April 18, 2021

Review: WRITHE – An N64-Style Budget Blaster That Needs More Work


Mission Crtl Studio’s WRITHE is a simplistic, straightforward old-school FPS that sees players take on hordes of giant Sago worms who have descended upon Bangkok in the wake of an evil food corporation’s greed-fueled experiments. Strapping on your P.H.U.L.A. life-support armour and grabbing your plasma launcher and phosphorus shotgun, you’ll drop into one of three tiny little arenas and shoot, run, jump and hide in order to survive for as long as possible – which won’t be very long at all, judging by our experiences with the game’s tough-as-nails and rather scrappy brand of combat.

WRITHE comes from an indie studio comprised of just two people – a husband and wife team here working on their very first game – and, in many ways, the small scale of the production shows through. This is a very basic horde survival shooter with just three small levels to charge around (there are two more incoming as DLC over the next few months, alongside much-needed gyro support) and featuring extremely simplistic gunplay in its single gameplay mode.

You’ve got two weapons welded to your hands, there are just three basic types of enemy worm to face off against, while things like environmental hazards, weapon unlocks and so on simply don’t exist. You can, however, power-up your weapons by collecting gems dropped by dead enemies – we have to say we honestly didn’t notice that doing this made any discernible difference to our gun’s performance – and collect health goo by blasting open worm eggs before they hatch in order to top-up your tiny little life-bar and survive for a couple of seconds longer.

Honestly, the supremely straightforward nature of the shooting action here, combined with the game’s appealingly chunky old-school art style, a decent soundtrack and fiendish difficulty could have been a fantastic mix; a riotously pure arcade experience with the potential to really sink its hooks into you as you try (and often fail) to better your survival times and move further up the online leaderboards. However, the extremely simplistic AI here manages to let the whole thing down quite badly. Worm enemies in WRITHE are programmed to swarm the player quickly and directly – which, let’s face it, is probably what giant killer Sago worms would do in real life – but here it makes for a frustrating and scrappy experience that lacks any real balance and never finds that sweet addictive spot which genuinely good examples of the genre always have.

There are three different types of worm to deal with here, but in practice, the entire Sago horde swarms you so quickly and in such a messy, haphazard way that it’s most often a struggle to find your bearings or concentrate on anything other than running the hell away. The game’s exploding worms are extremely infuriating, often going off before you really even know they’re there and taking most of your life-bar with them, while armoured bullhead enemies ram you brutally and repetitively (and often in pairs), locking you into a corner or attacking from behind, instantly ending your run.

The fact that you are so relentlessly hunted from all angles and completely swamped by Sago worms so quickly every time is one thing – it may even appeal to some properly hardcore shooter fans – but quite another is the fact the enemies here can seemingly move faster than you, always catching you when you turn to fire off a volley of shots, and have a really annoying tendency to just appear out of thin air behind your avatar, cutting off escape routes and leaving you zero chance to survive or opportunity to use skill to pull through.

It really does end up feeling as though the only option is to mostly forget about shooting and just leg it around the tiny levels for as long as you can before being overcome, and it leads to you feeling like a cowardly victim more than some killer space marine or actual protagonist. It’s repetitive and it’s frustrating because it feels like with just a few little tweaks here and there – slow the mass of enemies down slightly, give players a wider field of view in order to see where they’re being attacked from and make things just feel less scrappy overall – this could have been a really fun and addictive little budget blast.

Away from the core gameplay itself, there’s a quirky little Museum of Unnatural History where you can go wander around between sorties and learn about the enemies you face off against, check out the weapons and equipment at your disposal and have a handful of oddball conversations – this game definitely has a sense of humour – and background lore explaining more about the events that led to WRITHE’s worm invasion can be unlocked as you continue to collect gems from dead foes, giving you something to work towards as you die, die and die again.

There are also a handful of different filters to switch between as you play in order to change the aesthetic up a little and the game can be played in both performance and quality modes, giving you the option to downgrade the visuals slightly in order to run and gun at 60fps or minimize blur and play at 30fps.

Even with just three maps and one simple mode to get stuck into, WRITHE could have been an easy recommendation if there was more focus on making your face-offs with the game’s worm enemies more balanced. It’s so frustratingly close to being an addictive and fun experience and Mission Ctrl Studios have definitely got plenty right here with regards to the look and style of the thing. However, as things stand right now, this one feels like a missed opportunity that nails its art style, has a cool setting and refreshingly straightforward premise but screws the landing with combat that feels scrappy, unfairly punishing, repetitive and frustrating due to the simplistic nature of its enemy AI.

Conclusion

WRITHE is a tiny little budget blaster that nails its old-school aesthetic, is refreshingly straightforward in what it attempts to achieve and has a genuinely fun sci-fi setup. However, scrappy enemy AI that feels badly judged and, more often than not, just straight-up unfair holds the whole thing back, resulting in a shooter that lacks balance and never manages to find itself in the addictive groove it needs to in order to encourage players to stick with its fiendishly difficult combat.


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