‘Archvale’ review: a tremendous bullet hell ‘Zelda’ that lands every shot

'Archvale' wins more than just a piece of my heart

Iwent into Archvale reluctant to start comparing it to The Legend Of Zelda. Right from the start, it was obvious that – while Archvale was certainly influenced by the Nintendo classic – it had its own good thing going. Far from Hyrule’s familiar combat formula, Archvale is a frantic bullet hell game in which the cutesy (and fragile) protagonist is tasked with weaving deftly between unforgiving waves of attacks. During all of this, you’ll also be expected to somehow return your own fire if you have any hope of making progress.

Of course, that’s where the weapons come in. Within the three usual types of RPG weapon – melee, magic, and ranged – there are bundles of vastly diverse weapons to get your pixelated mitts on. When I launched my first sizzling salvo from the Fire Tome, just twenty minutes into the game, I thought it would be hard to justify picking up any other weapon. It was just so fun to use, and did its job (melting enemies) so efficiently, that I thought I’d never find anything else as entertaining. No such prophecy came to pass. Since then, I’ve giddily used everything from a far-reaching slime laser to a spinning Cactus Flail which blindly eviscerates baddies.

Perhaps I should give myself a bit more credit. Rarely does Archvale allow you to fight blindly and actually get away with it. Attacking whilst maintaining an omnipresent state of evasion requires that your brain remains in tight lockstep with the rhythm of combat. There’s no relentless dodge-spamming here, because you’ve got a limited amount of dashes. Instead, you’ll have to bargain for your survival with neat sidesteps and adrenaline-heightened powers of perception, utilising carefully rationed dodges and brief gaps between projectiles to carry you through every barrage of combat. The best battles in Archvale feel like scenes from The Matrix, with the mercies of slow-mo ditched for a thrillingly full-speed (and deadlier) caper.

Many of Archvale‘s most impressive battles are found in its boss fights, which lurk at the end of dungeons and in certain overworld tiles. Here, your reflexes and exquisite timings are tested to the extreme. As with games like Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, attacks from bosses are extremely punishing, and clumsier players face being cut to pieces within seconds if they don’t shape up fast. These battles are exhilarating and well-designed tests of skill, with some victories dishing out levels of jubilation usually reserved for the likes of Ornstein and Smough.

Archvale
Archvale. Credit: idoz & phops.

Like I said though, the relentless bullet hell is just one half of Archvale. The other half is a charming RPG, complete with cosy villages and varied biomes. I said I wasn’t going to compare Archvale to Zelda, but it would be a grave disservice to dismiss how well developers idoz & phops have bottled the spirit of those early jaunts across Hyrule.

In this regard, it took Archvale a grand total of ten seconds to sweep me off my feet. Stepping out into the overworld, the playful score – honeyed with nostalgia and promising  adventure – felt like it was charged with magic. Within those first moments alone, my imagination started careening ahead too quickly for my protagonist’s short little legs to keep up with. Each distinct area – from the sweeping grasslands to the murky swamps and sun-baked deserts – is brought to life by the ever-changing soundtrack, which I desperately hope makes an appearance on Spotify. Even without the music, Archvale is a game that demands the full attention of both ears. There’s a delightfully crunchy clatter to be made with every smashed vase, while the rhythmic clamour of combat helps to establish that all-important flow that a bullet hell game thrives on.

That level of absorption does a lot to add to the magic of Archvale – and really, that’s what the joy of Archvale comes down to. Magic. Archvale doesn’t just play like an old Zelda game – it somehow plays like your memory of those games, capturing that enchanting feeling where the open-world seemed limitless. I wanted to go in every direction at once, and the potential of the paths I left unexplored often nagged at me as I continued elsewhere.

Archvale heart
Archvale. Credit: idoz & phops.

Unfortunately for me, the sense of adventure that Archvale inspired often landed me in trouble. Back in Ocarina Of Time, I used to scour Hyrule to find new towns and settlements to visit. It’s a habit I’ve never really dropped – I’ve always found the cities and settlements of games to be their most interesting locales – but here, searching for more communities meant I kept inadvertently facing peril far above what my delicate stats could handle. I’m blaming Archvale here – you can’t have me stumble upon towns of frog-people and literal piggy banks then expect me not to go looking for more.

The game stays quiet on where you’re meant to go, and instead gives you a set of rough directions and uses raw difficulty to suggest where you’re not supposed to be just yet. Many of the biomes rebuffed my tentative first steps with nightmarishly strong monsters and rainbows of rapid-fire attacks that I simply wasn’t ready for yet, which led to me doubling back and branching out in a separate (and often safer) direction. Through trial and error I explored the world of Archvale, and despite losing a hefty amount of gold to my misadventures, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Exploration is at the core of Archvale, and I adore that it seeps into every level of its game design.

Archvale launches on December 2 for PC and Nintendo Switch. We reviewed the game on PC.

The Verdict

It’s been a long time since a game absorbed me quite so entirely. A first-class combination of frantic bullet hell action and endearing RPG adventuring, Archvale stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the titans that inspired it. There’s plenty of praise to be heaped upon Archvale, but the height of its thrills need to be experienced to be believed.

Pros

  • Heart-racing bullet hell battles are intense and rewarding
  • The soundtrack is remarkably spirited and evokes nostalgia for adventures past
  • An open world that’s a genuine delight to explore

Cons

  • Some players may struggle with a lack of signposting
  • There could be more people to speak to, or side quests to pursue
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