Paranautical Activity Review

Posted October 24, 2014 by Chris Henrikson in Video Games

Developed By: Code Avarice

Published By: None

Release Date: October 20th

Platforms: PC (Desura, Humble Store)


Okay, let’s start off by addressing the obvious elephant in the room – yes, this is the game that was pulled from Steam because the creator threatened to kill Gabe Newell. This article isn’t really about that. Because after all the uproar, after everyone began insulting Mike Maulbeck for losing his nerve (apparently, if you don’t like someone for any reason, anything that happens to them is completely justified, even if it destroys their lives), people often overlooked what the whole controversy was all about – the game itself. So, putting all of that aside, is Paranautical Activity a gem overshadowed by the conflict surrounding it, or was the controversy just much ado about nothing?

Paranautical Activity falls squarely into the genre of the modern roguelike titles – you get one shot to get through a game that is completely randomized, using nothing but your wits, your intuition and your past experience in order to get through one brutally difficult challenge after another. In that way, the game is very similar to titles such as Spelunky or Rogue Legacy, but the one most obviously inspired it is definitely The Binding of Isaac. If you’ve played Isaac, you know EXACTLY what to expect – every floor consists of multiple randomly generated square rooms, each with one to four doors connecting it to other square rooms nearby. Once the player enters, the doors are immediately locked and a couple of monsters spawn. Once the monsters are eliminated, the doors open once again. The player’s goal is to continue exploring until he or she discovers a boss room, where a gigantic “boss” enemy appears. Once that creature is defeated, the player is rewarded with some kind of power-up and doors to the next floor of the game open. Occasionally, the enemies will drop items such as hearts (restore health), shields (give armor), bombs (used to blow stuff up) and coins (used to buy items in special Shop rooms). The resemblance is way too uncanny for it to be a coincidence.


However, I’m not saying this to attack Paranautical Activity or to call it a ripoff, because despite all of these similarities, the game plays, looks and feels nothing like Isaac. Its one huge and admittedly brilliant addition to the formula comes in the form of a change in perspective – namely, the game is played entirely in first person, and you’re given access to a rather impressive arsenal to demolish your foes. This mechanical change drastically alters the dynamics of the game, making it look and feel like an entirely different experience. Isaac‘s overhead look allows for more strategy, tactics and planning, which is very hard to do from a first person perspective. As such, in Paranautical Activity, most of the time you’ll be trying to think on the fly and improvise in order to survive the onslaught rather than actively plan anything. It’s a really intense experience, one that’s very reminiscent of  the classic id Software FPS games.

What makes the comparison even more appropriate are the weapons at the player’s disposal, which wouldn’t look out of place in something like Turok. At the beginning of each game, you get to select your class, each of which comes with different weapons and stats. Frankly, I never really felt a difference between the various classes as far as stats are concerned, but the choice of weapon completely alters your playstyle. With a shotgun, you’ll naturally play in an entirely different way than with a scythe, a grenade launcher or a plasma rifle, and each weapon has its own pros and cons. The grenade launcher is probably my favorite weapon, as it pretty much gives you unlimited bombs… which can hurt you just as easily if you’re not careful, and you also need to take into account the arc in which the bombs fly, as well as how long it takes before they explode. The scythe, on the other hand, is probably the most powerful weapon in the entire game, taking out bosses in just a handful of hits – problem is, it’s only a close-ranged weapon, and while you can throw it like a boomerang, that attack takes a while to charge. The Bouncer class comes with a free pulse rifle, whose beams ricochet around the room and do a moderate amount of damage, but at the same time the character himself lacks any health and only relies on armor to sustain himself. Aside from the main weapon, most classes come with a subweapon, which has a limited amount of ammunition – and how useful these weapons are depends from class to class. Overall, they were nice for variety’s sake, but for most of the time I felt perfectly comfortable just using my main weapon. It’s important to note that you unlock additional weapons, classes and items by earning achievements – which I believe is a brilliant idea that more games should utilize, considering how arbitrary achievements are in general.

Another element of the game that I really adored was the visual style. I saw a couple of reviewers comparing it to Minecraft, which seems to be the default comparison whenever any game looks “blocky”. As you can see from the screenshots, Paranautical Activity looks and feels nothing like Mojang’s creation. To me, the various creatures you see in the game, especially the bosses, all look like statues you would find in Legoland – giant, highly detailed monsters that were still made of thousands of tiny Lego pieces. The colors are bright, the lighting is damn-near perfect, and visually, the game creates a very unique atmosphere – Lego Doom meets Hotline Miami is the most accurate way I can think of to describe it. Of course, there is a very good reason for this simplicity – any more detail than that would have been distracting for the player, especially when so much is happening at once. It’s always worth admiring how certain developers can work around the lack of a huge budget and actually make models which are of objectively low production value work within the context of the game, both visually and dynamically.



Unfortunately, Paranautical Activity is far from a perfect game. Its biggest flaw, aside from its limited appeal – if that can even be called a flaw – is definitely the overall lack of polish. While the game works – there are no game-breaking bugs or anything like that – I got the impression numerous times that Code Avarice had neglected proper playtesting in order to meet their promised deadline. The game still very much feels like an Early Access title – which is ironic, considering the reason why the controversy even happened in the first place. The menus are barebones, clearly just there to transition the player to the game without doing much else. There were certain technical issues, like an absurdly long loading time after booting (during which it appears that the game has frozen) and numerous resolution problems. There’s also the fact that, while certain enemies and bosses are very fun to fight, some aren’t – at least two of them could be beaten by doing nothing other than strafing and firing at them for 5 minutes, which isn’t what I would call fun. Overall, I believe that another month or two of proper playtesting would have improved the game significantly.

Another pretty big issue that I have with the game is the complete and utter lack of any sort of plot whatsoever. And no, that’s not a humorous overstatement – Paranautical Activity literally has absolutely no plot. There is no story in the game. There’s no description on Desura. Nothing. You click play, and then you start – what you see is what you get. I don’t think that any game released in 2014 has the excuse to lack a plot, especially considering that all of the games that inspired this one – Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, Doom, Quate, etc – all have storylines, no matter how primitive. While nobody plays a game like that for the story, I still would have liked to see some context to justify the player’s actions. Is this some sort of game/death trap we’re thrown in? Is it a subversion of classic horror cliches by giving the victim a gun? Is any of this even real? I can’t even begin to answer that. If you’re the type of person who genuinely does not care about the storyline of a game like this, then that’s great – you wouldn’t mind this. I, personally, was rubbed the wrong way by this.

So, at the end of the day, is Paranautical Activity any good? Frankly, the answer to this question will vary from person to person. It all depends on the answer of one very simple question – does the description “The Binding of Isaac with the mechanics of classic FPS like Doom or Quake” even remotely interest you? If the answer is yes, then this is most definitely the game for you. Just stop reading this and go buy it – regardless of how you feel about Mike Maulbeck, his colleagues could really use your support right now. If that’s not really your thing, though, I’m afraid you’re up for a pretty massive disappointment, because at the end of the day, there really isn’t much more to it than that.

About the Author

Chris Henrikson

Ever since he first got his hands on an NES controller when he was 3 years old, Chris Henrikson has been completely obsessed with videogames of all shapes and sizes. His passion led him to study game design in the UK and, of course, to write a whole lot about videogames. Follow him on Twitter (@ChrisHenrikson1) and add him on PSN (RaidenDP1)!