Spelunky fans looking for a similar experience may want to sit up and take notice of this one. 99 Levels to Hell is a recently released action-platformer with light rogue-like elements by B-evil and Zaxis Games. The main idea is simple: Jump and shoot your way through 100 randomly-generated levels and 10 bosses. But, as you’ll quickly learn, that is much easier said than done.
As I mentioned, 99 Levels to Hell will be pretty familiar to anyone who has played Spelunky before. Each level is randomly generated with an entrance and an exit. Before you can use the exit you’ll have to find a key somewhere on the level. Each level is also populated with monsters, traps, various power ups, and gold that can be spent in certain rooms that are randomly scattered around. Each level can be completed in just a few minutes, and if you stick around too long invincible ghosts will spawn and hunt you down.
The rogue-like elements come in the form of permadeath. Once you die, that’s it. Every 10 levels you fight a boss and move on to a new area of the dungeon with more challenging enemies and traps. Every 10 levels also serves as a form of checkpoint system, so you can start a new game further along, but this will make things more difficult because there has been less time to collect items and get health upgrades before moving on to these more challenging levels.
At the start of each playthough you’ll have a chance to pick a character, each with different starting weapons and stats. More characters can be unlocked by finding and saving them in rooms throughout the dungeon. Each character starts with a certain number of health points, some bombs used to get to otherwise unreachable areas, and a weapon that varies between characters. The Magician, for example, starts with a shotgun, while the Major starts with a machinegun. As you explore the levels you may find various new items in the form of weapons, orbs, and spells.
Item variety is pretty good. Weapons range from various rods that shoot magic bolts like fire or ice, to a cannon that fires projectiles that do heavy damage on a direct hit but also bounce and roll around momentarily. Orbs circle your character and have different effects. Some are obvious, like how the Fire Orb shoots fireballs whenever you shoot your gun. Others will need to be figured out, like how the Red Orb restores a health point to you if it kills an enemy. Spells occupy your third item slot and are very powerful items that can generally only be used every so often. Some outright kill all enemies on the screen. Others are more support-based, like restoring health or giving you extra time to explore the level before the ghosts appear. After they are used, spells must be recharged by killing enemies.
Occasionally you’ll find rooms that you can enter. There are casinos where you can spend money (Or even health, in some cases) to gamble with slot machines. Stores allow you to buy or upgrade items. Elevators allow you to go up or down levels. There is another type of room that provides some insight into the story, and occasionally these rooms will have a cage that can be destroyed to unlock a new character.
The core gameplay of 99 Levels to Hell is simple and pretty easy to get into, but also fun and challenging. The weapons, orbs, and spells can be very satisfying, and the way they interact can create interesting combos. Enemies tend to explode into chunks of gore when killed. Both the platforming and shooting are pretty solid, and the controls are good regardless of if you are using a keyboard and mouse or a controller.
On the other hand, this being a light rogue-like with randomly generated levels can lead to some frustrating moments outside of your control. For the most part the game is very challenging yet fair, but I have had some playthroughs where I just never found any good items. I have had a few times where I exited a room right into a monster, thus putting me in a situation where I took unavoidable damage. A handful of times the level generated in such a way that reaching the exit was actually impossible. After a while you’ll also discover that the levels aren’t quite as random as advertised. It seems like the developers created a bunch of templates that rearrange levels in random ways, so eventually you’ll start to see some pretty similar layouts.
The aesthetic is a bit mismatched too. I actually like the cartoony art direction, even though the animations aren’t as smooth as they could have been, but the music and narration is darker and creepier than the actual visuals would suggest it should be. I’m still on the fence in regards to how well the two blend together.
There are some performance issues here and there, too. The game’s initial load time is pretty long, to the point that I thought something went horribly wrong the first time I booted the game up. A few times I encountered bizarre drops below 30 FPS that could only be fixed by restarting my PC. The frame rate problems were very few and far between though; I’ve put about 10 hours into this game so far and it only happened twice.
Overall I really enjoyed 99 Levels to Hell. The core gameplay can be very fun in short bursts, and the randomized nature of item drops makes replaying the game over and over again satisfying. Unlocking new characters can change up your playthroughs quite a bit because of their different starting items. At $10, or your regional equivalent, 99 Levels to Hell offers a lot of fun and replayability in a fairly cheap package. Many of the issues I had with the game were rather minor, and not bad enough to detract from the game as a whole. You can find 99 Levels to Hell on GOG.com, Desura, and IndieCity. It’s also struggling in the limbo that is Steam Greenlight, so remember to go give it a thumbs-up to help it get on Steam.