I actually got this game right as it released, taking advantage of the release sale. It is, after all, a pixel graphics Metroidvania that has that awesome, how you remember the SNES look to it that I happen to love. I had been playing Aeterna Noctis at the time and was thus frustrated by a needlessly difficult game, one that prioritized being hard over being fun.
Little did I know I was setting myself up for irony.
Vernal Edge is actually the fulfillment of a Kickstarter by Matthew Martinez, who was promising a character based, stylish action game. It features the main character, Vernal, who is looking for her father amid a civilization of floating islands. Her father left Vernal and her mother to die, so now the brash heroine is seeking him in order to kill him. It is all about revenge for Vernal, even as she starts finding out that the world may be crumbling into an unreality.
The plot’s fairly good, though it’s really not doing anything particularly amazing. Vernal’s brash attitude will either annoy players or be somewhat refreshing, as she’s incredibly practically minded. The other characters often have that “everyone’s a sarcastic a**hole” vibe that comes with indie games from time to time. The overarching plot is fairly interesting, though it leaves a lot of dangling threads by the time the story is done (characters appear and then disappear almost at random; I was taunted by one character how I thought would be a boss on several stages, only for them never to show up [apparently they’re an optional boss? I didn’t seek them out]).
What annoys me is that this is another game that sells itself as a metroidvania, but it most definitely isn’t one. The Kickstarter actually claims Vernal Edge has “metroidvania elements,” which seems to be a fairly accurate assessment. It mostly feels something like a Mega Man game. There are a variety of levels that open up to you on something of a “world map.” Said map functions primarily as a screen select with you flying your ship to different locales.
It looks nice, but it really doesn’t add anything to the gameplay, sadly. There are a few semi-hidden islands to explore, and a few of the island stages aren’t necessary to beat the game.
For the most part, you go to an island, use a “danger rating” as a guidepost and then explore it. During that stage, Vernal receives an ability that allows her to fully explore the map. Some of the stages have areas that you can only reach when you have certain abilities, essentially leaving it up to chance. There are also a few islands that function as towns, with the ability to spend a bit of money there.
I’m often irritated whenever a pretty good game attempts to sell people on being a metroidvania when it’s not. I said that about Flynn: Son of Crimson, and the same applies to Vernal Edge. I’d actually say both games are more similar to each other (and, again, Megaman) than to any metroidvania games. It feels deceptive of whomever made the game brief to call Vernal Edge a metroidvania.
It could also turn off those that would be interested in what it actually is: a character driven, stylish action game. Vernal controls amazingly well, and it feels like a lot of thought went into the combat system. She learns various combos, special attacks, spells, and other elements to mix up her fighting prowess. The game rewards you for chaining combos and really getting into the combo system. When you fall into a groove, it feels absolutely amazing.
There are a handful of bosses present in the game, and they often present a challenge spike. It’s often there where the holes in the combat system start to come into play. For some reason, Vernal might be capable of combos and zipping around the map, but she’s not great at taking a hit. Enemies, particularly bosses, can kill you in two hits, and it’s all too common to be in the wrong place and take several hits in a row, killing Vernal before you even realize what’s happening.
Making this worse is the healing system. For some reason, the developers decided that Vernal can only heal by a “Pulse” system. You hit the enemy with a thrown copy of your sword, then you have to hit the button again, plus a direction, whenever you’ve built up enough pulse meter. Vernal will then launch into an attack, and if it hits, you gain some health back.
You can occasionally find some enemies on the map that restore HP, and there’s a special piece of equipment you can use to have enemies pop out healing orbs. But you’re mostly relying on this Pulse system. It’s incredibly frustrating, and half the time it doesn’t really work out very well. I died a number of times simply because the developers decided to try something new.
Honestly it feels like that happens a lot with this game. For another example: there’s no true double jump in this game. Instead, Vernal gains the ability to jump after performing an air dash. Or she can jump once off of a wall. These don’t feel like neat, original ideas that the developer decided to use, but instead they feel like being different just for the sake of being different. There’s a reason that we use a lot of the same mechanics in games: they work and feel natural to a player. The various abilities Vernal learns often don’t follow that guideline, and it becomes frustrating.
This isn’t helped by how segregated the portions of this game are. You will almost never be dealing with platforming while there are enemies, and vice versa. Most fights take place in arena rooms, while the traversal takes place in various corridors and segments. A few metroidvania games have tried this with mixed results; Guacamelee comes immediately to mind. But here it feels even more separated, as a lot of Vernal’s kit, from movement to enhancements, feels built around combat first, with exploration as an afterthought.
Extreme difficulty spikes also plague the game. These seem to happen entirely at random. Sometimes they’re major bosses. Othertimes they’re just combat rooms like the one pictured above. That one introduced a green sprinkle/rain that constantly damages Vernal at an alarming rate. The only safe zones are tight areas where the enemies (who do not seem to be affected) are going to essentially trap you. It took me something like six tries to get through this section. It came out of no where as I was enjoying exploring and fighting in this area, and when I faced the boss, I beat him in my first try.
It just doesn’t seem balanced, which is this game’s biggest flaw.All this adds up to a frustrating experience. I went in hoping for a beautiful metroidvania experience with smooth combat and tight controls. Vernal Edge instead presents a combat focused experience with segmented levels, and extreme difficulty spikes. I think it’s a worthwhile game, but not for one of the main audience its store page is angling toward. A metroidvania this is not; a potentially quite good character action game, it is (though I’m not nearly as well versed in those as metroidvanias).
6 for what it’s selling itself as. The elements it promises aren’t really present, and difficulty walls are frustrating to encounter, not to mention including “innovation” just for its own sake instead of to add to the gameplay or other elements. Beautiful spritework and tight controls still make it at least somewhat worthwhile. (I would say that if you took this as the character action game it actually is, I’d probably bump the score a point or two)