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‘Noita’ Review: Maddening 2D Action Platformer Is Indie Gaming at Its Best

"Noita" is one of the most creative — and fiendishly difficult — action platforming games in recent memory.

"Noita"

“Noita”

Nolla Games

Noita” is a video game about death. You’ll die in the usual ways — swarmed by monsters, falling into a pit of lava — and you’ll also die by transforming yourself into a defenseless sheep before being decapitated by a buzzsaw. You’ll drown in a vat of whiskey. You’ll be killed by a ghost of your own character from a prior play session. “Noita” is maddening, rough around the edges, and utterly unforgiving. It’s also rather brilliant.

On the surface, “Noita,” which hails from three-person Finnish indie studio Nolla Games, appears straightforward. “Noita” is a 2D roguelike (die once and you restart at the beginning of the game) action platformer. Every game begins with your character, a faceless purple wizard, standing outside a mineshaft. You have a jetpack, two wands (this game’s version of weapons and tools), and a flask of water or another liquid. Head down into the cave, where you can run, jump, use your wands, and manage a small inventory of items. There are monsters to fight and treasures to be looted. So far, so video game.

Things will fall apart — literally — within seconds. “Noita” is marketed as a virtual world where “every pixel is simulated,” and the game lives up to that heady promise. Everything in “Noita,” from the metal platform you’re standing on to the lake of water below and the craggy rocks or snow that make up the rest of the area reacts naturally to everything else in the world: Fire can burn through wood and flora, while poison can be diluted by water, which mixes with fire to create steam, which then coalesces at the top of a chamber before dripping back down. Manipulating the physics system in “Noita” is a game in of itself.

“Noita” isn’t the first video game to boast a malleable world — “Minecraft” and especially “Terraria” are clear inspirations here — but few games have given players such meaningful ways to manipulate the very foundations of a virtual world to their own ends. The wands you acquire throughout the world are as modifiable as the environment and there are a staggering number of spells and perks to mix and match: You’ll typically start with a simple magic laser and some sort of bomb but will rapidly uncover an array of wilder abilities. There’s a perk that causes your body to sprout semi-autonomous spider legs. Another perk makes worms more attracted to you. There’s a spell that summons a swarm of friendly wasps. Another one creates a black hole. There’s a liquid that randomly transforms any creature it touches, yourself included, into one of the game’s myriad random monsters.

There’s an objective behind all of this madness. “Noita” doesn’t explicitly tell players what to do or where to go, but the game world is vast and utterly littered with secrets, ensuring that players’ curiosity is consistently rewarded. The basic goal is to head as far below the word’s surface as possible: Past the mines lies a coal pit, followed by an icy cavern, an alien base, and so on. Beyond that, the game offers little in the way of hand-holding for newcomers and makes no effort to explain even its most fundamental mechanics, but there’s so much to explore and tinker with that even those who fail to locate and defeat the “final” boss sequestered deep in the world will still find plenty of other memorable things to uncover. Death in “Noita” might be permanent, but the layout of each location, enemies, and loot is randomized at the start of every run, ensuring that players won’t have to wait long to uncover a new absurd spell or strange magical interaction.

“Noita” also boasts stellar presentation values, though screenshots don’t do it justice; this is a game that looks significantly better in motion, when firing a single spell sets off a cataclysmic domino effect that causes caverns, lakes, and creatures alike to crumble in real-time. “Noita” also boasts an excellent soundtrack that helps create a moody ambiance: The sounds are minimalist when idly digging through terrain or re-treading old ground, but surge at the perfect moments when a new area or enemy is discovered.

It’s also incredibly difficult and the challenge isn’t always fair. Every pixel might be simulated, but as fans on social media and discussion forums have joked, a more accurate descriptor would read: “Every pixel is designed to kill you.” The enemies in “Noita” move and attack with merciless abandon, but you’re a far bigger threat to yourself than any of the game’s antagonists. You can be hurt by many of your own spells and your abilities and perks often do more harm than good: There are explosion spells that, when used under most circumstances, are cast at the source — meaning you’ll blow yourself up. A wand with electrical properties can be powerful, but jumping in water while having it equipped will cause death by electrocution. You’ll be lit on fire or doused in acid more times than you can count. The issue is severe enough that some players may be reluctant to experiment with the many fantastical spells and elements scattered throughout the world for fear of death, which is a tragedy for a game that enables this much player creativity.

Most roguelite games eschew in-depth tutorials in favor of letting players learn from their failure, but many players will be frustrated by the complete lack of guidance in “Noita,” especially when you regularly causes your own demise. That would be a shame: Dying is a constant, inescapable part of “Noita,” and though the game’s relentless difficulty will test the patience of many players especially when an hour or more of progress is unceremoniously ended by you stepping on a stray pixel of lava or misusing a certain spell — there’s a unmatched joy to be had in overcoming its seemingly insurmountable obstacles and learning to bend the game’s arcane environments, enemies, and mechanics to your own ends.

And yes, there’s an engaging gameplay loop beyond all of the terrain and wand modification. There’s an eclectic variety of enemies in the myriad regions that players can explore, running the gamut from familiar antagonists such as rats, robots, and gunmen, to more wild creatures like sentient blobs of acid and all manner of tentacled eldritch horrors. The environments are similarly diverse and player exploration is constantly rewarded in the form of new spells, potions, and secret locations, among other things.

“Noita” garnered a loyal following when it released on PC in October 2020, but it launched during a crowded year for gaming (“Ori and the Will of the Wisps” caught the attention of the platforming crowd, while “Hades” drew the eyes of roguelite fans) and didn’t receive quite as much attention as its contemporaries. 2D action platforming has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years and while “Noita” lacks the polish of some of the bigger title in the genre, “Noita” should be revisited, as it is one of the few that brings something truly new to the table.

Grade: B

“Noita” is available on PC.

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