If like us, you've been watching the weird and wonderful world of roguelikes develop over the last decade or so (you can read more on a couple of notable examples right here) then you'll know that there are plenty of devs who've tried to take the essence of the genre - procedural generation, permadeath, random elements, a punishing challenge that eases with familiarity - and turn it into something new, something with a fresh twist to set it apart from the growing crowd.
Our first impression of Don't Die, Minerva!, a twin-stick isometric roguelite set in a slightly childish haunted house, was that this was just another in the long line of attempts to spin out a neat game idea into something more substantial with the clever implementation of procedural generation and slow progression that takes place over multiple attempts thanks to permanent unlocks that can aid future runs. However, after playing for a couple of hours (both before and after the first major patch to land for the game since it hit early access) we've come to the conclusion that Xaviant may well be onto something.
Every new run at Don't Die, Minerva! sees the game's leading lady enter a spooky haunted house full of ghosts and creepy critters. Using her torch and a pet that comes to your aid in times of need, Minerva must explore further into the haunted mansion, trying not to die while hoovering up crystals and upgrading her gear. On the face of it, there isn't much here to differentiate it from the wider crowd, but after a couple of runs, once we'd got the hang of things, something clicked and we started to have a whole load of fun.
Perhaps our favourite feature is the pet that you activate with a press of the X button. You can have things like a monkey who throws bananas, a cat that stalks anything that considers you prey, and a dragon that flies around the map breathing fire on your enemies. These temporary assists have different movement and combat abilities, so you've got to weigh up what you want your little buddy to do for you when given the option to swap out your pet for a new one at one of the game's many loot chests. You can also upgrade these pets with crystals that increase different damage types. At one point we had a levelled-up monkey who'd drop in on-demand and throw flaming bananas at our enemies while we strafed around the pack and tried to keep them in range of both attacks - and that was as entertaining as its sounds.
You can further change things up with upgradeable backpacks giving you extra bonuses, new boots that increase your health and offer additional effects (at one point we were racing around the place at high speed - that was great fun too). Most important of all is your ability to change your torch, and there are a number of upgrades on offer, with some giving you improved range while others do hugely increased damage-per-second but require you to go toe-to-toe with your enemies, which is easier said than done once you've progressed into the second part of the house and beyond.
Our initial impression of Don't Die, Minerva! was that it was too hard, but the recent update seems to have rebalanced the challenge just a little. At times it can get a bit hectic, with the screen filling up with enemies, but they tend to spawn in waves and that helps keep things manageable. Post-update we went on one extended run that allowed us to see a whole bunch of abilities and try out a number of different builds en route to our inevitable death, and there seems to be a nice range of weapons and pets to choose from. That said, we thought the game was at its best when it was surprising us, and so we hope that over the course of its development, lots of new abilities and animations can be added in order to fuel gameplay variance between runs and keep us on our toes.
Another area where we hope to see improvements is the reactivity of the world to our actions. There is some scenery that can be destroyed, but we'd like more, and we'd like to see the ghosts and ghouls react to our attacks more dynamically. There's time for that, and there's time for more content to be added, so we're hopeful that Don't Die, Minerva! can continue to grow as it moves through the early access process, but the initial signs are that this is going to an enjoyable entry point to the genre for younger players, but with just enough of a wicked challenge to entertain those more familiar with the joys of permadeath.
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