Do you like games that punish you for daring to play them? The Battletoads, the Dark Souls, the Hotline Miami’s; games that say right back to the player “So you think you’ve got what it takes to beat me?” Games where the difficulty is brutal, the gameplay unforgiving, and the satisfaction of winning total? If you answered yes to this question, then you’ll mostly likely get a kick out of Damned Cold. One shot, one life health where a single mistake will send you back to the start ensures that fans of hardcore trial-and-error gameplay will find something to love about this little title.
Developer: Unlikely Rogue
Publisher: Unlikely Rogue
Genre: Twin Stick Shooter
Release Date: 25th of October, 2016
Unlikely Rogue’s debut game release, Damned Cold, puts the player into the shoes of a nameless prisoner being held captive by a nameless enemy state in a 1940/50’s cold war era diesel-punk setting. The game opens out with you, and several of your companions being loaded onto a train bound for a detention gulag. Along the way, the train crashes, leaving you as the only survivor. Armed with nothing but your wits, and a pistol scavenged from one of the guards, you must escape from your captors before either they, or that damned cold gets you first.
From there, you are mainly left to your own devices on how to achieve that objective. Damned Cold prides itself on having no one way to play through the game and that once you know how to exploit the game’s mechanics, you can be in and out within minutes if you have the skills. Do you want to rush in like Rambo, guns blazing and cutting down every guard or hostile in your path, or would you rather be the sneaky sneak moving around through the sewers who is in and out before the guards even so much as notice you’ve been there? Maybe you think you’d look better in the driver’s seat of that tank no appears to be guarding. It’s up to you to decide how you want to escape. The game ramps up the difficulty in response to how you play it; letting a guard spot you without silencing them quickly means that the alert level will go up, and more guards will be deployed to hunt you down, while barriers and spotlights will block your ability to move freely around the map. You’ll need to be quick, you’ll need to be smart, and you’ll need to be as ruthless as frozen wasteland you find yourself in if you want to survive
Damned Cold bills itself as being a twin-stick shooter at heart, and on that score, it delivers in spades. Your character can move around or shoot in any of the four cardinal directions, plus a few simple contextual commands such as crouch or interact. Compared to other twin sticks, Damned Cold’s control are somewhat stiff and rigid; you can’t combine movements to move diagonally or circle strafe around an opponent. Rather than hindering the game, I felt that this was actually a good feature. You aren’t meant to be some super mobile fighter facing off against waves of peons, you are a simple man, going toe to toe with other men of similar capability.
Your character starts off the game in the remains of the train he just crashed in. You have a single pistol, a few rounds of ammo and nothing else to your name. Your objective is to travel around a large, sprawling, multi screen, semi procedurally generated Zelda style overworld map and disable enough radio towers in order to be able to escape. You can scavenge weapons and items from the bodies of fallen prisoners or guards, as well as from storage crates or lockers scattered throughout the map. The distribution of these resources is randomly generated for each playthrough, meaning that you live or die on the altar of RNG. Sometimes you might get a fantastically lucky start and get access to a full set of tools, utilities and a better weapon right on the starting screen, while your next playthrough yields you nothing but multiple copies of the same worthless item over and over again.
The game operates on a one shot and you’re dead mechanic for both you and the enemies you will face. While this certainly makes for some tense trial and error, ‘git gud’ gameplay, it also means that the game can be punishingly repetitive as you have to replay the opening screens over and over again because some guard you couldn’t hit manages to land a shot on you. This can be either an invitation to those who like this style of gameplay, or a major turnoff to those just looking for a causal experience. This also makes some weapons like the submachine gun less attractive to use as it forces you to stand still until the burst animation is finished, and thus presents an easy target to any guards you may have missed.
Enemies are for the most part not hugely varied until you reach the further sections of the map. Generic guards make up the majority of the opposition you will face. More bizarre enemies, like walking tesla tanks make appearances, but are fewer and far between compared to the faceless guards patrolling around the overworld. Aside from the guards, there are traps and environmental hazards. Scattered around the level are traps like landmines, tripwires and bear traps. Landmines will simply kill you and so must be avoided at all costs. Tripwires will automatically raise the alert level and summon guards to investigate your position. Bear traps will not harm you directly but will root you to the spot as you try to break out of them, leaving you defenceless for a few precious seconds if any guard were to spot you. In a praiseworthy decision of level design, most of these traps are presented to the player on the first screen, along with several bodies and containers to search. This is an excellent example of tutorial by stealth, as the player is trained in how to spot and deal with each instance without breaking the game’s flow. By the time you leave the first screen, you know what to look for and what to do.
Aside from the enemies and traps, you have to battle the environment itself. Frozen lakes can give way beneath you with little to no warning, and the sheer cold adds a constant ticking clock you have to be aware of. Whenever your character is outside and away from a heat source, he is slowly freezing to death. You have to monitor this condition constantly and take steps to manage it. You can set flammable objects like oil drums or woodpiles ablaze to create warmth, or scavenge warmer clothes from guards or from the bodies of prisoners to slow down the rate at which you freeze, but you can never eliminate the cold entirely. Spending time near fire, or inside away from the wind will heat you up again, but this takes time and is arguably the biggest detriment to the game’s flow of any mechanic when you are just standing around in a shed waiting for your heat counter to fill back up again.
Beyond the basic objective of escaping, you also have a selection of side objectives ranging from breaking into safes, staging prison breakouts, sabotaging industrial machinery, etc. These objectives are there for the experienced player looking for a greater challenge, and will in turn yield you some powerful bonuses. For example, you can sabotage a hydroelectric generator, which will shut down searchlights and electric fences for a short while, giving you a momentary burst of extra mobility to navigate the map. They can’t all be completed in a single run-through, and thus provide the game with a measure of replayability for those interested in 100% completions.
Visually, Damned Cold looks great overall. It is presented in a 16-bit pixel art style, and Unlikely Rogue have done a fantastic job in making it look detailed and alive within in the constraints that pixel art places on the design team. The opening cutscenes and the environments especially look fantastic. You can easily tell that much effort has gone into making this game look as good as it possibly can be. Almost everything is well detailed, with snow falling from the sky, or puffs of breath coming out of the main character’s mouth. The overall aesthetic look is one of sheer bitter cold. You can honestly believe that this is a world in which Old Man Winter is out in force and that the prospect of freezing to death is a very real one.
Character models and collectable items were an exception to this however, with many items appearing as little more than an indistinct amalgamation of pixels that gives you no idea what the thing you just picked up actually is, requiring to you check on your pause screen to see what has been added. Characters, while distinct as being human lack the same level of detail afforded to the environment. This is simply a limitation of the number of pixels available to compose a human body at the scale the game in presented in, but even with that in mind, Damned Cold’s character’s are lacking compared to comparable pixel art games.
Sound-wise, Damned Cold does an admirable job of matching the tone and sound effects to the aesthetic of the game’s theme. While you are out in the weather, you can hear the wind howling around you, while it is muffled or stops when you move inside. Music is primarily based off of a single track of subdued rock and drums, which matches the feel of the game well. I wouldn’t be running out to buy the soundtrack if it was offered, but the music isn’t grating to listen to, and matches with the rather bleak visuals and tone. While having more varied music would have been nice, it is not to the game’s detriment.
Damned Cold is not without its technical issues however. Most notable among them was the simple fact that the game just doesn’t like modern operating systems. Attempting to load the game in anything later than Windows 7 causes the game client to crash to desktop as soon as the game loads. Setting the game’s .exe file to run in compatability mode seems to fix this issue, but it remains a problem that is yet to be officially addressed by the development team. Hopefully they can resolve this issue before long, as it leaves a bad taste in your mouth when the first thing you see when booting the game is it crashing, and not every person who encounters this issue may think to check compatibility before declaring it to be broken and demanding a refund.
There were several other issues relating to gameplay or controls, but these have largely been resolved by the team continuing to support the game with post launch patches and updates. Two major issues that have since been resolved were the lack of controller support, and inventory tooltip descriptions. The inital release of the game did not support controllers, a noticeably glaring lack given that the game bills itself as a twin stick shooter. Controller support has since been added in, and appears to be working properly, though this is still technically an experimental update. XBOX 360 controllers, or any other controller than can emulate one are confirmed as being functional now; my wired Logitech had no trouble being detected by the game. Similarly, Unlikely Rogue have revamped the pause menu screens so as to give you a far clearer idea of what all the items you are picking up actually do. Where before you were just picking up what appeared to be random junk, you can now access a detailed inventory screen with descriptions of exactly what you picked up was, and a suggestion of what it might be used for, as well as a more detailed temperature gauge and a full rundown of all your weapons and ammo. With the pixel art style limiting the detail on small items it’s not always apparent what it is you just picked up was, so a text description was a vital improvement and one that I was very happy to see added. Unlikely Rogue clearly are willing to listen to and integrate community feedback to improve their game, something that not all developers are willing to do.
Damned Cold is hard, sometimes brutally so. It’s a game that punishes you for daring to want to play it. And in a classic love/hate relationship, the more it punishes you, the more you will love it. The story is told in a simple minimalist way through an opening cutscene, and then you are left to your own devices to figure out how it ends. While there are some technical issues remaining to be taken care of, Unlikely Rogue are committed to supporting the game with updates and some extra content down the road. As a first offering from the studio outside of the Ludum Dare contests , I was impressed with what they were able to bring to the table with this entry, and will certainly be keeping an eye out for any future releases they may come out with. I can wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys the methodical approach of trial and error gameplay where each play through is more about just doing better than last time.