You’ve got to give the folks at Palworld developer Pocketpair one thing: they know good games when they see them. Palworld is a quirky mix of Ark: Survival Evolved and Pokemon training, and now the studio’s cooking up Never Grave: The Witch and The Curse, a Metroidvania roguelike so shamelessly based on Dead Cells that it can only come across as the sincerest form of flattery.
I tried the Steam Next Fest demo for Never Grave, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun as hell. It’s a little quirky in its own right given the addition of light city building and farming. It also supports up to four-player co-op, which I haven’t been able to sample in the primitive demo, but the very idea sounds like a blast after what I’ve played solo. It really is Popular Indie Game soup, but from the art to the mechanics, even the demo feels more cohesive than Palworld’s fun-but-sloppy mashup. That said, it couldn’t be more like Dead Cells without risking a cease and desist.
Palworld has gotten some deserved comparisons to mechanics and creature designs from Pokemon, but Never Grave is a next-level lookalike. I’m not a super hardcore player, but I’ve beaten multiple difficulty tiers of Dead Cells, which is more than enough experience for me to recognize the vibe when I see it. Here are just some of the ideas and mechanics that Never Grave has lifted beat-for-beat from Dead Cells:
- The portals you use to get around the map, right down to their shape
- The map layout itself and arguably some of the level design, especially the second stage
- Kicking doors open to stun enemies
- A main character – in this case, a cursed hat – who possesses bodies
- Unlocked items appearing in chained lanterns all around the hub space
- A healing potion you refill between chambers
- The mid-run shop layout
Art inspires art, sure, and some of these things are innocuous on their own, but together they paint a very familiar picture that’s more creatively lacking than anything I’ve encountered in Palworld. Pocketpair – previously listed as Never Grave’s developer and publisher on Steam, with the dev now replaced by the company’s apparent subsidiary Frontside 180 – is clearly owning its reputation of making whatever works.
So what, Never Grave is just a bunch of the same ingredients reshaped into something else, like a ‘new’ Taco Bell menu item? Not exactly. Rather than Dead Cells’ stat system, you draft upgrades from a more Hades-like loot pool, for one. I also like that you can choose between a few procedurally generated paths based on the loot you’ll receive.
There’s the farming thing, too. You can build and decorate a whole village block by block, and on top of unlocking upgrades for offense and survivability, this is essential for growing food that provides indispensable buffs for each run of the dungeons, sort of like a Monster Hunter canteen. The farming and building seem to run surprisingly deep; balancing materials between character upgrades and village upgrades is a real dilemma.
There’s also the possession mechanic, which is much more important here than in Dead Cells. You regularly jump out of your body – by default, a cute little witch with a sword – in order to clear platforming challenges. What’s more, you can possess the bodies of certain powerful enemies by putting your hat on them. This seems to be especially critical in co-op where you and your friends can form a veritable monster mash. I don’t know how I ended up writing about two Super Mario Odyssey-esque Metroidvanias just weeks apart, but I’m not complaining.
Based on this demo, Never Grave is definitely a rehash, but the combination of elements is somewhat novel and the execution is superb so far. It’s not entirely without originality and it feels great to play. Just as I hope Pocketpair uses its newfound success to try something that’s actually all-new, I hope Never Grave leans more into its own ideas as it goes along. We’ll know soon enough; the full game is out in early 2024.
More Steam Next Fest goodies: I lucked out on my first RPG demo of Steam Next Fest, a clever “simultaneous turn-based” tactics game with incredible art and 4 different campaigns.