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.