I’ve never heard of Tower of Samsara before playing it very briefly in the last day I covered this year’s BIG Festival. However, those few minutes I spent checking the controls and learning how to progress through the available stage were more than enough to make me interested in the game, so I contacted the studio as soon as I woke up in the next morning asking for a build.
Speaking with Martelo Nero’s Guilherme Gaspar, the man responsible for the game’s visuals and story, among other things, I learned that Tower of Samsara not only was one of the finalists in BIG Festival 2016’s BIG Starter, but it also received awards for its character design and art style – and it’s easy to see why after completing the demo.
Tower of Samsara’s pixel art is genuinely beautiful, but it was the sense of scale that stuck with me the most. In addition to being displayed only in a tiny fraction of the screen when moving around unarmed, the protagonist, known as hermetic champion, is dwarfed by the huge structures and statues found in different parts of the stage, a freezing landscape consisting of open areas with strong winds that hamper your progress and caves with enemies and deadly traps.
While visually impressive, the sense of scale, at least in the build, didn’t translate well into gameplay, as the character doesn’t die or suffer any damage even when falling from really high places. According to Gaspar, the team is using this prototype to test different mechanics and see what works best to make the game enjoyable without having to change its core concept, so this could be modified in the final version.
To fight the enemies you come across while exploring the environment, you have to manually draw your sword, an action that automatically makes the camera zoom in on the protagonist. You can wield your sword all the time to have this closer view of the character, but you won’t be able to grab ledges or see some elements of the stage, which can a be a problem sometimes. The sword is the only weapon you have at your disposal, and Gaspar confesses he didn’t really think about including other options before, but also says that it could be a good idea.
Among the enemies I faced in the demo are slow-walking birdmen armed with flails, a faster red version that charges at you with a long spear, a really annoying floating longsword that can only be stopped by destroying its source, and flying creatures that throw spears at you from above. Those weren’t the only hazards, though. Some platforms vanish after you step on them, making you fall into pits full of spikes. Sharp spears come out of the ground in inconvenient places, testing your patience, reflexes and ability to avoid them. Glowing shadows overlapped with foreground silhouettes instantly kill your character if touched.
The only way to get rid of these deadly shadows is using your lamp, a power you receive early in the demo. When activated, a big glowing circle appears around the protagonist, allowing you to move the lamp freely inside of it to “scrub off” these dark patches from the screen. For the most part, you need to do it in order to reach a new area alive, but it’s also necessary to solve some puzzles.
After finding mysterious light codes scattered around the stage, you discover that they are required to open a huge stone gate. You can try to guess the right order to use the items to make the gate open, but if you take your time to explore every part of the environment and remove a specific shadow, the answer is revealed. The lamp can also be used to light up torches, opening passages and triggering events, like releasing an NPC from a cage hanging on the ceiling.
Rescuing NPCs sends them to the Akheron, a giant castle-like structure that serves as a ship for the protagonist to travel between worlds. This was not implemented in the build I played, but Gaspar says that the rescued characters will add lore and share info about the game.
Another ability called deep perception puts the character in a meditating position, allowing you to read enigmatic messages – they definitely aren’t there to tell you what to do next, but fit well with the game’s intent of being abstract and poetic. Collecting runes lets you write messages while using the deep perception. Gaspar says it’s still a very conceptual idea, but it would allow you to create messages that can interact with others to give information to the player or even unlock something in the game. I tried to use it several times in different places in the demo, but didn’t manage to make it work to get a feel of its mechanics.
The demo ends with the hermetic knight getting ready to face the boss of the stage, a strange being with stem-like limbs, shoulders made of rock and jagged teeth in its torso. A black square floats between them, with a moving red dot inside behaving like an eye. As soon as you run toward the enemy, the action slows down and the screen goes black.
The studio currently does not have a game designer, since the original one left the boat four months after the game’s Kickstarter campaign failed to reach its funding goal, back in June 2016. But Gaspar doesn’t lament the departure of the former team member, as “he didn’t have the right profile for the game, to be honest.” As for the Kickstarter campaign, however, Gaspar regrets not having a playable demo to share with the backers. “If we had, I’m pretty sure the campaign would be successful,” he says. While the team looks for a new game designer to help them with the project, Gaspar and Italian programmer Gabriele Marchi keep working on Tower of Samsara “in low gear”, which means they can’t confirm when it’s coming out.
Here’s hoping they can find someone as soon as possible, because I can’t wait to get my hands on the final version.