Created by Linley Henzell, this indie shmup is surprisingly innovative. The space combat is both fairly simple (complexities) and deep (interplay). Unfortunately, it's hard not because of any simple skill based challenge. The hardest part of playing Transdimensional Hellspider comes from the dynamics and interplay of battle that are best overcome by embracing nuances. Explaining exactly how this game works and why it's so uniquely difficult will take all of our understanding of game design and the skill spectrum.
The innovative enemy design in Transdimensional Hellspider (TH) is apparent after playing a few levels. The Hellspider (the singular enemy/challenge to each level) is procedurally generated and animated. Each variation has a heart, limbs that shoot various projectiles, and thrusters in the back. Destroy the heart and the whole spider dies. Destroy any one of the multiple thruster pods and its movement will be appropriately affected. Destroy the limbs that carry the dangerous attack pods and you'll have one less hazard to worry about.
You pilot a space ship armed with a standard projectile and your choice of a special charge weapon. As I've detailed here, the CHARGE secondary weapon mechanic helps break up the monotony of the action (and possible static space) creating more diverse timings and strategies. The most unique part of the ship design is the extremely limited movement design. Instead of flying as you please in any one of 8 directions, you can only fly straight ahead. And though the space battles play out in a locked-on strafing spacing between the ship and the Hellspider, there are no sideway movement mechanics. To turn you must rotate your whole ship and then fly straight. While unconventional the limited set of player mechanics does not hold a game back. Rather, we must look carefully at how all the various gameplay elements and layers come together to create challenges.
Let's take a look at the skill spectrum. Read more about the DKART skill system starting here.
- Very minimal. Hold a button to fire. Hold another button to charge. Use arrow keys. As far as I know, there are no special inputs of any kind.
- Knowing in TH is more than half the battle. Because you cannot simply react to oncoming danger and dodge out of the way like you may want to, it's important to know when you're in a dangerous position and how to get out ahead of time.
- The Hellspider attacks all move differently yet do the same damage. From air mines, laser beams, to worming energy shots each attack has a particular audio cue. When the enemy is off screen, your ear becomes your best tool for gathering intel.
- The enemy attacks fire on a fairly predictable set of timers. Getting a feel for the projectile speed, size, and timings is key to knowing if you're in danger or not. Interestingly, like the lock-on dual straffing circular movement design, many of the Hellspider attacks are designed with rotational movement. Sometimes, the enemy will shoot around your position slowly adjusting the aim to create a trap. Avoiding even the most basic attack is tricky because moving is tricky.
- The attacks you use on the Hellspiders have weight that can add to the enemy's momentum. If a Hellspider is spinning in one direction, you can push it along with your bullets. Landing charge attacks typically give the target a strong push. This design creates a very nuanced or subtle type of interplay. Sometimes, the best way to avoid an attack is to push/point the enemy Hellspider in a new direction. The smallest changes in orientation can allow you to hold your position and survive in a bullet storm.
- Every battle has a time limit. If you use a more cautious approach, you may find yourself out of time and out of luck. If you're finding it difficult to even approach the target safely you either need to embrace the more nuanced interplay or realize that...
- Each successive Hellspider evolves according to how you defeated the previous spider. Going straight for the kill and attacking heart will only make things more difficult for you down the line. If you dismember the spider before you take it out things will be much easier for you. This design element isn't suspension. Rather, it's part of the games difficulty design.
- Finally, there's a lot to learn about effectively using each secondary charge attack.
- Like many action games staying on your toes and constantly adjusting your moves, tactics, and strategies is important. The more knowledge you have of the game, the better you can adapt.
- With no quick or responsive maneuvers, you might think that TH doesn't support significant reflex skills. Remember, reflex is more than just fast button responses. Being able to see more in an instant is also apart of our reflexes. Whether you read the trajectory of incoming bullet storms or you take in the exact arrangement of Hellspider pods, the more you see in an instant the more intel you can gather. Audio cues may come in handy when the target is off screen, but nothing gives you more accurate information quickly than seeing the Hellspider.
- Because the camera view is locked onto the player ship an interesting dynamic is created between safety, sight, and aiming. The closer you get the more you can see and the better you can adapt. At the same time the closer you get the less time you have to react and maneuver away from enemy attacks. Because most of your attacks fire straight, you have to be pointing at the enemy to hurt it. Turning is slow, so simply going on the offensive is a risk in itself.
- Everything moves in Transdimensional Hellspider. Your ship, your attacks, the enemy Hellspider, its limbs, and its attacks. Like most action games, the movement/timing of elements creates real time challenges. Targeting specific limbs and using the weight of your attacks to push the Hellspiders around takes careful timing. You never want to waste a charge shot, however you have to be careful not toe push the enemy in such a way as to help it aim at you.
- When the enemy is off screen it's still possible to aim and strike specific points. Doing so requires a bit of knowledge of the Hellspider composition and a good sense of internal timing.
Overall, because the movement is so limiting, the many possible variations of Hellspider, and the nuances of the interplay/combat design learning how to play Transdimensional Hellspider is a difficult endeavorer of trial and error. Like so many rougelikes, playing TH is more hard than fun because of its steep learning curve. The game gives no hints explaining how to improve (aside "dive-bombing tactics recommended) or the secret evolution difficulty system. Knowledge is one of the most stressed skills in the skill spectrum for Transdimensional Hellspider, yet it's difficult to experiment and learn about battling the more difficult Hellspider because after you lose all of your lives it's game over. Sure, the game isn't too big so this kid of difficulty design extends the playability of the game. Though I don't think checkpoints or a save system is the solution, I would like a place where I can practice and learn without such a steep punishment.
The game is very emergent/dynamic in the sense that everything you do affects something else. I can imagine how difficult it was to program the rotating space and the procedural Hellspiders. Though most would probably give up on the game before embracing the depth/nuance, I pushed through and really enjoyed the game. If I could change a few things I would tweak...
- the cluttered graphics: It's hard enough to survive an incoming bullet storm. With your reflex skills tuned up you have seconds, if that, to see it all coming. The closer you are the less time you have to react. Unfortunately, the explosions from destroying Hellspider parts obscure additional incoming fire.
- the very unclear hitboxes: It's hard to learn exactly what the hitboxes are for all the attacks. For many attacks there are moments when they look dangerous but have no active hitboxes. The "burning claws" secondary weapon apparently doesn't damage enemy targets until the twin blasts start to converge on the same point. I didn't know this until very late into my time with the game. There have been so many close calls
- the disabled weapon time: After getting hit you lose your charge and can't recharge for a small amount of time. Perhaps this disabled weapon time is too long. It's not like a player can abuse this strategy. In two hits the ship explodes. Furthermore, if a player tries to abuse a shorter disable time to kill a Hellspider quickly, the next spiders will be even more powerful. I seems that the is already hard, dynamic, and balanced enough not to limit the player so much after getting hit. Respawning and not being able to charge right away is annoying as well.
- the killed and be killed effect: after you destroy a Hellspider, you're not safe. A stray bullet can still destroy you. And because the death explosion is so cluttered, you may not see it coming .This is very frustrating.
- tells or lack thereof of Hellspider attacks: A little warning would go a long way. Because maneuvering is tricky and fairly slow, having just a little heads up of when a Hellspider will switch/use attacks would go a long way in informing the player so he/she can use their knoweldge skills to adapt on the fly. As it is now, the Hellspider does what it wants and when it wants. If you're too close, you're taking your chances.
- the balance of the charge attacks and upgrades: From my experience playing TH a few hours and getting past the "O' Hellspider (level 15), the strengths of some of the charge attacks aren't balanced according to how difficult they are to use. When the Hellspiders can attack from off the screen, upgrading the power and/or range of attack seems like a must have to stand a chance. Perhaps if there was a way to earn more upgrade ability instead of relying on the game to give it to you every 3 levels.
- I'd also add a little more bullet to bullet interplay. The Hellspiders have so much more power than you do sometimes. And if they get to surprise attack you without warning, it would be interesting to be able to defend yourself from their bullets with yours. Even if it pushes you further away from the enemy, there's room for some bullet to bullet gunplay.