The Game Pass Gambols is my chronicle of attempting to at least sample every game released on Game Pass in 2022.
Game: Nobody Saves the World
Game Type: Action RPG
Time Played: Approximately 25 hours.
Completion level: Rolled credits.
Approachability: High. It's pretty easy and surprisingly intuitive.
Should You Try It?: Yes. A lot of people loved it, and I thought the first couple hours were very strong.
Sometimes you’re really looking forward to a game and it turns out to be just okay. That was my experience with Nobody Saves The World.
This is the latest game by Drinkbox Studios, the makers of the excellent Guacamelee and the “I really wanted to like it buy it was on a portable system so I kind of didn’t” Severed. It’s the first major new Game Pass release of the year and the first 2022 game I finished in 2022. It has a very cool concept where you play a character who wakes up as a sort of formless pale child in a barn with no memory and quickly acquire a wand that lets you shape shift. You soon find out that a calamity has afflicted the world and unleashed a fungus that is slowly afflicting all the people and that the realm’s hero, Nostramagus, is missing, leaving nobody who can defeat the calamity and restore prosperity to the kingdom. Since your character lacks an identity the title is, of course, a pun, and you are the Nobody who must save the world from cataclysm. It then plays out as an action RPG where you do quests, fight monsters, and level up your main character and the various forms you can turn into, unlocking additional forms as you go. There’s a huge amount of customization that lets you mix and match your active and passive abilities from various forms and upgrade whatever you wand and each form is leveled by completing certain challenges, such as killing a certain number of enemies with a certain power or combination of powers, encouraging experimentation and using a wide variety of the moves on offer.
In theory this should all be stuff that I’m very into, but in practice a lot of it feels half-baked. Let’s start with the story. It’s very mediocre. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it bad, but every character is extremely shallow and it focuses on cute jokes and B-grade humor. You’re tasked with doing dumb things like helping a scientist decode speech of one particular dolphin by playing a recoding of its speech to other dolphins in the world, and then it turns out that the dolphin in question was using naughty language so all the other dolphins act shocked when you speak to them. The game doesn’t even have the courage of telling you what the naughty dolphin is saying, opting to translate it as “frick, frick” so as not to offend gentle sensibilities. It’s kind of cute but not that funny, and since the majority of the quests are this kind of nonsense it makes the whole game feel like a silly lark. I don’t mind games that try to be funny, but I can’t help compare Nobody Saves the World with something like Lost in Random, which managed to be very funny and have meaningful dramatic stakes and memorable characters, and while Nobody Saves The World’s story isn’t bad it doesn’t accomplish any of those things. It’s just kind of there, while sometimes managing to rise to the level of being mildly amusing.
Also “just kind of there” is the quest system. You get an absolute ton of quests in this game. The most important are the form upgrade quests, which I mentioned earlier and which generally require you to do something specific with the abilities of the form in question (though sometimes they will require you use abilities from another form.) These are used to grant you form points, which advance the rank of your forms from F up to S and unlock additional powers and abilities as you go. In addition to these quests you also get quests from characters in the world and quests to complete certain dungeons. Finally you can purchase repeatable quests from a vendor that give you XP for your base level (but not form points) for doing things like killing a certain number of enemies or collecting a certain amount of money. All of this is fine, but because quest rewards are just XP none of it feels particularly meaningful. The quests you get from NPCs don’t really give a lot of XP and from a purely mechanical point of view are kind of a waste of time, because it would be more efficient to complete dungeons or focus on form quests (which also give you XP, and generally more of it) than to traipse around doing tasks for random people you meet. On the other hand you can generally work on your form quests while you do other things, so the quests do give you something to do while you’re grinding, and some of them have amusing dialog associated, but they don’t feel meaningful. The lack of items or equipment in the game generally means that nothing feels meaningful except getting levels for your forms, and since that’s all tied to grinding it really takes away from the impact of actually doing things to advance the game’s narrative or help out its NPCs. The only meaningful collectables you can find are the mana fairies scattered across the map, since your HP increases with level but your mana pool does not, and they each give you a tiny upgrade to your base pool, meaning that while finding a bunch of them is meaningful each individual fairy doesn’t have a lot of value.
All this might be fine if the game had really engaging combat. It doesn’t. This is very much a game that throws hordes of enemies at you and has you smack them until they go down. It reminded me a lot of the old arcade game Gauntlet, especially since you are constantly finding food items from chests and enemies to restore your health. The main gameplay loop involves using your form’s base attack (which cannot be customized per form and cannot be used by other forms) to build up mana that you then spend to activate your other abilities. Each ability is tied to an elemental type (such as “dark” or “sharp”) and some enemies have wards that must be broken before they can be damaged by hitting them with an ability of the appropriate type. This is especially common in dungeons, and somewhat limits what forms you can use in certain dungeons because you want one whose base attack will break at least one of the wards on the enemies so you’re not just harmlessly swatting at them trying to build your mana. Status effects such as poison or slow build over time (on you or enemies) and there are passive abilities that can make all of your attacks inflict some kind of status as well.
The issue is that with the swarms of enemies and juggling the various abilities to take out wards the whole thing comes off a little frantic and unfocused. There’s just too much on screen to focus on any one thing so it ends up being about spamming AOE attacks and trying to move away from as many bad guys as you can while keeping your mana up. All too often it degenerates into mindless button mashing. That can be okay if the aesthetics are great and combat feels like it has impact, or the story is compelling, but neither is true here. It looks fine but nothing special and the cartoony graphics prevent the combat from having much oomph, and the story doesn’t carry anything, so it’s pretty underwhelming. That’s not to say that it’s never fun; some of the form quests are a bit more complicated and require doing things like inflicting poison and then using a specific attack on enemies, which can be engaging, and I liked some of the abilities like the zombie’s bite that infects enemies and spawns zombie allies when they die, leading to some fun battles between your zombie horde and the masses of enemy monsters.
Level design is also just kind of “there.” The overworld is static and has some interesting ideas. There are areas that are blocked off by water and cannot be reached until you get a swimming or flying form, and there are lots of shortcuts and teleport pads you can unlock, making it relatively easy to get around. It seems like there should be more to it (like a greater number of obstacles that you’d need a specific form to get past) but there isn’t. Dungeons are randomly generated each time you go in and are honestly not great. There are a few small wrinkles, like some dungeons with hazards you need to avoid (and that can be used to hurt enemies) and sometimes requiring you to go find a key down one of the relatively straight corridors before you can unlock a gate and advance, but none of it feels meaningful. What’s the difference between just walking from the beginning of the dungeon to the end while fighting enemies and having to go left and right first to pick up keys before advancing? Not a whole lot. Bosses tend to be large versions of existing enemies and none of them have interesting mechanics until the very last boss of the game, which changes things up some. The fact that this final boss has some new mechanics and there are two dungeons in the game with a meaningful structural difference shows that the team knew that the game could offer more variety but lacked either ambition or, more likely, resources to create more instances like this. Instead most of the dungeons just add a modifier like having enemy corpses explode or having your abilities cost more mana and while this does require you to pick a form and a build that works within the constrains of the modifier it doesn’t change the fundamental gameplay. One dungeon had status effects that last 5 times longer than most of them do and since there’s no way to dispel those status effects I spent the vast majority of the dungeon poisoned and slowed and it was extremely annoying.
I think one illuminating detail about the game and the problems with its design is that in the major dungeons where you recover parts of a gem that must be reconstructed to try and open a path to the the evil presence causing the calamity you cannot progress form quests. You can still change forms at will and customize your loadout etc… and you can even gain experience and level up through non-form quests but you cannot make any progress on improving your forms. It is completely unclear what purpose this actually serves. As far as I can tell the goal is to get you to focus on survival and using your forms effectively rather than the grinding that dominates so much of the game, but it seems like something that could have been incentivized in some other way. It just makes the game slightly more frustrating because you’re fighting hordes of enemies but not making meaningful progress or gaining new powers, which is much of what makes the game fun. It’s a half-baked and counterproductive mechanic that makes the game a little less fun without accomplishing much. It’s not game ruining, since these dungeons aren’t overly long and you can always leave and go grind form quests elsewhere if you are truly underpowered, but it rankled me just because I didn’t see what it accomplished.
This kind of design sloppiness permeates the rest of the game. Why isn’t there any meaningful loot or rewards for quests (there are passive abilities and stat buffs you can buy from the game’s vendor that would have made much better quest rewards.)? Why are the bosses and dungeon designs so vanilla? Why doesn’t the game explain how leveling forms after you’ve unlocked all their abilities helps you (I think it improves the stats you get when you change to that form but I’m not sure.)? The whole thing feels a little rough and sloppy.
I realize I’ve spent the vast majority of this review complaining, and Nobody Saves the World is not a bad game. There were times it annoyed or frustrated me but also times I really enjoyed myself. There’s some amusing dialog, some cool powers and funny forms, nice graphics, okay music, a lengthy campaign and plenty of positive elements. I’m just frustrated because I really thought I’d love this game and I didn’t. It’s pretty easy and mindless so it’s a fine ‘podcast’ game to button mash your way through. It has online multiplayer, which I didn’t try but I can’t imagine would fix my issues. It’s fine.
But it’s just fine and I expected more from Drinkbox. Guacamelee is a mechanically dense and satisfying game. Even Severed had cool ideas. The concept of playing a shapeshifter with the ability to customize your powers seems fantastic. In the end it’s just not focused or polished enough to truly come together. It’s a forgettable, tolerable, slightly bland game that doesn’t reach its potential. Like its hero it’s a little bit formless. Hopefully if there’s a sequel it can transform into something with a bit more oomph.
GAME PASS GAMBOLS RATING (out of 5):