In a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, Paranautical Activity is a title that suggests a point and click adventure or a horror game perhaps, with the cover art backing up that assumption. It's a surprise, then, when loading up the title reveals it to be a fast paced first person shooter which is reminiscent of Wolfenstein 3D or Doom, featuring randomly generated levels and roguelike elements.
The user interface has been clumsily ported from PC, requiring a cursor to be moved to menu options rather than the standard d-pad or analog stick navigation we have come to expect from console titles. This is jarring in itself and with little explanation of the controls, even activating Xbox Help simply displays a link to the game's website, which will require further navigation rather than the slick help system we have come to expect on Xbox One. It feels as though no real time has been put into optimising the title for those not using a PC and it's an unwelcoming introduction to the game. Graphically, everything is presented in blocky 3D pixels, reminding us of how we thought Wolfenstein looked twenty something years ago, but actually more reminiscent of Minecraft in today's terms – though it lacks the polish of that title too.
There's no attempt to introduce a story and only Classic mode is available when you start. It is possible to unlock Hardcore and Infinite modes but, given that Paranautical Activity pulls no punches on its difficulty, it may be a while before you reach either of these. You start in a lift which shows that eight floors must be completed. Each floor is made up of a number of randomly generated rooms including normal monster rooms, special item rooms, some areas containing weapons or power ups, a gift shop and the all-important boss and mini boss rooms. The bosses must be defeated in order to move to the next floor in the lift, inviting comparisons with The Binding of Isaac but without that title's wealth of content to back it up. What is there is challenging enough however and it's so easy to launch into a new run when you die that you'll probably find you've taken on a half dozen more tries than you intended before you call it a day on a play through.
Without any preamble or explanation, you're asked to choose one of four loadouts to start play. Each comes with their own strengths and weaknesses as you'd expect and they are different enough to suit many styles of play. David Bowie (yes, really) carries a crossbow and has a fast fire rate and decent damage, Gorton's melee weapon delivers incredible speed but he has low health, while Tank is the opposite, with his shotgun as a main weapon. For this review we mostly used Dy-No-Mite, as the character was a well-balanced middle-of-the-road type and firing bombs at enemies was actually quite entertaining. As well as their main weapon, each character also carries a super weapon which has limited charges, although extra ammo can be collected by defeating enemies. Quite why Dy-No-Mite's Katana needed ammunition was not explained, but as with many things in Paranautical Activity, it's best to just accept it and move on.
The in-game sounds are okay, not really adding or subtracting from the experience and featuring the same retro vibe as the graphics, but where the game really shines is with its thumping electronic soundtrack, which pounds along relentlessly as you navigate each floor and fight your way through increasingly ridiculous enemies. These are a mish-mash of land sharks, wizards, demons, enormous flying skulls and bomb-carrying flying turtles as well as Nazis and more, meaning you really never know what's behind the next door. Killing an enemy will see them explode in a shower of pixels, dropping health, ammunition and coins to spend in the Gift Shop. As you progress you unlock new weapons, enemy types and power ups which are added to the pool of randomly generated content and ensure that no two playthroughs are likely to be the same.
Paranautical Activity is very fast-paced and its randomly generated levels make it hard to plan for what lies ahead. Power ups become available at various points and it appears there is a high chance of a gift shop for purchasing weapons and upgrades on each floor. There's also the potential for weapon rooms, where powerful offensive items can be collected for free, but with no guarantee of what you'll get, there can be frustrating runs in which everything seems to be geared for someone else. This is standard for roguelikes though and it only adds to the feeling of greatness when everything goes your way. The graphics will be very off-putting to some, rooted as they are in a retro aesthetic but using a colour palette so loaded with dark greys that it can be hard to make out enemies in the rooms. When the colour pops with more vibrant greens and reds it is super effective, but the majority of stages remain a bland, blocky landscape.
Since the game already loads the odds against you visually and by the introduction of a randomisation element, the fact that it seems very forgiving on aim is a welcome observation, although this is far outweighed by a punishing difficulty from the outset. Even those who are used to the grind of play, progress, die, restart that is the staple of this genre may struggle with the unforgiving boss monsters and all-too-sudden deaths. Others will likely revel in this difficulty as they overcome it, but it's very much going to be a title that divides opinions.
Paranautical Activity is a fast paced first person shooter with roguelike elements that looks like someone tried to recreate Doom using Minecraft and which plays like it wishes it was still on PC. Some will find its insanely challenging difficulty a delight and others won't make it past the first few levels before putting it down forever. Although those who get hooked on the challenge of progression will find they easily get drawn in to multiple playthroughs, trying to unlock all of the available items and enemies. The soundtrack is the highlight of this mixed bag of good ideas and poor implementation and when all is said and done, it's a shame that the gameplay and visuals cannot live up to the scene set by the music.