Pleasant surprise of the week goes to Zapling Bygone, yet another budget Metroidvania. But rather than merge into the crowd, Zapling Bygone rips off their skulls and wears them all as masks. Perhaps ‘pleasant’ surprise isn’t quite the right term.
Zapling Bygone is structured in a way that you’ve probably played umpteen times before. It’s a reasonably straightforward Metroidvania, of the sprawling and unrestricted variety. You start reasonably centrally, and then push out in a variety of directions to see where it takes you. On occasion, you will hit a wall that you can’t vault over right now: you simply don’t have the upgrade needed. In other cases, you come across platforms, enemies and bosses that are within your reach, and – more often than not – there’s an upgrade waiting for you at the end of them. Empowered, you can now circle back and vault that wall that was unvaultable.
It’s a formula that works, yet we can’t deny that we’re tired of it. When at least one game of this type launches per week, the fatigue gets real. But Zapling Bygone isn’t worried about that. It knows that it’s so taut in the execution, and unique in the way that it presents itself, that it doesn’t have to be concerned.
Carrion is probably the closest game in feel and mood to Zapling Bygone. Like that game, you are effectively playing a monster, crawling and oozing around a game space. Everyone is rightly afraid of you, as you grow bigger and more powerful. Hilariously, you start the game as a space-slug, dropping onto the planet without much in the way of abilities. But you roll over a few enemies, absorb their gooey green life-force, and increase in size. And that’s when you come across your first skull.
You see, the main character of Zapling Bygone is a fledgling hive-mind – the first of the Borg, if you will. By picking up and absorbing skulls into its biomass, the hive-mind also gains its consciousness. You can chinwag with the personalities you accumulate, which is great for inner monologues; as you pass landmarks in the world, one of the skulls is likely to pipe up and make a comment on it.
Zapling Bygone has a whale of a time with the idea. There’s the obvious horror and comedy (horredy?) that comes from disparate personalities chatting away in a singular organism. It gets crowded in there. But absorb the skull of The Rat King (the first boss), say, and all of the rats in the level will bow down and leave you alone. It’s a hell of a neat touch, and we’d have loved to see more of them in Zapling Bygone.
The main benefit of sucking someone’s skull up with a straw is that you gain their abilities. Gone are the treasure chests and power orbs of Castlevania and Metroid: you are literally eating upgrades from your enemies. The Rat King we mentioned gives you the power to climb up walls, while an organic computer hands you the Bionic Commando power, allowing you to hook onto nodes and swing around on them. Soon you’ll be unlocking double-jumps and lasers, pimping your hive-mind to various extremes.
These skulls have various-shaped sockets, which you can slot trinkets into. Find a triangle-shaped power in the hidden nooks of a cave system, and you will be opening your inventory to see which skull it will fit into. There are heaps of these trinkets to find, and they are almost all extremely powerful. It makes collectible-hunting in Zapling Bygone a treat, as every corner is hiding a power that could, potentially, change the way you play.
Levels aren’t spectacularly different from what you have played before, but they are as tight as a snare drum. They are densely packed with combat, precision-platforming and power-usage, creating a labyrinth of challenging gameplay. We enjoyed straying into new areas, wondering whether we were heading the right way. You can almost always count on making permanent progress, too, as – rather than checkpoints – you can find and create save points along the way, as well as fill in pools that act as teleport hotspots. Zapling Bygone is fantastic at making you feel like you are making headway.
It’s a little hands off, which is appropriate for a character without hands. There is the definite potential to get lost, or – at the very least – fail to understand which way Zapling Bygone wants you to go in a given moment. We found ourselves backtracking fairly often, and hitting walls that we couldn’t pass even more frequently. You have to be the kind of Metroidvania fan who is happy with this kind of stop-start nature. Knowing where to go is half the puzzle.
And there’s a steep, perhaps too steep, difficulty curve at play in Zapling Bygone. Bosses in particular are relentless, with health bars as long as your small intestine, and very little room left for errors. You will need to memorise their dances for long periods, and the first encounter with them can be frustrating: new phases of attack keep getting added in, so you can overcome a few waves of attacks, only to find brutal new ones. Again, it’s completely subjective whether it’s too hard, but challenge is very much a part of Zapling Bygone.
But it’s never unfair. Save points are frequent, teleport spots as well, and how you’re going to overcome a challenge is rarely opaque. Pulling it off successfully is the problem, and you will need to be skilled and persistent to reach the end of this surprisingly long adventure. It will have you in its tentacled embrace for something like eight hours.
This is why we love reviewing games. Innocuous titles like Zapling Bygone turn up and surprise us with their polish and imagination. We found ourselves worryingly happy with squelching around dungeons, sucking up people’s skulls and chatting to their departed souls. It probably says a lot about us.
Now, we want to spread the word: absorb more people into Zapling Bygone’s body. This is a gruesome Metroidvania that will make you gag, and we loved every flipping minute of it. Join the hive-mind. We dare you.
You can buy Zapling Bygone from the Xbox Store
- Horrible, disgusting fun
- Intricately made Metroidvania levels
- Banging soundtrack
- Volatile difficulty curve
- Sometimes hard to know where to go
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to – JanduSoft
- Formats – Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch
- Version reviewed – Xbox Series X
- Release date – 9 March 2023
- Launch price from – £10.74