Volchaos is a challenging old school platformer. Playing as a heroic explorer, you must navigate through dangerous volcanoes in search of precious gems you can use to pay off your mortgage, bad investments, and alimony. To further complicate matters, the lava is continuously rising and an array of enemies stands in your path. Will you become rich? Heck, you will be lucky to survive.
Forced scrolling. Time limits. Rising fatal floors. These are the things which drive old school video game players' nightmares, and these are fast becoming the tools of Fun Infused Games' trade. Take the most hated aspects in game design, and watch as developer Kris Steele molds them into something completely enjoyable. I fully expect the next Fun Infused release to be comprised of nothing but escort missions, and it'd be the best damn escort game out there. Yes, even better than Ico, moreso if Steele went ahead and included his own brand of tedious block pushing. Maybe it can be underwater, too.
Escort mission torture will have to wait, because right now Fun Infused Games' latest release is VolChaos, a platformer (yay!) full of time limits and rising deathy lava (boo!). I'm fine with this and love it for the challenge it brings, but I suspect when most people think back to their most hated levels in platformers and balk at the gameplay. No one loved those forced scrolling platform game bits. There's a reason so many fans hate Labyrinth Zone most. People hate playing under pressure, and that's what VolChaos delivers, a platformer set in the ultimate pressure cooker, that of one active volcano. Most indie platformers take the most difficult route for whatever reason, and VolChaos is no exception, so keep that in mind as VolChaos is a rather challenging game, particularly when looking to play it right.
One does not simply run-and-jump through Mount Doom. No, littered throughout the volcano are gems, and the game urges players to catch 'em all before leaping for the exit. The gems are not of the usual collect-a-thon filler stock and instead will force players to run faster, rethink routes, and make riskier moves as grabbing the gems often puts players on a more perilious path, either due to the short cuts required to grab them in time or due to the ever encroaching bubbling death below. Obtaining such perfect runs (all gems; no deaths; fast times) in Volchaos is the chief appeal of the game and one which should satisfy platform fans. The game tracks all of these stats across the 42 levels and offers an "expert" alternate version of each level once the player has completed it. These expert runs are done in a mostly silhouette draped stage featuring much faster lava but without the hassle of collecting gems. For an 80 point game, there's a nice bit of content here for those willing to plumb its depths. Despite the challenge, the difficulty ramps slowly enough to stay user friendly, and the game never reaches the infuriating level of something like The Killing Game Show.
VolChaos is also way more lighthearted than that Psygnosis published "lava" game with bits of humorous text introducing each new level and chunky, bug-eyed enemies to dodge. The game may not have the full pastel range of Hypership Out of Control, but it retains a mostly bright look and utilizes as varied a palette as far as its volcanic theme will allow. I like the Mega Man 2-esque intro outlining why this man entered the volcano where "he'll probably die," and he is a nice looking sprite who gets burned a lot and fills the adventurer archetype well enough. It's all done in a pseudo-retro style same as Hypership Out of Control, and while the pixel sizes aren't consistent enough to feel like a faithful representation, the artwork and animation are solid if fairly uninspired. Hypership was zany, its space a blank slate for Steele to let his mind roam free; VolChaos is far more focused, and it's a bit unfortunate that his humor doesn't translate into the level design as much as it did in his previous retro game. Details such as dinosaur fossils and other bones buried in the walls will have to suffice for atmosphere.
The game is entered via a level select which charts progress and displays a minimap of the level. The main menu leads to a brief manual -- three pages which explains the goals, the controls, and the in-game items (a spring and a key) -- and an awardments page, the fake achievements which ideally spur the player to take on new challenges and help extend the game's life. I know many people don't care about non-Xbox Live achievements, but I'm still sorry to see the awardments are tied up with stuff like "die a lot," "die even more" style "awards." Five of the 15 awardments are tied to failures, and those sorts of "achievements" always bothered me. I suppose the line of thinking here is that the game is challenging enough to where players should earn these during the course of a game, but it's also poor game design to reward players for failure. None of that impacts the gameplay itself, however, and that registers as more of a theory complaint I suppose, one which has no bearing on the fun gameplay and level design.
What does hurt the game is the way the game starts each level. The player should be in control of starting things off with some input press. Instead, the game sets everything in motion before the player has had a second or two to adjust to the starting position. Players can also move the character before the level has even loaded when restarting. In a game about timing, in a game as challenging as VolChaos can be, with the lava rising at a ridiculous pace, especially on the expert levels, this is a poor oversight which hinders the flow of the game. I've read this will be addressed in an update, and hopefully it will as it's the lone, semi-significant mark on an otherwise fine platform game.
I can dream of on-line leaderboards (non-existent) or even separate saved times for level completion and completion with all gems, but as released, VolChaos is a terrific buy. Fun Infused Games deserves success, each of its five XBLIG titles showing an attention to quality which puts the developer among the top indie developers making games for us to enjoy. Super Meat Boy sold enough to tell me there's enough people interested in well made, challenging platformers out there, and hopefully VolChaos' sales will somewhat reflect that interest.