Worldless opens with a battle of opposing stars; they cascade towards each other in what seems like an endless battle. From that epic scene-setter, we follow the journey of one such celestial body, who gains sentience and treks across an alien landscape to find…purpose?
The central mystery at the heart of this gorgeous platformer isn’t as important as the journey we take to solve it. This will serve to be a frustration in the long run, but the opening moments are all about the sensory experience. Left to wander an empty expanse, the glow of your own body illuminating the ground and sprouting ghostly flowers wherever you go. It’s both calming and tense.
Not long after descending from the sky, you’ll encounter your first enemy. Fiery orange to your soft blue, these constructs pop up at regular intervals throughout the journey. Dealing with these enemies isn’t the usual hack-and-slash loop seen in other games of this type. Combat is a turn-based back-and-forth that plays out like cosmic rock-paper-scissors.
Each fighter has a turn timer, shield, and health bar. At first, your only goal is to destroy your opponent, unleashing combos of physical and magical attacks while shielding against the reprisal. Later it becomes necessary to fill up an absorb meter, which allows you to drain an enemy of energy. This can then be used to upgrade your skills and add new abilities to your arsenal.
Mixing up attack patterns is essential, as repeating the same combos will prime for absorption much slower. Additionally, your abilities carry different absorption levels, which is a neat way of encouraging you to explore the moveset. You can attempt to absorb an enemy early, but this triggers a QTE that will require that you guess a four-digit button sequence. This isn’t recommended, but it’s also not impossible.
The ability tree lacks depth, but it will add further damage mitigation and variations on your standard attacks. Soon you’ll be juggling enemies with air combos and countering even the most powerful riposte.
Combat isn’t random, appearing at specific points in each area. This is a boon to exploration and perhaps the biggest departure from the genre norm. Metroidvanias inherently feature copious backtracking and it’s a huge relief to know that once you’ve dealt with an obstacle, it isn’t going to bite you on the return trip.
Enemies range from small creatures to multi-limbed behemoths. Each area has at least one skill check that will stop you dead in your tracks. These larger enemies will introduce specific mechanics and require you to apply what you’ve learned to defeat them. The right approach isn’t always evident, regardless of generous tutorials. It can be frustrating to bounce off a giant kaleidoscopic spider and have to run around searching for upgrades and honing your skills on older battles (each of which can be retried). Getting past these difficulty spikes is satisfying, though, and usually opens a new area to explore or a sliver of narrative.
That narrative is a bit too abstract, favouring mystery over traditional linear storytelling. Skeletal creatures litter the maps, popping up to rue your existence and wonder at your strange powers. The enemies you face are never explicitly painted as evil, they are merely an opposing force. This opaque writing is purposeful, however, and if you get lost in the world of Worldless, you might excuse the lack of clarity.
Platforming and general traversal follow in the footsteps of other genre luminaries but recalls Hollow Knight in particular. The first movement ability you unlock is an air dash that’s identical to what the Knight uses to navigate Hallownest. A pervading sense of solitude and the threatening nature of the space around you also recalls Team Cherry’s bug-infested masterpiece. Wordless still manages to do its own thing, distinguishing itself via aesthetics and ethereal atmosphere. Those visuals perform well on Switch, with responsive platforming and combat inputs both docked and undocked.
Environments are replete with mini-puzzles, revealed by a soothing pulse the protagonist emits from their glowing head. Some open new paths, while others offer ways to add to your health bar and shield. The rhythm of this game usually involves some light exploring and sporadic small enemy encounters. A larger foe will smack you about enough to facilitate backtracking to find ways to become more powerful. The puzzles scattered across the landscape offer enough opportunity for discovery so that meandering through the same areas doesn’t feel like a chore.
That said, it’s entirely possible to get blocked by an enemy encounter, having exhausted all other avenues of exploration. These moments of emergent difficulty, which have you memorising complex attack patterns and counter opportunities, belie the serene nature of the game’s platforming segments. That’s not to say that the fighting and exploration are in direct opposition, but they do sometimes clash.
Despite this occasionally muddled tone, Sin Nombre Studios has crafted a unique entry into an intimidating genre stable. It rewards the effort required to master its combat and compels you to push forward towards its main character’s ultimate destiny.
Worldless attempts to differentiate itself from its peers by adding satisfying turn-based combat to the usual Metroidvania loop. It largely succeeds, helped by an intoxicating art style and varied puzzle mechanics. Some difficulty spikes interrupt the flow and knock the dreamlike exploration off balance, but you’ll feel compelled to overcome them.