Smelter, developed by X Plus, is a 2D platformer/top-down shooter that aims to fuse genres and showcase the genesis of a possible new hit indie franchise. It starts with a twofold bang: The intro cutscene with an amazing tone and score and the visual flair of an early ‘90s cartoon set expectations high from the start. We're then introduced to our protagonist of biblical origins: Eve. One day the forbidden fruit falls from its branch and Adam succumbs to the temptation. An explosion goes off in the distance and Eve is cast from the heavens with Adam nowhere in sight.
After landing, you find yourself in the pits of a strange new world and are introduced to the basic platforming movement: only a jump and punch, to start. Right around the corner in this tutorial stage you’ll be introduced to Smelter, a magical suit of armor and ex-ruler of the “Rumbly Lands.” After your chance meeting, you quickly strike a deal: in return for restoring Smelter's rule over the lands and regaining his power, he will aid you in your pursuit of Adam. It's a unique premise, to say the least.
Upon exiting the first stage, you begin the tutorial for your army expansion, in what initially appears to be a real-time strategy/twin-stick shooter hybrid. In practice, it’s a much simpler affair. You have a few resources to manage: your “Zirms” who are the foot soldiers that occupy constructs such as barracks or archery towers, as well as apples, which provide a food source for your armies. Should you run out of apples, the Zirm houses (which produce Zirms) halt production. You take control of Smelter directly in these segments, leaving Eve to rest her feet in a nearby pond. Smelter is a much simpler character without his human counterpart. Your basic controls are pointing the right joystick to shoot and pressing 'A' to expand your territory and place new constructs. Later on, you unlock additional shots, but they do nothing to alter the gameplay other than destroying specially-marked obstacles.
Playing through these segments will open the next platforming level as well as develop much of the game’s world-building; however, the inclusion of this top-down sim element more often than not detracts from the overall package. The objectives are often very mundane, primarily being destroy or defend X. As alluded to with his simplicity, controlling Smelter is a dry affair during combat and you mainly end up serving as a fixed point of additional firepower or darting about casting repair on your structures with the R button. As well, there's often a lack of visual feedback that can lead to unclear mission objectives. As an example, I remember failing a section over and over because a specific unclear drop should have been picked up and delivered to a key location. Not only that, but if you're being attacked you will get a message warning "You are being attacked!" but the issue is your controlled territory is eventually expansive and without a simple direction pointing towards the enemy hostility. Ultimately, combat in this mode is nothing more than an annoyance.
When you do finally get to your next stage, things start to get back on course. The union of Eve and Smelter is a fun one and does offer some enjoyable 2D platforming reminiscent of games in the Megaman X series. Pressing the L button will launch a green hand along with your directional input that can be used to interact with specific areas of the stage to propel yourself forward (much like a gamified version of the sticky hand toy) as well as destroy downed enemies for a small health increase. Smelter also adds some basic movement abilities to Eve’s kit, such as a dash and wall jump with further abilities and suit types unlocked by accessing "forges" in the different lands. These differing suits' abilities range from rock-based gauntlets to an electric whip and a blaster that tickled my Megaman X nostalgia yet again. Each suit has its own associated skill tree as well.
Smelter sports a number of boss encounters, hidden stages, and bonus pick-ups for the completionist. However, I would be hard-pressed to return to any of the stages once cleared, for the reasons below. Eventually, you’ll be met with a steep difficulty curve and you may think that you simply need to play the stage better. This might be true; even without the spike in difficulty, the platforming sections are no slouch. But what could be happening is that you’re missing a key upgrade from the aforementioned skill trees. Unlocking these upgrades is an ordeal in itself. Suit upgrades require a specific pick up which can only be collected from hidden stages found tucked away in each level. These hidden stages often implement strict rulesets and instant-fail conditions such as a time limit, a no-damage requirement, or having to remain undetected by an enemy. I think I lost a few too many strands of hair trying to push through those stages. Once you have one of your upgrade points, you must find a specific shrine in the overworld in order to unlock the upgrade. The feeling I had after successfully unlocking any of these upgrades was that they should have been rolled into the standard gameplay and not tucked away in a seemingly optional objective. Some of these upgrades are integral to the experience and lumping them in with the overworld content comes off as a means of giving importance to an otherwise lacklustre segment.
With its eye-catching pixel art style and strong visual and tonal identity, Smelter really could have been the complete package. Unfortunately, uneven gameplay, a strange choice in upgrade paths and difficulty spikes that only led to frustration as opposed to the joy of a challenge left a sour taste in my mouth. Fans of the genre should still find a lot to love in this title, so long as it’s approached with a heavy dose of patience.