A Long Way Down is a spin on Slay the Spire that goes nowhere

One of the key reasons to enjoy roguelikes and their various subgenres is the endless procedural runs they can generate. From Binding of Isaac‘s top-down Zelda dungeons to Slay the Spire‘s card-based battles, there’s seemingly no systems that can’t make for an excellent spin on the genre. At least, that was my belief before playing A Long Way Down.

This debut early access title from Seenapsis Studio combines Spire‘s basic card combat with some of the dungeon building from Guild of Dungeoneering. It leans even further than that into old-school RPG mechanics, stretching the limits of what a spirelike can handle in the process.

A short guide To A Long Way Down

A Long Way Down Building A Path Gameplay

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Things start off as you’d expect. You play as a recently deceased lost soul wandering through limbo. There’s an evil dungeon master-type who wants to halt your progress, but you’ve somehow stolen a set of cards off him as you perished.

Using these cards, you can strike back against the ghouls and ghosts in his employ and build a path around his floating platforms. Each new map has you defeating a certain number of enemies or reaching an escape point and jetting away. Traverse a few maps, slay a boss monster, and you’ll find a whole new set of challenges to conquer on the other side.

If there’s anything truly positive I can say about my time with A Long Way Down in its early access period, it’s that the navigational aspects work great. Building out a path for yourself and trying to block enemy encounters is engaging in a tabletop sort of way. Placing a new square takes a movement action, and you only have three per turn. This could leave you open to sneak attacks if you’re not careful since enemies also roam around and take advantage of any paths you construct.

I do wish you could customize a deck of cards in this mode the same way you can build a deck of battle cards. As is, you just get random tiles from what’s available on the map, and you have to find more as you wander around if you want to keep moving.

Battling through A Long Way Down

A Long Way Down Combat Gameplay Solo

Once you get into battle, it’s the same Spire combat that currently rules over the indie gaming world. Both you and your opponents have turns, and each attack, buff and debuff ties into a card in your deck. Compared to some of the more advanced contenders in the genre, there’s not a lot going on here, especially very early on. There’s nothing stopping you from just loading up on attacks and bashing enemies, especially since the support and healing options are surprisingly sparse.

Outside of battle, you can upgrade cards with a “dust” currency, and you can break down extras you don’t need for more of that currency. More interestingly, you can also fuse cards to make better attacks, but only after acquiring the know-how at set points in the campaign. A more freeform fusion system a-la Yu-Gi-Oh! Forbidden Memories (and probably other, less obscure games) might give the system a bit of much-needed discovery. Instead, you just have a neat idea that fails to live up to its full potential.

How does A Long Way Down handle progression?

A Long Way Down Home Base

You switch between these two modes of play as you venture towards the first boss and reach the expected difficulty spike. Up till now, A Long Way Down was a pretty average experience, but my first death brought a huge curveball.

Most spirelikes take after roguelikes in design. You get as far as you can in a run, you die and gain a little stronger, and you start over again. In A Long Way Down, dying just means loading right back at the beginning of the current level as if I was playing a platformer on NES. You don’t keep any of the items you grabbed on your current run, your stats don’t go up, it’s just a Game Over screen and an invitation to try again.

Now, I’m not saying this is some antiquated design worthy of ridicule. However, in a game with random loot, it inspires confusion. A simple bad roll of the dice can place you in an unwinnable situation and force you to grind past levels to get stronger. Yes, this is a spirelike that wants players to grind old content rather than just start again.

It’s a baffling decision that goes against all my instincts as a player. I forced myself through several runs of past levels and ventured forth, eventually finding new companions and a bit more complexity in the battles. However, the game just failed to click at any point beyond that.

Wrestling with A Long Way Down

A Long Way Down Deckbuilding Gameplay

Perhaps it’s due to the musical accompaniment, which consists of a thirty-second loop of incongruous bluegrass that only ceases when you enter a battle and listen to the second loop, which is the only other music in the game. Perhaps it’s my time with countless other titles that do unique and different things with these concepts. It could even by my disappointment that a game with such a unique and interesting art style fails to stand out in any other meaningful way. Whatever the case, A Long Way Down lost me with a single decision and nothing else the game does can bring me back to its side.

At the very least, A Long Way Down is entering Steam Early Access rather than going for a full release. This means that the team at Seenapsis Studio can take feedback and improve things over time. The foundations of the game are sound, including striking hand-drawn graphics and mechanics with a lot of potential for growth.

If its developers can rebalance the difficulty and progression more towards a traditional roguelike and add more variety to the early game before that initial difficulty spike, players will find a lot more to love here.  If that doesn’t happen, the game will at least serve as an interesting failed experiment for the many studios looking to procedurally improve their own favorite genres.

Game Revolution previewed A Long Way Down on PC via Steam Early Access with a key provided by the publisher.