Basing a Metroidvania on the works of Charles Dickens isn’t as farfetched as it may seem. One of the best NES games was also based on the English novelist’s most renowned character. It took a few liberties, turning Scrooge into a duck, but DuckTales remains a classic to this day. Joking aside, the premise here is sound: a familiar source material, a protagonist who’s already undergone a redemption arc, supernatural elements, and a rendition of yuletide Victorian London to explore.
Ebenezer Scrooge, now a hero to the people of London, is tasked with thwarting the plans of the wealthy industrialist Caspar Malthus. It’s a quest that takes him above and below London, from the observatory to the mental asylum, and even into the graveyard and sewers. The snow-covered city connects these regions together, while also featuring a vendor selling perk bestowing trinkets and health items (mashed potato and other roast dinner paraphernalia) along with health/spirit gauge upgrade rooms. The map proves invaluable in navigating London, showing exits not yet taken, and there’s a quest log to help keep Scrooge on track, with numerous sub-quests to complete.
First impressions are positive. The cartoon style animation is smooth, character portraits are well drawn, and the world is peppered with minute details such as dust kicking off Scrooge’s heels. The controls are responsive, too. Scrooge is able to attack in different directions with his cane and backstep to avoid enemies. It isn’t long until familiars (spirits) join your cause, boosting your range of attacks, in addition to adding an air dash and a wall smash to your repertoire. So many spirits are eventually added that cycling through them when in a pinch can result in fumbling.
It’s also within the first thirty minutes or so that you’ll discover this isn’t a light-hearted casual affair. Initially, Scrooge can only withstand a few hits, and you’re often asked to run a marathon over a dozen screens before reaching the next save room, with few health pick-ups appearing – some of which are hidden, requiring a perk to uncover. Often, I reached a new save room with barely an ounce of health left. Leaping over enemies in the final furlong with bated breath was unquestionably exhilarating, though. There’s no adventure without trepidation.
This stiff learning curve is mostly related to enemy attack patterns. Every foe moves and attacks differently, swooping from above, scaling walls, throwing projectiles, etc. It not only takes time to master the best way of dealing with each but there are often instances when 2-3 enemies gang up at once, causing their attack patterns to clash and become close to unavoidable. Coaxing flying enemies to swoop so you can attack, and even avoiding some foes altogether, soon becomes second nature. And by ‘soon’ I mean after an hour or so. At one point early on I even had to call it quits for the day.
After exploring the first location fully, and beating the first two bosses, things start to settle. The air dash makes enemy avoidance easier, longer health bars help Scrooge to withstand several hits, and exploring fully opens shortcuts. Up to four perk-bestowing trinkets can be equipped at once, and these are hugely beneficial too, improving critical hit rates and even restoring health. Bolstering experimentation further, new weapon types are gradually found. The Castlevania-style chain has an overhead arc but doesn’t strike smaller enemies, for instance. That said, once the projectile-emitting cane is found, it’s hard to go back to other weapons, the occasional boss battle notwithstanding.
There’s a respectable amount of variety – new enemy types are often introduced, Scrooge can drag stone blocks to give access to higher areas, and there’s a slight dusting of puzzles. Boss battles are spread an hour or two apart, and there’s usually a save room close. I was able to ‘cheese’ some bosses by unleashing a succession of spirit summons, resulting in a swift victory. It stumbles in a few other areas, with some vertically scrolling areas calling for leaps of faith, and precision platforming coming into play later – with one young spirit spawning balloons out of thin air to bounce on, sometimes in unpredictable patterns. If your reactions aren’t quick enough, and there’s a toxic pool beneath, health can be quickly lost. When on death’s door, it can be tempting to backtrack to a save room to prevent losing progress.
Despite a few hurdles to overcome before accumulating much-needed upgrades, Ebenezer and The Invisible World is more than just a Metroidvania for English Majors. It’s a polished and challenging experience with a lot to offer – even if some of its ideas are hackneyed, being par for the course for the genre. Hopefully, the developers will implement an ‘easy mode’ or Dead Cells style accessibility features in the future – the steep learning curve makes it difficult to recommend to all and sundry, which is a shame considering that genuinely decent Christmas-themed games are uncommon. Indeed, a few more ‘wall gooses’ wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Ebenezer and The Invisible World launches 3rd Nov on all formats. Developed by Orbit Studio and Play on Worlds.