Cavernous Wastes is a six degrees of freedom roguelike in which the player attempts to escape from a cave that they have awoken in without any memory of how they ended up there.
Developer: PouncingKitten Games
Publisher: PouncingKitten Games
Genre: 6DoF Roguelike
Release Date: June 27th, 2017
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Cavernous Wastes is a six degrees of freedom roguelike in which you awake in a cave with no memory of how you ended up there and a strong notion that you need to escape. As you attempt to escape, you will encounter automated defenses that will try to stop you. Various upgrades that augment your combat abilities can also be found throughout the cave, increasing your chances of survival. But one question remains: what happened here?
- Six degrees of freedom – explore each level with no restrictions on movement.
- A large variety of upgrades – augment your combat ability with various upgrades that can be found on each level.
- An overarching story – what happened here? How did you end up here? The answers to these questions will slowly be revealed to you through journal entries.
By Matt Chelen
Cavernous Wastes is one of those games that, when you first look at it, you know that it doesn’t look particularly great. The graphics are dated, the environments look repetitive, and so on, but it’s part of a genre that simply doesn’t see many new releases, the 6DoF subgenre of combat flight games, so you still hope that it will be one of those games that will make up for its shortcomings in terms of gameplay. As always, however, the question is simply “does it?”
While not explicitly advertised as such, Cavernous Wastes is a roguelike. You fight your way through level after level of small corridors filled with enemies, collecting upgrades from specific machines as you go. When you die, you are forced to start over. There are “override codes” for each level that allow you to start on that level, but the level counter will always start back at one and you will be left without any of your upgrades. What’s more, much like the game’s true nature, the override code feature isn’t advertised. You have to press the circle button while hovering over the “Escape” menu option that starts the game, but this isn’t mentioned anywhere. I found it purely by accident, as I’m sure that everyone that manages to find it will.
From the very moment that you get in-game, one of the game’s major flaws is immediately apparent. There is a VR mode available, which I was unable to test due to not owning a PlayStation VR headset. The game can be played without a PlayStation VR headset, but, by default, part of your ship’s panel out of view. If you do not play the game in VR mode, the only way to view the rest of your ship’s panel is to open the main menu and move the right joystick. This feature, much like override codes, is also undocumented. Unfortunately, opening the main menu also does not pause the game, so you will have to be careful when you stop to take a look at these panels. The end result is that you will largely not be looking at them, albeit I’m also not inclined to say that being able to shift your view during play would help much in many cases, as upgrades are simply represented by cards from a normal deck of playing cards that can not be interacted with to pull up a description. Regardless, it can be rather frustrating.
As you begin navigating the game’s caves, you will begin to notice a specific feature of their design. You may simply notice it as you float around or it may take until you pull up the map, but all of the game’s caves are largely flat, which is truly disappointing, considering the fact that the game offers six degrees of freedom. There are some caverns that allow you to exercise your ability to fly vertically, but they are far fewer in number than I’d like. To make matters worse, many of them are simply hallways. There are open some rooms that are more open, but the majority of your time will be spent navigating flat hallways.
It doesn’t help that the environments rarely seem to change in any significant manner. As you move from cave to cave, you will likely notice that the surrounding environment has simply changed color, sometimes even changing to an odd green color. Even the crystals that line the walls only seem to change in color, rather than form, as you progress through the game.
Combat doesn’t fare much better. Your ship has three weapons: a set of machine guns mapped to R2, a set of laser cannons mapped to L2, and a missile launcher that, for whatever reason, is mapped to the cross button. Your machine guns and laser cannons are extremely similar; both be fired endlessly at the exact point that you are aiming at without worry that they will overheat or that you will run out of ammo. In fact, the only discernible difference that I noticed between them is that the machine guns far more reliably killed enemies quickly than the laser cannons did. The missile launcher, on the other hand, has a finite amount of ammo that can be replenished by picking up items dropped by enemies and various scenery that you’ve destroyed.
Various upgrades can augment your combat ability, such as the Dark Matter Laser upgrade or the Homing Missile upgrade, but most don’t change the way natural order of battles much. I often found myself simply holding the R2 button and strafing, feeling little need to do much else. There’s also a button for a “Special” of some sort, presumably an attack, but numerous attempts at escaping the cavernous wastes have not granted me an upgrade that provided me with a Special, so I am assuming that these are fairly rare.
The actual effect of other upgrades, such as Unstable Plasma, are completely unbeknownst to me, as the game simply says, for example, “Unstable Program: Unstable Plasma” when you pick the upgrade up and, as mentioned before, never offers another explanation of what the upgrade does. It is then represented by a red card in your symbolic deck of upgrades, rather than a blue card, further noting that its effects are negative in nature, but I have yet to feel any of the effects of such upgrades.
The sense that there’s not much to combat is exacerbated by the way that enemies behave. Enemies each have either machine guns or laser cannons, one third of your arsenal. When you are within a specific range of them, they will simply fire at you endlessly, but they have a unique quirk. When they begin firing, they won’t fire directly at you. Instead, they will fire at a point several meters away from you and then slowly turn their weapons towards you. They will then continue to, admittedly excruciatingly slowly, turn their weapons towards you until they have you directly in their sights. This creates a constant cycle of combat scenarios where, if you manage to strafe in a continuous circle endlessly, you will take no damage, no matter how many enemies are around.
Because of the way that combat works, it can often feel like the game uses cheap tactics to circumvent its own obvious flaws. You might be stuck in a small hallway where you can’t strafe properly with two, three, or even four enemies. You might be stuck in a larger room with upwards of five or six enemies, putting you in a situation where it simply hopes that you will trip up and get hit by one of them. Even in these situations, however, the use of a single one of your otherwise numerous missiles will dispatch entire groups of enemies swiftly. It’s a fairly dull combat cycle with a small number of largely simplistic tactics that actually work.
The few upgrades that actually change the way you play, such as the aforementioned Dark Matter Laser, actually make combat even less interesting. The Dark Matter Laser upgrade gives your laser the ability to disable enemies’ weapons, at best devolving combat into a cycle of disabling the weapons of all enemies in the area, singling one out and destroying it, backing off to keep from taking fire as the surviving enemies’ weapons come back online, and repeating until they’ve all been destroyed. Once I had obtained the Dark Matter Laser, the only combat scenario that I found myself particularly challenged by was one in which I was stuck in a small room with two grenade-launching turrets.
There is also an overarching story to the game, though the game itself doesn’t do a particularly good job of telling you that. The premise of the game is that you awaken in a cave with no memory of how you got there and a particularly strong notion that you need to escape. As you play, you will unlock journal entries. Some are unlocked by destroying enemies, others are obtained from the same machines that award you upgrades, and so on. Many of these journal entries are inconsequential, simply providing background information about various elements of the world around you, such as the enemies that you destroyed to get said journal entries. Others tell the game’s story, which also feels largely inconsequential. The big mystery of why you’re in the cave doesn’t really feel like that much of a mystery and later revelations are hinted at so much in the preceding entries that they aren’t particularly surprising either.
It doesn’t help that the entire story is optional, hidden away behind the “Journal” option in the main menu. The game doesn’t even provide a way to pull up journal entries directly from the game when you obtain them. Instead, you have to manually pull up the journal when you want to read any of the entries you’ve obtained.
Cavernous Wastes is a game that I really hoped would be some sort of hidden gem that players might have ignored because of its dated graphics. Even once I had discovered that it was a roguelike, I had some hope that it would be another great entry in the 6DoF roguelike genre like Sublevel Zero, which is a personal favorite of mine. Sadly, it is not. It is an incredibly basic 6DoF roguelike that provides uninteresting combat scenarios in bland, repetitive, and wholly uninteresting environments. Given that, I simply cannot recommend it.