Yep, that’s a typo on the home page. Ending should read Credits
Billing itself as a classic dungeon crawler, Excave II: Wizard of the Underworld does nothing to try and add any individual spice to the genre. After centuries of tranquility in Castle Town, some nasty beasties beseech the neighbouring woods of Castle Town and raid Imperial City, so our nameless heroes – a male and female adventurer – seek to end the ruckus. After clearing forests, sewers and castles you’ll eventually defeat the pesky wizard responsible for unleashing underworld toxins, before embarking on a final mission to cleanse hell itself. In all, there are 9 Dungeons (think worlds in Mario) and 3-5 levels within each. There’s nothing necessarily harmful about having a slapdash plot, many games shine through excellent mechanics. In this case though, the game’s most notable feature is rampant grammatical errors throughout each slab of plot exposition forced upon players between levels, whilst the meat of the gameplay is unambitious and repetitive.
The bulk of the game involves taking whichever Adventurer you choose to play as and traversing levels with varied but muted colour palates and a broad range of foes ranging from utterly mundane to completely bizarre. Bats, bees, and slimes account for run of the mill enemies, whilst disembodied dragon heads and scimitar-wielding dino-humanoids comprise some of the weird ones. Typically foes fit the theme of their given dungeon, but there isn’t a great deal of artistic cohesion when you look at all the villains as a whole, there’s just a mishmash of things that are bad guys because underworld poison. More troublingly although there are some variations within enemy behavioural patterns - some are a little twitchy and will flee if they take damage - they’ll pretty much all fight the same way, ultimately rendering all enemies different only in aesthetic and how much damage they can take and inflict.
In conjunction with poor level design, this presents a bit of problem: excluding boss fights, each stage plays almost identically. Most levels are filled with narrow corridors, and those learned enough to have studied the film 300 will be well aware that funneling foes into a narrow number will cause their numbers to count for nothing. Luring enemies into such paths or letting them get stuck on the scenery allows for them to be easily and tediously hacked down as they unwaveringly try to invade your personal space. When levels open up things get much more interesting. Spamming the attack button becomes a recipe for getting nipped on the buns by foes attacking from all angles. Therefore keeping fleet of foot and making good use of the solid amount of spells at your disposal is vital. Powerful spells can dispatch of numerous enemies simultaneously if correctly timed, whilst skilled movement maintains your health, keeping the horde at bay. At these moments the game is at its best, and you’ll feel satisfied after combining your skills to
thwart innumerable beasts.
Spiky bits are ideal for crowd control in a pinch
There are two soulless husks to play as; how they play is defined entirely by the weapon equipped. Whilst both have access to a generic sword, boy husk can also use broadswords, katanas, axes and spears, and girl husk bows, rapiers, twin swords and staves. The game describes them only as adventurers so have fun with that. Mechanically, boy husk much easier to use. His strikes are predictable and easy to aim. Girl husk’s short range weapons are as effective, but her bows and staves are fiddly to aim with the analogue stick, and not particularly useful in close quarter skirmishes, which is where the majority of the action occurs. Additionally, a tight top down view further diminishes the effectiveness of ranged moves; the field of view is low. Even when ranged primaries can be used well, magic attacks far outclass them, with spells encompassing a greater radius than arrows. Fire bolts, and thunder beams also deal greater damage, carving through standard foes like a knife through hot butter, whilst AoE spells are great for dealing with crowd control.
Even supposing that you find both playstyles equally viable, a sloppy inventory system is an irredeemable blight upon Excave. At any given time you can equip one primary weapon, which is used by pressing A. B controls either a shield or a spell dependent upon what is equipped, and there are 18 slots for reserve weapons, spells and other items. Taking multiple spells and weapons is necessary, as each has a set durability and overuse will cause them to fail. Once this occurs you’ll have to swap it for an inventory item using the touchpad. Here’s the thing though, much as it pains me to admit it, I’m crap at fingering the touch pad at the best of times, but in the midst of battle, caught short with the wrong spell or failed weapon, I'm not going to easily switch equipment. The L and R buttons wasted. Why you can’t cycle through spells/shields with L and weapons with R is beyond me. Certainly a more diligent player would be more aware of their item durability, but the bar indicating durability is tricky to spot on my old 3ds screen.
The inventory is deceptively large here, and on the old 3DS it's fiddly diddly.
Having only 18 slots available is a deliberate design choice. Players are meant to give careful consideration to what spells, weapons and items they take into each level, and must also decide what loot to keep and what to drop. This largely works satisfactorily, once you become familiar with how the game works you’ll strike a good balance between taking what you need, and leaving enough space for what you want. There are, however, two ways in which the system is flawed. Firstly, every weapon in the game is locked to either the male or female with the exception of the standard sword. Weapon drops are random, and it’s entirely possible to get lumbered with drops for the character you don’t main. Sure, you can sell these later, but you’ll never be strapped for cash, which I only ever used to buy new shields and top up on potions anyway. As a result, the values of each run can vary greatly. This leads into the second flaw. It very much feels like the game wants you to replay each level, not because they’re worth experiencing again, rather because you are meant to grind to get the items you want. That doesn’t add value to play time, only irritation. If weapon drops were exclusively usable by your character, or better yet, the two husks were merged into one, then this wouldn’t be a problem. In fact I may have been more inclined to try out weapons I didn’t initially like as a change of pace had they been available to the male.
The game claims to have hundreds of items available to you, which is true in a deceiving sort of way. Sure, there are crap items through to powerful ones. In the end though, all the different weapons amount varying degrees of damage. They look the same in the open field, and there are no new combos or animation changes with upgraded kit. As such they aren’t really different items. Spells are more varied, as you later find single use spells which are powerful and affect the entire screen whilst dealing considerable damage. However, given the inventory touch pad controls, switching between these spells is a nightmare.
Ultimately, I didn’t complete Excave II myself. It is a challenging, but not excessively difficult, game. However it is also frustrating due to unintuitive controls, boring items and a woefully presented plot. Sure, if you wanted to collect literally everything, and beat the final boss, there’s plenty of ‘content’ here, but you won't want to do that. Evens so, if priced at a few quid it would be hard to feel completely dissatisfied with Excave. It isn’t great or even good, but it is not without some moments of fun. Excave is on sale for £8.99 though, and for that price you could pick up a good second hand game or a fancy pizza.
Verdict: 4/10 – Below Average
All images courtesy of Nintendo.co.uk