America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 29th Apr 2021 | 1,266 views
If you cut your teeth on ActRaiser and the Mega Man X series, then Smelter is the game for you. A hybrid of side-scrolling action-platforming and top-down real-time tower defense, it's an atypical mix of genres and mechanics that works for the most part. The music is good, the sprite work is excellent, there's depth and variation to the gameplay, and there's plenty to do. Only a few irksome issues—difficulty spikes and glitches among them—hold it back.
Smelter begins in the Garden of Eden, where Adam — not Eve — eats the forbidden apple and triggers what looks like a thermonuclear blast. Soon Eve is falling for what seems like miles into a dark, eerily green subterranean world. As she searches for Adam she finds a tiny impish creature named Smelter, who volunteers to "flootipoo", or fuse, with her. Smelter then transforms into a living suit of armor and attaches himself to Eve. Next, the duo sets off for the "Rumbly Lands" to reclaim Smelter's lost empire and discover the whereabouts of Eve's lost love.
The story in Smelter has a lot of potential. The lore of the Rumbly Lands, as Smelter calls them, is fascinating, and there are several supporting NPCs with big personalities. Furthermore, the game's role reversal—here Eve is a bad-ass heroine rescuing the missing Adam—is an interesting, subversive approach. Yet, not everything falls into place. Some of the late-game revelations aren't fully explained, and a few of the jokes fall flat. There's also a very disappointing lack of interaction between Eve and Smelter, who are quite literally joined at the hip; Smelter simply dominates the conversation. Anyone hoping for the kind of symbiotic-but-antagonistic relationship found between Talion and Celebrimbor in Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War will be left wanting.
In comparison to the story, gameplay is more complete and satisfying, even if it has a "jack of all trades, master of none" mentality. Like ActRaiser before it, Smelter embraces an unlikely combination of side-scrolling action and top-down strategy. Things start in the Rumbly Lands from a bird's-eye perspective, from which Smelter can create roads, erect installations, and fend off monsters in real time. Once his troops have cleared the way to a fortress or dungeon, the perspective switches to the side and suddenly everything is more Mega Man X than StarCraft.
StarCraft really is the wrong mechanical reference point, though. Smelter just doesn't have the same depth and complexity. What's on offer here is really more tower defense, with the trappings of a real-time strategy game. That's not to say this portion of the game is bad — far from it. With different building types and several (limited) upgrade options, it makes for a fun diversion from the more substantial action-platforming phase of the game. It's a welcome palate cleanser. Plus, like everything in Smelter, it looks amazing.
Less enjoyable are a couple of twin-stick shooting segments that sometimes bridge the gap between tower defense and platforming. They're repetitive and tedious. Luckily, they're also quite rare.
The meat of the game, and the aspect most thoroughly refined by developer X PLUS, is action-platforming. Everything just works. Controls are snappy and responsive, combat is crunchy, and the stages are consistently thoughtful and varied — if a bit overlong. Everything is elevated, moreover, by elemental powers. Once unlocked, Eve/Smelter can swap among three different elemental profiles on the fly. This includes Gurabi, a hard-hitting rock type; Eremagu, a nimble electricity type; and Nutoro, an energy type with projectile attacks. These open up a lot of opportunities for experimentation.
Inside each of the game's levels are several secrets, including up to three Trial rooms — self-contained gauntlets with some kind of gimmick. You might need to sneak by monsters, hop over electrified platforms, or outrun rampaging sand worms. These represent a different, completely optional experience ideal for folks who really wish to push themselves.
Even without Trials, Smelter is a tough, punishing experience. Some of the later levels can and will push you to your breaking point, with tricky, high-risk platforming segments and deadly monsters. Boss battles can be grueling also, but also incredibly rewarding, so it's a bit of a wash. Indeed, the collection of boss battles in Smelter is exceptional. Studying and exploiting the enemy's attack patterns is very satisfying, as long as you have the patience to try, try again.
Nothing compares to the final level's ruthless approach, however. It begins with a tough-as-nails boss battle, then transitions into a chained series of timed escapes with very little room for error. If you can get past those, it's on to another boss fight, this time with two forms, followed by yet another escape. It's absolutely exhausting.
Smelter's end game will break you down, but its exceptional art direction might lift you back up. This is a great-looking game in all of its phases. The backgrounds in the platforming sections are detailed and layered, the visual effects and flourishes in the tower defense interludes are striking, and the sprite composition throughout is extraordinary. The game's synth rock soundtrack, composed mainly by Evader, is similarly impressive. The opening theme, written by Manami Matsumae (Mega Man, Shovel Knight), is particularly good.
While Smelter's audiovisual component is great, its technical performance isn't quite flawless. Across the game's 12-hour running time, I experienced a few frustrating bugs. The worst came toward the end of the game, when I collected enough runes to unlock the final level but couldn't access it. I ended up loading a previous manual save and replaying the penultimate level — not as easy as it sounds — to trigger the next chapter. Pro tip: be absolutely sure to use all of the game's save slots and register your progress at different intervals across several slots to ensure you can always load an earlier file if/when the auto-save gets glitchy.
Even with a few random bugs, it's difficult to think poorly of Smelter. It's a handsome game with an interesting mythology, a rocking soundtrack, and a fun mix of action-platforming and real-time tower defense. There are some small problems — overlong stages, tedious twin-stick segments, a late-game difficulty spike, and a couple of missed narrative opportunities — but overall this is an enjoyable homage to classics like ActRaiser and Mega Man X.