Impaler (PC) - ReviewPaul Broussard , posted on 12 January 2023 / 2,358 Views
Last month I reviewed the now universally acclaimed greatest game ever, Chop Goblins, and after I finally managed to calm myself from the sheer ecstasy of such an experience, I decided that I hoped the trend of shorter games for less money would continue. It seems the gaming deities were listening to me, and brought one final Christmas present in the form of Impaler, another first person shooter that can be completed in an hour or so for less than $5. Impaler, however, separates itself from the former title in a couple of crucial ways: first by not having any goblins, and second by being a roguelike. Both of these elements make it its own title, for better and worse.
I’ve said before that the story for certain games is almost non-existent, but Impaler might be the first one I’ve played in quite a while with no story to speak of at all. It shoves a weapon in your hands and tells you to start killing hellspawn. Fair enough, but I can’t help but think that at least doing a little bit of set-up would add some player engagement to proceedings; the proverbial narrative spice flavoring the meat of gameplay. One of the most memorable and terrifying moments in any game for me was realizing I had to face the rebel flagship after running from the damn thing for two hours straight in FTL, and that sort of thing doesn’t exist without the minimal narrative of that game.
But let’s focus on what’s here rather than what isn’t. After running you through a brief tutorial on how to shoot guns - on the off chance you’ve suffered a near-fatal head injury - Impaler has you picking a gun and jumping into the fray. Enemies spawn in waves and harass you from around the arena, and it’s up to you to take them out with the gun that you picked at the start. And yes, the emphasis is on the singular there. The element that stuck out the most to me in Impaler is the limitation to a single gun on any given run; there’s no weapon switching during gameplay. Which is a bit odd for a title styling itself after boomer shooters, a sub-genre that built itself on fast weapon switching.
I’m a bit mixed on this. On the one hand I don’t want to dismiss a design choice simply because it defies conventions, but on the other hand I do think much of the fun in boomer shooters comes from deftly swapping between weapons to deal with the right scenario, so this feels somewhat counterintuitive in that respect. Perhaps the thinking was the game’s runtime was short enough that more than one weapon at once would be extraneous, but if this was the rationale then I think it’s a flawed one because experimentation with different abilities is what keeps roguelikes like this interesting and worth coming back to.
That said, there is another weapon at your disposal at all times, which is the titular “impaler.” The player character can cause spikes to jut out of the ground a short ways in front of them which deal a small amount of damage to enemies. If you manage to kill an enemy with a spike, they drop health, which provides a nice incentive to use the ability (especially since its damage isn’t one such incentive). That being said, it feels more like a situational tool, used to finish off enemies that are almost dead when you’re running low on health. For a mechanic that the game’s name is based on, it doesn’t feel very fleshed out.
Being a roguelike, there are, of course, additional (random) powers that you can obtain mid-run. At the end of certain stages, you can choose whether to receive an unidentified power-up in one of several areas: health, guns, money, etc. It works well for the most part to give a sense of progress, although the mystery nature of the upgrades can be harmful, sometimes sticking you with one that's ultimately detrimental. Being such a short game, the decision to scrap ammo and have guns work on a cooldown system was probably a smart one. Similarly, a power-up that allows you to fire more bullets per shot at the sacrifice of greater cooldown times can be useful, especially for less powerful guns. But those two elements become very problematic when paired with the shotgun, which already kills most enemies in a couple of shots at most and now is even slower and less well prepared to deal with the hordes of enemies that appear in later stages. If you happen to stumble into this power-up while wielding the shotgun then you’re likely worse off than you would have been if you had picked nothing, and there's no way to reverse the acquisition.
Enemy variety does deserve a good deal of praise for the type of game we’re working with here: there are plenty of baddies that attack you in a range of different ways. Some will charge you with no regard for their, yours, or anyone else’s life; others will adopt more of a mid-ranged approach, with a mix of projectiles and melee attacks; and then you have the complete assholes who sit on a pillar in the corner of the room and snipe you every time you turn your back. They’re well balanced, and they do a good job of keeping you on your toes.
It is a bit of a shame that the arena the fights take place in never changes. There are a few interesting environmental effects that occur as fights go on, like spiked blades moving back and forth across the arena, but overall it does make things feel a bit samey. I suppose the go-to defense for this is the game’s price point; at a mind-bogglingly low $3 (maybe the cheapest non-free release I’ve ever seen), it’s hard to argue you aren’t getting your money's worth. Any complaints I can levy are likely mitigated by the sheer value presented here. Like the unquestioned best game of all time, Chop Goblins, this is a title that's designed around being a short but sweet experience. Which, personally, I’m inclined to be favorable towards; I still have nightmares about having to play through both Horizon: Forbidden West and Elden Ring in the same month.
That said, the decision to design a roguelike - a genre that lives or dies on its replayability - as one of these shorter experiences may be an inherently flawed one. I beat Impaler on my third attempt, and while I’d love to chalk that up to my immaculate reviewer reflexes, it seems like most people who've played it have had a similar experience. If you design a roguelike that is short and easy enough to be beaten on its third try (or thereabouts), then is it even a roguelike? It seems like at that point it might as well just be a very short shooter with no save points and a couple of unlockable gun options. What’s the point in experimenting and unlocking new firearms if you’ll have likely already conquered the game before you reach more than two possible gun choices?
Viewed in that light, I think it’s fair to say that Impaler could have benefitted from different arenas. Maybe if there had been additional locales to fight in, or levels to conquer, I would be more inclined to try out other weapons and jump back into the game. It seems like that would fit the idea of a short roguelike much better too. Then again, perhaps that's just inherently self-defeating for a title that wants to be cheap; anything more and $3 likely wouldn’t have been a viable price point. Perhaps the desire to keep a game that inexpensive, while also making it a roguelike, is ultimately not a viable option.
So is Impaler worth a purchase? There’s fun to be had here, even if I think the genre it places itself into is a somewhat self-defeating move. The moment-to-moment combat is pretty fun, and the enemy variety is solid, but the lack of weapon swapping and the same old arena do hamper the experience. This probably isn’t the greatest compliment you can give a game, but at the end of the day, it’s three dollars. Give it a shot if you like shooters; you’ve almost certainly spent three bucks on worse things before.
This review is based on a digital copy of Impaler for the PC
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