Elderand is a 2D action platformer that takes place in a world beset by madness and cosmic horror. With a setting and story themes inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s work, it aims to combine the Cthulhu mythos with hallmarks of the Metroidvania genre like a connected world, challenging bosses, and unlockable paths. Despite some deliciously depraved cultish imagery and a slew of equipment options to add variety to the combat, Elderand is held back by its own reluctance to dive deep into its ancestry. It neither goes far enough into its Metroid roots nor its Lovecraftian themes to fully succeed.
Doing Lovecraft in video games is hard. The helplessness, dread, and human fragility at the heart of such stories are a direct contradiction to the power fantasy most games strive to offer. Unfortunately, the execution of that power fantasy in Elderand – though certainly not terrible – is flawed enough that it makes that thematic disparity all the starker. Add to that a few troublesome bugs, and the whole package feels a little undercooked.
The player character, an unnamed mercenary, has found themselves in a dank cave system following a supernaturally imposed shipwreck. With little to go on, they must battle their way to the surface and beyond through a handful of levels, each with its own distinct biome. As players progress, the story is told primarily through notes strewn across the levels and little bits gleaned from item descriptions. There’s the occasional NPC, but most of the tale is told indirectly, like something from the famously confusing Dark Souls games.
First finding a basic sword, players will slowly come across a wide selection of weapons spread across three general categories: melee, bows, and magic. The melee category is by far the broadest with swords, whips, duals blades, and great swords/axes. Each type operates differently, and all weapons have different stats, some coming with a secondary boost, like inflicting ongoing fire damage. They function much like players might expect with swords as the all-rounder, dual blades working fast but close, whips with longer range, and great swords/axes being the slowest but most powerful.
The magic weapons – all staffs – can be used as melee weapons, but their primary function is a ranged attack that fires a mid-distance ball of energy. They also each have a combo move that provides a more powerful melee option: two physical strikes followed by the spell attack become a close-up magical burst. This is fun in theory, but the combos, with their weak physical hits and long execution times, are almost always outclassed by using a more powerful melee weapon instead.
Bows have the advantage of going through enemies to hit multiple foes, and they’re the only true ranged option, as spells fizzle after a certain distance. Bows also have a secondary function, relegated to the same button as the spell shot, where the mercenary leaps backward while firing off an arrow at close range, angled downward. This can be good for creating distance in a tight spot when pressured by enemies, but the shot isn’t accurate on moving targets, and, again, players are almost always better served by equipping a melee weapon and shield. And players will likely opt for magic as their ranged attack, as their MP will refill eventually. Ultimately, the bow is functional but not very useful, far from the best example of a bow in video games.
Players will have two load-outs equipped at once, and can switch between them with the push of a button. This is a great feature that makes changing up strategies on the fly easy and helps keep combat fresh. Having the ranged spell attack and the close-up bow attack relegated to the same button creates a problem, though, resulting in many lost arrows. Players will get used to one arrangement, switch weapons, then instinctively press the wrong button, only to leap back and loose an arrow ineffectually. This is compounded by the fact that ammunition is limited, especially when enemies soak up several shots. It’s far more feasible to have one load-out geared toward magic and one towards melee.
The Castlevania influences in Elderand run deep with its gothic tone, grim and gory art, and level design. The sub-weapons in Castlevania, like the throwing axes and knives also make their way into Elderand, and they function exactly the same. The knives shoot out in a straight line, and the axes are lobbed outward in an arc that can travel through level geometry. The third and final sub-weapon, the bomb, bursts and leaves the ground in flames dealing ongoing damage to enemies within. The addition of these secondary weapons is nice and serves to mix up the combat, but they’re rarely needed and don’t seem to solve any problems better handled with another tool. In a couple of very specific instances, the throwing axes are needed to hit an object otherwise inaccessible and thus gain the player access to a secret area. But these instances are extremely rare and the areas are optional.
The mercenary gains experience through combat and eventually levels up, at which point players can choose to allocate a point into one of four stats: strength, dexterity, wisdom, and vitality. Vitality means more HP and the other three increase different damage types, as well as affecting some secondary things like crit chance and MP. Elderand seems to only partially lean into its character customization options, as these stats are the only way the player has any say in the mercenary’s abilities, aside from weapon choice, and once settled on one or two types, there’s little reason to stray away.
In fact, Elderand’s penchant for not going far enough works against it. Players can upgrade stats, but they’re not working towards any new skills. They’ll discover some new traversal abilities, but they’re few and far between. The rare weapon will allow the player to pull off a unique combo attack, but it’s always tied to that specific weapon, with no way to use such skills across, for example, a whole weapon type. Even when these combos are available, there’s little incentive to stick with the weapon for any reason beyond that of its base stats; the special move is too much trouble to pull off and the MP cost is too high. The best Metroidvania games make these things high priorities, and it feels like Elderand just doesn’t go deep enough.
This sentiment extends to the game’s setting and themes. As mentioned before, the dread and fragility of the human experience are central to Lovecraft-inspired stories, and If a game isn’t able to work some version of those themes into the gameplay, the setting is only being done a half-justice. The blood cults, old gods, and twisted monstrosities are cool, but they feel a little empty when players can smash through them with a hulking great sword. To be clear, this is difficult in video games; the Lovecraftian influences in Bloodborne are perhaps the best examples. Not only is the world steeped in horrific imagery, but the twisted, layered level design, as well as the function and lore of many items help to reinforce those themes. Unfortunately Elderand’s inspiration is only present on the surface level.
The most glaring issue that Elderand faces, however, is with its boss fights. There are one or two that offer the challenge Metroidvania lovers are hoping for, requiring focus and skill, and providing satisfaction when conquered. But an unfortunate number of such encounters can be cheesed or simply hacked at until felled. One battle, a climactic mid-game fight, seemed like a real challenge until it became apparent that the mercenary could be placed at a specific point in the arena without much issue. At that point, if the player ducks and uses their shield at the appropriate moment, the battle is soon over. And to top it off, the final two bosses were cakewalks, not the tense, terrifying confrontation they should have been.
Elderand is not a bad game. In fact, it’s a competent Metroidvania and fans of the genre might enjoy it. It just doesn’t go far enough in any one direction, either thematically or mechanically, to leave a strong impression, and it’s hampered by lackluster combat.