This review is also available (with pictures!) on my personal blog. I double-reviewed it with Costume Quest, so just scroll down a bit if Tim Schafer's stuff doesn't interest you.
Our Darker Purpose is a top-down action roguelike with light RPG elements and a deliciously dark, gothic set of sensibilities. The game has bits of “The Binding of Isaac” and “Don’t Starve” in its family tree. The humor and art owe a bit to Tim Burton and a great deal to Edward Gory.
Movement and combat is in the classic twin-stick style. You comb a floor of randomly laid out rooms for useful items and the chamber of the boss guarding the way forward. Each time you enter a room you’re locked in until you’ve cleared all enemies or overcome some other hazard, so you can’t just rush through.
ODP is set in a towering, Victorian, half boarding school, half orphanage called Edgewood. The school is a nightmare Hogwarts, teaming with darkly comic fates for poorly behaved or unwary students and ruled by an unseen but amusingly malevolent administrator. The bits of lore and narrative slowly unlocked through play are gothic black-humor at their finest.
You play as Cordy, an adorably pale waif with a permanent expression of bemused worry. When the faculty and staff of Edgewood abruptly vanish Cordy barely survives the purge of the small, weak, awkward, and unpopular children that immediately follows. With nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up she sets out for the top floor of the building, searching for answers and a way out. Provided she can survive the savage gangs of fellow children that have formed in the absence of adult supervision and the stranger things scuttling in the shadows and crawling across the chalkboards of the darkened school.
Fortunately Cordy has inexplicably developed the ability to hurl small darts of flame to defend herself. While Cordy can only hurl flame in the four cardinal directions she can move and shoot independently. An extremely limited number of chalk-bombs and an evasive roll (crucial to avoiding damage) round out her modest set of starting abilities.
Early attempts to ascend Edgewood invariably end in failure and death, a fact the game itself is quick to tell you to expect. Indeed it’s not mechanically possible to clear ODP on your first playthrough. Overcoming a major boss for the first time advances the narrative and adds a new set of variables to the game, but also ends that particular run. Like all true roguelikes ODP is intended to be played many, many times before completion.
Edgewood is a stark, relentlessly hostile environment. Healing juice-boxes, money, and other useful items are in short supply and invariably guarded. Attrition as much as anything else usually ends a run. Learning the attack patterns of the various inhabitants and hazards is critical to long term progress. Finishing a floor without taking damage is an accomplishment to be lauded.
ODP is highly challenging and carless play will end a run in short order. Each attempt does help you slowly unlock new items to be found and build up a modest set of permanent bonuses. This helps create a sense of progression and that your efforts are being rewarded, even as you die time and time again.
While primarily an action game ODP does manage to offer meaningful character development choices and interesting items. Each level-up offers two randomly selected but sizable stat upgrades. Some options include penalties still worth considering, like a permanently slower move speed in exchange for a large chunk of cash.
Many of the items that can be scavenged from Edgewood’s chambers change Cordy in fundamental ways, like giving a massive boost to attack rate while making her formerly accurate shots spray out in a random arc. Some of the most powerful bits of gear break after you absorb a certain amount of damage (as if you needed another reason to dodge), while others require completing difficult challenges to unlock their power.
Of course there’s no guarantee you’ll be offered useful items or upgrades, and everything is lost when you die anyway. This is normal for Roguelikes, but it can still be frustrating when bad luck dooms an otherwise promising run. The game’s other chief sin (significantly harder to forgive) is that creature hit-boxes don’t always match up with their models. While the game is two dimensional the “camera” is implied to be at a slight angle, meaning shots often pass behind an enemy’s head.
Reasons to play: Deliciously dark, gothic humor and art. Challenging twin-stick style gameplay. Meaningful progression from run to run.
Reasons to pass: Very high difficulty level. Slightly miss-leading hit-boxes.