A girl with fungus growing out of her face?
Let’s hope she doesn’t come across Ellie or Joel.
Void Terrarium (PS4, Switch [reviewed])
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Released: July 14, 2020
MSRP: $24.99 digital/$59.99 physical
Even though I’ve played roguelike dungeon crawlers for more than a decade, getting into the groove of Void Terrarium took a few hours. That’s because it’s not just a dungeon crawler. It’s a mish-mash of genres that combines the action found in Mystery Dungeon titles with those Tamagotchi toys that were briefly huge in the ’90s. Toss in some crafting mechanics and light decorating, and you have a complicated game that becomes more manageable the longer you play.
The goal that keeps you diving back into these dungeons is saving a little girl named Toriko. She may be the last human alive, and with the fungus growing out of her face, that life may not last for much longer. She’s discovered by a rat-rebooted robot named Robbie, who, with the help of the factoryAI that’s responsible for the end of humanity, works to give the girl a pleasant little life in her terrarium for however long that may last. Toriko, Robbie, and the AI are deep beneath the Earth’s crust and things are slowly collapsing around them. With the air too contaminated for Toriko to live outside, the only thing Robbie can do is make her terrarium as pleasant as it can.
To do that, you’ll need to craft new pieces of furniture with materials gathered from the various randomly generated dungeons. Each trip into a dungeon will likely end with a pack full of supplies that, when you’re defeated and knocked back to the terrarium, will turn into resources for crafting. Crafting not only improves the look of Toriko’s home, but it can also give Robbie a leg-up each time the robot enters a dungeon. Just don’t expect the crafting menu, or really any menu in this game, to be as intuitive as it should be.
Like most other roguelikes, Robbie starts at level one when it begins a dungeon run. However, depending on what you’ve crafted, it may be more capable than the last time it attempted to do so. Crafting a recipe will net you a perk, such as increasing Robbie’s initial attack power, defense, or health. Certain items may help Toriko out as well, such as increasing the time it takes for her hunger to grow or keeping her terrarium cleaner for longer periods.
That is where this Tamagotchi system comes into play. When you dive into a dungeon, you have to make sure Toriko is fed before you go and her bowl is clean. The longer you’re in a dungeon, the hungrier she’ll become. She’ll even start leaving little poop piles around her terrarium, illustrated in glorious faux-LCD in the lower lefthand corner of your screen. As you journey from dungeon floor to dungeon floor, you have to keep an eye on her health and cleanliness. If her cage gets too dirty, you can spend some energy to clean it up. Or, you can just let the monsters beat you to death so you’re back to the terrarium to clean it up yourself. Just try to avoid giving her contaminated food, or you’ll be left scrambling to save her life.
That is the thing that took me so long to get used to with Void Terrarium. You’re expected, nay, encouraged to lose. In certain circumstances, there is an actual end to each dungeon, but unless you’re looking for a specific item, you might as well just play until you fill up your inventory and then intentionally die so you can start crafting. With that type of gameplay loop, losing rarely feels like losing. Though, you can expect a few bullshit runs.
I’ve had a dungeon run start me in a room next to an alarm that, when I accidentally activated it, summoned four enemies that killed me in two turns. I’ve walked through several floors that have had rooms full of status-effect traps. I’ve had a dungeon floor where the starting room had one hallway out of it that led directly to a Monster House with no way to escape. The various corridors connecting each room of a dungeon floor are mostly blacked out, eliminating a lot of the strategy found in similar titles. I know the roguelike genre has a reputation for being unforgiving, but until I reached the halfway point and had really decked Robbie out, this felt like the most mean-spirited game I’d ever played.
Part of the reason I thought that is because the random nature of this roguelike was a little too random. I’ve had runs where I didn’t find a single battery to refuel my energy. I’ve had runs where I didn’t pick up a weapon to equip only to follow it up with a run that just dumped weapons on me. Finding some grub to feed Toriko — a critical task in this game lest you want her to get sick — can be a crapshoot with some runs not offering any food at all. I get that, with the focus on crafting and collecting materials, most of these dungeon dives ultimately resulted in me slightly improving either Robbie or Toriko. But when I’m tasked with reaching a specific dungeon floor, and the game isn’t giving me any batteries or health packs, I stop blaming my bad luck and start looking at the faults in the formula that compiles these dungeons.
As much as I can sometimes hate the randomness of the dungeon crawling, there is one random function I adore. When you level up, Robbie is presented with two random options from an assortment of passive and active skills. These can improve your strength, give you access to new special moves, increase your inventory size, make critical attacks more common, and more. Sometimes you can get lucky and end up with options that turn you into a killing machine.
I had that happen to me quite early in the game and was only forced to end my dungeon run prematurely because Toriko was on the verge of starvation. Certain items you craft for the terrarium will actually let you eliminate the skills you don’t want to see when you level-up. It’s such a clever system that the right power-up at the right time can turn a broken run, where you’re not getting any help from the random drops, into a highly successful dungeon dive.
Void Terrarium is tough, and it can be unforgiving with a lot of different systems to keep track of. But it’s always a satisfying experience. It’s not the greatest roguelike/Mystery Dungeon title I’ve played, but it might just have the most rewarding gameplay loop I’ve seen in the genre.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]