Helvetii is a 2D flip-screen brawler/roguelike that comes to us from Swiss software specialists, Team KwaKwa. It’s set in a world of Gallic Celtic Mythology and sees you controlling three playable characters who are trying to battle a mysterious evil that is causing the world to rot and physics to change (which is an easy way to explain away the randomly-generated stages the game offers).
The game’s tutorial is accessible via the main menu and it’s worth checking it out as it explains the basics of the game’s platforming and combat elements. They’re easy enough to grasp but it helps to know some of the techniques that work against blocking enemies and such. Once that’s done, you’ll be jumping into the ‘new game’ option. Here you’ll be placed in the first screen of a level made up of eight or so rooms. The layouts are random and so you’ll just be looking to explore.
Because this is a roguelike, there’s always the option to go for that level’s boss (if you find them early) but we recommend exploring each room, killing everything, smashing every box/crate/grave and generally making enough money to buy keys (that open treasure chests) and stat-boosting items. Of course, this is done at risk because each room will have enemies in there that are looking to take you out.
The combat is straightforward but nuanced enough to be interesting. You have light attacks (that combo nicely), heavy attacks (for breaking guard), ranged weapons and a useful dash that can let you pass through enemy attacks safely. On top of that you can charge your light attack for extra damage and even earn special attacks. However, everything good in this game seems to cost mana and while that does regenerate, you don’t want to be facing a boss without it looking healthy.
Enemies are a good mix of spritely ground-based foes, tankish brutes and air-based, ranged attackers. To defeat them you’ll need to prioritise your targets, dash liberally, combo heavily and generally never stop moving. There’s a lot of randomness to it and while it was never as unfair as Heidelberg 1693, there is a lack of balance to it at times, with some encounters being incredibly brief and easy while over screens will throw multiple varied enemies at you that you’ll struggle to beat without taking some damage.
Invariably, your first go won’t be all that successful. You may or may not make it past the first boss but you’ll learn a few things and will become a bit more comfortable with the combat. However, the real gains happen when you get more of a sense of how to upgrade your character in a run. This is a roguelike after all and so there is always that little bit of randomness as to what upgrades you’ll get but you’ll soon get a feel for it.
Any progression you make is limited to that run though. Once you die, all you can do is restart from the start of level 1.1 and without any stat upgrades you picked up in the previous run. This extends the length of Helvetii and is quite typical of the genre. Would we prefer a more linear experience where you punch, kick, hack and slash your way to the end, picking up cool upgrades along the way? Yes. Definitely. Going back to the start is a little demoralising.
The only permanent progression comes from picking up sigils. These are dropped by bosses and can be spent on various upgrades. They’re nice to have, for example you can earn some extra health or mana, keys, starting money and so on but they’re expensive and not particularly game changing. Spending 100 sigils (the equivalent of five or six successful boss battles) for an extra ten health points isn’t very exciting and it won’t make a meaningful difference to your survivability. We always like a bit of roguelite permanent progression but not when it’s slow like this.
The action itself though is pretty good and is the best aspect of the game. There’s enough subtlety to your move set and with three playable characters (loosely talking they range from strong to fast to ranged), there’s some depth to the gameplay. The thing is though, the level layouts aren’t very interesting and you’ll soon recognise the pattern that underpins the whole game. Clearing rooms, shopping for items and beating bosses. Rinse and repeat.
There is a bit of interest from the boss battles as these take a bit of figuring out but it’s really just your usual bullet…. er… sword sponge encounters so these can drag on a little. They can also be a little bit taxing. You definitely get a sense that even the most skilled player probably isn’t going to get through the game without a few key upgrades.
Visually, the game is quite interesting. The game has that Vanillaware (Odin Sphere) style of art where everything looks hand-drawn and animated. It certainly all looks nice but we’re not sure the visual style or the animation were the best fit for the action. Sometimes things can look a little unclear and the backdrops, as nice as they are, weren’t particularly interesting. That’s the price for accommodating randomly-generated levels we guess but you can’t say it doesn’t all look pretty classy.
The music is also pretty good with a well put together score backing up the gameplay nicely. We’d have preferred to have sacrificed some of that for some more beefy sound effects though. They don’t really support the gameplay and between them and the animation, things can seem a little bit light and ‘floaty’ if that makes sense. There’s not a great sense of impact.
That’s quite a lot of criticism but fundamentally, the core combat does hold this game up and if you don’t mind the game not respecting your time and you’re prepared to put a fair chunk of it in, you’ll likely enjoy the progression. It’s definitely all very well crafted and when you earn an S-rank for clearing out a screen quickly and efficiently, it does feel rewarding (plus it helps you earn extra sigils).
Roguelike fans, and fans of Vanillaware games, should check this one out but if you’re looking for something a bit more focused and dynamic, this might not be for you.
+ Good combat
+ Roguelike fans should find it quite addictive
- Levels aren't very interesting
- Quite repetitive