By Paul Hunter
That Minerva, she’s one brave 11-year-old girl! When I was that age, I was going to school, collecting Garbage Pail Kids and playing SNES games. Minerva? She’s ditching her parents, walking deep into the woods and getting trapped inside an eerie haunted mansion. This isn’t a Saturday morning cartoon spooky house either, it’s full of ghosts out to send poor little Minerva straight to the afterlife.
Fortunately, our young heroine brought along her flashlight and the apparitions reallyyy hate bright lights. Mmm, flashbacks of Alan Wake! The haunted house’s magical properties also bring to life Minerva’s stuffed animals (kept inside her backpack) and they're ready to fight along side her. They're not her only aid either, for some odd reason the headless butler of the house, Mr. Buttersworth, decides to give Minerva a helping hand. Minerva may be in grave danger, but at least she has a chance to fight back!
A promising roguelite in Steam Early Access
The game I'm describing is, of course, Don't Die, Minerva! the latest project from Xaviant, creators of The Culling. The title’s currently in Steam Early Access, so it’s a work in progress that’s expected to evolve and improve over time. You can see this in the current build of the game – it’s coming along great but there are areas in need of improvement. The great news is there's already been two substantial content updates since launching in early December. Clearly, the developers are committed to this one.
If you’re unfamiliar with Don't Die, Minerva!, it’s a roguelite dungeon crawler heavy on loot, weapons and ghost busting. I know what you’re probably thinking: there are lots of roguelites these days and it takes something special for a new one to standout. DDM isn’t the best of its genre (hello Binding of Isaac) but it's oozing with personality – a huge plus – and at this early stage it's showing great potential.
An ever-changing haunted house
Being a roguelite, Don't Die, Minerva! features procedural dungeons that change-up every time you play. That means each run the floor layouts will alter, the ghoulish enemies in each room will differ, and loot is randomized to add even more unpredictability.
Visually, DDM is like a mash up of Luigi’s Mansion, the Ghostbusters cartoon and Hotel Transylvania rolled into one. The graphics lean towards cartoony, which I found very refreshing given the usual gritty fare I’m used to playing.
With that said, the visual differences between the three biomes you'll visit (The Mansion, The Garden and The Crypt) were pretty minimal. Xaviant says more areas are in development, so let’s hope they add some cool new locales in the coming months. Personally, I’d like to see a wider use of colours – as it stands, environments are really dark and thus feel very same-y. I get that the intent is to use your flashlight to guide the way, but seeing dozens of similar dark hallways gets a little tiring.
Lots 'o loot
What would a roguelite be without an endless supply of loot to min/max your stats? Don't Die, Minerva! has a decent amount of loot at this early stage, and more’s coming in future content drops. As it stands now, there are five main weapons to collect, ranging from your standard issue Flashlight, to a pair of light bulb shooters, to my favourite, the Photon telsa gun. It’s on obvious riff on the Ghostbusters’ proton gun and it makes you feel quite bad ass-y, I must say.
The game feels optimized for controller, so I used my HORI PC pad during my playthrough. I say optimized because DDM is basically a twin-stick shooter – you move with the left stick and shoot in any direction with the right. You can also dodge roll at the tap of the button, though I found the cool down time between rolls far too long. So long in fact, it's practically a useless mechanic outside of the more hectic boss battles.
If optimizing loot is your thing, there's a lot to like here. The loot system is extremely stat-driven and there are tangible tradeoffs when considering gear swaps. You've got three base gear types – necklaces, backpacks and boots – that can come with all kinds of different bonuses. These range from increasing critical hit damage or %, to boosting your max health or energy, to adding bomb and slam damage to your attacks. Perks stack too, so you can concentrate on whatever stats or bonuses you want to max out.
Borrowing from Diablo, the loot system in DDM features gems you can affix to your gear to add elemental properties. For instance, icy sapphires give you a chance to freeze enemies, while fiery rubies add a bomb chance to your attacks. All gems have a rarity (Common, Rare, Epic, Legendary) with higher-value types offering greater enhancements. It's a really cool system and the effects are significant: one high-tier Quartz crystal alone could instantly 5x your health. All throughout my six hour playthrough I was constantly swapping out gems to achieve that perfect balance of stats bonuses and new, devastating elemental attacks.
Cute, plushy friendlies
I mentioned earlier that Minerva's stuffed animals can aid you, and damn are they helpful. So far the game includes fives helpful friendlies: monkey, bee, bear, cat and dragon. Even though they're supposedly all in Minerva's backpack, you gotta find them in chests or breakables to equip them. Kind of annoying, but hey, at least you get new animals fairly frequently.
The animals have unique attacks and they're really amusing, examples - the monkey throws bananas and the bee zips around in circles stinging enemies. The best though is the cat, it's a homing animal that actively seeks out ghosts and uses its claws to shred them to pieces. You've also got the bear that slams the ground like Donkey Kong, and the dragon that flies in a straight line breathing fire. Friendlies are very powerful, and you can enhance their stats using gems, making them an essential tool in your arsenal.
A challenging game
Don't Die, Minerva! is a tough game, so expect to die a lot, especially once you hit the second area – the garden. You can, of course, drop the difficulty down to easy if you're having a tough time, but veterans of the genre should start on normal or hard to put their skills to the test.
To help ease the challenge, each floor of the mansion you visit contains a large chest room, which contains three random (and usually powerful) items. Even better, floors also contain a fountain room that teleports you back outside to the courtyard where you can rest and regroup. There you'll find good 'ole Mr. Buttersworth who lets you trade in Essence Crystals for helpful permanent unlocks. Instead of directly boosting Minerva, these unlocks affect the environment around you. As an example, you can unlock the chance to earn loot after breaking items, or discard unwanted items in exchange for gold. Should you happen to die, you'll keep all Essence Crystal unlocks during your next run. Aww yeah!
While in the courtyard, you can also buy items using your gold. It's usually a good idea to do so since every time you die you respawn at the front gate with no gear or coins. As I said, the game's pretty tough, so stock up on supplies every chance you get.
Boss fights err... fight
Currently, DDM only has one boss in the game, the Master, who presumably is the owner of this mansion and enjoys trapping children inside. The fight is fairly straightforward and not all that compelling - the Master has a limited offensive arsenal and the battles end too quickly. At the end of the second and third area you face tougher versions of the Master, with new moves and slightly altered attack patterns. Despite these enhancements, the latter boss fights are still easy so there's no real sense of accomplishment after repeatedly beating him. If there's one area Xaviant should work on before the full launch, it's improving these boss fights (and ideally add more bosses, too.)
On the bright side, the game contains a bunch of minibosses, which are usually beefed up versions of regular enemies. Minibosses are larger, come in a variety of colours, and have new attacks or stat enhancements. They're fun to battle, mainly because their perks are random so you never know what "type" you're about to face next.
My initial run through of Don't Die, Minerva! took about six hours, the vast majority of which I thoroughly enjoyed. The only real downsides are the boss fights and how same-y the environments get over time. The big pluses for me are the graphics - it's got a cool, eerie Halloween vibe - and the loot. The weapons are neat, your friendlies are even better, and combined with the gear, gems and Essence Crystals there's an endless way to tinker around with Minvera's stats or change-up the environment.
Given that DDM is still in Steam Early Access, a lot more updates presumably will come between now and the game's official launch expected later this year. I'll be keeping an eye out to see how this game evolves, but even in its current state is good enough to give it a solid recommendation.