PC, Switch, XBO, PS4
I started playing Smelter before it got the smattering of reviews it’s received across its various formats. So while this isn’t quite as buried as others, it’s still not received anything like the attention it deserves, and I feel has been somewhat misunderstood where it has. Smelter is a platform/RTS hybrid, which is quite the starting point, but crucially it’s an RTS for idiots like me.
The premise is splendidly bonkers. An absolutely exceptional anime opening cutscene introduces us to the heresy of Artemis (although I’m still not sure if it’s aware it was) – Adam and Eve in the Garden Of Eden, where it’s Adam who is tempted and first eats the Fruit Of Knowledge, seeing them both cast out, and Eve, er, falling through darkness until she lands in a green underground cavern. Where she meets Smelter, a sort of demon-like creature/hat, who quickly possesses her and sets about using her to craft an evil empire. Yes, that old chestnut!
This empire takes the form of an above-ground super-simplified real-time strategy map, on which you can build a very limited range of buildings. There are houses that mysteriously spawn minions called Zirms, who will then man barracks and outposts to defend your territory. So long as they’re fed enough applies, of course, which requires another base unit. So you balance these, enough manned apple-generating towers to keep your Zirms happy and working, and then more houses to generate more Zirms to man more bases… Later these bases can be elaborated upon with gained elements and so forth, but it remains a very simple approach. You could sort of call it tower defence? It’s not quite.
Then in order to take over various sections of the map, you have to enter mines, structures, and so on, at which point it becomes a really decent platformer. These are the real meat of the game, and Eve/Smelter’s abilities expand at the most tremendous pace as you jump, dash, slash and wall bounce your way through. These abilities are gained by reaching alter-likes within the levels, but also by completing each level’s collection of trials. These are mini-areas where you have to run a gauntlet with a specific rule: don’t get hit/defeat all enemies/don’t be seen. That sort of thing. They are sometimes tough as nails, and completing them gets you a coin, that on the RTS map lets you capture structures that unlock bonus moves.
Just as you’re getting to grips with your collection of abilities – a short melee attack, a crude block, various heavy drops, rock attacks, a double-jump, etc – it pulls the rug out with a whole new set of rules for a whole new section of the map. And then again! As you expand your empire, you find new regions with new elemental-led approaches. The second gives you a medium-range whip attack, simple combos, a super-long running jump, the ability to dash in the air… A third area provides you with a ranged blast, the ability to phase through enemy attacks, a new dash, and much more beside. Best of all, each new set, once the earliest missions are complete, is accessible elsewhere, meaning you can switch between the three disparate move sets on the fly.
The result of this is a surprisingly deep platforming game, set below a refreshingly light RTS map. The variety keeps things fresh, the occasional moments of enemy rushes up top reasonably easily dealt with and a nice distraction, before heading back down to the far more challenging 2D runs.
Some platforming levels desperately need some improved checkpointing. While reaching a checkpoint becomes a moment of finally being able to breathe out, and this is mostly a great thing, there are a few too many occasions where you’re forced to re-run some frustrating busywork before reaching the incredibly tricky point again. It could also do with far more direction about where you need to head next when on the RTS map – in fact, far better labelling of the whole map and its mini-map would be a big improvement.
This isn’t going to be at all attractive to RTS fans. You can see that by any of them having reviewed this. It’s all but throwaway in terms of its complexity, which makes it just perfect for a non-strategy player like me. It’s a fun bit of micromanaging, a break between the far tougher platforming. As a platform game, it’s splendid! Fantastic enemies, brilliantly laid out levels, and the most extraordinary amount of variation as you play.