Welcome to the second review in the PIN (Play It NOW) series. We’re going to be looking at quite a recent title called MidBoss by the awesome Kitsune Games and ported by the excellent Ethan Lee. A game full of superlatives then, and now here’s my PIN, urging you to take a look.
MidBoss was released in May 2017 to a disappointing silence. Here on Gaming On Linux, Liam ran no fewer than three articles  on the lead up to release, including a very positive review on the day of release itself. However, other gaming sites weren’t so enthusiastic and Kitsune Games have, in the months since, noted fairly lacklustre sales for a title they spent around five years creating. Indeed, the experience has led founder and lead developer Emma ‘Eniko’ Maassen to speak bluntly and negatively about MidBoss and the efforts she and her team poured into it.
That’s depressing enough, but when you consider the quality of the game, and the PR that Kitsune Games undertook to get it into the limelight, it’s honestly just baffling. The lack of reviews from the big publications certainly didn’t help and smaller sites were divisive, either loving or hating it, so depending on where you fell in your Google search, that might not have helped. But I’m still upset that five years of dedication could result in such apathy. It’s like Brigador’s “Five Years of GameDev Will Kill You” all over again. Funnily enough, Brigador is also an isometric game, but there the similarity ends!
So what’s it all about? MidBoss is an isometric RPG roguelike which doesn’t actually feel like a roguelike due to its fast, easy-to-pick-up gameplay. You star as Boss, a disgruntled imp in an evil master’s army, and it’s his sidekick Mid who will guide you through the game, starting with the imp’s unique ability to absorb an enemy’s “form” and therefore start to acquire some of their abilities.
When I first heard about MidBoss, I’m old enough to liken this mechanic to Paradroid, a old Hewson Consultants game for the Commodore-64, back in the 80’s. However, it’s not really the same. For a start, in MidBoss, you have to fully defeat the enemy you want to absorb, whereas in Paradroid, you could initiate a takeover the moment your enemy was on the screen. Additionally, in MidBoss, once you’re in that form, you can start leveling it up. With each level a new power is learned and when you have mastered the form, you can revert back to an imp, but retain access to those powers.
The trick is that you can only use the powers of three forms at a time, so strategically, you’ll want a good mix of active (castable) skills and passive buffs for your attack, defence or magical capability.
MidBoss has incredible depth in its numbers. All the usual suspects are present and accounted for, but luckily, when levelling up, Kitsune Games simplified that depth considerably by allowing access to only four “meta” attributes. Each level gives you three points to distribute however you wish and those points trickle down to the game’s core stats, boosting things like mana, damage or resistence.
Synergies and Tactics
In the early game, all you’re really doing is casting a possession spell on an enemy and then running into it to hit it until it dies. That possession spell then lets you either possess its form, or drain its essence to heal your current form. If you only play an hour of MidBoss, you’d be forgiven for not thinking much of the game. Not by me - I’d be furious, but better people than me might forgive you. Maybe.
Once you’ve absorbed and subsequently mastered four or five forms, however, you have some real tactics at your disposal. So if you have the “Armoured Spirit” form, you might choose its armour boost passive because you’re wearing heavy armour. If you’re lucky enough to master the Warlock or Ghost form early enough, you might want to spend all your points in restlessness, in order to boost your mana, then start spamming the ranged attack to soften up enemies from afar. This tactic makes some of the harder mid-game enemies much simpler to overcome. Perhaps your gear lets you shine in the speed department, then you can choose speed-boosting forms to take further advantage - then either use your extra attacks for straight out damage, or use a hit-and-run mechanic to keep enemies one step away from you when its their turn to go.
It took me a while to realise that you can also control which abilities each form has at its disposal, which in turn changes what abilities you have at your disposal when you choose that form as one of your core three. As a result, there’s an incredible amount of customisation available here.
An RPG just isn’t an RPG without the loot though, and here, MidBoss really shines. Gear is randomised in the modern style (like Tales of Maj’Eyal, Diablo or Borderlands), with names that correlate to abilities and random enchantments which grant bonuses to various attributes like attack or your statistics. I particularly like that many items have “curses” which cause sometimes huge negative effects. You’re free to use these - it’s often still wise to do so - but the real secret here is to hang on to these items in the hope that you pick up a Holy Water, with which you can reverse the negative enchantment. This can lead to some obscenely powerful items, as sometimes the curses on powerful items are incredibly detrimental, so when they reverse, it can be a game changer.
Any loot that isn’t a potion can also be turned into scrap. In turn, scrap can be sold at the shops for currency. The trick here is that selling items at the shop will grant more currency, but your inventory is so restricted, you’ll tend to scrap items instead. Epic, or Unique items are worth holding on to if you can, simply because they’re only worth their base item’s scrap value, but would sell for big money at the shop. You can probably guess though that shops are reasonably rare.
Attention to Detail
There a huge number of really nice touches in MidBoss. The first and most obvious is that Mid jumps about to get your attention when you’ve missed something, like choosing a form, or forgetting to level up. He’s like Clippy, only, you know, actually helpful.
Lead Dev Eniko recently tweeted about the fact that no-one ever notices how effective the algorithm in MidBoss is that makes walls disappear to always show the entire map. True enough, once you see it in action, it’s remarkable that you don’t notice this mechanic at all. When you see how badly some other games handle this, you realise how elegant an implementation it is.
I love that Gods will send an Avatar to attack you if you break anything in their shrine. It gives an otherwise sparsely populated world some nice depth to realise that sometimes there’s consequences for the typical RPG behaviour of just breaking everything in sight in the hope for more loot!
And the music! Two things to say about the music: first, it’s incredibly reminiscent of Disgaea (that’s a good thing) and second, it’s dynamic - the music will change subtetly when an enemy is on the screen, becoming more aggresive but without missing a beat. It’s even the same underlying song, but somehow Kitsune Games have found a way to overlay “menacing” sound tracks they want to ramp up the atmosphere. Similarly, certain locations will cause a funkier vibe, or a chilled out vibe while you’re in that zone.
I could go on. The King of the cratefish, the Cat shop keeper, the underplayed Stealth mechanic, the fast travel, updated font for high resolution play, seeded runs, death cards for later run customisations, the awesome retro graphics modes (which every game should feature!) which are discovered by drinking potions. There’s so much crammed in here, I’m still discovering content.
Not so nice
There’s a few niggles. I’m not a fan of being able to attack around corners, but the game won’t let me move around them. It’s jarring in a way that I find difficult to explain. I can move in diagonals, but… not when a wall corner is in the way? It’s a bit strange and it throws me even after many hours of play.
Also, I noted earlier that the game doesn’t really feel turn-based as such, but that illusion is quickly broken when there’s more than about four enemies on the screen. Particularly if you’re in a slow Zombie form and the other creatures are bats, they’ll get two moves to your one, so you take a step, then wait a moment while all the bats move twice. It doesn’t take long, but the brief pauses between moves are jarring because the game usually feels so fluid.
And perhaps this is just me, but some rooms are just filled with loot and you have to break everything in order to reveal it. I get it - they wouldn’t just leave everything lying on the floor, so it’s in crates, chests or whatever, but it’s still needlessly tedious to spend 30 seconds bashing your keyboard to hit and open everything in the room. There’s no auto-pickup that I can find either, so there’s an extra piece of frustration to occasionally hit G to pick stuff up from around you. Tales of Maj’Eyal and others do away with this manual element with an “auto-explore” function which simply drives your character around the dungeon at high speed until it finds something “interesting”. MidBoss could really benefit from something like that - fast travel is a poor (but still very welcome) substitute.
Finally, for a game steeped in strategy, it’s crying out for an “examine” option. I’ve frequently died in the mid-game because the only way to gauge your effectiveness against another enemy is to just go at them. If they’re too powerful for you, you’ll often not have many options for retreat. Of course, that’s at odds with my earlier stance that I love MidBoss because it’s so fast and easy to play. Perhaps I’m just too used to the Tales of Maj’Eyal mechanic of placing massive value on every… single… move…
So, graphics are pretty and functional, music is superb and dynamic, the depth is huge, the replayability is vast, the game is fluid and accessible, there’s humour, drama and vast customisation and subsequent strategy. If that doesn’t convince you, you have no soul. Go play it!
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