In The Beginning…
Everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve. There’s a forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden and a severe rule about not eating from it. It’s a simple instruction that those pesky humans just can’t follow. Long story short, there’s a snake, temptation, Eve eats the apple, shares it with Adam and—BAM—they get exiled from paradise. Smelter starts with a similar opening scene, except it’s Adam who screws up and ruins eternity. This time, the unseen omnipotent entity who rules over the land decides to “banish” them by blowing the place up. Indeed, it’s a tantrum of epic proportions.
Eve ends up in a dark cavern and eventually stumbles upon the eponymous Smelter, a wise-cracking and self-proclaimed fallen angel of sorts. The two combine (an act known as the Flootipoo, apparently), and after a Sailor Moon–style transformation, they wander out into the world. Well, it’s some world. It could be Earth or what’s left of Eden or something else. Regardless, Smelter used to rule over it all, and he wants it back. So, the two come to an agreement: Eve will help Smelter regain his kingdom, and Smelter will help her find Adam, who presumably is still in one piece and alive.
This humorous and exciting start to Smelter is also an introduction to its unique mix of gameplay styles. When you play as Eve, Smelter is a side-scrolling action platformer that’s like a hybrid of the Mega Man Zero series and Metroid. When you play as Smelter, it’s a top-down RTS with light resource management and base building elements that’s a bit like Actraiser on the SNES. That’s right: Smelter is an action-platformer/RTS game. I, too, was surprised by this, and I was almost positive that it couldn’t possibly work. I was, I hate to say it, incredibly wrong.
The Rumbly Lands
How this all works together is a little complicated, so we’ll start with Smelter. His domain, the Rumbly Lands, is essentially a map composed of squares. His heart (his home base) is located in the center, and from there, you have to build roads to connect to ruins, buildings, and numerous other structures. You can find Eve chilling at a nearby hot spring taking a well-deserved break during this time. Like most RTS games, you can’t build anything without resources. Smelter has two different types. Hellium, which is constantly mined from fissures and never runs out, and Moxie, which Eve obtains by defeating enemies in her levels. There are three major areas (Gurabi, Eremagu, Nutoro) connected to Smelter’s base, and each area has its own type of Moxie and its own element.
There are four buildings that Smelter can build using Hellium: Zirm Houses, Orcharion Shrines, Zirm Barracks, and Zirm Outposts. Zirm are Smelter’s loyal followers who are more than happy (probably?) to do as he commands. Houses create Zirms, which are used to staff the barracks and outposts. Shrines are used to create apples, which is Zirm food. There have to be enough houses and enough apples to accommodate and feed all of your Zirm. Housing and food shortages can cause them to vanish. Barracks defend against ground units, and outposts can target ground and air enemies. Enemies spawn frequently, so it’s important to be aware of your housing and food resources at all times.
There’s also a variety of other structures you can occupy that boost your healing spell (fueled by Hellium), act as warp points, and serve narrative purposes, for example. Most importantly, there are forges, which give Eve new skills if you have the required number of tokens to purchase them.
Smelter himself controls somewhat like a twin-stick shooter. He can fire projectiles to help damage enemies, but he’s not very good at that. The goal here is to smartly place your defenses and leave the rest up to your loyal soldiers. They immediately attack anything that gets in their range, which leaves you time to do other things. The aforementioned conquest-y things, for example.
She Who Smelts It…
Eventually, you’ll encounter a named area that’ll prevent you from progressing further. These areas are Eve’s levels. Smelter tags along for the ride, but Eve has total control. As I mentioned, these sections play similarly to Mega Man Zero or Metroid. That said, Smelter has enough unique features, despite the similarity, to stand on its own. One of those features is the ability to smelt. Smelter can interact with any object or enemy that glows green. Just hit “L” and a green hand shoots out in the direction you’re holding.
You can use smelt to stop falling or flying blocks, hit switches, throw yourself from poles, and drain the life out of specific enemies. It also plays a key role in boss fights, but more on that later. Attacking enemies also fills up a gauge that lets you use a powerful slashing move called Smelt Blade. It’s more like a whip, but it packs a punch and is useful for groups and enemies with a ton of HP.
Platform like it’s the 90s
Much like in any platformer, the goal is to reach the end of the level, but there’s a ton to discover on your way there. There’s a specific number of apple cores, Moxie deposits, and tokens to find in every level. Apple cores are used to upgrade Smelter’s heart. They’re usually just in plain sight, but they’re cleverly hidden. We’re talking invisible walls, insane jumps…that sort of thing. Moxie deposits are free resources obtained by smashing said deposits. Tokens, arguably the most important, are earned by completing trials that are also cleverly hidden throughout each level. There’s also one other thing you can find that’s pretty awesome, but I’m not telling. Just look everywhere!
Challenges are brief and each has its own objective. They’re straightforward: don’t get spotted, don’t get hit, don’t die, and so on. The early challenges are a breeze, but the late-game challenges are brutal. Absolutely brutal. You’ll have to master all your skills, and you’ll need perfect timing to even have a chance at beating these. It’s essential to do so, though, because these tokens are redeemed in the Rumbly Lands for Eve’s skills.
Smelter’s goal is to obtain all the Doma Runes throughout the land. These powerful runes power up his projectile attacks, which can be used to destroy environmental barriers in the Rumbly Lands. You can also apply elements to your forces if you also capture the right structures. There are three runes in each land, and the vast majority of them are guarded by bosses, which isn’t surprising.
Smelter’s bosses are in a league of their own. They’re wildly creative, frequently gargantuan, and take brains and brawn to conquer. At no point did I simply walk through these fights. One element is never the answer, and you sometimes even have to figure out how to hurt bosses with their own attacks. I’m hesitant to say anything else because I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but my personal favorite was an overly ripped guy who likes to flex and dab while throwing harmful kisses. These are not your everyday bosses, that’s for sure.
Knowledge is Power
Speaking of skills, each land has its own element and its own set of skills. Gurabi’s earth-based skills focus on short-range punches and defense. Eremagu’s electric skills focus on mid-range whip combos and speed. Lastly, Nutoro’s wind skills focus on long-range gunplay and maneuverability. There’s an impressive variety of skills to utilize. The elements follow a weapon triangle like in Fire Emblem: earth is strong against electric, which is strong against wind, which in turn is strong against earth. While that might be true, it’s not always wise to follow the triangle. For example, an enemy might be weak against earth, but it might be better to pick it off from a distance with wind, even if it takes more hits. Each element also provides a defensive move and methods for unconventional travel.
Worlds Amongst Worlds
The game’s visual design is also commendable. It was clearly inspired by similar games of the 16-bit era. There’s so much to see, though, that I actually found myself stopping and just looking at the scenery. Boombos is a flashy, over the top party city bursting at the seams with life. Resista Station is a high-tech military base that doesn’t seem like it should even exist. The temple of Hectos is partially submerged in the heart of a rainforest with unending rain. The variety is simply astounding, and yet it all feels like part of the same cohesive whole.
The soundtrack is equally stunning. The party city of Boombos is powered by techno dance beats. Resista Station’s sci-fi/fantasy mash-up is furiously fast. Rumbly Lands is appropriately regal for our lordly protagonist. Each song is as varied and unique as the rest of the game. My favorite is still the blazing 80s-themed guitars in the trial sections. Damn if that isn’t the catchiest song I’ve heard in a long time. It definitely helped alleviate my death-fueled frustrations.
The narrative doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite one of our protagonists being laser-blasted out of paradise. Eve doesn’t have much to say, but Smelter sure does. His sarcastic wit and retorts frequently left me laughing. For example, when a partnership ends up fruitful for both parties, he confidently states, “There’s a fine line between convenience and fate.” Similarly, when Smelter asks a guard to let him in at a security checkpoint, the guard fires back with, “This isn’t some house where you just drop in for tea!” And there’s also the mystery of Adam’s whereabouts and Smelter’s origins to keep the narrative moving at a brisk pace.
The Balancing Act
Smelter’s disparate gameplay styles work because each part is so thoroughly integrated into every other part. It also ties into the plot. Smelter can’t conquer the world without Eve’s help, and she can’t find Adam without him. In the same way, neither can learn new abilities without the other. It’s a smart design that caught me off guard, and it’s nearly perfect.
I say that because the balance I mentioned in the beginning is slightly off. There’s always something new and exciting to see in Eve’s levels, but that’s not exactly true for Smelter. His portion of the game tends to fall into a pattern. Build, defend, occupy specific structures (cannons, for instance) to destroy a barrier, defend those structures, and then proceed to Eve’s level. It becomes a tad predictable, even if it constantly occupies your attention. I still enjoyed my time with it, despite a few complaints.
The RTS elements are also a bit too simplified. You never have direct control over your soldiers. At most, you can dismiss and call them from buildings. It’s a bit too streamlined and automated. Enemies don’t pose much of a threat either. Perhaps that’s a testament to my RTS abilities, but at no point did I ever feel overwhelmed by the enemy. The difficulty level here doesn’t even compare to what you face in Eve’s levels. To be clear, I’m not expecting Starcraft in here, but a few more options and a little more control would have gone a long way toward perfecting the platformer/RTS balance.
Smelter himself also ventures into a few short levels that play just like a twin-stick shooter. There’s a ton of aggressive enemies, an obscene number of bullets, and even boss fights. It’s a nice change of pace, but it’s also just a busier version of what he usually does.
In The End…
Smelter is a meticulously crafted genre hybrid that almost does everything right. The margin for error with its design is so slim that it might be some kind of gaming miracle. A challenging and captivating experience from start to finish, Smelter is an absolute must play. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last time we see this dichotomous duo.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.