Wasteland Kings Hands-On Preview: Constantly Improving

It’s good to be the king.

At least, it’s good to be the king in Wasteland Kings. The newest action smorgasbord from influential indie developer Vlambeer, Wasteland Kings is a simple shooter romp through a procedurally-generated hellscape. Your gun is your only friend, everyone is a mutant, and wormholes keep barfing you up in new locations. That’s not to say Wasteland Kings is a wholly original game. It’s not. What it is, though, is a delightful mutation of mechanics we’ve seen in other titles, mashed together with a few great changes, and sporting Vlambeer’s trademark attention to detail.

If you’ve played a top-down indie arena shooter – such as the classic Crimsonland, or the more recent Nation Red – the basic mechanics of Wasteland Kings should be instantly familiar. You run around each level, shooting enemies that barf up XP, and moving on once the last enemy has fallen (through a portal that opens on their corpse). When you get enough XP, you level up, and are allowed to choose from a randomized list of traits. Where it begins to diverge, however, is in the inclusion of more hardcore mechanics. Each character you bring onto the field has their own special abilities – from the gun cannibalization of the robot (which gives you XP) to the double-shot from the Gun God (fires two shots at the exact same time at the cost of more ammo) – and passives. These abilities and attributes are unique, and can’t be foisted onto others through the leveling system, so your choice of character impacts your playstyle significantly.

On top of this, Wasteland Kings introduces a number of distinctly rogue-like mechanics. Each level is procedurally generated, rather than being an open arena, and items can be found as you delve deeper. Switching weapons and gathering ammo regularly is important, as you are totally out of luck should you run out of ammo, especially if there are enemies left on the current level. This acquiring a melee weapon highly desirable, as they obviously do not require ammo. Careful resource management is vital, even amidst the hectic chaos of a Wasteland Kings gunfight. In addition, there is permadeath, much like any arcade game; die once, and you must begin your run over again.

Wasteland Kings requires players carefully balance thought and action, and that’s why it is so engaging. You can’t run and gun the entire time, as you will quickly run out of ammo and die. You must gauge when to use special abilities, when to fire, and what parts of the level to lure enemies into to make every shot count. It’s thoughtful, but frenetic, and getting too lost in thought or caught up in the action can spell certain death.

Likewise, Wasteland Kings is also a game that rewards constant retries. Much like Binding of Isaac, you begin to catch on to the vagaries of the random number generator with each death, and begin getting better at working with what you are given rather than with what you want. This became abundantly clear watching people play at PAX, as everyone – with no exceptions – got a little further with each attempt. You are rewarded for patience and perseverance, and sticking with Wasteland Kings allows you to continually improve your play.

Visually, it’s very similar to other Vlambeer games. There are a lot of raw pixels and distortion in Wasteland Kings, lending it the same raw, action-packed aesthetic as titles such as Hotline Miami or Super Crate Box. The small touches are especially nice, which is unsurprising given that they are Vlambeer’s specialty. The satisfying explosion of XP from enemy corpses, the hefty sound and rattle of a gun firing, and the surreal character designs are all little things, but they make Wasteland Kings so much more enjoyable by their presence. This is a game with weight, with purpose, and it wants you to know that.

Wasteland Kings may not be a surprise, but it was definitely a delight. Vlambeer is poised to release yet another action-packed exploration of mechanics with it, and everyone — especially those that love classic shooters like Robotron and modern rogue-lites like Binding of Isaac — should take heed.

Wasteland Kings will be available on PC, Playstation 4, and Playstation Vita. There is no estimated release date.


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