Aporia: Beyond The Valley Review
Dripping in atmosphere, Aporia presents an experience I could recommend to just about anyone.
While technically being unique is a tall order for any game, this one gets pretty darn close and does something special.
This game has an outstanding soundtrack. You'll probably want the vinyl.
Impressive sound design that makes it an even more immersive experience.
This is the type of game you show your new TV off to your friends with. It looks that good.
Amazing art direction that makes you want to plaster your walls in fancy prints of your screenshots.
Years ago now I remember seeing a flash of a game on my screen while watching E3 coverage. It wasn’t more than a few seconds long but it looked so unique I was immediately interested. I was blown away by its visual style. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before in a game in that it seemed to be stripped right out of a 1930s cartoon. I would later discover that the adventurous pair at Studio MDHR were indeed hand drawing everything in this game called Cuphead to match that exact aesthetic. That was about all that I needed to be convinced Cuphead would be something special and so began the long wait before finally being able to play it. Well it’s finally here, and for those looking for a quick answer to the question “is Cuphead good?” short answer is yes.
Cuphead explores a deep, expansive narrative looking at the struggle of one mug’s gambling addiction and the suffering it brought to the souls of birds, planes, potatoes, ghost trains, and more in a battle with the devil himself. It’s exactly the kind of nonsensical madness that you’d want in a game like this and perfectly serves the purpose of delivering diverse and crazy boss battles that make up the majority of Cuphead. OK, so it isn’t a deep and expansive narrative but I’ll be damned if it isn’t charming.
As a platformer shooter, Cuphead unfolds in a series of boss battles spread over a handful of zones that you bounce between on an over world map either on your own or with a local coop buddy. You are tasked with simply taking down the big baddies before being able to move on to the next area and in general you even have some choice as to the order in which you accomplish this. Bosses are almost all entirely unique, requiring varying tactics to be successful in ways that no two battles feel particularly the same. You have two weapons, a charm (basically a passive ability), and eventually a special attack at your disposal to make this all happen – all of which you’ll have access to multiple versions of once you’ve unlocked them in various ways.
In the overworld there’s a shop available to you where you can buy various weapons and charms with coins. Thanks to a particularly paranoid citizen, there are coins laying hidden all around the overworld for you to find, and other coins are picked up in specific levels called Run’N’Gun which we’ll get to later. You can also perform certain tasks that citizens will reward you with coins for, providing you with more than enough coins to explore a wide variety or all the various items Cuphead has to offer. While you can get through the entire game without leaving your default weapons and abilities behind, changing them up can dramatically improve your chances of success in battle. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t get too specific, but there are items I couldn’t imagine living without in certain battles.
You’ve likely already heard by now that Cuphead is a pretty punishing game. There is no doubt that anyone without experience in this or similar genres will be roughed up more than a few times before reaching the end, and even those with experience may find spots that give them grief. It’s certainly not the hardest game in this category but I imagine the visuals will give many folks a false sense of security going in, so be aware that Cuphead isn’t likely going to be a casual walk in the park for most. Personally, I had the most difficulty with the Run’N’Gun segments which was unfortunate as I felt they were an unnecessary addition to the game.
In my opinion, Cuphead’s biggest strength is its visuals. It is entirely possible that a large number of purchases, possibly even the majority in the first batch of sales, are because of the visuals and OST alone. The boss battles do a great job at showcasing this strength with unbelievable animation work and music that couldn’t be better produced. It’s audiovisual crack and an incredible achievement just on those merits. Unfortunately, the Run’N’Gun segments don’t play to these strengths at all and in most cases, showcase Cuphead’s weaknesses more than anything.
These levels are side-scrolling action platformers that serve to provide you with most of the coins you’ll be able to gather in the game. You run from one side to the other with all manner of obstacles and enemies in your way. The problem is that there is too much variation in enemy spawns to truly “run and gun.” There are consistent elements surrounded by variability that don’t play to a particularly speedy run without a lot of RNG determining your success. Part of the problem is that your field of view is very limited. This is fine for the bosses but in these segments, it results in a lot of unnecessary damage or deaths due to being mid jump or maneuver when an enemy flies in from off screen. I felt these levels didn’t really fit in with the game, and apparently, they were added because early play testers weren’t satisfied with the amount of content. That seems crazy to me given the content outside of these few levels, and I feel the game would have been better off without them. It should be noted that these are entirely optional stages, but again they provide you with most of the available coins.
I’ve seen it said that Cuphead is an example of the artists winning more arguments than the designers or programmers and while I don’t disagree with this statement it’s more of a testament to how good the audiovisual elements are than a slight on the gameplay itself. Cuphead handles beautifully the vast majority of the time with only a handful of moments I noted oddities that ended up getting me killed. Weapons, charms, and special attacks are all well balanced in terms of their use and the times in which you can unlock them. Few bosses feel unfair and the variety in which they attack you means you can’t only rely on muscle memory to see you through. Every boss you beat gives you a rating based on your performance encouraging revisits to perfect your strategies, and there are secrets throughout the over world waiting to be discovered that are often just as charming as you’d hope them to be.
What really stood out for me was how cohesive all the elements of the Cuphead are. Outside of perhaps the Run’N’Gun levels, everything fits so perfectly together in every way. There is an undeniable level of thoughtfulness and care given to every nook and cranny of Cuphead that most games just don’t have. What is unfortunate, however, is that Cuphead is ironically in a sort of gaming purgatory due to its difficulty. There’s enough difficulty here that it may discourage more casual gamers who love everything else about Cuphead from buying it. At the same time, veterans of the genre may find Cuphead to be too easy even when going back through it on expert difficulty. You do have the ability to choose a lower difficulty on a per boss basis, but you can only really use it as a sort of practice mode since you don’t get credited with completion outside of the normal difficulty. I personally think the inclusion of an easy mode and a one life only hardcore mode would have been of serious benefit to a much wider audience than the one Cuphead is currently marketable to.
Cuphead is without a doubt one of the most visually stunning games I’ve ever played. The idea that everything you’re seeing has been hand drawn in the way early master cartoonists did is amazing to me. It’s almost a shame that you’re spending so much time trying to stay alive that you’ll likely miss a ton of nuanced bits and pieces in the characters and backgrounds you’ll encounter. The OST is incredible and one of the easiest vinyl purchases I’ve made in a long while. It is in my opinion a masterpiece of video game art and music. I was seriously skeptical as to whether or not Studio MDHR could pull this whole thing off when they originally discussed their artistic vision but not only did they pull it off they did it almost flawlessly.
So is Cuphead worth your hard earned dollars? Even for those like myself who aren’t big fans of the genre, at $20 it’s hard to pass it by. It’s not perfect, but if you can stomach some challenge, Cuphead is a unique audiovisual experience you currently won’t find anywhere else.
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