Neon Caves is a colourful arcade shooter made by Force of Habit, an independent studio based in the UK. It’s a bullet hell shmup with a very old school feel but it also has a couple of defining features that make it stand out from the rest with its unique attack and movement system that is both very challenging and very fun. It’s a very simple game but that is reflected smartly in its low price, currently available for the Nintendo Switch and the Ouya (R.I.P) for £3.49, this review copy was largely played in handheld mode on the switch.
For those unfamiliar with the developer, we reviewed their previous game on the Switch as well, Toast Time: Smash Up! – a game which plays similarly, with its movement by repulsion, but gameplay wise is very different.
What are the Neon Caves?
This game is great for those little commutes and journeys where you just need a quick gaming fix. It’s a very quick game to get into and quickly retry, making it a highly addictive game where failing doesn’t put you off so much; You’ll always want that one more go at beating the score. The game only has one mode which has no real goal except for you to better your score or to try and enter the world leaderboards, although it won’t be easy.
The lack of story isn’t really off-putting; no one ever hated space invaders for not being a tearjerker, but it would have been nice to have another mode available. For example, I think it would be awesome to battle against friends with your little ships flying around everywhere. I would also like to potentially to see a co-op mode, as the gameplay could lend itself successfully to making the game more accessible and more fun with a friend. As it stands though, you must pass the switch over to try and beat your friend’s score for bragging rights.
Neon Caves is a difficult game to hand over though. Once you get past the immediately steep learning curve, it’s so rewarding seeing your practice paying off as you dodge projectiles effectively, healing at the right times and being sure not to fall victim to the cave-ins that happen periodically. The game works in two ways: you either shoot to move the opposite way, essentially propelling yourself in a direction, or you can anchor yourself to a spot for a few seconds and shoot freely. It’s very tough to get familiar with in the beginning and forces you to completely forget other shmups you may have recently played and fully commit to its unique style. While it’s tough, it’s also intuitive and I found it a very nice challenge to overcome. Unlike games like Black Paradox, which I recently reviewed, this game relies a lot more on skill than luck or just playing the game until you unlock overpowered upgrades. It’s git gud or die trying.
Your score is ended when you die (take three hits without healing) or when you fail to collect or shoot the gold shards in time, shards that stabilise the cave from well, caving in. It doesn’t exactly make sense logically but it really doesn’t matter. It creates a sense of panic and strategy in an otherwise very simple game. Do you rush for the shards and risk taking damage? Do you head for that invincibility upgrade before heading for the shards but waste precious time? It’s a fun little dilemma to have on every wave and makes things feel a lot more manic that they actually are.
The other feature of the gameplay is the use of upgrades. There are four types of upgrades: Bombs, Invincibility, Rapid Fire and Ghost Ship. They have varying degrees of success and in the chaos of the game can sometimes feel like it’s more luck than judgement in when you use them and how, but they are very helpful in the short time that they’re activated.
There are 9 enemy types to deal with in the game and they look and behave different enough to offer some difficult challenges to manoeuvre around them and kill them. Of course, they look simple enough but that just goes with the art style – which by the way, I love.
A few minor issues
I do have a couple of minor complaints though. I think the cave-in system should start off a lot more gently because, as well as getting familiar with the controls, it can be overwhelming working to a clock as soon as you pick up the game. Sure, the more you survive then yes, add a time limit, but it would be a bit disheartening for new players when they have so much to learn so quickly and keep failing because of a mechanic that will make them panic.
I also think that some hits that you take can feel very unfair. Sometimes you can get caught by enemies that appear on the screen at the last second, usually from the top of the screen or the bottom. Before you even see them appear they can have taken a life from you which is annoying because you may have just pulled off a great dodge to get to that area only for it to be wasted. I think there should be some kind of indicator to show where enemies are coming from, allowing you to plan your next move carefully.
Neon Caves is very colourful and has a retro pixel art style that is both nostalgic and modern. The backdrop is a little empty and therefore uninteresting, but it is supposed to be a cave so there’s not going to be a fat lot to look at. The water that floods the cave looks menacing and deep enough to make you feel uncomfortable so I’m guessing it has the desired effect. The enemies range from looking like real creatures (jellyfish, spiders and crabs, oh my!) to strange swirly objects or debris falling from the cave ceiling, all of which stand out thanks to the bold and bright colours. Despite looking simple, it’s also very attractive for the eyes and makes playing it feel very enticing, just like an old arcade machine.
The soundtrack of the game is very simplistic and basically plays the same tune over and over, but it’s not an issue. It sounds cool enough but just doesn’t add anything to the experience. The sound effects, however, are very cool. There are some wonderful high-pitched alarm-type sounds, some brutal explosion sounds and most satisfyingly of all, the sound you get when you pick up an upgrade is akin to finding gems in the Zelda games; so damn nice.
Just a quick note on how the game runs, because I did try the game on handheld and TV mode, and it largely ran smoothly at around 30 fps. I didn’t notice any massive frame rate drops in either mode at all but I did for some reason have the game just crash instantly out of nowhere, sometimes stopping me on attempts where I was feeling my most comfortable – which was very frustrating.
Neon Caves is a fun arcade shmup with a lot of personality and uniqueness to make it a standout shooter. It has a very strange, but interesting mechanic that allows it to separate itself from others in the genre. It is a little repetitive as there is only one mode, and there is a steep learning curve right out of the blocks, which may put people off. However, the leaderboards and the addition of a list of challenging achievements should keep hardcore players coming back for more and more because of how addictive it can be.
Force of Habit has made a game that oozes retro charm and lures you into its bright and colourful cave before trapping you in its creature infested flood. At a current price of £3.49, you really can’t go wrong with a game as addictive and fun as this. It’s a perfect little game for those toilet trips or journeys on public transport and so the switch is the perfect platform for this great little shooter.