This product was received for free.
Well, that game absolutely pales in comparison to the feature of this article – Tesla vs. Lovecraft by 10tons Ltd, which is the best twin-stick shooter I’ve ever played by a country mile.
This game has an utterly unique and compelling premise. Freddy vs. Jason? Meh. Alien vs. Predator? Double meh. Tesla vs. Lovecraft? Now we’re talking. This premise is so chock full of nerdiness that it’s on the verge of suffering from power creep. The only way to top this premise might be to feature Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings for the sequel. It’s the gaming equivalent of Michael Jackson behind the wheel of an IROC-Z preparing to drag race Elvis in his ‘62 Thunderbird.
These two figures – Tesla and Lovecraft – encompass two very important ends of the nerd spectrum. Just mentioning the name Nikola Tesla can increase the heaviness of the breathing in a room full of S.T.E.M. majors, while I’m sure you’d be hard-pressed to find a fedora-tipping humanities lover who isn’t at least familiar with Lovecraft.
I’ll start with the admission that I am a huge fan of Lovecraft’s work; I’ve read just about the entirety of his short story collection so I was curious to see how Tesla vs. Lovecraft incorporates his legacy into the game, and if they’ve done him justice or not.
For those unaware, the life story of Lovecraft is rather tragic due in no small part to the lack of copyright protection for his intellectual property as a result of his being penniless at the time of his death. As a result, the Lovecraft ‘Cthulhu mythos’ has been expanded beyond recognition by other authors after Lovecraft, and many view this expansion as bastardizing Lovecraft’s original vision, myself included. As a result there is a distinction made between the mythos as established by Lovecraft (Lovecraft mythos) and the expansions on that mythos made by others after his death, such as his protege August Derleth (referred to as the ‘Derleth mythos’).
So what makes Lovecraft’s original vision more substantial or significant than the later stuff? Well, part of the brilliance of Lovecraft’s work wasn’t what he put on the page, but what he didn’t put on the page. I can illustrate this with two examples.
Firstly, Lovecraft was at his best when exploiting our finite human perspective and experience. His short stories often end very abruptly as the climax is reached. He deliberately leaves the narrative unresolved, and this is often due to the limitations of the main character – in reading Lovecraft, we are fixed in the mode of being the main character, both enjoying the introspection but also suffering the limitations of that mode. So if the main character suffers from some kind of insanity that prevents the resolution of the narrative (as often is the case with Lovecraft) the reader, too, suffers that lack of resolution.
Secondly, the mystery and unfathomability of the mythos itself is one of the defining and unique features of Lovecraft’s work. The later authors did far too much world-building, introducing, explaining, and systematizing to maintain that sense of unfathomability. The more that the cosmic horrors in the Lovecraft mythos are described and taxonomized, the more it strays away from what made Lovecraft’s short stories effective. TVTropes.org describes the trope of Lovecraftian horror as:
“…defined by [their] disregard for the natural laws of the universe as we understand them. They are grotesque mockeries of reality beyond comprehension whose disturbing otherness cannot be encompassed in any mortal tongue… Reality itself warps around them. Any rules that they do follow are beyond our understanding, as are what motives they might have for any of their actions.”
It’s exactly that sense of ‘incomprehensible cosmic horror’ that is lost when too much detail is stipulated upon – besides, how could such an incomprehensible thing be described, stipulated upon, labeled, or put in a box in any way? As Lovecraft himself supposedly opined in a letter, “never explain anything”. To define something is to limit that something – to label it, put it in a box, and say ‘it’s that’, and ‘it’s also not that’. The idea of depicting a Lovecraftian horror is kind of a troublesome venture to begin with when considering these aspects of their narrative, but at the same time I understand artistic liberties must be taken in pursuit of imagery.
All of this being said, and being a Lovecraft purist myself, I actually approved of the thematic accuracy in Tesla vs. Lovecraft, for the most part. I greatly enjoyed the swathe of enemies and their designs, many of which are taken directly from Lovecraft’s short stories. I didn’t recognize them all, however – some of them may have come from the later eras of the mythos when it was taken up by other authors and heavily systematized.
The only issue I have are the times when he is presented as the exaggerated, pop-culture version of himself. For example, he’s depicted as literally riding some kind of eldritch horror as a bonafide mount in much of the promotional material and also the main menu, not to mention the fact that he’s presented as being able to summon his own fictional monsters as a kind of superpower. But besides these annoyances the game does a decent job at employing Lovecraftian themes in an effective way.
Now that we’ve thoroughly discussed Lovecraft, let us move onto Nikola Tesla. He did some electric stuff I think. That would have exhausted the extent of my knowledge of the man… except through playing Tesla vs. Lovecraft I also learned that he’s basically a bad-ass science Rambo.
You play as Tesla for the entirety of the game, trying to bear the brunt of Lovecraft’s grudge against him. You’ll quickly find that various Eldritch monstrosities have taken up arms against ol’ Nikola. The setup is simple – Tesla reveals a new groundbreaking invention, much to the chagrin of Lovecraft, who warns the brilliant scientist about the risks of his newest breakthrough. Tesla has Lovecraft promptly removed and thrown into jail for his whistle-blowing. It’s the classic “you are meddling with powers you cannot possibly understand!” trope.
Each level is presented to you in a linear fashion via the map screen, which can be toggled between three different realms – the normal, aether, and eldritch. This essentially splits the game into three separate campaign ‘worlds’.
The game is legitimately challenging but the difficulty curve isn’t always predictable. At times, it can feel a bit too easy or a bit too challenging, relative to the levels before and after, depending on which world you’re in. The last levels in each world usually ramp up the difficulty to a satisfying degree though, and they had me restarting several times – the mark of a good game.
Tesla vs. Lovecraft features some small but significant tweaks to the twin-stick formula. This should come as no surprise as the developer, 10tons Ltd., is somewhat known for their prowess with twin-stick shooters. Two of their more popular past releases – Neon Chrome and Crimsonland – are very well-received twin-stick shooters. And based on what I can tell, Tesla vs. Lovecraft seems to be a spiritual successor, with respect to game play design.
There is no ammo count, for instance. Thus, you aren’t spending any time picking up ammo boxes, which, all things considered, are kinda junky pickups from a design perspective. It makes for a much more compelling experience if the pickups you are constantly vying for are actually meaningful and dynamic, which I believe Tesla vs. Lovecraft achieves with great success. One of the major pickups you’ll be bobbing and weaving for are parts for the Tesla mech, which, when activated, makes for some seriously kickass twin-stick shooter action. When out of the suit, Tesla can teleport around, even through the hordes of enemies to avoid being hit. But Tesla in the mech is no delicate flower, and instead the teleport function become a rocket-dash, very effective for plowing through hordes of enemies. This is just like Pac-Man – as soon as he chomps the power pellet, the dynamic of the game changes and suddenly you’re on a serious offensive with a shit-eating grin.
The level design was surprisingly intricate and well thought-out. Some arenas are smaller and open while others feature nigh-on labyrinthine walls. The developers have clearly put a lot of care into the level design. You’ll be spending much of the game bobbing and weaving around the various horrors, using your teleport ability to narrowly escape death time and time again. So they’ve set up some of the map areas deliberately so you can lead a horde of enemies there and simply teleport across a barrier, effectively escaping and leading the horde through another gauntlet. It works very well and makes for intense close-calls; you’ll almost always be within tentacle-distance from the enemy.
My biggest gripe with the game is that you never get to play as Lovecraft. But I can understand how much that would have added to the scope of the game and thus, development time and budget. The store page for Tesla vs. Lovecraft even specifically mentions that you get to play as Tesla; perhaps this is the devs wanting to be explicitly clear, anticipating the disappointment people might have going in and expecting to be able to play as both, with unique skill sets, weapons, enemies and power-ups. Nonetheless, it would have been fantastic, and really propelled the game into seriously legendary territory. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll get some DLC. Tesla vs. Lovecraft does feature local co-op, however, but everyone plays as Tesla.
The presentation in Tesla vs. Lovecraft is simply phenomenal. This is one of the nicest looking indie games I’ve ever played, but it doesn’t ever quite reach Bastion levels in terms of the artistic design – it’s not very stylized. I absolutely love the character models though; they approach a kind of ‘wax-museum’ sense of realism. It’s a very unique kind of modelling style that I’m not sure I’ve seen before in a game, and it’s superb.
The quotes from both Tesla and Lovecraft on the loading screens are a welcome addition – I would have liked to have seen more of them, though.
The in-game graphics are also quite good, especially for an indie effort. Nicely textured buildings and floors as well as pretty well-detailed enemy models. The player model itself isn’t very detailed or special, but you hardly see it due to the bird’s-eye perspective inherent in the twin-stick shooter genre, so it’s acceptable.
The game’s presentation really shines in it’s effects. Tesla’s palette, in his abilities and weapons, leans towards a more blue-white electricity, while Lovecraft’s is more appropriately green and black, fitting with his slimy-demonic-occult themes. These colour palettes are bright and gorgeous and really pop on-screen.
But I think the sound effects are probably the crown jewel of the presentation here. They greatly contribute to the intensity of the experience – every shot fired feels meaty and significant. It makes for a very visceral experience.
Tesla vs. Lovecraft achieves in spades what Wrack, the feature of a previous article, seriously lacks. And that is precisely the viscerality of the essential experience. The gun-play in Wrack felt lackluster because the sound effects, graphical effects, and animations weren’t working in harmony. This is certainly not the case with Tesla vs. Lovecraft – 10tons Ltd. clearly understands that the essential experience, being shooting, requires a great deal of care and attention if the game is to be compelling. In games like these, where 99% of your game play is doing one thing (shooting), that one thing better be seriously polished until it simply feels good to be doing it. This is where Tesla vs. Lovecraft succeeds.
With an utterly compelling and unique premise, a satisfying number of powerups, weapons and enemies, and meaningful perk choices and pickups, Tesla vs. Lovecraft had me constantly itching for one more go. It’s the best twin-stick shooter I’ve ever played. You can pick it up on Steam, XBONE and PS4 starting January 26th, 2018.
So when the game calls you in your dreams, as it calls me in mine, leave it not unanswered. Answer the call. For in his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming… waits dreaming… ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn…