Release Date: April 22, 2021
Platform: Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows
A game key for Smelter was provided by DANGEN Entertainment.
Let's get the ridiculous elevator pitch out of the way right off the bat. Smelter is a 16-bit throwback top-down strategy twin-stick shooter and also a side-scrolling action-platformer where you play as Eve wearing living, sentient, under-boob revealing battle armor on a quest to rescue Adam after the collapse of the Garden of Eden.
It's a whole heck of a lot.
This game does a great job of melding two wildly different gameplay elements into a tough-but-mostly-fair game that retro enthusiasts will love. The soundtrack is also absolutely mind-blowing, with fantastic guitar riffs throughout. If you grew up on Megaman and are looking for a new addiction, Smelter is absolutely for you.
Looking at footage of this game makes it hard to know what genre to put it in. It's basically got two different types of gameplay that you bounce back and forth between throughout. When you first take control of Eve, you explore a cave and learn some basic platforming maneuvers before meeting a creature called Smelter. He ends up fusing with Eve as a living armor that enhances her abilities in the side-scrolling sections, and then leads her to the Rumbly Lands, which you always see from a top-down perspective.
Exploring the Rumbly Lands
The Rumbly Lands used to be Smelter's domain, but his armies now only control a very small hub at the center of three different areas of the map. Progressing through this top-down RTS gameplay is a critical part of this game. In theory, this involves a fair amount of resource management, specifically having enough buildings that generate food to let you build enough barracks in order to have enough armed defensive buildings. In practice, this was never really a challenge.
Even at the start of the game, there's enough spare land to build up your army pretty quickly. Enemy troops spawn automatically pretty frequently as you expand. My strategy was to put aerial and ground defense buildings around my outer perimeter, then clear space for more food and troops on the interior. This always left me with plenty of resources as I expanded.
Once you push far enough into a new area, you find some sort of challenge that you have to do. Usually, this basically comes down to “assign troops to some buildings, then defend those buildings until a timer runs out”. Again, these were never too challenging. The few times that I did fail these challenges, I was delighted that there is very, very little punishment. You can basically just immediately rebuild and start over. Once you finish one of these challenges, it unlocks a side-scrolling level for Eve to dive into.
The top-down gameplay wasn't my favorite part of this game. There's nothing wrong with it, but it felt more like a mini-game than anything else. It was a nice way to make the overworld interactive between the side-scrolling levels. I'm glad that it exists, because it works well to meld things together, but it's definitely not the reason to pick up this game.
The easiest point of reference for the side-scrolling levels that make up most of Smelter is Megaman. You run through fairly linear levels battling tons of enemies and navigating platforming segments. The controls in these segments feel fantastic and hooked me into the game immediately. Thanks to Smelter binding with Eve, she can run, jump, grappling hook to specific objects, and generally be awesome.
As you push into each of the three regions in the game, you unlock three different ability sets, each with its own skills. The rock-themed set has a close-range punch attack, a double jump, and the ability to turn to stone. Another has an electric whip and a teleport. The third has a Megaman-like blaster and the ability to glide.
I made a point of unlocking all three ability sets at the very start of the game. The projectile-based ability set was by far my favorite, but they all had their uses. Between platforming segments and boss battles I ended up switching between them constantly. The one downside of this gameplay is that you swap between the ability sets using the triggers. This means if you are using the projectile and want to do a double jump, you have to switch through the whip-based ability first. I think I'd have preferred having the ability to map the three different sets to directions on the D-Pad.
Challenges and Upgrades
The base game itself is pretty tough, but Smelter also has optional challenges hidden throughout. These short rooms push you through a gauntlet with some challenging limitations in place. Some require you to race through to beat a time. Others will fail you if you take any damage at all. There are even stealth challenges where getting spotted means starting over.
All of these take place in this weird, holodeck looking purple room that feels a bit disconnected from the aesthetics of the rest of the game, but they are really fun to play through. As a reward for beating these challenges, you unlock a precious resource to use as you expand the Rumbly Lands.
There are special buildings called “forges” scattered throughout each of the three regions. Using the tokens from the challenge rooms lets you expand on to them, which boosts your abilities on a skill tree. I didn't end up getting all of these unlocked in my playthrough, instead focusing on really beefing up on the blaster skill tree that I favored.
It's weird, these rooms are technically optional, but I'm not sure how you'd beat the game without getting at least as many as I got. The final level is really, really tough. It would have been a bit easier if I had had even more skill upgrades.
If I'm recommending this game to you (and if you're still interested this far in, then I am), I'd also recommend finding as many challenge rooms and getting as many upgrades as you can!
Hard as H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks
I genuinely think this might be the most difficult game I've ever beaten on the Switch. It's certainly the one that has made my hands sweat the most! The top-down segments were mostly a breeze, but the side-scrolling action got really, really tough at points. Boss battles especially where every bit the challenge I remember games like Mega Man being back on the original NES. Every encounter took me at least a few tries as I worked out the bosses patterns and vulnerable moments. Thankfully, the game is pretty generous with checkpoints throughout the levels, and is quick to reset you right to the start of boss fights when you die.
The retro difficulty in this game is matched with a retro inconvenience. We're all spoiled rotten by auto-saving and features like Quick Resume these days. I was shocked when I was stuck on a particularly tricky boss fight to realize that there's no way to save your progress partway through one of the side-scrolling levels in Smelter. I found that out when I switched over to play another game with my wife and then found myself starting the level over when I went back to Smelter.
This was especially rough in the final dungeon of the game, which took me ages to finish. The final boss fight on it's own literally took me more than two and a half hours to beat, and that was after at least an hour of platforming challenges just to get to that fight. I couldn't imagine going through the gauntlet to get back to the fight, so I wasn't able to play any other games on my Switch last weekend. There was no way I was going to close the game and have to start the final level all over.
The difficulty really might be a breaking point for a lot of people. Even when I was stuck on that last battle, I was having a lot of fun! The precise controls and breakneck action made it a joy to die over and over again. For honesty's sake, I'll admit that I did use the turbo-function on my Hori Split Pad Pro to cheese one specific aspect of that battle, but I think I could have done it without that. Probably. Maybe.
It took me about 17.5 hours to beat Smelter. I absolutely loved it about 16 of those hours, with the rest being just a bit of rage when I got stuck on a tough part. The side-scrolling action is tight, fun, and super challenging, and I wish that the game had even more of it to offer. The overworld segments weren't exceptional but did feel like a nice way to tie the experience together. The story was interesting enough that I wanted to see where it went, even if it wasn't super deep.
All in all, this game gets really high marks in presentation, gameplay, storytelling, and music. I'm a little annoyed that there wasn't a different way to swap abilities and I do think it'll be too hard for a lot of folks, but otherwise, this is one heck of a good game!