STAFF REVIEW of Paranautical Activity (Xbox One)

Sunday, May 8, 2016.
by Adam Dileva

Paranautical Activity Box art This review took quite some time for me to write. To be honest, it took a long time to even begin, as I had to find the right way to describe my time with Paranautical Activity without sounding too unfairly harsh or critical even though my pro and con list that I kept track of while playing was heavily filled on one side and not the other. If you were to only look at the cover art for the game, you would most likely never guess that Paranautical Activity is a fast paced first person shooter that resembles some sort of crazy Minecraft mod. If the original Doom or Wolfenstein had a messed up offspring with Minecraft, Paranautical Activity would be the result. Is this the offspring that should be locked away in the basement or allowed outside to see the light of day?

Normally I would begin to describe the game’s story and plot, detailing the beginning and main narrative to give you a vague idea of what to expect. Sadly I’m unable to do so here, as there is no campaign included. The main menu simply offers you a Classic Mode to begin with (harder difficulties are unlocked later on), throwing you into the action with no explanation as to who, what, or why. I was at least expecting that quick and cheesy slideshow storyboard style of narrative to give some context to what you’re doing and why, but alas, nothing of the sort is included.

Speaking of the main menu, the very first thing you’re going to notice is that this Xbox One version is clearly a quick, and dare I say lazy, port of the PC version as you need to move a cursor on the screen to select your menu options, as opposed to using the D-pad like in every other standardized console game. When the very first thing that runs through your mind when starting a new game is “what the hell?”, it doesn’t bode well. Paranautical Activity makes no attempt at introducing itself to you in any way, even lacking a tutorial or any sort of explanation of how to play. It’s akin to a stranger coming up to you and start talking about their life, and they didn’t even introduce themselves, shake your hand, or say hello. That’s how awkward this feels from the very beginning moments.

Visually, Paranautical will no doubt draw parallels with Minecraft simply because of its 3D block style, but instead of being bright and cheery, its palette is very dark and drab. It has a retro vibe to it, but because the overall game itself is so dark, enemies get easily lost within the rooms, blending into the bland darkness. Everything is simply so dark, so grey and so black that it’s hard to appreciate many of the enemies uniqueness, especially the bosses, even more so because you’re constantly having to move and strafe to survive.

After you awkwardly choose Classic Mode from the main menu, you’re then given the options of different weapon loadouts to choose from. Each weapon has their own strength and weakness, and even though you’re given a couple of options I didn’t really enjoy any of the starting weapons at all. The best ones need to be bought or found as you progress through the game; that is until you die, which I’ll get into shortly. There’s a crossbow, shotgun, sickle, and a grenade launcher for the base weapon choices. Each comes with an accompanying secondary ‘super’ weapon as well, of which I didn’t really like any of them either, as they all have very limited ammo and don’t feel as powerful as they should. Why a katana requires ammo as a super weapon is beyond me, simply accept it carry on.

Once you figure out the basic controls on your own, you rise in an elevator onto the first floor of eight. Each floor is randomly generated, not just in layout but enemies and bosses as well. Most rooms are monster rooms that need to be cleared before the adjacent doors unlock, much like classic Legend of Zelda dungeons, but if you’re lucky you’ll come across special weapon rooms where you can spend your stash of coins from downed enemies. Once you finally find the red door, which indicates a boss room, make sure you’re ready. Defeating the boss allows you to take an elevator up to the next floor; rinse and repeat.

Oh, did I mention what happens if you chose the wrong weapon for that boss and die? Time to start from scratch. Yup, all those coins and upgrades you earned are gone and you’re back to the first floor with just your starting weapon. I’m all for a good challenge, but only when it’s fair. This doesn’t feel fair at the best of times. You have so little health on the first few floors that you’ll be lucky to survive long enough to get a health boost or better weapon.

While I enjoy that floor layouts are completely random on each playthrough, the complete randomness of the enemies becomes quite frustrating because of their imbalance. Some enemies are quite easy and weak, while others are much more powerful or can move faster than you, almost always guaranteeing your death (I hate those land sharks with a passion). This leads to some easy runs where you’ll beat a few floors no problem, but you'll then hit a massive spike in difficulty in a single room (not even always a boss room either) resulting in your death and having to start all over. The next 10 times you might not even make it past the first floor. This complete randomness made me want to play less rather than try to overcome it. Paranautical Activity’s difficulty is completely random instead of a finely tuned experience, say when compared to another difficult game, albeit in a different genre, Dark Souls III.

There are two higher difficulties to unlock, but to reach them is near impossible given how challenging it is to defeat all 8 floors on 'normal' Classic Mode, and given the frustration I’ve been having with it I really wonder what others may think. Very few times I was even able to save up enough coins to purchase one of the better items before dying and having to start over from scratch each and every time.

As for the audio, it simply sounds as if it’s there, just doing what it needs to. There’s nothing special about the weapon’s ‘pew-pew’ auditory sounds, though I do have to say the standout surprise is the decent dubstep soundtrack that is included in the game. The music blasts as you make your way through each room and floor, making a great companion for the relentless and nonstop action.

Even though the Paranautical Activity boasts about its procedurally generated rooms and enemies, it all feels and looks the same save for the bosses. You’ll constantly circle strafe, attempting to clear the enemies before they can shoot or run into you, hoping you don’t die and have to restart. Sure, there may be those few out there who have no issues with the constant challenge, but I’m clearly on the other side of the fence on this one. The constant restarting from scratch deterred me from playing rather than wanting to overcome the challenges, especially when they are completely randomized. It simply feels unrewarding for throwing yourself at it, unless you truly want to unlock the harder difficulty modes and achievement hunt.

I really wanted to like Paranautical Activity, as there’s always a time and place for a mindless shooter, but it’s simply too unforgiving to keep your attention. Menu issues, lack of story, and difficulty aside, it feels like the Xbox One port was almost an afterthought and done on a whim, resulting in a forgettable experience.

Overall: 3.5 / 10
Gameplay: 2.0 / 10
Visuals: 3.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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