Worldless Preview: GDC’s Biggest Surprise

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Worldless appeared recently at Gamescom, one of the biggest gaming events of the year, and another trailer featured just days ago during The MIX showcase. Nevertheless, the Gris-inspired Metroidvania managed to slide under my radar until I went hands-on with it at GDC. It’s now one of my most eagerly awaited games of the year.

I arrive in a world torn between two factions. Designer David Sanchez is quiet on most of the story details — this demo is mainly to show off gameplay — but he does admit the blue and red clashing in the background is influenced by lightsaber battles. So, with unseen warriors of dark and light struggling unseen in the distance, I take my first step on my quest.

Stars are everywhere. My character — a nebulous group of humanoid-shaped, barely connected white dots — seems more like a moving constellation than a living being. The setting is monochromatic and stunningly stylized, evoking a never-ending reach of space bursting with astral flora and hovering platforms. Even the map, which I stumble on pushing every button on the controller, rolls out in front of my eyes like a star chart.

This last is a hint of something the developer finds deeply important: Accessibility. Though by no means a breeze, the creator explains he wants to cut out the typical frustrations of a Metroidvania, creating a welcoming entry point for players who would otherwise feel intimidated.

The map, for example, unfolds at the touch of a button in front of my character. It’s fixed in front of me even as I move, so there’s no need to stop everything just to figure out where I’m going in the multifaceted level. Platforming is satisfying but not made to test the limits of your hand-eye coordination. And the combat is both innovative and forgiving.

Battle is technically turn-based, but the action all plays out in real time. At the bottom of the screen is a bar. Rather than my health, which is placed above the fighting, it measures time. I have only a few seconds in which to carry out my assault, which, at this early stage of the game, consists of a physical block and attack move, as well as a corresponding magical moveset.

As my time ticks away, I slash into action — something that transforms my incorporeal warrior into a silvery knight for a second’s fraction. When my enemy’s turn arrives, I have to decide whether their next attack will be physical or magical and block accordingly. Shielding at just the right time earns me a parry. If my challenger defeats me, I don’t teleport back to some rest point or start from the beginning. Instead, I respawn directly next to the enemy with the option to immediately jump back into the fray — or not if I don’t feel ready.

As the battle nears its end, Sanchez tells me I have two options. I can kill my opponent or absorb them. This last requires me to fill another meter and, when high enough, I can make an attempt by pushing both shoulder buttons. The process has hints of a rhythm game in it, though there’s no beat to keep.

I have to press a series of buttons to succeed, but, depending on how full the absorption meter was when I triggered this action, some of the buttons aren’t revealed. Consequently, I’m left frantically button-mashing to see if I can guess the right combo. It gets my heart racing and feels great to beat.

Why chose to absorb my foe rather than kill them outright? Because if I succeed, I gain a skill point. Worldless has a branching skill tree filled with new techniques and helpful boosts to unlock. I go almost immediately go on the offensive, choosing to learn a new kind of attack with ice damage. While the tree is jammed with different ways to bring down my enemies, some skills are tied to specific encounters.

Having fallen — or rather tricked by my real target — into a seemingly inescapable chasm, I run into an impressive figure. After a skirmish for the ages, I walk away victorious, and with a new dash ability. Returning to the now scaleable walls, I make my way toward the end of the demo.

The developer asserts I’m only the second person of the show to successfully absorb the final boss. Whether I fashion a silver medal for myself remains to be seen. However, I do know Worldless‘ mix of evocative imagery, captivating gameplay, and player-friendly design has me over the moon.

2 responses to “Worldless Preview: GDC’s Biggest Surprise”

  1. […] Manor has a story, but, like most demos I played at GDC, this hands-on experience is all about gameplay. The mechanics won’t challenge players, but […]

  2. […] Demo Fest hits a week before its Game Pass release on July 20. Noname and Coatsink’s colorful Worldless is an otherworldly experience mixing turn-based combat with Castlevania-esque platforming and exploration. If you can’t […]

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