10tons Ltd., an indie developer in Finland, has been making twin-stick shooters since 2003, when they released Crimsonland. Since then, they’ve done various workaday projects — anyone for a round of Sparkle 2 on the iPad? — but their heart is clearly in the the top-down wholesale slaughter of innumerable dumb enemies. With Tesla vs Lovecraft, they’ve gone back to their first love.
Using the basic vocabulary of pushing sticks around to shoot and move, 10tons made several distinct gameplay experiences over the years. All twin-stick shooters, of course. But in very different contexts. Their original, Crimsonland, was a balls-to-the-wall swarm management game with crazily over-powered power-ups that were crazy and powerful and overpowered and sometimes crazy. There are only so many ways you can make stuff blow up. I’m pretty sure Crimsonland explored all of them, as well as a few that had never occurred to me.
Since Crimsonland, they’ve reined it in a bit, gotten more numbers-oriented, more meticulous, with an emphasis on advancement, both in the twin-stickery and between the twin-stickery. Neon Chrome is a full-fledged action RPG rogue-like with lots of advancement as you play. You’ll find new weapons and abilities which get shuffled into the random loot. Between permadeaths, you pour money into improved attributes. It’s a crawl, something stealthily, through cyberpunk dungeons. The levels have the glorious destructibility that reminds you when you’ve been through an area. Have I been to this part yet? If the furniture is shattered, the walls are shattered, the floors are charred, and blood is splattered everywhere, then, yes, I’ve been through here. If not, no, this is a new area. Neon Chrome is among my favorite rogue-likes and action RPGs.
Jydge is a more focused game, using the Neon Chrome engine, destructibility, and cyberpunk aesthetic. But it’s no rogue-like. It’s comprised of discrete hand-made levels, each with several micro challenges that force you to mix up how you play and which upgrades you use. It’s like Hotline Miami’s quick violent outbursts. Dead in 30 seconds! Try one more time and this time you’ll get it! But unlike Hotline Miami, it’s all about your loadout. Which tools will you bring to bear? Which tools will you upgrade? Which challenges will you try to beat this time? Jydge is among my favorite twin-stick shooters for it’s discrete single-servings of laser-focused top-down violence.
Next there’s Time Recoil, which was, well… Okay, look, they can’t all be winners.
Now comes Tesla vs Lovecraft, 10tons’ well deserved love letter to themselves. This one most resembles the unfettered destruction of Crimsonland. No stealth, no watching patrol paths for your window of opportunity, no finding keys and opening doors. Just Lovecraft-flavored arenas that spawn countless loosely Lovecraft-themed monsters. Crimsonland’s swarms are back and better than ever!
But whereas Crimsonland had a pretty simple unlocking conceit — play through enough levels and you’ll get all the weapons in case you wanna go back and kick some more ass on earlier levels — Tesla vs Lovecraft applies everything they’ve been doing since Crimsonland. All the advancement in Neon Chrome and Jydge is here, all the upgrade choices, all the variety of ways to spend your money. But Tesla vs Lovecraft has one important difference that is also a throwback to Crimsonland: you don’t get to choose what you’re playing with. As befits the Lovecraftian idea that the cosmos are out of your control and even beyond your ken, you play the hand you’re dealt by the universe. When you jump into a level, there are no choices to make. Your Nikola Tesla always appears in his mech, gunning down the first few hapless enemies before it runs out of power. Now he’s just a guy with a crappy pistol. Sad!
But like Crimsonland, any given level in Tesla vs Lovecraft depends on what drops from the sky. The first weapon to appear is crucial. You’re not going to last with that crappy pistol. New weapons keep dropping, so you can pick and choose the one you want. There are also special abilities and temporary power ups. Pieces of your ruined mech drop, and when you collect six, you can jump back in for some insane dual minigun firepower, until it runs out of power again. One of the welcome touches is that each weapon, power up, and mech piece puts a unique icon on the edge of the screen to show you where it dropped. With a quick scan of the screen, you have full awareness of what’s out there for the taking. Shotgun to the left, an X-Ray Blade to the right, and somewhere up above me a power-up crate appeared. But they can wait, because I’m headed down towards the sixth mech piece.
Even before the weapons and power ups start appearing, there’s the next mech piece. As soon as you pick it up, the next one immediately appears somewhere. Even if you’ve got the gun you want and a full complement of awesome perks, it’s always nice to have a fully prepped mech in your back pocket.
The scattered drops force you to navigate the levels. There’s a reason to move around beyond running away from the monsters. That’s the main reason to move, of course. But once you’ve got room to move, there are always places to go and choices to make. This is particularly interesting on the larger city levels with gates and walls and chasms. Crimsonland had no real geography. Tesla vs Lovecraft is chock full of level design.
This is where Tesla vs Lovecraft shows its smarts again. As we all know from history, Tesla invented a backpack which lets him teleport across short distances. It’s only got three charges, and they replenish slowly. But they’re perfect “get out of jail” free cards when you’re cornered. You’ll eventually learn that they’re also perfect for screwing up the monster’s pathfinding. Jump across a chasm and now the swarm of exasperated Deep Ones has to go around the long way to reach you. Or jump to the other side of a wall. Or better yet, a fence that you can shoot through while they pile up along its length like so many zombies in an apocalypse. Until the fence gives way. Tesla vs Lovecraft has the same destructible terrain as Neon Chrome. Hey, there was a wall here a minute ago!
The longer term grind is based on accumulating kills, doing daily challenges, and unlocking the harder difficulty levels. You earn experience points from killing monsters, but only in the context of that one level you’re playing. Whenever you level up, you can pause the game to pick your next perk, which is yet another throwback to Crimsonland. Crimsonland gave you a choice among four, and it wasn’t always clear what they did. Back then, 10tons seemed more interested in being clever than clear. You only get two to choose from in Tesla vs Lovecraft, and it’s always explicit what each one does. They’re rolled randomly from among the perks you’ve unlocked. Do you choose faster weapon fire or more health? Do you choose piercing bullets or faster movement speed? Do you choose a random bolt of lightning every 8 seconds striking down monsters or extra charges for your special abilities? Have you unlocked the shuffle in case you don’t like your two choices and want two different choices?
This being a PC release, if you duck into the performance setting, you’ll find some intriguing options. You can set the number of persistent corpses, which is too often overlooked in swarm management games like this. I made these corpses, so I want to admire them! When they just disappear, the massacre loses some of its magic. Tesla vs Lovecraft lets me make a mess and then admire it.
You can also choose the camera distance. Do you prefer a wide view for maximum situational awareness? Or are you confident enough in the helpful icons and your familiarity with the level to zoom in and enjoy the massacre up close? Or somewhere in between? It’s a bit odd that I can just choose, given the gameplay implications. 10tons seems aware of this, since the zoomed out camera was one of the power-ups in Crimsonland. But it definitely affects the difficulty level. Since Tesla’s teleporting gets him around really quickly, seeing farther gives you more information about the best place to dash to safety.
But the slider that I find most interesting, for better and worse, is the one that sets the number of enemies that spawn at once. It goes from 60 up to 400. At 400, it’s truly glorious. Check out this screenshot of a level called Docks:
The display at the top of the screens tells me there are 342 monsters. What a crazy flood of Deep Ones! The level was giving me fits. I knew in the first 30 seconds whether I was going to fail, because it all came down to which weapons, abilities, and perks I could get before the swarm filled the map and overwhelmed me. I had to get powerful enough to carve out a safe space and hold the hordes at bay. I must have played it a dozen times, and twice I came really close. Heartbreakingly close. One time I lucked into an epic perk called Prodigy. It gives your secondary ability, which normally has a limited number of charges, unlimited charges. These epic perks merrily break the game. I was spamming the Sparks ability, which sends sparkling electric damage percolating through the mob, and simultaneously letting rip with the Repeating Shotgun with perk bonuses to firing speed and reloading speed. I was holding out. I was keeping them at bay. I was able to teleport across gaps and around corners. I got so close to surviving until the end, but…then I fumbled a teleport aim trying to get out of a corner and, bam!, I’m dead. Time to try again. At least I’m racking up Deep One kills to earn the Aether Crystals that upgrade my character. Did I mention Tesla can upgrade himself?
Tesla vs Lovecraft isn’t normally this hard. You can play through all the levels without much resistance until you get to the endgame bosses. But then it unlocks the ability to earn a different type of upgrade on a harder playthrough. These twelve attempts at the Docks were on the harder playthrough (there’s a harder harder playthrough after this). I welcome the pushback. I welcome the randomness, which tests how well I can use specific weapons and abilities, which feeds into the perks that I rolled up. It’s tough, but fair.
But somewhere around the thirteenth playthrough, it occured to me to try something. Was this level supposed to be this difficult? Or was it difficult because I was letting it spawn 400 monsters? I went into the performance settings and moved the slider down to 60. Here’s the same situation I was in previously, but with the spawn limit turned down to 60:
I finished the Docks level easily.
The difficulty level of a game is the developer’s responsibility as a game designer. Game design is the art of enjoyable frustration, and part of his job is finding that balance between fun and frustration. He shouldn’t expect me to do that for him. He shouldn’t give me a difficulty slider that says “here, you figure it out”, especially if there’s no incentive to make the game more challenging. And he certainly shouldn’t make it a slider in the graphics settings. There is no gameplay incentive to push the number of enemies up and play this gloriously unfair exercise in managing swarms and randomness. When I can get past a level by playing the display settings instead of the actual game, 10tons hasn’t done their job. I love the game I thought Tesla vs Lovecraft was, but I don’t love how the graphics dictate the gameplay. I presume it will be ported to consoles — Neon Chrome and Jydge are a perfect fit for the Switch — and these performance settings will be fixed to a specific value. At which point, I can finally tell whether 10tons’ swarm management game is played in the shooting or in the slider bar sliding.