After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
– The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot
The Waste Land comes from Michele Caletti, a video game epic that shares its name with T.S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece of the same name. While it may share the same name, The Waste Land isn’t literally based on its inspiration quite the same way as Dante’s Inferno (a video game based on Dante Alighieri’s poem, The Divine Comedy). Instead, it only attempts to inspire a similar sentiment and message. To Caletti, T.S. Eliot’s timeless poem was imbued with a profound feeling of despair which stems from the absence of innocence in the world that we live in. Conveying this personal interpretation of the highly complex prose is what The Waste Land aims to accomplish through its gameplay, design, and presentation.
In this game you take control of a self-absorbed king who breaks the very fabric of his world with one profound act of ignorance and greed. His once flourishing kingdom now becoming a helpless victim of the sins he devised. Unwillingly this arrogant royal– armed with a sword and bow– embarks on a quest to save his kingdom, albeit for himself. But in this selfish endeavor he learns about the world around him, and in his journey to reaffirm his self-entitlement he also starts to change as a person. This is an ambitious attempt at narrative, but The Waste Land aptly accomplishes its lofty objectives by very convincingly delivering its message. Familiarity and knowledge of the poem isn’t necessary, what’s important is that The Waste Land evokes powerful emotions and deep thought simply by presenting a realized and believable world. It uses vague but highly effective approach to storytelling in order to create a sense of wonder and mystique, which all play a big part in creating an unworldly outlet for escapism.
To simply label it as a Metroidvania style game would be putting it too loosely. The Waste Land is an exceptional video game in its own right, one that draws upon the values and sensibilities of classics like Metroid, Castlevania, and The Legend of Zelda. In fact to me, The Waste Land is the realization of the ambitions and vision of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The second Castlevania on the NES had many daring ideas to create an epic adventure; a day and night cycle, a living open world with a number of areas and towns, and non-linear exploration and progression. These goals were met with limited success due to questionable execution and ill-thought design choices. The Waste Land on the other hand really feels like the game Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest wanted to be, taking all those ideas and executing them soundly in a well-designed game, and more.
You’re thrown into this immense world that is profoundly staggering in scope and scale, no exaggerated hyperbole here. It’s so vast that it immediately feels daunting and intimidating when you first embark. To make matters more challenging you are only provided with a rudimentary map, and occasionally run into a sage who gives guidance in riddles. You’re essentially on your own, and so there is a constant feeling of unknowing what to expect or where to go, and because of that you’re usually uncertain whether you’re going the right way or if you’re adequately equipped for what lies ahead. All that said, that’s exactly what makes The Waste Land such a rewarding and compelling adventure, because it invokes genuine feelings of wonder and discovery. It’s a quest filled with moments that will amaze and surprise you, and the attention to detail will surely impress. It’s something that is missing in modern fantasy adventures with their advanced radar-quality maps and convenience of fast travel. In The Waste Land you feel like you’re embarking on a true odyssey, and use astute observation to make sense of everything around you. The lack of modern gaming navigational luxuries and spelled out hints does not take away from the experience, in fact it’s actually the contrary. There is a great deal of backtracking involved, which may sound like a turn off but it ends up feeling natural given the pacing and structure of the game.
It’s a slow start and quite overwhelming at first, but once you hit that stride you will obsessively want to explore every nook and cranny possible to discover something new, and to learn a little more about this self-aware and realized game world. It accomplishes this by offering interesting locations that you’re naturally compelled to explore, and unlike most Metroidvania style games it manages to inspire adventure without relying on a compulsive need to fill up a grid map. The thoughtfully interconnected world spans several continents, and you’ll be traversing labyrinth forests to treacherous mountain peaks to scorching deserts, All while visiting several unique human settlements as well as exploring tombs, mines, temples, caves, and the list just goes on. In your travels you will discover a number of new weapons and artifacts too, and with these you can conquer otherwise inaccessible areas. The game is an open world adventure in the truest sense, as there is no predetermined order of tackling the many areas or gathering items. It’s really all about observing and adapting to what’s around you, and opportunistically putting the pieces together.
It isn’t just an epic adventure, The Waste Land is a tightly focused 2D action game as you deal with a variety of persistent foes, survive through tombs and temples that have complex structures riddled with deadly traps and puzzles, and work your way through some serious platforming action. The bosses featured in this game are true behemoths, and while they may not be aesthetically original but the battles are truly grandeur. How and when you tackle these bosses is for you to decide, and so it’s a little like Dark Souls in that regard. These boss battles are lengthy and go through phases, and they demand discipline and perseverance from the player. When you come out victorious against all odds, it’s an incredibly rewarding feeling and one of the many big highlights of the experience.
The Waste Land is an aesthetically detailed game with plenty of flair and sophistication in its visuals. The soundtrack comprises of a diverse range of catchy and memorable chiptune music that have a strong medieval flair, with dark and haunting undertones. The visuals and sound really complement the demeanor of the game, and they do a good job of transporting your mind back to an era of gaming long gone. Sitting down and playing The Waste Land, you really feel like you’re playing an authentic game that would have been released during the ‘80s. Unlike most recent indie releases that offer a fairly modern and derivative gaming experiences which simply wear a retro mask, The Waste Land feels like the real deal in its presentation, design, and aesthetics.
The Waste Land is quite simply an exemplar Metroidvania style game that also brims with originality. It almost feels like a lost Castlevania game from the NES era that was recently unearthed. The game embodies the best aspects of Metroidvania, and also all the right intangibles of Castlevania. Much like Castlevania, it is a game that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
The Waste Land isn’t some crude and deliberately outdated retro game that relies solely on nostalgic appeal. Instead, it takes the golden fundamentals of compelling game design to staggering heights. It’s a reminder of what made video games from yesteryear so uniquely special, embodying the qualities that have allowed the revered classics of the medium to stand the test of time in perpetuity. In an industry with so many pretenders, it’s rare to come across a game like The Waste Land. It’s a game that can speak for itself and convincingly draw you into an unforgettable journey backed by provoking narrative and impeccable design. It is one of the most unique Metroidvania style games you will ever have the pleasure of playing, and a dream come true to for longtime fans of Castlevania. Those who have the desire and discipline to venture bravely into the world of The Waste Land can consider themselves to be a rare and fortunate breed of gamer.
Version Reviewed: PC