Review | 10/24/2013 at 3:29 PM

FORCED Co-Op Review

Despite its title, co-op is anything but in this innovative arena brawler

Combining gameplay mechanics from the likes of Gauntlet with puzzle-solving elements, BetaDwarf’s FORCED is a cooperative arena brawler unlike anything else I’ve played. Its simple, straightforward start quickly gives way to a much deeper strategy game that requires you to be as agile with your fingers to attack and dodge as you are with your brain to deduce and solve. Best of all it keeps the co-op elements first and foremost.

The world of FORCED is one that appears rather bleak. The superior creatures of this particular fantasy world raise the lesser kind (of which you are a part) for the sole purpose of fighting in their gladiatorial games. Victory means freedom, but you quickly get the sense that there’s little in the way of fair play to be had in these affairs. Guiding you through the various trials is your Spirit Mentor, Balfus, who, despite his appearance is more than just your local Navi craving to get your attention to point out an object you had seen and dismissed about five minutes ago. Balfus is the key device employed FORCED that lends it its rather intriguing, and at times frustrating, puzzle elements.

FORCED has two different game modes: Campaign, which I’ll use as the basis for much of the gameplay discussion, and Survival. Progression through the campaign is marked by ever increasingly difficult “trials.” Each trial pits you against an assortment of denizens of the depths to test your physical prowess, while also testing your mental prowess with a variety of challenges and puzzles. Imagine an obstacle course that’s also part maze where enemies spawn at certain points and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the average level entails. To combat those foes, you have four different weapon types from which to choose: the Spirit Blades, the Volcanic Hammer, the Frost Shield, and the Storm Bow. Each has its own play style and special abilities that are built around a "mark" system.

The two basic rules for combat are applying marks, which are applied by any basic attack or a few of the special abilities, and then employing an activated ability that utilizes and spends them. These marks are noted by little boxes that appear above an enemy (up to a total of five). The more marks on a target, the more effect your talents have on them. As an example, the bow’s first activated ability will deal a set amount of damage to a foe plus an additional amount of damage for each mark on that foe. Special abilities are unlocked by earning for completing the trials. Each trial has an additional challenge and time target to beat, and doing so nets you an additional two crystals for a total of three possible crystals per trial.

Choose your skills... wisely

By the time you’ve completed the first few trials, you’ll have won enough crystals to gain access to a couple active and passive abilities for whichever weapon suits you (abilities are unlocked across all weapons once you’ve got the requisite number of crystals). If a particular weapon or set of abilities don't work for you, you’re free to change them in between each trial. Additionally, abilities you earn at the start of the game remain just as viable at the end as the life points of enemies and the damage you deal remain constant throughout. All of this only gets you so far, though, as the non-physical obstacles that bar your progress have to be overcome through the use of Balfus and your own puzzle-solving capabilities.

As a Spirit Mentor, and for reasons not initially explained, Balfus is able to activate special shrines located throughout the different arenas. Some of these shrines open doors or restore your health, while others activate a shockwave to knock down foes or turn Balfus into a bomb. The shrines are activated by having Balfus pass through/over them. This means that in the midst of a battle you’ll find yourself aligning Balfus in such a way that when you summon him to you, he activates one or more of these shrines. In some ways, BetaDwarf is asking you to play a game of billiards while you simultaneously battle enemies that can explode, spit acid, cast spells, or just plain beat the living snot out of you. It’s one of those tasks like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. Some of the mental challenges are simple enough, but they’re made difficult by the constant attacks from foes.

Once you get a handle on the game’s mechanics, you begin to see how much depth there is to FORCED. Initially, you’re limited to just one active and one passive ability to use, so most encounters will resemble a button mash to apply as many marks as possible before using an ability to finish things off. As the encounters become more difficult and more talents (both active and passive) and talent slots are unlocked, this strategy changes.

FORCED's arenas are not lacking in size, or challenges. This particular trial gets chaotic real fast

Now you have to determine exactly what type of gladiator you wish to be. If using the shield, do you opt to go the more defensive route, or are you the Captain America of shield warriors? For the bow, do you take your time and draw back on each shot, or is it a fast and furious hail of arrows? Or do you prefer a combination, mixing a little of each. In my time playing, I found an interesting combo with the shield weapon where I could charge a group of enemies, place marks on all of them, turn around to throw the shield and deal maximum damage, then (if needed) block an incoming blow from an enemy. That particular set of skills lasted me through a few trials, and then changed once I earned a few more crystals and unlocked new abilities. I changed things up again after on particular trial required me to focus more on completing the goals than fighting enemies, and then a third time when playing with friends.

While the entire game can be played alone, there is definitely an emphasis on cooperative play. I mean, the first menu option you have at the main screen is to start a co-op game. When selecting to play cooperatively, you can set how many players you wish to have, if you want to allow players to join once things get going (i.e., enabling drop-in co-op), and whether it’s a Campaign or Survival game. The overall structure of the game remains the same with more players, but the trials themselves will vary depending on the number of players present. In one case, I could freely move back and forth between two sides of an area when playing in single player, but was blocked by a nearly invisible wall when playing with a friend. This completely changed the solution I had come up with in my solo playthrough and forced, no pun intended, us to come up with a new answer.

These kinds of changes ensure the trials have replayability, as you’ll need to come up with different solutions depending on the number of players, and that each player has some role to play in it. If solving puzzles solo is like playing a game of billiards, then solving those same puzzles cooperatively is like a soccer match. Each player will need to line up in the right spot and pass Balfus back and forth to successfully activate the shrines in the right order, or to successfully navigate him through a particular path. Once you mix in the attacking enemies (representing the opposing team attempting to steal the ball), you’d be forgiven if you yelled “GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLL” after successfully solving one of the brain teasers.

Beyond the mental challenges, the combat of FORCED becomes more engaging with additional players as well. While the different abilities of the various weapon types don’t have any direct synergies, e.g., the shield weapon has some special ability that directly sets up an attack by the hammer weapon, they all do work together within a bigger picture. The bow, for instance, can be used to apply marks to distant foes that then get slammed with a powerful blow from either the blades or the hammer when they get closer. The shield bearer can help to fend off some harmful attacks to a hurt comrade by getting between him or her and the enemies.

Just one of the many challenges you'll face along the way

There’s a very satisfying feeling to working out a coordinated assault against a stronger enemy or a horde of weaker ones. It is these strategy elements, whether mental or physical, and the degree of communication and coordination required to achieve them where FORCED truly shines as a co-op game. You cannot expect your fellow players to intuit what you’re going to do next and you cannot just move through the trial on auto-pilot killing things as you go. Victory is only assured by working with your comrades. All of this gets ratcheted up to 11 when you decide to tackle Survival mode.

If you watched our stream from last week, you undoubtedly watched as the Co-Opticrew struggled to survive longer than 2 minutes. We’re not experts at this game, but we’ve all had our fair share of tackling survival modes in a variety of other games, so you would think we’d do better than that, right? Nope. FORCED’s Survival mode blows those other games away. Everything you’ve learned in the trials from the Campaign mode feels like barely a warm up for this. This is where you and your teammates have to absolutely be communicating all the time to call out who’s in trouble, what foes are spawning, and where Balfus is needed. It’s chaotic, difficult, and absolutely fun.

Amidst all that fun, the one negative element that you may find cropping up from time-to-time is the same negative that’s present in any online game: failures due to latency. In the case of FORCED, many of the puzzles involving Balfus require such a degree of coordination that even a little bit of lag can throw off a few careful minutes of work getting things in place. This is a little annoying the first time it happens, but by the third or fourth time, you’ll definitely be feeling frustrated. These incidents don’t happen all that frequently, though they tend to stick out like sore thumbs when they do. You may also notice your gladiator getting caught on parts of the environment, usually at inopportune moments.

One of my favorite parts about the rise in indie games we’ve seen over the past few years has been the absolute swell of great, innovative games. FORCED is no exception.While it may contain elements that are reminiscent of other games and genres, it combines them in a way that is wholly its own. Best of all, from start to finish, FORCED is a game built around cooperation and succeeding as a team.

The Co-Optimus review of FORCED is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided by the publisher for review purposes.