As video game graphics become ever more complex the 2D action and exploration of Worldless shows it’s the art that matters, not the tech.
NATO’s military symbology, which thanks to American media permeates Western consciousness at every level, uses red to represent enemies and blue to denote allies. Video games frequently conform to that convention, most famously in Halo, whose primary-coloured multiplayer heroes gave rise to the long running comedy series Red vs. Blue, about the more mundane aspects of the Spartan warriors’ lives.
In the largely silent world of Worldless, it’s closer to orange vs. blue, represented by simply drawn figures whose heads glow in their opposing colours. You start as blue, your pared back avatar barely more than four points of light, a flowing scarf attached to its neck and, during battles, a lucent sword and shield.
Walking around its similarly sparse levels, sketched in with single lines and simple but beautiful backdrops, you’ll notice flowers springing up wherever you walk, gradually populating the newly born universe with life. Hopping between platforms and avoiding bodies of water, you navigate its 2D scrolling levels via a central hub, accessed via rectangular portals that sit at the entrance to each area.
As you explore, you’ll also stumble across angular, line-drawn beasts to challenge in precise, turn-based combat. Starting with a physical and magical attack, your character also has matching blocks to deploy against enemies. Taking turns to strike and defend, a power bar rapidly expires as you get in as many blows as possible, then, as your foe hits back, you watch for cues telling you what sort of power they’re about to unleash, so you can choose the correct defence against it.
Timing is everything. Although you have shields that stop each type of attack, those wear down with use, unless you time your defence to start at almost the exact moment you’re being hit. Get a perfect guard and your shield remains unblemished even by forceful hits. It gives battles an elegant rhythm of parry and assault, your avatar’s graceful movements adding to the sense of a deadly ballet.
In every fight, your goal is to absorb the soul of your opponent, which you can only do by building up an absorption bar, which slowly fills as you land successful hits. You can accelerate the process by matching your attacks with enemies’ weaknesses, which change constantly over the course of the battle. You soon also realise that, like Devil May Cry, you’re penalised for spamming the same type of attack, but rewarded for constructing combos of magic, melee, ice, electrical, and fusion attacks.
Once the absorption bar’s sufficiently full, you can attempt to extract your enemy’s essence using a four-button combination that changes with every fight. The twist is that the fuller the power bar when you make the attempt, the more of the button combination you’re shown. Hit the absorb power early, and you’ll only be shown the start of the button sequence, extending the battle if you fail to guess the rest correctly.
It’s a winning piece of risk and reward design, your perfect timing and strict adherence to matching weakness with attack, giving you brief windows of opportunity, which are all too easy to miss. If you let the enemy hit you their absorption bar drains alarmingly, giving each fight a knife edge quality as you learn enemy attack patterns and use that knowledge to construct perfect defences, while also exploiting their shifting vulnerabilities.
Successfully completing a battle gives you a perk to unlock in your character’s skill tree, adding new powers, extra varieties of attack and defence, and moves that boost absorption. To add to the magic, your skill tree springs from the head of your avatar, its plain lines gradually populating with glowing points of light as you unlock new skills.
The same’s true of the map, which looks just as minimalist as the skill tree and also springs from your character’s face when needed. Worldless has Metroidvania leanings, slowly letting you explore previously inaccessible areas as you unlock the necessary techniques. That starts with an aerial dash, but soon also lets you run on water, and eventually walk around underneath it, as you gain access to the orange headed character that previously seemed to be your enemy but actually turns out simply to be the yin to your yang.
Perhaps the greatest joy is the simplicity with which everything is delivered. Rather than reams of instruction, you’re told how to use each skill as you earn it, then left to figure out how to deploy it. Worldless regularly places you in front of an unreachable platform or a boss that kills you so easily you can’t believe you’d ever be able to resist it, only to discover, after repeated experimentation, that you in fact already have the tools at your disposal, you just needed to put them together in the right order and with the right timing.
Those layers of subtly, which you understand only through repeated failure, join the mysteries of the game’s universe, whose ways you learn by observation and experimentation. There’s a strange, horned character, also made from plain straight lines, who speaks to you as you move around the hub world, but other than his text-only pronouncements, Worldless is literally wordless, with only your actions providing a gradually increasing understanding of the universe and your place in it.
It’s accompanied by haunting and equally minimal synth riffs, which change in battle and as you move from one area to another. It makes for a genuinely atmospheric experience, and one that perfectly compliments the simplicity of the visuals.
All that neon line drawing can occasionally start to feel claustrophobic, leaving you yearning for a third dimension and a bit of texture, but it remains utterly consistent with its own distinctive look and feel, and is inspiringly different from most games you’ll play. Although there are also moments of frustration as you hurl yourself for the umpteenth time at a boss whose absorption bar remains stubbornly low.
However, these incidents are balanced with a-ha moments when you finally figure out what you’ve been doing wrong, or you occasionally fluke your way to a hard-earned victory. Either way, you can then power up and move on with your exploration, the dopamine hit of success bolstered by suddenly being able to work your way into previously unknown parts of the map.
Worldless, with its Metroidvania exploration, cleverly unique battles, and gloriously understated music and good looks is a singular experience. The level of challenge is exceptionally well pitched and while its elegant simplicity and confidently layered sense of mystery may not appeal to everyone, it provides a truly memorable few hours of entertainment for those open to its idiosyncratic charms.
Worldless review summary
In Short: An inspired new take on the 2D Metroidvania concept, whose challenging combat and rewarding exploration is accompanied by some stunning audio and visual design.
Pros: No two fights are the same; the slow addition of moves and powers continually adds fresh complexity, and the drip-fed exposition of new minimalist landscapes keeps you hungry for more.
Cons: All that line drawing can eventually feel like too much. There are (deliberate) moments of frustration and the perfect precision needed for its combat will be off-putting to some.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Developer: Noname Studios
Release Date: 21st November 2023
Age Rating: 7
Sign up to all the exclusive gaming content, latest releases before they’re seen on the site.