hunted for on the sidelines rather than being integrated smoothly into the core of the game.
“…using [these abilities] feels underwhelming… you may forget they’re even there.”
Getting into the mechanics, Blightbound is a little shallower than its obvious comparison to genre titan Diablo. Each playable hero has only five active abilities plus a dodge and a passive and these abilities are static per hero. They cannot be upgraded or swapped out for different skills. New heroes can be unlocked with new abilities, but playing a new hero is the only way to use these new skills so you can’t customise a build around the moves you like best.
The way abilities are structured also means that, most of the time, you’ll only be using some of them—your basic attack on Left-Click and your secondary power on Right-Click (for a mouse/keyboard control scheme). The secondary powers are the stand-outs for each role; secondaries are charged in a different way depending on your class and each case is suitably unique and useful. The Mage collects mana orbs that drop randomly in combat for a healing spell AOE on secondary, the Assassin charges their secondary by landing basic attacks and then unleashes a boosted strike that weakens enemies, and the Warrior can hold Right-Click to block incoming damage and build rage points that grant bonus damage and life steal for his basic attack.
The synergy between secondaries and basic attacks for each class are not shared by the remaining powers. Your two powers on E and R have cooldown timers that leave them frequently unusable. Timers can be a source of excitement when used on powerful abilities, encouraging you to frantically switch your attention between combat and the seconds ticking down before you can unleash a devastating move. Unfortunately, these abilities in Blightbound often deal damage equivalent to a few hits from your basic attack, so using them feels underwhelming. Rather than anxiously watching the timer tick down, you may forget they’re even there.
Your ultimate ability on Q, charged by landing attacks, is a mixed bag—the default Warrior hero becomes an eight-foot bearded avatar of destruction while the Mage gets a floating book that doesn’t seem to do much of anything. The Passive abilities are similarly mixed, with the Assassin getting an awesome damage bonus for consecutive hits that disappears when leaving combat and encourages fast-paced stabbing in the thick of the action while the Mage gets a boost to mana orb drop frequency.
While the Mage might be left behind in ultimate and passive abilities, don’t feel bad for them—the Mage gets to be handily the best at everything else.
Blightbound intended to have each member of the party feel like an essential part of the team, bringing unique skills to cover each other’s weaknesses. Practically, however, the Mage encroaches on the skill-set of the Assassin and Warrior while those classes get nothing of the Mage’s own abilities. In theory, the Warrior is team tank, the Assassin is DPS, and the Mage is healing support. The problem is that the Mage has the game’s only ranged basic attack, making them safer DPS than the Assassin. This is exacerbated by certain boss and mini-boss enemies having damage-over-time exclusion zones around themselves at certain stages of the fight where the Mage is the only team member with a consistent way to deal damage from afar. The Mage also gets a shield ability that can be placed on any character including themselves. This shield is on a timer, but it can absorb damage from all directions while leaving you free to move around. Compared to the slow movement and front-only damage reduction of the Warrior’s shield, this Mage ability seems to provide better tanking than the tank’s own abilities. On top of all that, the Mage gets the only direct healing ability as an added bonus.
The end result of this is that the Mage seems to excel all around while the Assassin gets an honourable mention for DPS in most fights (exclusion zone bosses excepted) and the Warrior gets little to be best at. The prospect of occasionally being an eight-foot Viking death tornado is doing a lot of heavy lifting for the Warrior class.
The Assassin also sidesteps the warrior’s jack-of-no-trades problem by being, in my opinion, the most fun to actually play. While Mage feels like the most powerful class, a lot of your time will be spent standing on the sidelines holding left-click for a constant barrage of ranged attacks before dashing in to heal your allies if any magical orbs happen to drop. The Assassin, on the other hand, seems to have the tightest gameplay loop and the more engaging play style. Because you build up your secondary by landing basic attacks, the Assassin gets to use their secondary very frequently. The combination of basic attacks feeding secondary strikes and the Assassin’s passive bonus to damage that goes up with hits landed means you’re encouraged to stay in the middle of fights, keeping combat more fast-paced and engaging. Because most of your time will be spent on basic and secondary abilities regardless of class, having a good loop with just these skills greatly improves how much fun you’ll have playing. It’s here where the Assassin excels compared to other classes.
This problem of class engagement disparity is made worse by Blightbound requiring a party of three with no doubling up on a class. Matchmaking already forces you to hope nobody else picks your favourite role, and making some party members more effective and desirable than others exacerbates this issue.
I’ve tried Blightbound with both a full party of human teammates and soloing with bots. The starkest difference between the two, once you get past the bots having a strange insistence to stand in traps, is the difference in difficulty. I don’t know how difficulty is scaled behind the scenes, but an Easy dungeon with bots and an Easy dungeon with humans are not the same. In one gruelling session with squishy human teammates, we failed repeatedly to complete any single dungeon. When we failed, the Blight appeared to shift and make some dungeons harder. As a result, the dungeon that had been rated Normal was now rated Impossible and we had to pick another. This prevented us from sticking with the same dungeon and improving. Instead, we were going in blind to a succession of varied meat-grinders. What’s more, this was before I had completed any dungeons so I was yet to unlock character levelling and gear that could have improved our chances. With bots, however, my merciless and implacable android companions would handily thrash everything in their way and carry me to victory. The odd thing is that they didn’t seem to be playing as well as my human teammates, so I suspect there’s some behind-the-scenes health and damage boosting for bots.
“In our current era of gaming, there is an increasing focus on accessibility that Blightbound seems to have bypassed completely.”
Playing with bots feels almost like cheating and misses the engagement of having real human friends to talk with. On the other hand, my real human friends and I did not complete a single dungeon in the hours we played while I could clear multiple back-to-back with bots. It feels as though Blightbound, like working 9-5 with a three-hour commute, wants me to choose between friends or loot. It’s also quite possible that Blightbound just wants me to git gud.
With no options for an overall difficulty setting that changes just how intense a “Normal” dungeon can be, there’s nothing to make the game more accessible when the grind feels insurmountable. I felt at first that I shouldn’t hold difficulty against a game, but in our current era of gaming, there is an increasing focus on accessibility that Blightbound seems to have bypassed completely.
When I finally completed a dungeon (thanks murderbots) and unlocked some level up points and gear, I hoped to see the game really open up. Unfortunately, these features seem a little underwhelming so far. Gear drops fairly rarely, about 1-3 items per run rather than the constant barrage of inventory as seen in Diablo. A smaller collection of more differentiated gear can be preferable to a large pile of the same old stuff, but what I’ve found so far hasn’t demonstrated much variety. Gear is broken into weapons that deal damage and trinkets that can be equipped for passive bonuses. Typically the gear I see will be one of three daggers, all dealing about the same damage but having different bonuses such as 6% Critical Damage or 3% Life Steal. In addition, I have maybe five distinct trinkets but 12 copies of the same +200 Health trinket. The result is that I’m not usually excited to see a gear drop pop up on the Victory screen. Hopefully this is an area that will improve as the game gains more content—Blightbound is billed as “ever-expanding” in its About the Game page on devolverdigital.com, so there’s a good chance that gear variety will improve and lead to more interesting differentiation.
Gear can be used in conjunction with coins collected from runs to create new items at the Refuge’s blacksmith. I suspected this was the explanation for having a large number of basic trinkets—I needed duplicates of uninteresting gear so that it could be broken down to create better equipment. I managed to convert some of the duplicates I’d collected into a new trinket, which then gave me a small stat boost in line with the trinkets that dropped during runs. This might be a feature with more excitement for higher-level characters, but in the early stages of the game, blacksmithing didn’t offer anything compelling compared to the loot I picked up from each dungeon.
The area that needs the most expansion, however, is character levelling. Each level up gives you points to invest into character attributes like Power or Health. These points give you vanishingly small incremental bonuses—a point in power equates to a 2% damage increase. Because the bonus is so small, it’s hard to be sure anything has changed between levels. Even if the numbers were bigger, I’ve always found level progression more meaningful when it opens up new opportunities for how you play. In Diablo, for example, levelling up meant unlocking a suite of abilities to tailor your character. A few level ups could completely re-shape your playstyle by giving you different active skills, different situational bonuses and effects, and different passive abilities to stack. These changes could be felt immediately and, as a result, levelling was more interesting and rewarding. In Blightbound, levelling up means minor, incremental increases in the behind-the-scenes stats. I don’t feel that I’d be missing anything if these numbers went up automatically at each level instead of letting me choose between a handful of minor bonuses.
I would love to see what Ronimo Games can do to make levelling up more exciting. As mentioned earlier, there are unique abilities to unlock but these are tied to unlocking new heroes and come as fixed sets with that hero, not skills to mix and match. Folding these unique abilities into the levelling system instead would have given levelling up more purpose as a tool to customise your character and explore gameplay options. As it stands, you have to hope you’ll unlock a character with more interesting abilities (and that the abilities you lose in switching to that character are worth the trade-off) while levelling up remains strictly a numbers game with no room for interesting choices.
Blightbound is emerging from a year in Steam Early Access, but it might be doing so too early. Lingering issues with visual elements overlapping each other, uneven party balance, repetitive loot with lacklustre stats, and a bare-bones levelling design suggest that this game could do with more fundamental development work before hitting the big stage. With its creative art and engaging voice talent, there is definite potential here for a fantastic dungeon crawler, but the elements have not come together yet.