Release Date: August 23rd, 2017
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (eShop), Nintendo Wii U (eshop), PC (Steam), Playstation 4 (Playstation Store), Playstation Vita (Playstation Store), Xbox One (Microsoft Store)
Price: $9.99 USD (Nintendo Switch)
Forma.8 is the first entry of any Metroidvania style game to be released on the Switch. It was originally released earlier this year for several other platforms, but has recently made it’s way to Nintendo’s hybrid console/handheld. In forma.8, you control a small exploration probe. You crash land on an alien world and are accidentally separated from your companions. You then embark on a life or death mission, which is to find and recover a powerful, lost energy source. Along your journey, you will encounter ancient civilizations and great perils.
The first thing that stood out to me in forma.8 was it’s controls. Unlike other games of it’s genre, your probe floats. Instead of walking, running and jumping, you float around in any direction in a slow yet steady pace. The probe has some intertia, so it will take you a bit of time to accelerate to full speed, and if you stop moving, you will slowly de-accelerate as you come to a full stop. It is a mechanic that will take some time getting used to, but as long as you plan your actions a bit ahead, there isn’t much difficulty found in controlling the probe.
Along with movement, you obtain power ups as you go. Power ups are found from your fallen comrades. You start out with a basic AoE explosive attack, that damages enemies around you in a small radius. As you continue to progress, you’ll uncover abilities like being able to drop bombs that detonate after some time. These abilities not only damage enemies, but can be used to interact with items in the environment at times.
Where the fun comes in is being able to combine abilities together. You can drop bombs, and then use your explosive AoE attack to launch the bomb in the direction indicated by a line. Although effective, this is a pretty tough technique to pull off simply due to your probes floaty like nature. Your probe takes a while to reach full speed and takes a while to come to a stop, so being able to launch the bomb quickly where you like can be quite demanding to some players. This is most apparent against some of the more aggressive enemies encountered deeper in the game.
Unfortunately, there were times when getting to the games more difficult areas that enemies started to really frustrate me, and I felt forma.8 was a bit unfair. There are underground caverns full of fire type enemies that explode when destroyed, dealing quite a bit of damage. The only way to take them out without killing yourself in the process is to implore the bomb launching technique. However the enemies are quite small and cover ground quickly as they move. They are incredibly difficult to hit when moving. In these areas, I died often, taking me to the start of that area. When I did manage to take them out, the fight lasted a bit too long for my liking. Things are especially worse when dealing with multiple enemies at a single time.
Boss fights on the other hand can be quite fun, and don’t frustrate the player as much as the regular enemies do. The solution to beat them at first is a bit cryptic and unclear, but the moments where you discover the weakness is great. I found much satisfaction when I discover that AHA! moment and was able to take out the boss. Even before you learn how to deal damage to the bosses, their attacks and tactics don’t feel cheap in any way, and damaging them does not require the amount of skill required to take out some of the regular enemies. They can be tough, but in no way do they feel unfair or unbalanced.
Besides from taking on enemies, the bulk of your time will be spent trying to navigate the under ground labyrinth of caves. Exploration can be good most of the time, and there is rewards to be found along the way, such as items that increase your health. There are also artifacts whose purpose are initially unclear, but prove to be useful for unlocking optional bonus abilities, such as a slight boost to your top speed. The journey will take you through many fascinating areas and parts of them require some intuitive thought to get across certain obstacles.
Exploration can be cumbersome at times though. At first, it may feel like the speed of your probe is the problem as other reviews may suggest. I never felt that the probe moved too slow, and I was totally cool with how it controlled. Where the root of the problem lies for me is in forma.8’s map design. When you pull up your map, it indicates how all the rooms are connected. It also indicates you which room you are in, roughly where all the possible exits are, and in what general direction to find them. There is no other detail to be found, which is a problem. Because the bulk of your experience is dedicated to exploring and possibly back tracking, not having a layout for a specific room becomes a pain because of how slow your probe moves, and the difficulty you can have when dealing with certain enemies. The rooms are also designed in a very elaborate manner, so it’s never a case where going in what may seem like the obvious direction will get you to your desired destination.
The map does nothing to indicate how the pathways in each room flow or where power ups and artifacts are hidden should you pass by some that are initially inaccessible. This leaves you to aimlessly roam around each room until you’ve seen enough to know there is nothing more to obtain. This leads to exploration being a needlessly lengthy process. I think having a bit more detail in the maps so they show how the intricate paths within a room are laid out would have alleviated this problem greatly. Without it, I can’t help to feel that I’ve looped between parts of a room multiple times without ever intending to do so, or even hit dead ends that I’ve already encountered. From a story point of view, it makes perfect sense to me to have this desired detail, since your probe is built for exploration, and you would imagine it has the technology needed to map these details out as you explore.
This whole mess of exploration and combat at times can be a double edged sword. It is outright frustrating that these elements end up being harder and take longer than they should be. At the same time, you are a small little exploration probe, and it makes sense that certain tasks would be hard. Since you are not designed for combat, I can see why this should be a bit tough at first. Again though, in these regards, forma.8 does feel a little unfair, and only the most patient players will push forward to keep progressing.
Where the game does brilliantly however is with it’s audio and visual elements. Being a Metroidvania game, it nails these aspects perfectly. They both help to create a big sense of isolation, which is perfect for the context of this game. Doing so, draws big elements and inspirations that you would expect from several of the top Metroid games.
The general aesthetic of the game is quite pleasing. Any elements on the forefront are depicted in primarily black. This goes for your probe, enemies and obstacles. Your probe and enemies have some minor details such as eyes or red lights to indicate these are living beings. Back grounds are tremendously gorgeous. They depict all sorts of environment variations from under ground caverns full of crystals, or fiery depths with lava. Everything is simplistic yet very vibrant, and everything stands out easily. Impressive as well are some of the larger enemies and bosses, and they depict their scale and power very well.
From a sound design perspective, things are equally impressive here. The game is overall very quiet, yet there are subtle sounds that give away enemies nearby. Collecting consecutive pieces of energy also results in a simple yet pleasant melody being played. Music is done very well. It may not be grand or have memorable melodies, but it does lend a very ambient presence to the entire experience. It reminds me very much of how the Metroid series uses similar techniques in creating mystery and that feeling that you are alone on this journey. I would highly recommend playing this game with headphones, the music will have more oomph and be much more immersive this way.
Being on the Switch, we cannot finish this review without talking about the experience of forma.8 in both TV and handheld modes. I played the game primarily in handheld mode. Everything on the Switch screen looks great. The sprites and back grounds are just as crisp and vibrant as they are on the TV. This type of experience I find compliments the handheld experience very well. The sounds also convey pretty good on the Switch speakers if you don’t have any head phones handy, but the games quiet nature can lead to it being drowned out if there’s interfering noises nearby. I often found I enjoyed playing at my bedside quite a bit. However, bring the experience over to the TV for some of the more epic moments towards the end of the game was quite a treat as well.
Forma.8 is a pretty unique experience for Metroidvania type games. It does very well in giving you that feeling of isolation that is desired in such games. Being also a probe designed for exploration rather than combat makes you feel like the little engine that could as you start out under powered at first. As you progress however, you only become stronger and smarter about how you deal with the games many obstacles. At it’s price point, it’s hard to not recommend forma.8, but only to the more patient players out their. The precision required in it’s combat can feel unfair and demanding at times. It’s pacing can also frustrate some players, and it’s poorly designed maps can make it unclear if you’re really seen everything in each area, leading to alot of wasted time and repetition. Otherwise, if you tread forward through the journey, there is much reward to be found, from finding optional power ups, puzzles and enjoy some great boss fights in forma.8.
Disclaimer: This review was done using a Nintendo Switch copy of forma.8 provided by the games publisher/developer, MixedBag. Please be assured that this did not affect my opinion of the game, and that my criticisms are an honest and true representation of my thoughts on the game.