At the Summer Games Fest this year, there were quite a few unique, standout titles, but one that particularly caught my eye was shown off at the Xbox showcase, a striking, hand-drawn, and western-themed Metroidvania taking place entirely within the constraints of motorbike controls, called Laika: Aged Through Blood.
Despite how cool it looked, I was pretty cautious of it, as I didn’t think playing an entire Metroidvania through the lens of Motocross would be all that appealing. Nonetheless, I’ve given it a shot, completed it, and, man, do I have some thoughts to share. I don’t think I’ve ever had such mixed, controversial opinions on a game in a review before, so strap in.
I’ll say it here and now: if you’re a massive fan of the super unique and exciting concepts this game presents, go ahead! By all means, ignore me and try it out, especially since there’s a free demo. However, I think with the game going on for 10+ hours, the cracks in its design show quite rapidly, and not that many people want to talk about it since it’s excellent in so many ways.
In this review, I’ll be diving into the game and giving my thoughts on everything I went through playing through this entire game. Just don’t expect it to be as glowing as you might see from other reviewers, and we’re ready to buckle up and hit the gas—strap in for Indie Game Culture’s review of Laika: Aged Through Blood.
The controls are unique and exciting, with mechanics akin to Excitebike with Metroid Dread’s aiming. However, they get cumbersome and are a headache to control at times. There are many things to keep in mind, and the fact I have to do a midair backflip to reload instead of just pressing a button is incredibly inconvenient despite being charming.
This game is full of inconveniences like this. I have to press E to hit a checkpoint, even though I can occasionally roll past them without even thinking about it, making me spend more time backing up and getting back to it than I should. I died 100 times at around 2 hours in, primarily due to the controls or blood covering things up.
Speaking of inconvenient, the map is entirely unhelpful. It reveals itself in the same way Hollow Knight’s does, by buying maps and letting you navigate with that, but it doesn’t show you much of anything beyond where you died, some landmarks, and your current position. I wished it led me to previously discovered objects, like the respawning Material Caches, Elevators, and items.
The gameplay is great in concept, but executing it proves to be a hefty task. It feels like, no matter what, if I don’t use bullet time, I will miss my shot, mainly because the camera isn’t directly attached to you, often moving around during combat and making your shots misfire constantly (and that camera movement doesn’t really help, given enemies can still shoot you from offscreen at times).
You go into Bullet Time whenever you hold your shoot button, and it helps, but the constant slowdown of time can affect the flow of the action at times. On top of this, your shots can be blocked, either by a dead enemy’s corpse or their gun, and this gets extremely annoying and is entirely unnecessary. Compounding with the blood from enemies obscuring things, this makes for increasingly frustrating combat.
Every time you die, you lose a sack containing your money, similar to Hollow Knight, but with multiple bags available to be lost. Unlike Hollow Knight, though, this system often feels more frustrating than satisfying. Hollow Knight’s shade would be in defined areas you could get back to, but Laika’s are just wherever you died, meaning if it gets stuck in a room with many enemies, you can quickly lose thousands.
Mind you, I say all this as someone who got through Hollow Knight and Metroid Dread. I don’t mind challenging games, and in fact, I’ll welcome the challenge. However, the caveat is that I want the difficulty to be natural and well-implemented, not artificial difficulty for the sake of it.
Instead of the difficulty in Laika coming from challenging obstacles that make you execute things more efficiently, it comes from an unusual control scheme and asking more of you than you can probably manage, which is not very fun. All in all, cool concept on paper, but in practice, it made me want to bang my head into my desk.
Running on Empty
In its later portions, the game ends up getting more complicated and a bit more frustrating. There are parts where you get told to explore and find vault doors to fight bosses, but some don’t open or have great visual or gameplay cues to tell you how to open them. The character you were just talking to now repeats entirely unhelpful dialogue, even after progressing.
One light in the darkness here is that the bosses can be fun. They’re primarily autoscrollers, where you aim while trying to land on tricky surfaces, and pretty much require perfection to pass.
I do have one complaint about these boss gauntlet runs, though: the camera zooms out so much you can barely see Laika; this makes it so she’s only a few pixels on lower resolution displays, and even at 1080p, it’s not easy to see how you’re landing, and will be more challenging the smaller your screen, sorry Switch players!.
But, in general, this game has pretty standard Metroidvania progression. You get better weapons that shoot things better, upgrades for those weapons, and some items that do unique things while the levels and enemies start getting more brutal. It makes the core gameplay strain even harder, but if you already enjoyed it, it’ll all feel natural and look beautifully intense.
A Canvas of Caveats
The visual style of the game is incredible. Everything blends, and even the character animations that take a more simplistic style work and mix well; there isn’t a way to avoid that without clashing and accounting for the 360-degree aiming, so it’s entirely fair. They remind me of old Newgrounds games, like Portal 2D, but in a good way.
The Wild West themes are hammered in even more, with cinematic cut-ins any time you snipe an enemy from far away or the beautifully hand-drawn backgrounds, with all the text in the game fitting in and making for a cohesive, excellent style. If I had to make one complaint, it’d be that the bloody, gory style of the game does look well done, but it often impedes the gameplay more than I would like.
The bullets from enemies can often get obscured, and given you have to face your bike in the direction the shot is heading to block it, this leads to a few deaths, feeling unfair. This game went way too far on having amazing visuals but didn’t support the gameplay. I guess prioritizing the art over the gameplay is becoming a prominent theme; sometimes, these two things can work together.
Tugging My Heart Strings
The music is excellent, and I feel like I’m playing through a Western, with most of the instruments being strings and scoring the action well. It feels similar to Act 1 of Inscryption’s soundtrack with something like Cassette Beasts’ vocals. It all feels incredibly old-fashioned and intimidating with just a spark of hope, and it’s fantastic.
There are also vocal themes, and they’re pretty great, all helping contribute to the desolate, lonely vibe present throughout the game. You can also switch it up with cassette tape collectibles, giving this game a massive soundtrack, and all of it is incredible, motivating me to keep going even in a cruel world where I wasn’t having all that much fun.
Steering the Story
The story of Laika, as you’d imagine, is quite grim, unforgiving, and masterfully told. I will say that it has no limits to how dark it will get, even the opening going as far as to show the incredibly detailed death of a child. If you’re queasy or don’t like bloody, gory details and a story that will make you feel very depressed, this is not for you.
However, I could care less about sensitive details like that, and I think the story is incredibly done. Seeing how the interesting plot details unfolded over the hours I played was the main driving force getting me through the frustrating gameplay, and the super charming and well-written characters with great designs helped, too; it’s all great. If only this game’s backend was scripted, as well as its cutscenes.
Crashing and Continuing
This game’s performance, at least on PC, is something to behold. It runs smoothly most of the time, but every time a menu pops up, including shops and the damn map, the game will chug and go down to 15 FPS. I’d assume, maybe, this is some weird setting being on, but guess what? There are no actual graphics settings, either!
I get it; you want to make a consistent experience that goes uncompromised, so you don’t make settings that can make the game look worse. But come on man, my PC is excellent, but this game brings it to its knees whenever it has to open a menu. This bug being so common, and on top of a few others, makes me wonder how little this game got tested.
If you want to replay Laika: Aged through Blood, you actually get three save files, which is somehow an uncommon thing in games nowadays, and I’m mad about it, but good on Laika. Unfortunately, one of the best aspects of Metroidvanias isn’t all too present, that being Sequence Breaks, which usually can give you a ton of value out of your games, but Laika doesn’t have them.
The game’s structure is going to town, getting a mission, doing that mission, and repeating. You can do some things out of order and explore freely, but in terms of genuinely impactful sequence breaks, there is very little. You’d probably only be replaying the game to grab collectibles a bit differently or speedrun the game, which is still fun, to be fair.
Given we’re talking about Indie Metroidvanias here, there are about a million alternatives if all you want is to have a fulfilling Metroid-style game with fun gameplay. However, nothing about motorbike exploration games comes to mind since Laika is incredibly unique. If you want Laika, then play Laika, but if you wish for a Metroidvania with gunplay, here are some ideas:
- Axiom Verge and its sequel are both pretty great games, just in general. It’s similar to regular Metroid games but has a glitchy, dual-reality twist that creates an incredibly interesting world design.
- Gravity Circuit is a mesh of standard Metroidvania fare and Megaman X-style gameplay, with enjoyable platforming, combat, and movement. If you want a game with fun movement, this should be your pick.
- Cave Story is an absolute classic, and if you haven’t heard of it, you’re weird. It’s a somewhat linear metroidvania with a ton of guns that are all fun to use, charming characters, excellent movement, a depressing narrative, and great music, all done incredibly well. I’d recommend the Switch version specifically, but the PC one isn’t half bad, either.
Verdict – 7/10
I think this will be my most controversial review, at least for now. Most people gave this game around a 9/10, and it’s sitting at an Overwhelmingly Positive rating on Steam, but for me, personally, I really actually despise how this game plays. Everything else is masterfully made and incredible, but the gameplay drags it down hard.
I could see the argument that the gameplay isn’t supposed to be fun since you’re in a cruel, unforgiving world, but is it so much to ask that it be at least tolerable? I don’t know; maybe I’ll come back to it, and everything will click, and I’ll regret scoring this game as I have, but for me, it’s a great concept with terrible execution on the gameplay, wonderful art, and some horrendous bugs.
If you like motorcycle games like the Trials series, and you enjoy Metroidvanias, plus you don’t mind aiming a gun while considering every tiny movement and action simultaneously, you’ll enjoy Laika. Just be warned that the game has problems and is likely to leave you more upset than satisfied.
Pros and Cons
- Incredible, deeply emotional, and moving story.
- An amazing hand-drawn art style with beautiful music backing it.
- A unique and interesting concept of playing a Metroidvania on a motorbike.
- Extremely frustrating gameplay that gets tiring after only a few hours.
- Interesting world design that primarily consists of a few alternate paths.
- Lags quite a lot on PC for seemingly no reason, with no settings to change it, and quite a few bugs.
Questions and Answers
Question: What consoles is Laika: Aged Through Blood on?
Answer: Pretty much everything. It’s on Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC through Steam.
Question: How long does Laika: Aged Through Blood take to finish?
Answer: Around the ballpark of 10-15 hours, it depends on how much you want to complete and how good you are at video games.
Question: Is Laika: Aged Through Blood better on a controller?
Answer: No, controllers don’t have the same free-aiming that a mouse provides, and that on top of a dedicated Map button on keyboard makes it the better choice.
I played through this game for 12 hours on PC; I didn’t get every collectible mostly because I got pretty tired and “grumpy” about it, to say the least. I did gamble a lot, though.
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