Demons. Hellscapes. Heavy Metal. Beer. And get from one end of the level to the other as fast as possible, avoiding all manner of obstacles along the way. What could be simpler?
Pretty much anything, as it turns out. SEUM: Speedrunners from Hell makes the leap from PC to console, billing itself as a ‘competitive heavy metal first-person platformer’ – the bastard child of Quake and Super Meat Boy. Way to build expectations there, Pine Studio. Those are some heavy hitters.
Speedrunning, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the art of completing a game as quickly as possible, ignoring every detail with which the developer has filled their living, detailed, virtual playscapes. The World Record for Zelda: Breath of the Wild – one of the most expensive, vibrant gaming worlds of recent times – is under 40 minutes. That’s a lot of stuff missed out.
SEUM, then, is the distillation of this approach to playing games. Each of the 100 levels needs to be completed in merely seconds to progress, and so each, almost counter intuitively, is an exercise in exploration. After the first dozen levels or so you’re unlikely to complete each first time – and certainly not within the time limit. You’ll need to test out routes, understand hazards, find short cuts, and nail the timing with millisecond precision.
Two very smart design decisions help. First, when time runs out, your leather clad redneck (there’s a backstory, but really, do you need one?) can keep on running. This is essential as levels get ever more challenging – you can take as much time as you need to learn the leaps, jumps and timing you’ll need to progress.
Secondly, restarting (after death, or when you’ve just cocked it up) is instant – it’s very Trials HD-like – and means there’s no deterrent to ‘just one more go.’
And you’ll need plenty of goes. As you progress and the levels get increasingly intricate, so your abilities expand. Initially armed only with a short jump, you’ll soon be leaping great distances, flinging fireballs to flip switches, teleporting, and reversing gravity – on more than one occasion we found ourselves Flappy Bird-ing across a level, constantly flipping gravity to keep us floating above the lava and below the deadly spikes.
Each new skill is mapped to a different button press which initially seems nonsensical – “Why is shoot fireball over there?” – but, as more skills are unlocked, the controller configuration starts to make sense.
What doesn’t make sense (apart from the back story, the setting, and the collectable beers) is why we continually put ourselves through the agony of deliberately difficult games. Actually, that’s not quite true. Why do I put myself through deliberately difficult games – platformers in all their dimensions, typically – when I have limited time in which to play games and generally I’m just looking to relax?
There’s a great debate right now – or more accurately a ridiculous pile-on – when industry veteran journalist Dean Takahashi posted a self-deprecating video of his struggles with the forthcoming Cuphead‘s tutorial. Dean’s response to the frankly ridiculous trolling is both honest and revealing, and is well worth a read. As games journalists – either professional or amateur – we play, write about, and evangelise games because we love them. We love them all – even the ones we hate because they’re not our cup of tea.
SEUM: Speedrunners from Hell is most definitely not my cup of tea. It is, though, a game with a very clear idea of what it wants to be and, largely, it accomplishes that with no small amount of style. Assuming, that is, your idea of style is dirty denim, heavy metal and chugging beers straight from the tin, and not from a nice glass as nature intended.
The game’s replete with options – including an insanely hard mode that we quickly turned back off again – and the usual worldwide and friends leaderboards (one of the delights of reviewing games before release is that top ten in the world is achievable. Watching our position tumble after release date is less satisfying!)
It’s not flawless. There are difficulty spikes and genuinely head-scratching, controller-wrecking levels that seem impossible until suddenly they’re not (though often only because of blind panic or sheer luck). It’s a little rough n’ ready around the edges but that suits the tone of the game. Ultimately, though, once the adrenaline wears off – and this game does genuinely get the old ticker a-pumpin’ – we were left wanting just that little bit more. For a game about traversing a space as quickly as possible its nineties vibe left us a little bit cold, despite Hell being all toasty warm.
Release Date: 5 September 2017 (the game enjoyed a Steam release in July 2016)
Platforms: Xbox One / PS4 (Xbox One version reviewed.)