It’s still rather odd to see the first-person-shooter genre alive and well on Switch, but as last year’s DOOM and this month’s upcoming Wolfenstein II have confirmed, hardcore first-person shooters have a home on Nintendo’s hybrid console. Code Avarice’s Paranautical Activity aims to shake up the genre by combining the smooth FPS action of DOOM with roguelike elements of The Binding of Isaac. While that sounds promising on paper, its actual execution leaves something to be desired. At the end of the day, mechanically smooth gameplay is marred by an inconsistent difficulty curve that leaves Paranautical Activity somewhere between a fun shooter and a controller-breaking death simulator.
Visually and mechanically a mashup between Minecraft and DOOM, there’s no pretext or story behind Paranautical Activity; you simply choose a class and drop into a procedurally generated map, with the goal to clear each floor’s boss in order to progress to the next floor of the tower. Initially, there are four classes to choose from, with two more unlocked through gameplay, and each class has its own distinct main and sub weapons—but not all of them feel particularly great. While the “David Bowie” class’s crossbow is powerful and fast, it takes time load each bolt, leaving you wide open for damage. Similarly, the “Dy-No-Mite!” class lobs bombs at enemies, but if you miss, you leave yourself highly vulnerable. Each class has its strengths and merits, but I felt most comfortable with “The Tank” class, which gives you the most health of any of the starting classes as well as an all-around shotgun. Most players will likely want to start off with “The Tank” class to get a feel for the game and branch out to some of the other classes on subsequent runs.
Paranautical Activity is teeming with many different monsters and enemies, and it’s up to the player to clear them all out of each room. While enemy type varies and each requires its own strategy to take down, that strategy mostly boils down to learning when to bob or weave out of the way to avoid taking damage and successfully returning your own fire. Bosses are particularly difficult, but most are simply bullet sponges that tended to give me a feeling of relief when defeated as opposed to a feeling of genuine triumph. The bosses aren’t the only difficult part of Paranautical Activity, however; the sheer number of enemies can be particularly overwhelming depending upon how each level is generated. That, coupled with the fact that most classes can only take four to six hits before dying, can often lead to frustration—since this is a roguelike game, death means you start from the very beginning, meaning you’re sent back to the game’s title screen.
If you can manage to make it to each room on a given floor, you’ll not only find rooms filled with enemies, but you sometimes may find shops where you can spend money dropped by slain enemies. These shops evoke a Legend of Zelda shop feeling, and the upgrades can be meaningful, spanning from new weapons to extra abilities. Sometimes enemies will drop powerups as well, so although it’s not necessary to clear out each room on a particular floor, it’s often worth attempting.
Because Paranautical Activity’s enemies and levels are generated randomly, it’s often a hit or miss as to how difficult each level is. Oftentimes, enemies are varied and many, and too many enemies in a single room can spell an early demise. Other times, however, there might be a single enemy to defeat with one shot. The game errs on the side of being punishing, but it really boils down to requiring a lot of luck with a dash of skill. On some runs, I was defeated by the first enemy in the first room, while on others I made it several floors in. Because the experience is so inconsistent, I often felt like my skill (or lack thereof) didn’t factor in how I fared each run. Part of that is simply the nature of roguelikes, but even then, balance is key, and the overall package suffers as a result of this imbalance.
That said, the game runs well, at a full 1080p and 60 frames per second docked and at 720p and 60 frames per second in handheld. Player movement is essentially a carbon copy of the original DOOM, with blocky textures and physics reminiscent of Minecraft. The game’s colors tend to run on the darker side, and some textures are next to impossible to see, especially in handheld mode, so you may find yourself adjusting the brightness of either your Switch or your viewing setup.
It’s abundantly clear that Paranautical Activity attempts to mash together two genres we don’t normally see combined, and its result is a middling one. When all is said and done, the dichotomy between the fast-paced and smooth gunplay and the inconsistent difficulty curve leaves the end product one that is difficult to quantify. Simply put, roguelike fans will find a good challenge in store, but otherwise, Paranautical Activity is a good first-person shooter held back by imbalanced procedural generation.
Disclaimer: A review code for Paranautical Activity was provided by the game’s publisher.