Neon Abyss Review

July 14, 2020
Also on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch

Last year, at the prestigious Art Basel exhibition in Miami, Maurizio Cattelan unveiled his first major artwork produced for an art fair in over 15 years. The piece was titled “Comedian” and became the most celebrated and reviled of any work of art displayed at the international exhibition that year. You’ve likely heard of it; it was a ripe banana, pasted to the white walls with a single piece of duct tape.

In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg, relatively early in his career, displayed an entirely blank piece of paper in a gilded frame. Beneath the blank page read a small caption, “Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953”. Rauschenberg had taken a drawing from then prominent abstract expressionist William de Kooning and erased all features of the work, before framing and captioning the empty space and displaying it entirely anew. 

What do either of those artworks have in common with video gaming, or Neon Abyss

If we’re to treat video games as an art form — which of course they are, let’s not trudge that tedious debate out again — then the parameters for suitably reviewing them need to be approached similarly. Both Comedian and Erased de Kooning couldn’t exist in any conversation in the art world without considering their context within the art world itself. To be properly perceived and interpreted, they demand a consideration of what came before them, and what’s been displayed alongside them, in addition to what they are trying to say through their own content, or lack thereof. 

That’s important because Neon Abyss is, unashamedly, yet another indie roguelike.

“Yes, I do come here often.”

And in all fairness, Neon Abyss is an enjoyable roguelike. The controls and movement are tight, the side-on view adds a refreshing perspective to endless gun toting and it succeeds in providing a gradually increasing power fantasy as you hoard new upgrades. There are enough currencies — grenades, keys, hearts, shields and pets — to juggle, particularly in the early game, to create tough decisions in whether or not to expend that final key in the hopes of amassing additional shields before a boss.

Taken on its own merits, it's a perfectly capable action platform shooter that’ll keep you entertained for several hours, using your trombone gun to rain bouncing electric bullets as you search desperately for those elusive flight-granting items. But given the genre and experience Neon Abyss strives for, it feels remiss to not compare it directly with its competition, and that’s where it begins to falter.

The DNA of a good roguelike has been refined over the past few years, thanks to entries like Spelunky, Binding of Isaac, Enter the Gungeon, Dead Cells and many more. There needs to be a purpose to each run, worthwhile decisions forced by every chest, enough character and intrigue to keep you digesting the same starting level over and over and over again, as well as enough of a challenge to keep you perfecting mechanics to finally vanquish the endgame.

Compared to some of these alternatives, Neon Abyss perishes due to a lack of depth. The overarching narrative of your continued reincarnation is an American Gods-inspired deity massacre where the new Gods of the contemporary world, those of fast food, idols and bitcoin, are wanted dead by old man Hades. Coupling this with a kitsch, neon, Takashi Murakami-esque aesthetic sounds nothing if not interesting on paper, but there’s little to no context provided in game to flesh out your purpose.

“Have you considered investing in…”

You’re given a short cutscene initially and an uninspired nightclub hub before each descent, but neither of these are enough to make the endless trawl through identical rooms feel worthwhile — and these rooms do feel identical. With miniscule differences as you progress, the backgrounds of each level of the abyss are drab, grey and underwhelming, an apt prison you’ll grow to loathe on each go around despite the differing colour palettes of later areas.

This lack of variety extends to the enemies and boss encounters. When Yooka-Laylee first released, many bemoaned the propensity for Playtonic to stick googly eyes onto everyday objects and call it a day when it came to their enemy design. At least with Yooka-Laylee the enemies are more of a casual hindrance on the way to better designed challenges and collectible hunting; here, fewer excuses can be given.

Take Enter the Gungeon as an example; everything cohesively follows the same basic design principle. There are lots of guns to shoot, the enemies are mostly bullets or other guns, and you need to reach the end of the Gungeon to shoot a special gun that’ll kill your past. It’s by no means an epic narrative, but you’re pushed to keep playing thanks both to the gameplay and to the creativity on display in each of the enemies, of which there are hundreds compared with Neon Abyss’ handful.

The enemies here are either small one-eyed flying spheres, slightly larger one-eyed flying spheres, flying spheres with two eyes, infuriating fleshy spheres that metallically shield themselves at whim, or teddy bears. There are minimal deviations from these enemies, and it makes each run feel like a slog far quicker than it should do. Which is part of the inherent problem with designing a roguelike: you have to make each run feel different, or at least worthwhile, otherwise it feels pointless replaying the same content for almost an hour at a time to try and reach something new. 

Most roguelikes would benefit from a piano section

Neon Abyss attempts to counter this by having unlockables which add new rooms or qualities to the abyss as you play, but I found these to be unlocked too slowly to significantly impact the experience. The piano room is a standout, and unlocking more of these mini-game areas would likely improve each run, but you’re simply not given enough opportunity to unlock these alternative rooms quick enough; I’d only just been provided access to the second screen of unlockables after having already beaten four of the five unique bosses on offer in the game, with the grind well and truly setting in. 

These bosses are somewhat more interestingly designed than the regular enemies, but they’re not quite peculiar enough to warrant several more playthroughs to reach them. I also found there to be a difficulty problem — even after switching to hard mode, I found that by the time I’d gotten halfway through a run I’d stacked so many upgrades that pressing shoot meant instant death for 90% of rooms. 

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun the first few times to feel so powerful, but Neon Abyss could perhaps take some pointers from Rauschenberg’s approach to erasure; almost all the upgrades I grabbed had few downsides, meaning I was adding and adding to my build with no thought to the consequences. It makes the experience feel thoughtless after a while — though the first few levels demand consideration of your resources, you end up getting given so many over time that it feels futile to worry about them.

One of my more memorable runs involved picking up an item that forced me to set a mine after every jump. This meant I had to think carefully about when and where I was moving, as those mines harmed me just as badly as they would any enemies. But these more complicated items and runs were few and far between. That may speak to my luck of the draw when it comes to random upgrades, but it nevertheless impacted my experience and is a balancing issue that could be modified alongside the speed at which you can unlock new areas.

That isn’t to say Neon Abyss does nothing right, or indeed nothing new. There’s a good/evil dynamic involving the purple crystal power-ups and general hellraising that can significantly impact your playstyle. You’re given rewards for playing cautiously and paying out purple crystals or for going devil may care and obliterating everything in sight, including sacrificing your own health in the process. The game’s pets, also, are better balanced in terms of positive and negative characteristics than the item upgrades, and amassing a floating army of small minions as you play is a standout aspect of the game’s mechanics overall.

Neon Abyss remains, despite the above criticisms, a good roguelike, even a great one for several hours. It just can’t boast the same diversity and staying power shown by the finest examples in the genre. If you’ve been on the lookout for a new roguelike you’ll have fun with Veewo Games’ offering, but it isn’t going to demand as much of your time, or patience, as some of the deeper alternatives of years gone by.

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Neon Abyss provides incredibly rewarding gunplay and a plethora of upgrades that can quickly turn each run into a chaotic display of bullets and explosions. It unfortunately isn’t as creative or cohesive as some other roguelikes, with a story that sits firmly on the sidelines, but if you value gameplay over narrative you’re bound to have a good time blasting through the abyss.
Samuel Kendall

Lover of anything indie, weird or experimental. Owes all appreciation to Blastoise and the Gold Colossus in Age of Mythology. Still holding out for a Samuel Beckett inspired video game.